BBC Total Immersion Day: Philip Glass at 80 review – variety, sheer difficulty and lots of arpeggios

Barbican, London
Marin Alsop, the BBC Singers and others wished Glass a happy 80th with a career-spanning programme of his best and most challenging work

It’s half a century since Philip Glass arrived in New York, fresh from a trip to India, to become a fixture of the experimental arts scene. Today, far from those SoHo lofts, Glass – who is 80 this month – has been ushered respectfully on to the concert platforms of the musical establishment.

Given the hypnotic tendencies of his brand of minimalism, Glass was the ideal subject for the Barbican’s latest Total Immersion event. Even in small doses, his music plunges listeners into a soundworld where a single broken chord can last for what feels like hours. This programme, however, was a massive injection, featuring concerts by Guildhall school students, the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, plus a screening of Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi, for which Glass wrote the soundtrack. Such sustained absorption in all things Glass revealed both the variety and unevenness of his music.

There were, admittedly, a lot of arpeggios. But the first two concerts, at the Guildhall’s new Milton Court concert hall, demonstrated the range and the sheer difficulty of Glass’s compositions. Student musicians under Richard Benjafield produced one of the day’s highlights: their tightknit, hyper-focused performance of Glassworks relished the piece’s angular instrumentation (single reeds and synthesiser alongside lower strings, horns and flutes), with superb, understated solo turns by Tammy Clark-Barrett on soprano sax.

The BBC Singers, meanwhile, performed music by Glass’s contemporaries and successors alongside his own. The comparison wasn’t always flattering. Two works by Nico Muhly – I Cannot Attain Unto It and the ferociously virtuosic Three Moon Songs – did far more with the musical possibilities of the human voice than Glass’s mechanistically difficult a cappella pieces. The BBC Singers nonetheless rose to these challenges: led with intense commitment by Tecwyn Evans, they negotiated Glass’s sparsest textures with beautifully melded sound and spat phonemes with aplomb.

Pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque at the BBC Total Immersion musical salute to Philip Glass.
Pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque at the BBC Total Immersion musical salute to Philip Glass. Photograph: Mark Allan/BBC

Back in the Barbican Hall, the BBCSO and Marin Alsop served up the day’s main event: the UK premiere of Glass’s Double Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, with the irrepressible Labèque sisters as soloists, sandwiched between the prelude to Akhnaten and Itaipu (a raging “symphonic portrait” with vigorous contributions from the BBC Symphony Chorus). Alsop steered her forces deftly and with a light touch. But even this suave direction and the considerable energy of the Labèques failed to rescue the Double Concerto from its own blandness, as Glass seemed to turn from radical repetition to post-Romantic film-score slush.

And then there were the film scores themselves. Koyaanisqatsi and, the following evening, the UK premiere with live orchestral accompaniment of Reggio’s 2013 black and white film Visitors. In Koyaanisqatsi, Glass’s arpeggios suture the viewer into abstract sequences in which the timelapsed movements of sausages and bombs, human bodies and traffic become horribly equivalent visual patterns. The timbre of his score for Visitors is more varied (lots of percussion, lots of harp), but the film itself – again without narrative and largely comprising almost static shots of human faces – felt overlong. As embedded within these films, Glass’s music ultimately seemed to bring to light the most disturbing, least human aspects of the minimalist music project. Immersion, after all, isn’t always consensual.


Flora Willson

The GuardianTramp

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