- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Philip Glass’ much-vaunted world premiere of his “Symphony No. 7: A Toltec Symphony” Thursday at the Kennedy Center came with one bewildering side note. Nearly all of its third movement was a rehash of “Powaqqatsi,” his fabulous 1988 movie score.

Granted, some of the orchestration had been refined over a 16-year period, but the music was unmistakably drawn from the “New Cities in Ancient Lands” part of that work.

It is a mystery why Mr. Glass, a prolific, talented composer who made minimalism an art form, needed to borrow from one of his earlier compositions for a piece that was a 60th birthday tribute to National Symphony Orchestra conductor Leonard Slatkin — who also led the ensemble during the work’s presentation.

Minimalism, an approach to composing based on the repetition of short motifs or phrases, is Mr. Glass’ calling card. He is not interested in loading his compositions with meaning; thus, the choruses that accompany Mr. Glass’ orchestral works sing nonsense syllables.

The first movement in this 30-minute symphony, “The Corn,” was mostly strings and brass, with the persistent undertone of anxiety that characterizes the composer’s music. Mr. Glass titled the symphony “Toltec,” referring to the culture and beliefs of the pre-Columbian American continent known as Mesoamerica. Corn for the Wirrarika, who were Indians from northern Mexico, represented a link between human well-being and Mother Earth.

The second movement, “The Hikuri (Sacred Root)” had a great deal more African-style percussion, but no melody stood out. Listening to Mr. Glass can be like standing on a New York street, surrounded by muffled screams and frenetic horns. The Master Chorale of Washington, which stood behind the orchestra, was muted.

The third movement, “The Blue Deer,” was Philip Glass at his best with its distinct melody and odd multibeat rests between crescendos and diminuendos. This mix of strings, harp and brass ended on a quiet, anticlimactic note.

The juxtaposition of Mr. Glass and Mahler in songs from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” by Gustav Mahler worked surprisingly well even though, as Mr. Slatkin noted in his preliminary remarks, the two men were opposites. (Mr. Glass embraced modernism; Mr. Mahler, who died in 1911, was an exemplar of 19th-century romanticism.)

Baritone Matthias Goerne added a few dramatic touches as he sang the entire “Wunderhorn” piece from memory. His best efforts were “Urlicht,” about the longing for heaven, and “Reveille,” which tells of a gathering of dead soldiers after an epic battle.

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