Although by the late 1980s Glass had established himself as a gifted and innovative composer of operas with such works as Einstein on the Beach (1975), Satyagraha (1980), and Akhnaten (1984), and had scored several theater pieces and films, he had written few purely orchestral concert works. The Violin Concerto (1987) thus represents the composer's first mature essay for a traditional concert-hall setting. This change from the usual venues for Glass' music is indeed more drastic than any stylistic change. Glass' music had never been subservient to storyline or drama, but rather composed in counterpoint to it. A comparable relationship may be found between soloist and orchestra in the Violin Concerto, making the familiar musical elements from Glass' stage and film works -- triadic harmonies, insistent contrary arpeggios, intriguing metrical shifts -- seem right at home in what were then new surroundings for the composer.
Each of the concerto's three movements is simply headed by a metronome marking. The moderately fast first movement (quarter note = 104 - 120) begins with a short orchestral introduction before the soloist enters with a flurry of arpeggios that slowly extend to encompass the entire range of the violin. An added layer of rhythmic depth is provided by the entrance of the percussion. As in Glass' subsequent orchestral "nature portrait" The Canyon (1988), the rhythmic role of the percussion -- which is conspicuously absent from most of the composer's previous works -- allows for both more textural freedom in the rest of the orchestra and for the violin to engage in unfettered lyricism. Throughout the movement, the soloist alternates between participation in the orchestra's rhythmic flow and floating above its texture with sustained melody.
The long, subterranean bass line of the second movement (quarter note = 96) is separated from the soloist's lush melody by a throbbing web of inner voices. As the various sections join in with varying timbres and textures, the violin alternately resists and capitulates, again torn between serpentine figuration and sustained line. The movement ends with a gesture quite dramatic in its simplicity: As the orchestra fades out in piecemeal fashion, the soloist is left floating mournfully back and forth between two Gs an octave apart, never alighting on the tonic of C.
In the final movement (quarter note = 150; Coda = 104) the percussion again provides rhythmic drive, while the violin undertakes a dizzying array of figural and rhythmic acrobatics. The division of the fast triple meter fluctuates frequently between three groups of two and two groups of three, which, combined with the galloping timpani and wood blocks, lends the movement a somewhat generic but nonetheless exciting Spanish flavor. This flurry eventually settles into a slow coda. As the woodwinds maintain a faint rhythmic hum, the violin ascends through a series of long, dramatic leaps into its upper range before disappearing altogether.