After a half-century in the spotlight, Philip Glass continues to intrigue. Glass’s Symphony No. 12 — which received its world-premiere performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles on Thursday — possesses all of the composer’s trademark noodling arpeggios, hiccupping syncopations and hieratic brass fanfares. But the symphony form has always inspired Glass to transcend these minimalist formulas and find thrilling worlds of orchestral (and, as here, vocal) color.
With its prominent organ part — the Disney Hall pipe organ sounding splendid in James McVinnie’s hands — the work’s scoring suggests the sound of the 1970s-era Philip Glass Ensemble blown up into a full-scale French organ concerto: part rollicking fairground calliope, part Grand Guignol spectacle. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, which commissioned the piece, was conducted with dedicated warmth by John Adams and played this work as if the musicians had known it all their lives.
Symphony No. 12 is Glass’s third symphony based on material from David Bowie and Brian Eno’s “Berlin Trilogy” of albums. But unlike the purely orchestral “Low” and “Heroes” symphonies, based on Bowie’s melodies, Glass resets Bowie’s elusive, stream-of-consciousness lyrics from the “Lodger” album to music of his own devising, in something akin to a symphonic song cycle. Glass’s lyric setting has often felt straitjacketed by attempts to wedge words into his repetitive musical patterns. In Symphony No. 12, Glass creates a freer, more expressive singing line and, rather than employing an operatic soloist as usual, has given the vocal part to West African pop star Angélique Kidjo.
The soaring ease of Kidjo’s voice lent a free, almost jazzy feeling to the score’s central songs. Appearing rather grim and constrained earlier in the symphony, she sounded under-rehearsed and went out of tune on more than one occasion. Once Kidjo relaxes into what is surely a strange musical idiom for her, the subsequent performance on Sunday will likely sound more lived-in and vocally seductive.
Before the Glass premiere, Adams conducted a terrific performance of his 1982 work, “Grand Pianola Music,” glamorously cast with piano soloists Marc-André Hamelin and Orli Shaham, and a vocal trio (Zanaida Robles, Holly Sedillos and Kristen Toedtman) whose blend of voices was ravishing. It was a pleasure to rehear this almost shamelessly exuberant mash-up of Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Rachmaninoff, with its dollop of sweet, Copland-esque lyricism.
Perhaps the evening’s biggest surprise was the opener, “Tumblebird Contrails,” a 2014 work by 27-year-old Gabriella Smith. Ostensibly a collage of beach-inspired nature sounds, the piece is less a literal evocation than a surging, astonishingly scored soundscape. Most arresting was a harmonically rich kind of white noise created by string players scraping their bows between the bridge and tailpiece of their instruments — kudos to the Philharmonic strings — while other sections moaned in glacially slow glissandos around them. It gave the uncanny sense of hearing the final seconds of some grand symphonic work stretched into a slow-motion, 12-minute span. Uncompromising and unconventionally gorgeous, it brought the audience to its feet. Smith is a composer to watch.
This program will be repeated on Sunday at 2 p.m.