A Violin Concerto That Is So Much More

Philip Glass’ first violin concerto premiered in New York City on April 5, 1987. The piece is a spring chicken in classical music terms. Nevertheless, it’s a game changer and will most likely go on to become of the great violin concertos of all time. Let’s just say, like it’s millennial counterparts, this violin concerto has a bright future. But who am I to say so? You be the judge.

All I know is that Glass’ masterpiece does the thing that’s inherent in all good music. It commands your attention. One immediately stops what they’re doing to pay attention to good music. And no matter how hard you might try, you can’t turn your back on it.

In honor of one of my favorite pieces of music, I celebrated with a record that features Gidon Kremer and the Vienna Philharmonic. Now, there’s certain music for which I have to be in the mood. Anything by Philip Glass usually falls into that category. To be fair, most music is like that for me. Though I will say, more often than not, I find that I am in the mood for that patented Philip Glass repetitive ramp-up. I think it’s because I know I’ll find something new every time; Glass never disappoints.

All of that to say, I wasn’t particularly in the mood for his violin concerto today, or so I thought, but I put in on the turntable anyway. By about a minute in, I was hooked… again. I dare say, every time I put the record on the record player I stop what I’m doing and get lost in the work’s musical soundscape.

The initial theme in the orchestra sounds as though it’s opening a magical doorway to a mystical land. It’s just haunting enough to give one pause but does not quash the intrigue. Without fail, Glass had once again caught my attention. Then the enigmatic violin whirls in with unassuming virtuosity never truly stealing the spotlight; it feels as though it’s a part of a larger world. The violin is merely a narrative device; the lead story-teller, if you will, seemingly speaking in riddles and adding misdirection. You’re reluctant to trust it, but then that engine starts to churn and you realize that there is no turning back. Glass has you in his clutches and he knows it.  The repetition is hypnotic and yet, it changes at the right time every time. Without realizing it, you have begun your descent down the rabbit hole. The fall doesn’t stop and it never falters. One evocative theme after another creates a different vignette, a different time, and a different place. Finally, the first movement ends and you (gently) hit the ground.

Unlike the first movement, the second is a solitary place, dark and murky at best. It may feel treacherous at first, but you quickly realize it’s calming allure as the violin begins to tell you why you’re there. The challenge for the soloist is not to dazzle the listener with magic, but rather to demonstrate patience and laser-like focus as he explains the reason for the journey. It’s imperative that your guide gets every note just right. With the second movement, your mythological purpose becomes very clear; you’ve been sent to find the promised land. The orchestra manifests a majesty and awe as the listener weaves his way through the thick forest of sound, following the soloist every step of the way. Then he shows you the door…

The third movement opens to a world you never thought you’d see and yet, you are not surprised. Philip Glass, like the benevolent overlord of his own chocolate factory, has taken us to his future utopia where all live in harmony. Suddenly, the percussion is alive and pervasive. The violin and orchestra coexist in a way that you haven’t yet witnessed as if they’re now in their natural habitat. You realize the music was never specifically about your journey; it’s about all of us working together to serve the greater good. You were invited though, and you clearly have a part to play. Finally, the second you think you’ve realized your purpose, an air of mystery returns as the violin reiterates an earlier theme. The story has only really begun and you now know there is more to do. And that’s when the concerto ends.

More to do indeed. A brilliant piece of music just did exactly what it was supposed to do: It left me wanting more. Thus I had to continue down said rabbit hole. When I initially bought my record player several months ago, as one could imagine, I went on a record-buying-tear. One of the first albums I purchased was an odd, experimental collaboration of Glass’ with an amalgam of famous and semi-famous names. The music on Songs from Liquid Days is patented Philip Glass, released at around the same time Glass was writing his violin concerto. Joining Glass on this 1986 acid-trip of a record are Linda Ronstadt, Suzanne Vega, David Byrne, and Paul Simon to name a few. But my go-to track is number one on the B-Side: “Liquid Days (Part One).”

Why? Well, because David Byrne of Talking Heads fame co-wrote the tune. But that’s not what sells it. What sells it is, the niche-quirk-folk trio known as The Roches. Maggie, Terre, and Suzzy Roche are sisters who made names for themselves working the scene in Greenwich Village in the 70s and 80s. They’re known for their down-to-earth yet outlandish songwriting and unexpected harmonies. Not knowing much about them before I heard this song, I was quite pleased with their rendition of Glass’ music. Then I learned about the group and was even more surprised with their execution of what Glass built for them. They sound automated in that futuristic kind of way. If you listen to their first album, you know it may have been a stretch for the trio, but you’ll also realize they hardly seem averse to taking risks.

“Oh Round Desire/Oh Red Delight/The River of Blood/The Time is Spent” are lyrics written by Byrne that are not completely unlike lyrics the Roches would have written themselves, though perhaps even more obscure. The trio has a knack for reciting awkward prose in their music, and they accomplish that feat tenfold with “Liquid Days (Part One).” In this sense, Glass, Byrne, and The Roches are quite the formidable team.

If you are unfamiliar with The Roches, I implore you to take a listen to their song “We.” It will pretty much tell you everything you need to know.

That was pretty much it for my “rabbit hole” experience that began with what I thought would be a lackluster listening to Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto. But again, good music should make you want more at all times. To my delight, after starting with the violin concerto, I ended up listening to The Roches entire debut album (featuring all three sisters, anyway). What musical journey will you take today?

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