Conductor Dennis Russell Davies on his passion for Philip Glass’s symphonies

American conductor Dennis Russell Davies
American conductor Dennis Russell Davies
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Philip Glass has written ten symphonies, but they are rarely played live. Conductor Dennis Russell Davies is changing all that

I find the whole idea of Philip Glass and the symphony a difficult concept to grasp. It’s not that aspects of minimalism have never found their way into historical giants of the genre. You could argue that Bruckner’s endless stretches of harmonic stasis, a kind of giant concrete block construction, possess as much in common symphonically with modern-day minimalism as, say, Beethoven’s obsession with the famous four-note motif in his Fifth Symphony. But I’m still unconvinced that Glass’s ten symphonies have done anything to take this sacred, closely-protected musical form any further forward.

That’s not the view of American-born Dennis Russell Davies, however. At 72, he is more closely linked to Glass than any other conductor, having premiered every one of the symphonies – either in America, where he was musical director of the St Paul Chamber Orchestra and founding director of the American Composers Orchestra, or in Europe, after his move there in 1980, where he has held successive posts with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, Beethovenhalle Orchestra of Bonn, Vienna Radio Symphony and, for the past 14 years, the Bruckner Orchestra Linz and Linz Opera. He travels to Edinburgh next week with his Linz players. Their programme opens with Beethoven, including the Piano Concerto No 4 with Melvyn Tan as soloist, and ends with Glass’s Ninth Symphony.

Here’s a rare chance to test the minimalist waters. How many of us can say we’ve heard many, if any, of the symphonies live? I’m certainly familiar with all of them from recordings, most recently a box set of all ten conducted by Davies over the years, due for release this Friday on the Orange Mountain label. But live opportunities are few and far between.

That may be to do with a general lack of acceptance by those who matter. “Philip hasn’t had much luck with my colleagues,” Davies revealed when I met him recently in a hotel close to Vienna’s Musikverein, where his Linz orchestra was about to perform a gorgeous programme of Bruckner 6 and Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, which it did with a palpable sense of familiarity and understanding. Bruckner is in their blood.

“Not many conductors are interested,” he adds. “Marin Alsop has done quite a bit, and Carl St Clair has also done much for Philip’s music, but apart from that there’s very little acceptance by my conducting colleagues.”

Davies, on the other hand, has complete faith in it (as does his wife, pianist Maki Namekawa, who delighted Glasgow audiences recently with Glass’ Études for piano) and he claims to have set Glass on the symphonic road. “Philip was in his early 50s, and had so much experience with writing for orchestra through his huge opera scores, when I encouraged him to think about a symphony.”

What transpired was an outpouring of works that began by using themes of David Bowie and Brian Eno (Nos 1 & 4). “But beyond that, each symphony states its own point of view,” he explains. “The Fifth is a huge oratorio, the Third a string symphony written for the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, the Seventh a choral symphony, while the Eighth, Ninth and Second are really very direct, very straight programme music.”

Perhaps the most interesting factor in Davies’ evangelism is that he successfully convinced central European orchestras to embrace Glass. Introducing it to the Stuttgart players, he admits, was not a instant hit. “They found it very difficult, very annoying. Those simple figures, if you get them wrong everyone notices. They were used to new music where, if you played a wrong note, nobody knew.”

In other words, Glass’s simplicity is, paradoxically, as deceptive as its complexity. “I think it was hard for musicians and other composers to immediately understand what it was about,” Davies argues.

“They’d been used to music that was more technically challenging, then along comes a composer who wants music to be played perfectly in tune, with tonality, open fifths, all these things, and where rhythm has to be absolutely secure and unvaried. I think it was like the old saying [by Artur Schnabel] that Mozart’s music was ‘too difficult for the professional and too easy for the amateur’. That’s kind of a description of Philip’s music.”

Does he agree that there are some similarities with Bruckner? “It’s absolutely true,” he responds. “When you hear the [Bruckner] Sixth Symphony there’re passages that are so very similar. That struck me very closely when I began my tenure at Linz.”

The current UK tour will feature symphonies by both composers, alternating Bruckner’s Sixth with Glass’ Ninth. Edinburgh – the only Scottish venue – gets the Glass, a work written five years ago for the composer’s 75th birthday. “For any composer, writing a ninth symphony is an event,” he says, with obvious reference to the gauntlet, or curse, laid down by Beethoven. “I’m not surprised Philip went straight on to write a tenth [also premiered by this team] and is now working on his 11th.” He’ll be premiering that one sometime next year, which happens also to be Davies’ 15th and last year in Linz.

But if anyone can convince us of Glass’ merit as a symphonist, it is Davies and his Linz musicians. Self-belief and a lifelong commitment to the cause go a long way in these matters. Davies is a convert and a believer; his band – from what I heard in the gilt-edged intimacy of Vienna’s Musikverein – back him all the way, certainly in Bruckner.

The onus, he admits, is on him. “I know what’s annoying about Glass to musicians; I know what is difficult to do; and I know there’s an endurance question. A conductor has to be sensitive to that, and I have been. They have no issues: some like it, some don’t. That doesn’t concern me a great deal. If I do my job, they just play like the professionals they are.”

• The Bruckner Linz Orchestra is at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on 24 April, The complete Philip Glass Symphonies featuring various orchestras under Dennis Russell Davies is released this week on Orange Mountain Music,