Philip Glass’ The American Four Seasons at Strathmore, Reviewed
It’s hard to think of a more unlikely pairing than Antonio Vivaldi and Philip Glass—perhaps the Justin Bieber-Kanye West collabo is up there—but when violinist Robert McDuffie called up his pal Glass and suggested the postmodern American composer write something based on the premodern Italian’s most famous concertos, Glass said sure. The inspiration, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, is a favorite of the classical canon and of high school orchestra auditions for being clean, fun, and easy to play. Glass is a favorite of the art-house crowd for being messy, complex, and not so fun to hear or play. Glass wrote the score for Koyaanisqatsi, a 90-minute conceptual film of time-lapse photography with no dialogue; Vivaldi was on the White Chicks soundtrack.
Presenting the Beltway premiere of the new work at Strathmore yesterday, Robert McDuffie had a similarly odd pairing with the Venice Baroque Orchestra, his partners on The American Four Seasons' debut tour. McDuffie’s recordings lean heavily toward 20th century American composers like Glass, John Adams, and Samuel Barber. The VBO is a period ensemble dedicated to playing 18th century music on 18th century instruments, with several recordings of Vivaldi under its belt. But the two played off well against each other during Sunday’s performance, which began with the baroque original and concluded with Glass’ interpretation.
Uniting the two was an aggressive style of playing that could be described as athletic (or perhaps macho—only two of the VBO’s 18 members are women, both tucked away in the viola section). Dressed entirely in black, the orchestra had all the violinists and violists play on their feet, projecting an air of toughness despite the fragile, period instruments. That wasn’t entirely convincing. In fact, it was the orchestra’s two such instruments that contributed the least to the program—the lute was mostly redundant, and the harpsichord couldn’t be heard at all.
McDuffie, who could pass for a TV cop or peewee football coach, muscled through the Four Seasons capably, though there were times he got too excited and pressed too hard on the strings. A romantic’s impatience with the confines of baroque could be seen in some of the artistic licenses he took, with dramatic pauses, lingers, and a penchant for spiccato bowing. The license got more artistic as the seasons progressed, beginning with a mundane “Spring” but ending in an icy flourish with “Winter.”
The highlight was the second half. Ditching the harpsichord for a Yamaha keyboard, McDuffie and the orchestra stormed through the Glass original, a piece full of emotion and excitement, and breakneck changes in tempo and volume. True to form, Glass’s piece wasn’t exactly linear, and certainly didn’t adhere to Vivaldi’s fast-slow-fast concerto structure. There were no breaks between movements, and the order in which the seasons were supposed to be was anyone’s guess. Honestly, if the audience hadn’t been clued in to the backstory, one would be hard-pressed to notice any relation to Vivaldi’s original at all.
Strathmore has been on a minimalist kick recently—last Thursday saw the Bang on a Can All-Stars playing Steve Reich’s new work for electric guitar, “2x5.” Artistic Director Shelley Brown explains the Seasons project was pitched to Strathmore by Columbia Artists late in the programming process. But it fit Strathmore’s season well—not just thematically, but economically, sharing load-in costs with a Stephen Sondheim matinee show earlier in the day.
If The American Four Seasons won’t quite make Glass’ music a staple at weddings, it’s another step away from the M-word that he’s long tried to escape. There were the unmistakable Philip Glass signatures—repetitive motifs that go on too long and are boring—but thankfully, this piece was free of ambient drones and had phrases with more than two notes in them. Glass may not like the term, but minimalists are the classical equivalent of hipsters—everyone can spot them, but no one wants to admit to being one.