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Carolina Performing Arts is presenting "Glass at 80: A Celebration of Philip Glass" through February 10, with a wide range of events of great interest to enthusiasts of minimalist music and its development since the 1960s. The first evening, on Wednesday, February 1, in Memorial Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill, featured the Bruckner Orchester Linz, conducted by long-time Glass collaborator Dennis Russell Davies, and joined by violinist Robert McDuffie.
The auditorium was packed with people clearly passionate about Glass and his music, eager to hear these fine musicians from across the pond. In the lobby was a video display of Glass, in harmony with our current screen-oriented culture. He certainly has the hair for the job, perhaps taking a clue from Einstein on the Beach.
To start the evening, we heard Days and Nights in Rocinha (1997) for orchestra. This was inspired by the Rocinha neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, where Glass visited frequently in the weeks before Carnival. This locale is famous for its samba. Much like Ravel's Bolero, the music has a constantly repeated 14-beat rhythm and a very simple melody heard again and again and again for twenty-five minutes with little relief or variation. The cellos and basses have the signature Glass sound, playing a pattern of Da-da-da-Da-da-da on one pitch, then Da-da-Da-da-Da-da-Da-da on another pitch, and back again. The lower brass parts are simplistic and are uttered from time to time in isolated blats to create his effect. Harmonic structure is limited to the commonly practiced Baroque model without modulation. The assembled crowd seemed to have enjoyed the work, and it was politely received.
Next we were treated to Glass' most famous orchestral work, his Violin Concerto No. 1 (1987), with soloist McDuffie. He clearly is a virtuoso and brought great enthusiasm to this work this evening. The soloist had quite a bit of rapid motion in the first and third of the three movements, mostly the signature arpeggiation, while the upper strings assumed the rhythmic pattern. McDuffie showed great emotion, with the facial expressions and movements we see so often when soloists take on masterpieces of the literature. The performers got a standing ovation.
After intermission, we heard the second-ever performance of Glass' Symphony No. 11 (2017), which had its premiere the previous day at Carnegie Hall. This marks consistency over thirty years exactly of his orchestral writing, which started with the Violin Concerto No.1; but there is not a great deal of difference apparent in the orchestration over the years. Liberated from having to have the melody as it did in the first piece, and not needing to do the same rhythmic pattern as the lower strings, the upper strings were free to do the usual arpeggiation, which they performed with great accuracy and enviable endurance. At the end, members of the audience leapt to their feet, with considerable shouting from the gallery and many curtain calls.
For those who like minimalism and Philip Glass, the series of concerts and events over the next ten days is quite a treat and highly recommended, performed by superb musicians who are well motivated and know the music in a sympathetic light. Quite a few people in the area and beyond would enjoy this, and Glass is quite the celebrity among composers.
For details on the Glass 80th birthday concerts for the coming week, see our sidebar.