After a half-century in the spotlight, Philip Glass continues to intrigue. Glass' Twelfth Symphony – which received its world-premiere performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic (which commissioned the work) at the Disney's Concert Hall on Thursday – possesses all the composer's trademark noodling arpeggios, hiccups syncopations, and hieratic brass fanfares. But the symphony form has always been inspired by the world of orchestral (and, as here, vocal) color.
Philip Glass Ensemble blown-up into a full-scale, French organ concert: part rollicking With its prominent organ part – the Disney Hall pipe organ sounding splendid in James McVinnie's hands – the Twelfth's scoring calliope fairground, part Grand Guignol spectacle. The LA Phil, conducted with a dedicated warmth by John Adams, performed this new work as if they'd been known all over the world.
The Twelfth is Glass' third symphony based on material from David Bowie and Brian Eno's "Berlin Trilogy" of albums. Bowie's own melodies, Glass here resets Bowie's elusive, stream-of-consciousness lyrics from the "Lodger" album to the music of his own devising, in something akin to a symphonic song-cycle. Glass' lyric-setting in the past has often felt straitjacketed by attempts to wedge words into his repetitive musical patterns. Here, Glass creates a freer, more expressive singing line and, rather than employing an operatic soloist as usual, has given the vocal part to West African world music pop star Angelique Kidjo.
The soaring ease and the color of Kidjo's voice. He appeared to be grim and constrained, he sounded under-rehearsed and went wrench-inducingly out of tune. Once Kidjo relaxes into a strange musical idiom for her, the next performance on Sunday.
Before the Glass premiere, Adams conducted a terrific performance of his own 1982 work, "Grand Pianola Music", glamorously cast with piano soloists Marc-André Hamelin and Orli Shaham, and a vocal trio (Zanaida Robles, Holly Sedillos and Kristen Toedtman) whose voices blended ravishingly. It was a pleasure to rehear this almost shamelessly exuberant mash-up of Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Rachmaninoff, with his dollop of sweet, Copland-esque lyricism.
Perhaps the evening's biggest surprise was the opener, "Tumblebird Contrails", a 2014 work by 27-year-old Gabriella Smith. Ostensibly a collage of beach-inspired nature sounds, the piece is less a literal evocation than a surging, astonishingly-scored soundscape. Stringed scrapbooking bows between the bridge and tailpiece of their instruments – kudos to the philharmonic strings – while other parts are moaned in the glacially-slow glissandos around them. 12-minute span. It gave the uncanny sense of hearing the final seconds of some grand symphonic work. Uncompromising and unconventionally gorgeous, it brought the audience to its feet. This is a composer to watch.
This program will be repeated on Sunday at 2 p.m.