Philip Glass: Violin Concerto No. 2 "The American Four Seasons"

Robert McDuffie

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Philip Glass: Violin Concerto No. 2 "The American Four Seasons" Review

by James Manheim

Philip Glass has experienced success with his Violin Concerto No. 2 ("The American Four Seasons"), which has been performed by multiple major organizations unconnected with Glass himself, the grail for any contemporary composer. The Venice Baroque Orchestra has obeyed Glass' intentions, presenting the work with Vivaldi's Four Seasons in concert. This may be a case in which composer intentions are best disregarded, for the work doesn't share much with its namesake except a four-section structure (vague in the case of the Glass) and a reference to general Baroque texture, the Glass concerto uses a synthesizer as "continuo." The four-seasons aspect seems to have misfired, as it transpired that Glass and soloist Robert McDuffie had different interpretations as to which section represented which season (the listener can certainly then supply his or her own with impunity). But this is not all that's interesting in the Glass concerto. His weaving together of various stylistic strands is subtle, and it coheres into a very pleasing extension of what might be called his trademark monumentalist-minimalist style. The violin and the string orchestra, here a very lively London Philharmonic under Marin Alsop, have several possible relationships to each other, one of them the blocky contrast of the typical Vivaldi concerto, and Glass seems to be suggesting that Vivaldi was a sort of forerunner of minimalism. It's a reasonable and interesting musical argument, but Glass doesn't stop there. Each movement is preceded by a cadenza-like solo, and within each individual movement the violin may interact in conversation with smaller groups, or float above them as an individual making his or her way in a complex world, or take on a variety of more assertive virtuoso roles. At several points there are clear climaxes where Glass deploys his usual roaring triads for the whole group, with the violin ornamenting and the synthesizer bubbling along underneath. It's original in concept; it all holds together very well; and it benefits from the total confidence of a soloist for whom the work was written and who knows it well. A major late-career triumph for the composer who was never the critical darling among the minimalists but seems to have outlasted the others.

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