performed by Dennis Russell Davies and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra
Philip Glass’s first piano concerto isn’t (usually) referred to as piano concerto no. 1. Instead, it’s given the above name, the Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. It was completed in 2000 to a commission from the “Festival Klangspuren with support of the Tyrol Tourist Board and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra,” hence the name.
The work is part of “The Concerto Project,” a set of eight concertos for various instruments. The project contains what was until recently both of the concertos Glass had written for piano (he has since written a third piano concerto, as well as a double concerto for two pianos!), his cello concerto, a concerto for harpsichord, a concerto grosso, a double concerto for violin and piano, a concerto for saxophone quartet (!), and his concert fantasy for two timpanists and orchestra, eight in all. It notably does not include either of his violin concertos, even though some of the aforementioned works were begun (or even completed?) before The Concerto Project came into being.
The concerto was premiered on September 22, 2000 by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra with Dennis Russell Davies conducting from the piano at the Tyrol Festival Klangspuren in Austria.
The concerto is laid out in three movements, playing for just shy of 30 minutes, with the second movement making up about half of that time. The work comes from around the time of his enormous fifth symphony and, like many of his more recent works, displays a more traditional sound, with less of the overt ‘repetitive structures’ or minimalism, that the composer is known for.
In fact, just listen to that introduction. Give it ten seconds. Who would you guess wrote that, or rather, what era might you think it came from? It certainly doesn’t sound like the Philip Glass who made all sorts of splashes a quarter century earlier. But that’s no criticism. The opening of this movement is soft and reflective, almost traditional in its sound, but the repetitive, propulsive ‘minimalist’ voice that many have come to know and expect from Glass kicks in about a minute into the work. If you’re familiar with his middle-numbered symphonies (5-7 or so), you’ll be no stranger to this sound.
It’s more symphonic, even a bit softer than one of his first symphonic efforts, the first violin concerto, from the mid 80s. Despite its more… rounded (?) symphonic sound, and less reliance on the same eighth note figure for development, there’s still repetition, and some of the composer’s hallmark figures are still here, but there’s less shifting of meter like we hear in the second string quartet, for example, something that’s very rhythmically interesting if not a bit tiring after a while. It’s not as acerbic, I’d say, but I don’t mind acerbic. This may be a good gateway drug or starter piece if even the (first) violin concerto is too exciting for some listeners.
The first movement, after that long-ish quiet introduction, is quite upbeat and is over quickly, but ends quietly, much the way it began, leading to the second movement, the bulk of the work. The strings introduce a melody here that might sound to come right out of some of Glass’s film music of the period, like The Hours. It’s beautiful, pensive, melancholy, composed of long, simple lines that somehow interweave to create arresting harmonies. It’s broad and spacious, and in fact… Glass’s film music for that movie came out only two years after this concerto was written, so… maybe it’s not just a coincidence that the piano and string writing does rather resemble that very famous soundtrack. In fact, I’d say that that filmscore is just about exactly the sound that most people have come to expect from Glass, likely with very little knowledge of (or interest in) his compositions from decades earlier, the ones where he blazed new trails and at once angered many and delighted others with things like Einstein on the Beach. In any case, this long, pensive middle movement gets to the rhythmic repetition and metric interest that many people have come to be intoxicated, or hypnotized by, in Glass’s smoother, more soothing efforts. It’s certainly beautiful, no question, but there’s so much more to his music than just this sound, even if it does make up the bulk of this concerto.
The middle movement ends with a repeated figure from the piano, and the we get an abrupt splash into the finale. I’d imagine these would be played live with almost no pause, a held rest rather than a “coughing and shuffling-of-pages intermission” type pause we typically find between movements. The rhythms have suddenly become lively, with syncopation from piano over plucked strings, a whirling thing of brisk excitement. This is much more the kind of thing I like in Glass’s music, but even here it’s not so repetitive as to be hypnotic or challenging as it is fresh and energetic. It is of about equal length as the opening movement, and contains what sounds like some of the trickiest piano writing in the whole work, as well as what seems to be a cadenza.
Strings aren’t always in the background here; they pick up some of what the piano puts out and run with it for a while. You may have forgotten we’re dealing solely with a string orchestra, the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, but this concerto lacks nothing. There’s an intimacy in the work that affords it clarity and vibrance. Despite the quiet opening and closing of the first movement and the large middle movement, the finale makes up for what might otherwise be a rather ‘soft’ piano concert, giving us peppery rhythmic phrases and splashes of virtuosity and excitement, really everything you’d expect a piano concerto to be, right?
Do you hear some playfulness and even maybe just the slightest shades of jazz in those closing bars?
I’m reading (slowly but surely) Glass’s memoir, Words without Music, and I have to say it is a fascinating read. I got it as part of some research I’m doing for a series this fall (actually only featuring a few of Glass’s pieces, but it was excuse enough to get the book), and I have to say he is such a interesting human. His upbringing was Jewish, so multicultural and yet so whitebread American, so normal but so unique. His exposure to so much from such an early age, and the opportunities he had as a child from a family that was by no means affluent or well off, obviously coupled by his determination and natural abilities, means that the grown, adult composer, the one who’d worked loading and unloading trucks, or as a mover, a taxi driver, who went to (and graduated from) the University of Chicago before he was even old enough to vote (give or take), means that the man had a formidable skill set and amassed an extremely varied palette of experiences and influences by the time he started composing full-time. It’s just phenomenal, and so… if you think Glass’s music is just sweet melodies and interesting rhythms played over and over again every which way, you’re dead wrong.
In fact, this work wasn’t even originally intended to be on the schedule, but I decided to change things up a bit, and also to pick this piece instead of the originally-planned one that would take so much of my time and energy to research to be able to say anything about.
In any case, this ends a six-week string of works for piano in some form or fashion, and July is soon to be upon us, which means I’ve picked a special theme, something to discuss that is different or new or unique or challenging, and this year it’s all of those things. There’s a forthcoming article introducing the theme for July 2017, so stay tuned for that and thank you so much for reading.