Philip Glass is giving conductor Dennis Russell Davies some kind of manly bear hug (or perhaps a Vulcan mind meld) on the cover of this CD, and you may be inclined to do the same when you hear the opening of his Symphony No. 8. “Hell yeah, Phil baby,” you might exclaim, after hearing these dramatic, pulsating, percussive orchestral attacks… “That’s more like it!”
Especially if you patiently sat though Glass’s uninspiring Symphony No. 6 (Plutonian Ode), with its never-ending Allen Ginsberg text either tediously warbled by a soprano or spoken by the poet himself, and/or his Symphony No. 5 (Choral: Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya), a sprawling pseudo-spiritual, multi-cultural mess.
Unfortunately, Symphony No. 8 never quite recaptures the excitement of those opening moments again, but the first movement as a whole does keep you interested throughout its 20 minute duration with multiple motifs alternating and combining together in relatively engaging ways. There’s nothing new here, to be sure: scales, arpeggios, repeated fragments… but the rhythm and orchestral texture keeps shifting and percolating while moving forward with a restless urgency, all of it colored by the mildly pungent chromatic harmonies that Glass has been sprinkling throughout his music for the past several years.
Best of all, there are no distractions such as overtaxed vocalists and choirs or exotic foreign instruments to clutter it all up (though Glass’s fondness for snare drum, triangle, and woodblock continues to baffle me…)
He probably should have called it quits after this rather remarkable first movement: after all, Sibelius, Strauss, and Barber have all gotten away with one movement symphonies. Instead, Glass forges ahead with “Movement II”: a murky, dreary series of variations on not-much-of-a theme. In stark contrast to all of its busy, aimless noodling, though, this movement nicely concludes with a startlingly sparse and ominous coda – which would have also been a fairly effective way to conclude this symphony.
But no, we then get “Movement III,” which is even more slow-moving and bleak – it’s sort of a funeral march I guess, except for the fact that it’s barely moving at all. So you figure after enduring that, you deserve some kind of exciting and compelling finale, right? Nope — that was it. This is the way the symphony ends, not with a bang, but a whimper. Maybe the commission was overdue and Phil didn’t have time to compose a fourth movement… or perhaps this is some kind of oblique homage to the “unfinished” 8th Symphony of Schubert (or Sibelius)? All I know is that it’s a lame way to end a piece that got off to such a promising start.
Regardless, it’s definitely encouraging that Philip Glass has returned to writing some purely instrumental, “absolute” music without any vocalists, spoken word, enviro-mystical pretensions, or world music gimmicks. And even though it’s not as compelling as the Low, Heroes, or Third Symphonies, at least the first movement of Symphony No. 8 gives me hope that he may actually come up with a mind-blowing Ninth… “Come on, Phil baby — sock it to me!”