Skip to page content

Although a composer both prolific and protean, Philip Glass is probably best known for his theater music. In 1984, as Glass was bringing Akhnaten, the third of his trilogy of “portrait” operas, to the stage, he was also finishing another monumental project, the CIVIL warS, also with director Robert Wilson. Planned in five parts, each coming from a different city, the CIVIL warS was scheduled for the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles. The funding for this did not come through, but each part – each scene, even – was intended to be performable independently. The Rome Section – Act V in the grand scheme – had been given its premiere in March 1984 – the day after the premiere of Akhnaten in Stuttgart – and in November of that year the Los Angeles Philharmonic presented two concert performances of the Rome Section.

The 15 scenes of the whole work are connected by short interludes, similar to the “knee plays” in Einstein on the Beach. The First Interlude from the Rome Section comes between the Prologue and Scene A and is a reverie for strings and woodwinds, gently pushed by a rhythmic ostinato in the bass. The similarly scored Second Interlude connects Scenes B and C with more characteristically patterned arpeggios and steadily rocking eighth notes.

Glass had composed a large and pioneering body of ensemble pieces since 1965, but the Violin Concerto from 1987 was his first major work for a conventional symphony orchestra. (As a student he had composed many pieces, including another violin concerto that he worked on with Darius Milhaud at the Aspen Festival in 1960.) “This piece explores what an orchestra can do for me,” he said. “In it, I’m more interested in my own sound than in the capability of particular orchestral instruments. It is tailored to my musical needs.”

The Concerto was written for Glass’ friend and former Juilliard schoolmate, Paul Zukofsky, who gave the premiere with Dennis Russell Davies and the American Composers Orchestra in April 1987. It is cast in the familiar three movement, fast-slow-fast form of concerto tradition, and the agile, energetic, idiomatic solo figuration of the first movement suggests a sort of punk Vivaldi. The slow movement, with its floating cantilena over a passacaglia bass line, also recalls Baroque textures. The main body of the finale is again fast and florid, goaded to a darker, more urgent edge than the opening by aggressive percussion. Zukofsky had wanted a slow, high ending, and Glass closes the Concerto with a long coda that reflects on the previous movements.

— John Henken