“Wow! Look at the line!” exclaimed one of the young orchestra players hurrying back, fast food in hand, into Memorial Hall on Sunday night. Indeed, the box office line snaked up and around the front of the building where the rescheduled performance of Philip Glass‘ Symphony No. 4 was to be played by the student orchestra.

Perhaps it is rare to have a full house for UNC Symphony Orchestra concerts. The group meets twice a week, performs twice a year, and is comprised of only 50% music majors, the rest being from various other fields within the university and the community. However, being a part of the Glass at 80 festival, in which they were performing the Heroes Symphony (inspired by rock artist David Bowie and musical polymath Brian Eno), to be followed by North Carolina-based Merge Records artists covering the Bowie/Eno Heroes album, brought contemporary music aficionados of all ages out on this evening.

Initially scheduled to be the second performance of the ten-day Glass fête, the Heroes Tribute fell victim to a serious water main break in Chapel Hill – the village shut down, and there was no concert. As Director of Programming Amy Russell stated just prior to the UNCSO performance, it was rather remarkable that Carolina Performing Arts could find another date that suited both the 100 student orchestra members and the various Merge Records musicians – much less honor those tickets or make up for the lost sales.

The inclusion of UNC students as well as a highly successful and innovative local music label was brilliantly inspired programming within the context of the unparalleled festival at large. Again, Russell made the point in her opening comments that, as with Glass and Bowie, this concert was about artistic friends and collaborators appreciative of one another’s contributions.

Glass, like many creatives in New York during the 1970’s and 80’s, collaborated, listened to, and worked with a wide range of artists bridging genres and form. Glass’ Symphony No. 4 (1992) was inspired by the second in a trilogy of recordings written and recorded by Bowie and Eno – Heroes (1977). The work was highly experimental on many levels; Glass recognized this fact, stating that he’d “never encountered pop music conceived with that level of artistic ambition.” The Berlin recordings of Bowie and Eno moved Glass to write two symphonies (Low and Heroes) based on albums of the same names.

UNCSO took to the stage under the baton of Tonu Kalam and embarked on the journey of the Heroes Symphony. Beginning very confidently with the first movement “Heroes,” the orchestra played with considerable effect, clearly acknowledging all the dynamic notations of the composer. The lower brass and woodwinds opened strongly, conveying the noble theme with solid support from the percussion section. The mood of heroism was greatly projected.

Other favorite moments in UNCSO’s performance included “Abdulmajid” – Glass’ exquisitely seductive second movement, based on Bowie’s “The Secret Life of Arabia.” At this point in the work, one can certainly understand Twyla Tharp‘s request that Glass and Bowie create a version of the work reduced to choreographic length. (That would be worth seeing!) This movement conjured up a hipper version of Scheherazade with some James Bond action thrown in!

The strings and brass excelled on the opposing “states of soul” portrayed in third movement, “Sense of Doubt.” The entire orchestra delved the angst of the fourth movement, “Neuköln,” and ended strongly with the quintessential Glass “repetitive structures” in “V-2 Schneider.”

It cannot be overlooked that one of the most difficult but notably necessary abilities in performing Glass’ music is the capacity to stay fully conscious and to pace oneself for the duration, all the time delivering an impression of effortlessness against what can become quite mechanical. While conveying the textures, layers, and rhythmic patterns is critical, the overarching quality of the work for long periods of time requires great concentration. Bringing the human element into a system that, by its very nature, makes it difficult not to be lulled into forgetfulness is the incredible work of the performer. Kudos to Maestro Kalam and CPA for giving these students exposure to music that is so current and, concurrently, thinking that is so critical for today’s world.

The second half of the concert brought talent from far and wide but all orbiting Mac McCaughn‘s Merge Records label. I must admit that, with the tragic loss of David Bowie on January 10th of last year, I did not have a good deal of interest in hearing his music “covered.” Bowie would be hard to do full justice to even without the weight of his death. It seems that McCaughn had reservations as well. Nevertheless, the sensitive and creative personnel that he assembled were fully up to the task and performed not only a tastefully respectful set but also a uniquely artistic performance that would certainly have thrilled Bowie himself.

The band was comprised of McCaughn on guitar and synthesizers, Dan Bejar on lead vocals, Jenn Wasner on synths, William Tyler on guitar, and Ken Vandermark on tenor sax. The rhythm section consisted of bassist Brad Cook and drummer Joe Westerlund. McCaughn kept his initial comments about the Heroes album relatively short, letting the mostly informed audience settle into the experience for themselves. However, he did point to the fact that the recording studio in Germany where the album was made looked out onto the Berlin Wall and, in keeping with this concert and in the spirit of collaborative work, “building walls as a way to separate people was not … the way to do things.”

And so began a set that merged from one song into another in the manner of the B side of Heroes. This was deftly steered by the soundscaping synth work of Wasner and McCaughn staying true to Eno’s pioneering initial concept.

Also notable were Tyler’s nod to the innovative and unique guitar sounds of Robert Fripp and Bejar’s ability to tap into the essence of what people recognize as the iconic voice of Bowie without mimicking or histrionics. Bejar’s understated stage presence seemed intent to keep the rawness at bay while proving that the music could stand on its own without the personality of the rock star.

The band brought its own modern interpretations and personality to the covers. I was especially delighted in the interpretation of “Abuldmajid” as ambient lounge/house music feel.

“Sense of Doubt” was striking in the color provided in the brilliant improvisational work of Westerlund’s drumming. Vandermark’s free jazz solo work in “Neuköln” took on a feel of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew – the band fully supported. It was incredibly powerful and their expression of dark and light were very moving. Bejar came back on stage to end the night with Bowie’s version of “Heroes,” sung with great understanding and passion.

The same audience that stood in praise of UNCSO and Glass’ symphonic work also cheered and whistled and stood for the Bowie cover tribute. As one woman beside me said to her friend “I bet that my grandson (a UNCSO member) wouldn’t believe that his grandmother could also rock out.”