By Mark Swed
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
August 14, 2008
It was premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1987. Glass had written little for traditional orchestra, and this was the first Minimalist concerto. Reviews, reviling repetition, were scathing. CBS Records, the composer's label at the time, passed on a recording, using the excuse that the soloist (Paul Zukofsky), conductor (Dennis Russell Davies) and American Composers Orchestra were uncommercial.
Five years later, the celebrated Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer raised eyebrows when he suddenly began championing the score and recorded it with the Vienna Philharmonic led by Christoph von Dohnányi. At the same time, Kremer said in an interview that he had hoped to introduce the work around America during his summer engagements with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Bowl, the Chicago Symphony at Ravinia and the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood. None would hear of it.
But a lot has happened since. Minimalist concertos are commonplace. Glass keeps them coming. John Adams and Michael Nyman have followed Glass' lead with popular and acclaimed scores for soloists and orchestra. Glass' 21-year-old concerto now has three recordings.
The soloist for Tuesday's performance was Philharmonic concertmaster Martin Chalifour. Leonard Slatkin conducted a program that began with two interludes by Glass for Robert Wilson's operatic spectacle "the CIVIL warS," intended for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics but never fully produced. After intermission came Elgar's "Enigma Variations."
The Glass concerto was the centerpiece, affecting all around it, and the first thing to be said was how fresh the work sounded and how surprising that was. The Philharmonic is not a Glass band. Until Tuesday, it had but two significant encounters with the composer -- performing the "Rome Segment" from "CIVIL warS" (to much internal griping) in 1984 and excerpts from the 1984 opera "Akhnaten" (with somewhat less annoyance) during its "Minimalism Jukebox" festival two years ago.
Chalifour's advocacy may have removed any lingering obstacles. The orchestra took to Glass' arpeggios graciously. And Chalifour took the concerto seriously. He performed without a score, which is unusual in any Glass concerto given the difficulty of counting erratic repetitions. He played with a dazzling eloquence.
Bach kept coming to mind. Chalifour is not a flashy player, but he gets flashy results. His arpeggios in the first movement were lean yet full of expressive beauty, producing an ocean of string sound.
The slow movement is a study in not much. A couple of notes slowly go back and forth in the solo line. But they become much when a violinist invests in purity of sound, as Chalifour did. The last movement was all momentum, fast and exciting.
The two brief excerpts from the "Cologne Segment" of "CIVIL warS" were probably too soft and too moody for a Bowl opener. But the Olympics connection was a nice touch. An even nicer touch would have been the projection of images on the video screens of the astronauts floating in space from Wilson's production.
Slatkin, while joking that Glass and Elgar might never before have shared a program, told the audience that he felt the composers complemented each other. Glass got rid of melody. The "Enigma Variations" is all about melody. But there was another, more intriguing connection. Each variation is a character portrait of one of Elgar's friends in 1899 London. Here they seemed to be exactly the kinds of oddball characters that Wilson, a master of enigmatic staging, slowly paraded across the stage in "CIVIL warS" -- a mile-high Lincoln on stilts, a snow owl, Robert E. Lee, Hercules, Garibaldi.
Slatkin went for a specific sound for each of the 14 Elgarians. Some were happily gruff and gritty. Nimrod, the famous variation that brings tears to British eyes, was expansive but not sentimental. Slow Nimrod down enough, and you get Glass. Slatkin did not go that far, but he was headed in the right directions.
Another thing Glass' music can do is focus the ear on little things, and that carried over into Elgar as well. A heartfelt cello solo from Daniel Rothmuller, an ethereal clarinet line played by Michele Zukovsky, meant much on an evening when, dare I say it, a Glass ceiling was shattered.
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