Music Review : Glass Gives Salzburg a Millennial Masterpiece : Rapt audience thunderously cheers the glorious 101-minute symphony.

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Philip Glass is surely the best-known composer of art music in America, if not the world, but he is not so surely the best-respected. Despite his successes in every genre of classical music, and in a number of crossover genres as well, Glass’ repetitive style is still anathema to the majority of tradition-minded classical music lovers and players.

A few high-profile performers are champions--the violinist Gidon Kremer and the conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi, among them--but the number is relatively small. Glass is not performed very often by our most prestigious musical institutions, and he does not win the most prestigious music prizes. Nor does he usually get the academic or critical respect that, say, Steve Reich receives, let alone what is accorded these days to Elvis Presley or rap.

But now Glass has gotten one of the most impressive accolades of all. He was anointed by the Salzburg Festival--the most distinguished and celebrated music festival for eight decades--to write a symphony that would be the festival’s millennial celebration.


Salzburg wanted something on the grand scale of Beethoven’s Ninth. But Saturday evening, Glass delivered something even grander--an epic 101-minute 800-page score for orchestra, chorus, children’s choir and five vocal soloists. The premiere Saturday evening of Glass’ “Symphony No. 5 (Choral): Requiem, Bardo and Nirmanakaya,” was the last major event of the Salzburg summer (the five-week festival ended Sunday).

It is a glorious, inspiring work, and the rapt, dignified audience that filled the Large Festival Hall just about went crazy. It is hardly the first time Glass has received an enthusiastic ovation, but as he was called out on stage over and over and over again, as people tirelessly cheered and stamped their feet (ignoring a handful of meek boos), refusing to leave the stiflingly hot theater, the composer looked first stunned, then happy, then even more stunned.

The symphony’s triumph begins with its text, a remarkable collection of sacred quotations compiled with the help of the Rev. James Parks Morton of the Interfaith Center of New York and Kusumita P. Pedersen.

Glass writes in the program note that he conceived of the 12-movement symphony as a bridge between past and future, moving from death (Requiem) to an in-between state (the Buddhist Bardo) to enlightened rebirth (Nirmanakaya). The diverse texts come from world “wisdom” traditions, from mainstream religions and the beliefs of native peoples.


The revelation of these texts--which span some 2,500 years, dozens of languages and many cultures that in their own time never communicated with one another--is that although the imagery may vary wildly, the themes are often precisely the same. In the 11th movement, “Paradise,” the 13th century Persian poet Rumi sees heaven as “the dawn of blessing.” First Corinthians tells of death “swallowed up in victory,” and an ancient Hindu text describes the aftermath of “the rhythmic beat of life and death” as rapturing welling forth and as space radiant with light.

Three features of Glass’ symphony realize this profound sense of a world sacred vision. The first is the overall scheme, which is based upon the Buddhist concept of attaining the highest degree of compassion but at the same times does not discriminate among all the forms of divine expression. The second is that the texts, all translated into English, have enough in common to give the extraordinary impression that they could have been written by the same person. And the third is Glass’ musical style itself, which functions less through the dialectic of contrasts, development and reconciliation (as is the standard Western symphonic form) than through a powerful accumulation of ideas. Never has his single-minded musical approach been more effective.


The symphony, which begins with pre-creation in a weighty prologue, does take a while to prove itself as it works through the creation of the cosmos, sentient beings and human beings. The music is familiarly Glassian, with its moody arpeggios, imposing Morse Code-like brass tattoos and heavy harmonies. But gradually it warms and expands, through movements five (“Love and Joy,” with beautiful texts from “the Song of Songs” and Rumi) and six (“Evil and Ignorance,” with texts from the Mayan “Popul Vuh,” the Pali “Maha-Vagga” and the Sanskrit Bhagavad Gita”).

Gripping scales run through the orchestra in movement seven (“Suffering,” with text from the psalms and the “Bhagavad Gita”). In the next movement, “Compassion,” a wondrous, rounded melody sung to a Tibetan Buddhist text is so affecting that the men of the chorus began to sway spontaneously. From there the symphony grows ever more persuasive, with its huge Brucknerian climax in “Judgment and Apocalypse,” its gorgeous soprano solo in “Paradise” and its glorious final “Dedication.”

The performance, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, who has premiered all of Glass’ symphonies, was compelling. The Vienna Radio Symphony, of which Davies is music director, probably plays more Glass than any other orchestra, and it was both precise and alert.

The chorus was Spanish, the Orfeon Donstiarra of San Sebastian, and its heavily accented English was not ideal, but its enthusiasm was. The children’s choir was from Hungarian Radio and was delightful. The excellent soloists included soprano Dawn Upshaw (exalted in her “Paradise” solo), mezzo-soprano Dagmar Peckova, tenor Michael Schade, baritone Eric Owens and bass Albert Dohmen.

All the hoopla, commercialism and excuse for partying that millennium celebrations are generating can easily make one skeptical about important projects as well. But Glass’ Fifth Symphony, which opens what will be a year-and-a-half parade of millennium symphonies and other major classical works, sets a noble standard. And the Salzburg Festival, which lost its initial Japanese backing for the commission when Japan’s economy faltered and ultimately paid the high bills itself, has set an important example.

The symphony has upcoming performances scheduled for Brussels, Tokyo, New York, and--if all goes well--a West Coast premiere by the Pacific Symphony in October 2000.