PHILIP GLASS: Violin Concerto No. 2 “The American Four Seasons” – Robert McDuffie, violin /London Philharmonic Orchestra/Marin Alsop – Orange Mountain Music 0072, 40:06 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ***:
By the age of 8, American composer Philip Glass played the flute and violin, inspired by the classical records his father brought home from his store. He graduated from the University of Chicago at age 19 and went to Europe to study with Nadia Boulanger (as had Aaron Copland forty years earlier). His breakthrough came there when he was asked to transcribe the Indian music of Ravi Shankar into western musical notation. He returned to New York and began to use Eastern musical techniques in his music, becoming the leader (with Steve Reich and others) of Minimalism, the 1960’s avant-garde answer to Serialism. Minimalism uses a series of repeating patterns which undergo changes by adding or subtracting instrumental colors, varying dynamics, altering speed, rhythms, and/or harmonic patterns. It’s tonal, easily accessible and very popular. Glass has composed film scores, operas, quartets, symphonies and concertos, and is one of the most successful classical composers of today. While his music is very likeable, one can challenge its intellectual substance and emotional depth. [Least likeable in his earlier works which can drive some of us up the wall with repetition…Ed.]
Glass’ Second Violin Concerto was commissioned by violinist Robert McDuffie as a concert companion piece for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. However, the composer and performer couldn’t agree on which movement corresponded to what season, so this “American Four Seasons” provides the listener an opportunity to decipher each movement’s ‘season.’ “After all, if Bobby and I are not in complete agreement, independent interpretation can be tolerated and even welcomed,” Glass said in his program notes. Violin Concerto No. 2 differs from the typical concerto form by having four movements (instead of three) and placing the solo cadenzas before each movement.
This 40-minute work opens with a meditative Prelude which transitions to a First movement that is classic Glass – the violin playing over repetitive rhythmic orchestral background. The emotional center of the Concerto is the 10-minute Movement II, a yearning and emotionally uplifting melody initiated by the violin that is serenely beautiful. The violin phrases in the Third Movement are background to the ever-changing rhythmic and colorful instrumental combinations. The last movement quickens the energetic pace with a dynamic change in the middle, ending in a dramatic percussive flourish.
The last thing that came to mind was guessing which movement was what season. I suspect that the name “The American Four Seasons” has more to do with selling concert tickets than musical substance. Mr. McDuffie is currently touring with “The Seasons Project,” pairing the Glass with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The movements corresponded more to the classic symphony structure – Movement II was the adagio, Movement III the scherzo, sandwiched between the first and last Movements. There’s nothing groundbreaking here – it’s classic Glass with the emphasis on shifting rhythmic backgrounds and little attention to melody. This is pleasant and easy-to-like music, but offers no challenge to those who want more meat-and-potatoes with their musical meals. The recording is a bit close, but sonically effective, and the performances are excellent.
— Robert Moon