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Marin Alsop Conducts Glass at the BSO

On February 22, 2007, Marin Alsop, the new conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, threw a gala birthday party entitled Life: A Journey Through Time for one of her favorite composers—Philip Glass. Glass, a native of Baltimore born January 31, 1937, until this time had never had his work played by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Alsop selected two major compositions for this program presented at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland.


Photo Credit: Clark Vandergrift

The first, Concerto for Saxophone Quartet, featuring guest artists of the Capitol Quartet was fit fanfare for the introduction of the absent 70-year-old composer to the overly appreciative audience who clapped after each of the first three movements until conductor Alsop sped up the beginning of Movement IV. The second work, an East Coast premiere and the title work Life: A Journey Through Time, was performed with a balletic display of images from nature that was projected across three huge screens mounted above the orchestra.


Because the Dresser adores symphonic music that features the saxophone, she won’t rush by Concerto for Saxophone Quartet, which was performed with gusto by the Capitol Quartet. Here’s a profile of the movements:

I: sweetly lyric.

II: more jazzy and syncopated, a great opportunity to show off the range of the sax family—soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone.

III: opens blandly and somberly featuring the tenor sax. Toward the end of this movement comes a conversation between the soprano and alto saxophones.

IV: offers a quick tempo of shifting meters with lots of percussion and the alto sax giving way to more emphasis on the tenor and baritone sax.

Glass wrote two versions of this composition: orchestral and chamber. One of his most performed classical works, the piece was commissioned by German’s Raschèr Saxophone Quartet and this group premiered the work in Stockholm, Sweden in 1995. In case you think the sax belongs to America, and American Jazz at that, the Dresser wants her readers to know that the saxophone was invented for the orchestra in 1840 by Antoine (Adolphe) Sax, a Belgian living in Paris.


So why wasn’t Philip Glass at the East Coast premiere of Life: A Journey Through Time? Maestro Alsop explained that Glass was on his way to Hollywood to attend the 79th annual Academy Awards ceremony. Glass was nominated for his original score that accompanies the film Notes on a Scandal that stars Judi Densch and Cate Blanchett. This is the third time he has been nominated. Alsop, who, as a violinist played on several Philip Glass recordings and was a soloist in the 1983 U. S. premiere of his multimedia work, The Photographer, did not seem to begrudge the composer’s choice. Still, Alsop was a key catalyst in the creation of the seven-part Life: A Journey Through Time.


In 2004, Frans Lanting, a nature photographer frequently commissioned by National Geographics, came to Alsop in her capacity as Music Director and Conductor of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music and suggested that his project on the evolution of life might be worthy of musical collaboration.


Photo Credit: Paul Schraub

In early 2005, Alsop and Lanting met with Glass who, although he said he didn’t have time for this, agreed to the commission. What transpired was a score adapted by composer/arranger Michael Riesman from works that Glass originally composed for smaller ensembles or solo instruments. In fact, all of the seven parts, except “Out of the Sea,” have some association to film collaborations that include settings for Dracula (“Elements (second part)), La Belle et La Bête (“Out of the Dark”), and the 1996 film The Secret Agent (“Elements (first part)). What makes the running visual projects dance is the work of visual choreographer and video editor Alexander V. Nichols.

The combination of pulsing, nonstop music and colorful image is exhilarating.


Photo Credit: Frans Lanting

There are no pauses between movements, but the audience is queued visually with text announcing the next movement. Sometimes images fly by, sometimes images seem like a display of fireworks, sometimes a venture into a wild Zen garden. There is no time to assess if the music pulled from different scores blends well together and yet there is all the time in the world. The images both speed up the experience of hearing the music and slow it down.

What the Dresser noticed was, particularly in the last movement, that use of solo instruments sounded exotic, particularly the percussion instruments. After the performance, Alsop commented that the minimalist repetitions made ordinary orchestra instruments sound new. The Dresser also appreciated that none of the music attempted to literally mimic the sounds of the animals being projected. Overall the combination of music and image was deeply relaxing and yet exciting in much the same way a master class from an outstanding teacher of yoga would be.


What everyone who stayed to hear Alsop, Lanting, and Nichols answer questions wanted to know was how hard was it for the conductor to keep up with images? Alsop, who is the first woman to head a major American orchestra and the first conductor to ever win a MacArthur “Genius Award,” laughed and said it was a huge challenge. Apparently images had been cut the day before and she was seeing the new sequence for the first time as she performed. Also one of the two rehearsals had a major technical failing such that the three monitor synched with the three overhead screens were placed in front of her in the wrong sequence and then when the problem was identified, nothing would work in the corrected configuration. However, during the live performance, the maestro said with glee that the orchestra members were "rooting for her" and they communicated this to her by softly sliding their feet back and forth as she managed to hit the right accents in synch with the moving images.

Here the Dresser gives the last word on timing to Robert Sargent.


Wanted to be a jazz band drummer once,
for an odd reason: that on a particular tune,
I wanted to hit, on the bass drum, tow loud booms,
at a very particular time. Like this:

Oh Red Hot Henry Brown,
He’s the hottest man in town,
That red hot mamma that you hear about
took a look—BOOM BOOM—
and the fire went …

Once more:

Took a look—BOOM BOOM—
and the fire went …

The young hotshot is triumphing over the women,
and those two booms—so right. So exactly right.

Robert Sargent
Fish Galore


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on February 24, 2007 8:20 PM.

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