Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 11 aims to ‘pull the audience out of its seats’

In February, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra offers its first full performance of a Philip Glass symphony. Given the composer’s expansive output, that might seem like an anomaly. But as the New York Classical Review observed, “Even with 10 previous symphonies, the experience of Glass played by a full — and in this case, large — orchestra is still a novelty. ... It is easier to witness performances of his earlier, avant-garde masterpieces like Music in Similar Motion, and even the opera Einstein on the Beach than his orchestral music. The latter constitutes a substantial body of work, and is firmly inside the classical tradition.” 

The occasion was the world premiere at Carnegie Hall of Glass' Symphony No. 11, performed by the Bruckner Orchester Linz, under Dennis Russell Davies, in 2017. What a gift it was, according to the NYCR review, which noted: “The recordings of his orchestral works don’t convey the warmth and pleasing thickness of his orchestration and the texture of the sound he produces. [The Carnegie Hall] concert had one thinking that the composer is the Phil Spector of classical music.”

The CSO will perform the same work in concerts Feb. 17-19, led by Riccardo Muti. The occasion marks Glass’ 85th birthday, which the composer celebrated on Jan. 31. 

A longtime champion of the composer’s works, Dennis Russell Davies commissioned Glass’ Symphony No. 11. As he observes in the video excerpted here, “A commission works best when a composer is asked to write what he wanted to write, anyhow. He wanted to write this piece … intended for this 80th birthday.”

When Glass arrived for rehearsals, he told Davies: “I have to do a new ending, I’m not happy with it at all.” Glass completely scrapped the third movement and Davies assisted with the notation of its replacement. 

Davies gave Glass some tongue-in-cheek advice: “This time, no wimpy endings. That of course is a joke. Several of his works end extremely atmospherically. I wanted to pull the audience out of their seats. And boy, did he ever succeed on that level with his 11th Symphony.”