Glass: Heroes Symphony; The Light

Marin Alsop / Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

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Glass: Heroes Symphony; The Light Review

by James Manheim

The Heroes Symphony of Philip Glass is one of two symphonies he wrote based on albums by David Bowie (the other is the Low Symphony). This recording by Marin Alsop, one of Britain's (and now America's) most talked-about conductors, suggests that the idea has been successful enough to move beyond the usual Glass orbit and into conventional symphonic repertory. Glass has always had a strong following among pop listeners, and part of the interest of these compositions lies in the unique crossover terrain they explore -- ironically, with Glass (whose versions are all instrumental) coming out as slightly more conventional than his pop counterparts. The Bowie album was recorded in the late '70s in Berlin with pop synthesizer experimenter Brian Eno. Glass fills out the songs with repeated musical figures, mostly assigned to the strings, replacing and expanding the guitar and keyboard riffs of the original songs. One can see why Bowie liked this music, which remains close to the harmonies of his original songs without seeming at all like an arrangement in the conventional sense. One can also see why the canny Marin Alsop might have wanted to record the work; she has been associated with several unusual crossover projects (including the Too Hot to Handel Messiah), and this one is unlike any other classical composition modeled on pop material. The Bournemouth Symphony achieves the hypnotic smoothness necessary for Glass throughout. The opening orchestral piece called The Light is a less distinctive Glass work, although rendered equally well. It refers to a famous scientific experiment having to do with light, but it would be surprising if any listener uncoached by notes succeeded in identifying which one.

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