With a commission from the American Composers Orchestra - his first from an American orchestra - he composed the Violin Concerto. Though the actual writing took some four months (November 1986 - February 1987), Glass says ideas were germinating for a time before writing commenced. The Concerto is dedicated to Dennis Russell Davies and Paul Zukofzky, who present the first performance. The orchestral accompaniment consists of two flutes (one doubling as piccolo), two oboes, E-flat clarinet, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (snare drum, bass drum, triangle, cymbal, woodblock) harp, and strings.
"The search for the unique can lead to strange places. Taboos - the things we're not supposed to do - are often the most interesting. In my case, musical materials are found among ordinary things, such as sequences and cadences. All that I threw out in 1965 I've gradually brought in again, making it my own."
It is certainly news that Philip Glass - whose career has been most closely associated with opera, film theatre, dance, and his own Philip Glass Ensemble - has written his first orchestral work since his student days. What is perhaps most newsworthy is that, in choosing to write a violin concerto, he has not only taken ion one of the most enduring genres in Western art music but, he has cast it in most familiar terms. Glass' new concerto falls in the three-movement structure common to the vast majority of concertos written in the last three centuries, and is scored for an orchestra of conventional size and configuration. "I like the normal orchestra," comments Glass, whose operas also use orchestras of similar size. "I have an alternative electronic medium which is my Ensemble. By writing for both there's a balance in my activities."
Familiar, too, are the opening chugging chords, the solo violin's first arpeggios, and the repetitive patterns that cause time to be absorbed into large units rather than to be divided up: the Concerto is instantly identifiable as a work by Philip Glass. "This piece explores what an orchestra can do for me. In it, I'm more interested in my own sound than in the capability of particular orchestra instruments. It is tailored to my musical needs." Familiarity also plays a part in Glass' confidence in having those needs realised: Dennis Russell Davies has conducted the opera Akhnaten numerous times and his advocacy of Glass' music has done much to widen the understanding of Glass' style among performers from Stuttgart to The Philadelphia Orchestra. In addition, Glass knows many of the ACO's members personally; they in turn have followed his career closely.
Of course, Glass is quick to point out, a concerto is not a purely orchestral composition. "It's more theatrical and more personal." And even if this particular concerto is less theatrical than some nineteenth century concertos *in which, as Glass put it in a 1981 interview, "the solo instrument becomes more and more the alter ego of the composer. And the listener identifies with it, too, as the instrument experiences happy moments and sad moments until there is a triumphal end…a narrative mechanism in which he violin ahs a kind of identification with the story…"), it is nonetheless suited to Glass' orientation to theatre.
Paul Zukofsky was in on this project even before the commission and has influenced its direction. A long-time friend and collaborator of Glass', Zukofsky has performed in Einstein on the Beach and The Photographer. The two had often discussed the possibility of a violin concerto, Glass putting if off while waiting "to see what developed" in terms of writing opportunities. When Glass began this commission Zukofsky asked that the finale be slow and high. Glass' plans to comply were thwarted when he found his original conception of a work in five short movements giving way to a long first and second movement. "The material finds a voice of its own," he concedes, in acknowledging that the Concerto's three-movement structure was actually "an accident". While Glass ultimately wrote a fast third movement, its slow coda satisfies Zukofsky's request (as well as harkening back to the other two movements). The violinist also offered suggestions in the first movement that led to large-scale harmonic transpositions. "I heard the piece with a 'tonal identity' of C minor and D," recalls Glass, "but by moving it up a step the violin sounds far better." Composer and soloist have continued to fine-tune the violin part as the premiere approaches, and Glass, too, is satisfied. "This is the piece that I wanted to write."
© Susan Feder