Review: Philip Glass Comes, Finally, to the New York Philharmonic

Katia and Marielle Labeque
The New York Times

Jaap van Zweden, the New York Philharmonic’s incoming music director, doesn’t officially start until next year. But he seized the occasion of his first opening night with his new orchestra to make a statement.

Rather than opting for a traditional opening program of lighter fare, on Tuesday he conducted Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, one of the most dense and challenging in the repertory. Leading this 70-minute score with technical command and bristling intensity, he repeated it on Friday, now paired with Philip Glass’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra — incredibly, the Philharmonic’s first performance of a concert work by this pioneer of Minimalism….

With these performances of the Glass concerto, featuring the splendid pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque as soloists, Mr. van Zweden has filled a gaping hole in the Philharmonic’s history. Overlooking Mr. Glass’s work had to have been a deliberate choice by a succession of music directors, because, love him or hate him, he has been an influential figure in contemporary classical music for some 40 years.

And this 27-minute concerto in three movements, which had its premiere in 2015 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is inventive and unusual. The orchestra starts off abuzz with rippling, subdued riffs. Almost immediately the pianos, backed by various instruments, play a slippery theme in chords that dip and rise almost step by step.

The music is fidgety and full of harmonic shifts, run through with two-against-three rhythms. There’s a mellow, jazzy quality at play: Imagine Gershwin as a Minimalist.

Most concertos have combative passages between the soloist and orchestra. Not this one. The pianists and orchestra are like allies, and that quality persists in the darker second movement, which has long stretches in which two-note motifs keep oscillating and you can’t decide whether the mood is soothing or ominous. The pianists, like trusted guides, take the orchestra (and listeners) through a pulsing thicket of music.

There are moments when what sounds like an echo of that slippery opening theme emerges: The pianos try to catch hold of the tune and pin it down. Mr. Glass ends his concerto with a wistful slow movement. Recurring figures in triplets hover in the pianos, while a sighing, spare melody floats above in bare octaves.

The piano parts, though not showy, are detailed and difficult. The Labèque sisters played a scintillating and elegant performance, and Mr. van Zweden nicely conveyed the mix of sassiness and delicacy in the music.
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