Philip Glass is one of the most influential and prolific composers working today. Now 80 years old, the New York–based composer has created a vast body of work that includes 11 symphonies, a string of film scores (which range from the visionary, experimental “Qatsi trilogy,” created with filmmaker Godfrey Reggio, to the Golden Globe Award–winning score to The Truman Show), many ballet and theatre works, and several important and visionary operas, including 1976’s Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha from 1979. As diverse as that output has been, however, there are Glassian musical signatures that make much of his work instantly recognizable—and irresistible—to many listeners, including his deceptively simple repetitive structures that evolve slowly and flower subtly.
Over the course of his career, Glass’ reputation has progressed from audacious, experimental outsider to one of the most lauded and often-performed contemporary composers in the world. Additionally, many popular artists have collaborated with him, including Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, and Brian Eno. However, this New York Premiere of his Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (September 22 and 23) marks the first time that the New York Philharmonic has performed any of Glass’ concert music (although in 2011 the Orchestra joined the Philip Glass Ensemble and the Collegiate Chorale in live-to-film presentations of his 1982 score to Koyaanisqatsi).
The plainspoken composer says that doesn’t perturb him. “Look, if you live long enough, everything comes out right,” Glass observes. “I’m very happy to be there—I’m delighted, in fact. It’s a first-class orchestra. I’ve heard them play many, many other modern pieces, and now I get to hear mine! What could be better?”
Glass adds that it is still a milestone when such an august symphony programs his music, and that of his peers, alongside more canonical works. “The music has moved beyond the defined group of artists who dedicated themselves to contemporary music,” he observes.
The piece that brings Glass to the New York Philharmonic has excellent champions in soloists Katia and Marielle Labèque and the New York Philharmonic’s Music Director Designate, Jaap van Zweden. The Labèque sisters gave the concerto’s World Premiere in 2015 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel. The next year Maestro van Zweden, a longtime advocate of Glass’ music, led the French Premiere of the piece with the Labèques and the Orchestre de Paris; other performances will follow later this season with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
Philip Glass praises the performers in the Philharmonic concerts. “Mr. van Zweden certainly knows his way around this concerto, and the Labèque sisters are tremendous. They’re great performers, and great interpreters. And they’re wonderful supporters of music—not only modern music, but just music. It was great to work with them.”
The admiration is mutual. Van Zweden says, “I felt this was a wonderful moment to put Philip Glass in the spotlight and to celebrate his 80th birthday.”
Glass says that in this double concerto he was aiming for a very different dynamic than one hears in the big, Romantic-era repertoire. “The 19th-century concertos were kind of a showdown between the orchestra and the soloists,” he explains. “But I saw the orchestra instead as being an extension of the piano—even more extended, because here you have two pianos. I don’t want those 176 keys to dominate. In this piece, that balance is critical, and difficult. I want them to blend into each other. So this concerto is not for amateurs. You’ve got to be on your toes!”
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter for NPR Music and appears frequently on NPR’s flagship national news programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered. A longtime classical music specialist, she is the former North America editor for Gramophone magazine.