From Philip Glass, an American overture to mark the War of 1812

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the title of a new work by Philip Glass. It is “Overture for 2012,” not “Overture for 1812.” This version has been corrected.

When you’re planning an orchestral concert to commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812, you have one problem. The most famous piece of music about the year 1812 has nothing to do with North America.

Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” cannons and all, is a staple at Fourth of July concerts around the country. But it was actually written to commemorate the Battle of Borodino, at which Russian troops stopped Napoleon.

Obviously, the United States and Canada needed their own piece of 1812 music. Now the planners of the bicentennial celebrations in Baltimore and Toronto have filled that gap. On June 17, a new “Overture for 2012” will have a double world premiere, played simultaneously in Baltimore (by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra) and Toronto (by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra). And the composer is a local son, one of the most successful composers in the world: the Baltimore native Philip Glass.

What happens when you juxtapose a composer known for his repeating, subtly changing musical patterns with one of the most bombastic pieces in the repertory?

“It’s signature Philip Glass,” says Matthew Spivey, the BSO’s vice president of artistic operations. But “the influence, the subject matter is unmistakable. There’s a lot of pretty martial-sounding percussion; it’s even got an anvil. It’s very much a blend of Philip and what the source of inspiration was.”


BSO conductor Marin Alsop. (Grant Leighton/Baltimore Symphony Orchestra)

“It looks like [the Overture for 2012] is going to be very entertaining and gripping,” says Peter Oundjian, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s music director. “There’s enough interest in the harmony, a very slight bitonality going on, to give it a little spice, some pizzazz. [Glass] said, ‘I have to write something that’s going to be exciting. It’s going to be loud.’ I said, ‘How do you know how loud it’s going to be?’ ” Composers are always being reminded that the fate of their music hangs in the hands of the people who perform it.

Glass is no stranger to creating contemporary answers to works from the classical canon. One example is his second violin concerto, “The American Four Seasons,” a response to Vivaldi’s classic piece; Washington-area audiences got to hear it at Strathmore in 2010.

Oundjian hears similarities between that work — which both he and Marin Alsop, the BSO’s music director, have conducted — and the current overture, “especially in the closing passages,” he says. “[Glass] adds another layer of complex rhythms, 9 against 6 against 4.” What this means, for non-musicians, is that some instruments have to count nine beats in the same space of time other instruments are counting four beats — try tapping nine beats with your right hand and four beats with your left hand to appreciate the challenge.

It’s all the more challenging given how little rehearsal time orchestras have for summertime concerts — even for a world premiere. The Toronto Symphony will have two rehearsals for its whole program; the BSO won’t play the piece together until a run-through the morning of the performance. That’s par for the course in the summer season, and one reason orchestras value Glass’s matter-of-fact professionalism about things like deadlines; although he had to squeeze this composition into an already busy schedule on short notice (the commission was given last fall), he turned in the score six or eight weeks before the performance. “There are certainly plenty of other composers we work with on a regular basis who are not that punctual,” Spivey says.

Will the “Overture for 2012” go on to future performances? If it were by a composer less famous than Philip Glass, it would almost certainly be forgotten by July, but Spivey says he has already received five or six calls from other orchestras interested in the piece.

Not that anyone is claiming this is Glass’s best work. It’s not trying to be; it was written relatively rapidly for a particular festive occasion.

After all, “the 1812 Overture is far from Tchaikovsky’s best piece,” Oundjian points out. “I think if we’d said to [Philip], We’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of [Tchaikovsky’s ] “Pathetique” Symphony; would you write another symphony called “Pathetique?”’ it would have been a different matter.”

Overture for 2012

The Baltimore world premiere takes place at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall at 7 p.m. on June 17; tickets are $15. The Toronto world premiere, part of the Luminato festival, takes place at David Pecaut Square in Toronto and is free.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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