Unlike most composers, Philip Glass does not seem to require a new musical idea, or inspiration, in order to begin writing a new piece. Instead, this prolific composer typically satisfies his need for novelty in a new work's environment, and that can be an unusual theatrical situation, a poetic inspiration, a structuring device or, perhaps, an intriguing instrumental situation. Then he confidently starts with what he knows--the arpeggios, chord structures and rhythmic patterns that have long defined his music--and sees where that leads him.
It could even be argued that all of Glass' music is one very long, continuous, ongoing composition, broken up into its multitude of smaller components we call individual pieces. Each one picks up where the last left off, and eventually, in that piece or another one down the line, the music accumulates something new.
Glass' recent Concerto for Two Timpanists and Orchestra, given its West Coast premiere Saturday night by the Pasadena Symphony, is like that. Its trappings are unusual and physically exciting. Two percussionists stand in front of the orchestra, each surrounded by seven timpani. And it is not hard to be entertained by the sheer theatricality of imaginative drummers--Jonathan Hass, who was responsible for generating the commission of the score, and the orchestra's principal timpanist, Thomas Raney--in a virtuoso display of banging, thumping, rapping, tapping.
The Glass formula proved arresting in this situation. Percussion, in increasingly asserting its authority, has regularly fueled revolution in 20th century music by giving prominence to just about any kind of noise and by subverting the dominance of tone and harmony. The timpani do, of course, produce pitches, and with 14 of them in Glass' concerto, the soloists participate in the melodic and harmonic procedures of the music. But they are not very interesting in that regard. Drumming attracts us by being an act of physical movement, of compelling rhythm and, sometimes, barely contained wildness. In the concerto, the two skilled drummers appear both as a powerful force outside of the orchestra (which almost ritualistically carries on the familiar Glassian formulas) yet still part of it.
The concerto, which is in three traditional fast-slow-faster movements, does not end where it begins. Almost like a musician performing an Indian raga, Glass cautiously approaches his materials, both instrumental and musical, spending much of the first and second movements getting familiar with them. Finally, the concerto breaks loose with cadenzas for each timpanist that lead into the last movement. Here Glass unleashes a large orchestral percussion section to accompany the soloists, and he begins playing around with a punchy, broken melody in the orchestra in a way that is new to his style. It is a great flourish of a finish, one that brought down the house, but also it is probably no finish at all. Undoubtedly, this hint of a new style will be developed further in Glass' next piece or pieces.
If this concerto is more showpiece for timpanists than orchestra, Jorge Mester surrounded it with two orchestral showpieces from the early 1950s, to conclude his 17th season with the Pasadena Symphony. Both works--Alberto Ginastera's "Variaciones Concertantes" and Witold Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra--are immensely attractive nationalistic pieces by young composers who were still finding their own voices and who would go on to become more experimental.
Ginastera's soulful variations for orchestra begin with a passionate solo cello melody accompanied by a strummed harp imitating the sound of an Argentine guitar, and each variation includes a colorful solo for a different instrument. Lutoslawski used Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra as a model, but his source material was Polish, not Hungarian music, and his forms updated from the Baroque period. Common to both works, however, is the exhilaration of musical adolescence, that addictive boldness that comes from these composers exalting in the discovery of their individual voices.
Together the pieces also provided a daring challenge for the Pasadena Symphony. Without any standard fare to help provide more rehearsal time for technically demanding and unfamiliar music, there were rough edges, particularly in the Ginastera. Mester's conducting focused on necessary essentials, maintaining ensemble tightness and keeping everything moving. There was not the sense, however, that the players were yet comfortable playing any of the music on the program. Nervous energy was more prevalent than interpretive breadth. Still, a sense of danger adds zest to an orchestral concert world that regularly errs on the side of playing it safe. And that adventurous spirit, as a large audience at Pasadena Civic Auditorium enthusiastically demonstrated, can be contagious.