The idea of a Ninth Symphony – a magnum opus and culmination of a symphonic career – has obsessed composers, starting with Beethoven, up to the present day. Even onetime renegade Philip Glass has not been immune to the legend. When that number came up in his proliferating output recently, he seemed compelled to reach for something extra, a grand symphonic statement – and since then, we hear, he has raced ahead and completed a Tenth Symphony. But first things first; Glass’s Ninth Symphony was played on the West Coast for the first time Thursday night with a celebrated fellow graduate from the minimalist school, John Adams, leading the co-commissioning Los Angeles Philharmonic.
This being 2012, the Glass Ninth has already made some noise on the Web. The world premiere performance led by Dennis Russell Davies on New Years’ Day was released exclusively on iTunes on Glass’s 75th birthday (Jan. 31) and promptly became a best-seller (the physical edition is now out on Glass’s Orange Mountain Music label).
The 50-minute-plus Ninth is not Glass’s biggest symphony – that would be the 97-minute, choral Fifth – but it is one of his more imposing pieces, three sprawling movements for a very large symphony orchestra. Anyone seeking a stylistic breakthrough will not find it here, for Glass sticks resolutely with the obsessively repeating arpeggios, motorized rhythms, brooding minor-key passages, occasional touches of South Asian-influenced percussion, and the other trademarks that he recycles from piece to piece.
What does come through most powerfully is a hard-won sense of assurance and command – the way Glass patiently gathers and builds his forces into massive waves of symphonic sound, occasionally letting fly a few ravishing harmonies, before they subside. One was reminded of Bruckner’s symphonies – which also use repetition to build mighty structures – but Glass’s own sound and style was always front and center, and Disney Hall’s transparent acoustics were a big help in clarifying the textures.
Thursday night was also an occasion for Adams to lead his own Violin Concerto, which of all the violin concertos of the last 25 years or so stands the best chance of winning a permanent place in the repertoire. Despite being eight months pregnant, violinist Leila Josefowicz tossed off the concerto from memory with plenty of fire, fancy and her own characterful nuances, while Adams produced a light, breezy flavor with heightened awareness of the colors from the two synthesizer parts.
As a prelude, Adams led a bracingly astringent rendition of the Estonian minimalist Arvo Pärt’s wonderful, aching, all-too-brief “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten” – his breakthrough work to the West – seemingly pulling the notes physically from out of the Philharmonic strings.