Philip Glass, 75, has an iTunes hit with his Ninth Symphony


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Since Beethoven, Ninth Symphonies have been both a cause of joy — and dread. In the wake of Beethoven’s No. 9, composers view that massive, ethereal, choral symphony as a sort of musical Everest. And then there’s the fact that the composer never lived to write a 10th.

Gustav Mahler, so fearful of embarking on a Ninth Symphony of his own, insisted that the large orchestral work after his Eighth Symphony be titled “The Song of the Earth.” Mahler eventually swallowed his fears and wrote another large work and called it his Ninth Symphony -- it can be heard at Walt Disney Hall three times this weekend as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Mahler cycle -- but the fact that he died the following year while writing his 10th Symphony only added to the mystique around Ninths.

The theme of mortality was certainly in the air Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall, which saw the American debut of Philip Glass’ Ninth Symphony. Reached by phone two days after the premiere, Glass admitted, “Everyone is afraid to do a Ninth Symphony. It’s not that it killed off Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler … but it is a funny kind of jinx that people think about.”


No doubt. A recording of the Glass Symphony No. 9 is available on iTunes as played a month ago by the Bruckner Orchester Linz. It debuted Tuesday, and as of Thursday was No. 15 on the iTunes top 100 albums chart.

At Carnegie, Glass’ 50-minute work was scheduled as a 75thbirthday for the composer and programmed opposite Arvo Part’s “Lamentate,” a requiem for the living.

It’s likely “The Curse of the Ninth” (as it is known in classical circles) was on the audience’s mind when a member of the audience collapsed into the far left aisle just before the conclusion of Part’s work. Cries of “Is there a doctor in the house?” could be heard and members of the American Composers Orchestra string section looked noticeably worried. Conductor Dennis Russell Davies continued on with the music and after intermission, assured everyone that the injured patron was being treated by medics and would be OK. Then with a wave of maestro Davies’ baton, the sold-out audience was hearing the four-tone arpeggios and ominous, breathy strings that opened Glass’s Ninth Symphony.The three-movement work displayed plenty of Glass’ signature sounds: slow, chugging chord progressions, bright fluttering winds. The size of the orchestra was larger too; the only element that didn’t suggest the weighty themes of a Ninth Symphony was the appearance of castanets in the second movement.

The American Composers Orchestra did not give the work much shine but with Glass sitting in the center box and then taking a bow, it hardly mattered to the sold-out crowd.

For those preferring fidelity to ceremony, there is the iTunes recording and a CD that will follow in a month or two. And the Ninth will no doubt sound different in April in the hands of the L.A. Phil — co-commissioners of the piece — under the baton of John Adams.

And as for the curse, Glass put that to rest before his Ninth was premiered in Linz, at which time the composer had already put the finishing touches on his 10th Symphony.

“You get nervous,” Glass said, “these are silly things — Ninth Symphony, what kind of silly jinx is that? But I wasn’t going to wait to find out.”



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-- James C. Taylor