However, Glass has also started recently to compose for standard orchestral forces on the concert platform: inducing a Violin Concerto (1986) for Gidon Kremer and the Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra (1995). This Concerto was written at the request of and for the Rascher Saxophone Quartet from Germany. The premiere took place in Stockholm on 1 September 1995, although a quartet version (without orchestra) was premiered in north Germany’s Schleswig-Holstein Festival on 27 July. The American premiere was in Sacramento on 3 November 1995 and the UK and Belgian premieres followed shortly afterwards.
For those who find Philip Glass unbearably repitive, you are in for a delightful surprise. The overall tenor of the concerto is one of relaxed lyricism, with gentle foist and third movements contrasting well with the jazzier second and fourth. The first movement is in a flowing tempo, where lower instruments introduce the three rhythmic and melodic cells from which the music is developed: rocking quavers (violas); dipping minims (bassoons and horns) and chromatic crotchets (cellos). The four saxophones (soprano, and tenor in B flat; alto and baritone in E flat) – with soprano adding a running quaver theme above – enter with the same material and later introduce rocking triplet figurations, sometimes taken by the violins. A quiet, extended, off-beat syncopation, with tambourine and triangle pointing, is taken up by the quartet, followed by rippling semiquavers, ebbing and flowing in true Glassian style, joined by high wind and violins over the violas’ quaver rocking. These various elements, usually underpinned by those quavers, are alternated to the rather sparse ending, where the soloists’ descending quavers allow the music to ebb quietly away.
The frenetic scherzo-style second movement, with hi-hat percussion and rhythmic drive, is in 7/8 time, and allows the baritone sax to introduce a syncopated jazz figure at the outset, eventually joined by the tenor sax. There are very few places where the saxophones play in tutti – usually only two play at any one time: soprano and baritone; alto and tenor – later, alto and baritone etc until, that is, the main climax towards the end, where the 7 quavers in each bar are hammered home. However, once again, a diminuendo is marked and the syncopated rhythms die away both in speed and volume for a quiet close.
The slow third movement, described by a reviewer of the American premiere thus: “As restful as a lullaby”, is never marked louder than mezzoforte, and rarely gets that loud. Over a repeated crotchet bassoon and strings bass, the tenor sax has an extended, laid-back solo (quaver-minim orientated) which is slowly developed. Violins change to our old friend, the rocking quaver accompaniment, and wind pass the now downward quaver-minim phrase between them. Soprano and alto soloists take over, and eventually the baritone is allowed entry with celeste, building to an insistent climax after which the soloists and the rest of the orchestra are used in locks, alternating gently with each other. The repeated crotchets eventually end the movement quietly.
Multiple time signatures, changing bar by bar, proliferate in the final movement, with its jaunty, syncopated rising theme, jazzy and insistent, with distinctive percussion colouring. The music dances on, amidst swirling accompaniment. A descending passage for the four soloists marks the half-way point, but the pace never slackens, as orchestra and soloist are kept on their toes, rushing headlong to the climax and the sudden final flourish.
© Nick Breckenfield.
Glass has been busy for two decades transforming himself into a theatre composer – opera and dance and film. But in this ingenious, interesting and attractive four-movement work, he demonstrated that he’s still interested in purely instrumental music, too. And with Germany’s brilliant Rascher Saxophone Quartet to conduct the demonstrations (he wrote the piece for them) he and they are likely to have a hit on their hands.
William Glackin, The Sacramento Bee, 01/11/1995