Saturday, Jun 23, 2018
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War's bicentennial receives special orchestral composition

WASHINGTON -- When you're planning an orchestra concert to commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812, there's 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 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 bicentennial celebrations in Baltimore and Toronto have filled that gap.

Today a new Overture for 1812 will have a double world premiere, played simultaneously in Baltimore by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Toronto by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

The composer is one of the most successful composers in the world: 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," said 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."

"It looks like [the Overture for 1812] is going to be very entertaining and gripping," said 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.

"[Mr. 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."

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 said.

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 Baltimore Symphony Orchestra 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 Mr. Glass' matter-of-fact professionalism about things like deadlines; although he had to squeeze this composition into a 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," Mr. Spivey said.

Will the Overture for 1812 go on to future performances?

If it were by a composer less famous than Mr. Glass, it would almost certainly be forgotten by July, but Mr. Spivey said he has already received five or six calls from other orchestras interested in the piece.

Not that anyone is claiming this is Mr. Glass' 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," Mr. Oundjian points out.

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