MUSIC: Philip Glass; RFH, London

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The Independent Culture
For a style that excels in endless repetitions and a sense of going nowhere, East-coast minimalism has shown remarkable staying power, as Philip Glass, one of its founding fathers, proved last week. Packing London's Festival Hall to capacity on Thursday and Friday, he offered a package tour of his uvre that moved from the symphonic heights and depths of his recent pieces to excerpts from classic scores of his formative period by way of chunks from three major operas. For the first night out, his most considerable exertion was signing autographs after Martyn Brabbins and the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields had given the world premiere of his Heroes Symphony. But on Friday evening he was there on stage with the Philip Glass Ensemble, following the lead of music director Michael Riesman, yet clearly the abiding genius of this tightly knit and multi- talented group.

Already much hyped, Heroes is the second of Glass's forays into the world of David Bowie and Brian Eno, intended, in the composer's words, to reintroduce the radical music of their 1977 album to today's listeners, using it as a point of creative departure in the time-honoured way of composers of the past. It was an enjoyable and substantial work, doing what was intended: adding to Bowie's themes a dressing of characteristic Glass. Written for dance, and drawing like all his music on endless supplies of physical energy, it was hardly symphonic in any strict sense of the word but, for many decades now, how many composers have used the word strictly? For his admirers, it moved, and that was clearly enough.

More troubling, at least for some, was its presentation in terms of the classical orchestra. Granted that Brabbins, among our most gifted young conductors, gave the music his all, displaying a fine command of the podium. The missing element was the frisson of fine scoring, an absence made palpable at times by an instrumental sound that seemed akin to straightforward transcription. Off-beat oompah trombones and basses in the first movement gave a certain vulgar swagger suited to the "heroes" theme itself, to which cymbals added a pleasing brashness. But the stern trombones in "Sense of Doubt" invoked only melodrama, which may have been appropriate in the original dance context, but which, in terms of abstract music, was simply an effect without cause. There was rather more point to the hazy arabesques and ostinati of "Abdulmajid", with a sense of magic at the end when a pair of harps took over the gently vibrating accompaniment. The finale, "V2 Schneider", was typical fast Glass (cue for next album?), with the bright scales and Tchaikovskian third-related woodwind chords that mark his recent harmonic manner.

These hallmarks were present on Friday, too, in the scherzo of the Low Symphony, recast for the Glass Ensemble in a way that shed further doubt on the orchestral garb of Heroes, and being sharper, more focused, than that of the orchestral Low as well. The Ensemble played classic scores: "Facades" from Glassworks, Music in Similar Motion and "The Funeral" from Akhnaten to match Act 2 of Satyagraha heard on the previous day. Having recently sat through the three CDs of Einstein on the Beach in its new recordings, this writer was wary of hearing "The Building" from the same opera on Friday, but is happy to report that it needed rather less patience than the original.

Nicholas Williams