Philip Glass celebrates 75th birthday with release of classically structured 9th Symphony


American composer Philip Glass turns 75 today, marking the milestone with the release of his Symphony No. 9.

His Year of Fabulous Celebrations has already started in New York City, and it will grow to include Toronto with the Canadian premiere of his five-hour-something-that’s-almost-an-opera, Einstein on the Beach, at the Luminato festival in June.

Glass’ Symphony No. 9 has only just become available on iTunes, performed by the Bruckner Orchestra of Linz, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. Its three movements come in at 50 minutes. The limited samples on iTunes suggest a deliberately paced opening with Passaaglia-like elements, a sweet, expansive release in the second movement, and a tight, motoric finale.

NPR is offering streaming audio of the entire first movement here.

(Update: Austrian Radio 1 is streaming Glass’s Symphony No. 9 as part of this week’s “In the Concert Hall” broadcast, which opens with Beethoven’s Eighth. You can catch the live stream of the 2-hour show here.)

It’s absolutely classic symphonic structure. The tension-release-tension layer is also classic storytelling.

Over the years, Glass’s musical palette has grown increasingly broad, where the repetitive elements we call minimalism have become part of a much larger whole, rather than being the centrepieces of the music.

Glass’ life as a composer is a beautiful study in gradual evolution. The fact that he is probably the most-listened-to and influential composer of our time, is gratifying to anyone who worries about the future of art music.

I had a chance to sit down with Glass for a long, relaxed talk a few months ago. Some of that chat is included in a feature I’ve written for the next issue of Musicworks magazine.

One of the topics I brought up in our conversation (one I left out of the article) was the aridity of so much new music that has come out of academe over the last few decades — something that is, hopefully, beginning to change.

Glass mentioned a young composer who had come help around his studio. one day, he was complaining about all the new music that sat unplayed or, when played, had little or no audience.

“I told him that music is a social art. It has a social context. It is a language. It is a transaction that takes place between people.,” Glass said.

Glass arrived on the new music scene with compositions that people wanted to hear, to dance to, to perform.

“It created a very fertile environment for me to work in,” said Glass. “It was like going into a field that no one had plowed for two- or three-hundred years. Whatever you put into the ground, it just burst into life.”

I find it fascinating how, as the years have gone on, Glass’ music has come to resemble the music of 300 years ago more and more — while reflecting the present day.

It’s a good time to wish him many happy returns (and remember the good company of birthday buddies, Claudio Monteverdi and Franz Schubert).

UPDATE

Here’s a clip of Davis in rehearsal for tonight’s North American premiere at Carnegie Hall of Glass’s Symphony No. 9 with the American Composers Orchestra:

Here’s a clip of Symphony No. 8 in rehearsal with the Bruckner Orchestra and conductor Davies:

John Terauds

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