Philip Glass wrote his Double Concerto for Two Pianos in 2015 specifically for Katia and Marielle Labèque. courtesy Dallas Symphony Orchestra

Classical Music

A Night at the Symphony, Where Glass and Bruckner Meet

The Labèque sisters' performance Saturday with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra evoked the unexpected in a return to rhythm.

This piece marks a return to occasional classical music coverage here at FrontRow. Leading that charge is Jesse Chandler, who studied music at The New School and plays keys and woodwinds with the band Mercury Rev and others. Before he welcomes us into the Meyerson with him, Chandler remembers here when Midlake played a headlining set at the Glastonbury Festival and was upstaged by special guests. 

June, 2016. My band had just played the final set on the Park Stage, or so I thought. A large troupe of orchestral musicians clad in white from neck to foot appeared like superheroes rising from the ether. It was, of course, the Philip Glass Ensemble. Standing the whole time, they tore through Glass’s Symphony No. 4, which is based on David Bowie’s Heroes album. Their performance was some otherworldly light, picking up a spectrum of colors from the memory of a double rainbow we’d seen earlier that day.

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra, along with sisters Katia and Marielle Labèque and led by maestro Jaap Van Zweden, deftly brought this prismatic otherworldliness to Glass’s Double Piano Concerto last Saturday night at the Meyerson Symphony Hall. Written in 2015 specifically for the sisters Labèque, this work by the 81-year-old composer articulates his view of the presence of double pianos as an extension of the orchestra, rather than a harbinger of competition between the orchestra and the soloists.

In contrast to the Philip Glass Ensemble, the sisters and the orchestra wore concert black. Katia on the left, Marielle on the right, a yin and yang at their respective pianos, the sisters launched into the shimmering first movement.

The  Labèques have been playing as a duo since their childhood in 1950s Paris. Their recording career began with a sublime version of Olivier Messiaen’s “Visions De l’Amen” in 1969; the Labèques’ rise to vast popular success is owed to a two-piano reading in 1981 of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Another essential, off the mile-marker timeline: Their 1991 recording of Francis Poulenc’s ebullient, neoclassicist “Concerto for Two Pianos.”

For much of the first movement, Glass employs what became known as a “3+2 Bruckner rhythm,”named for a particular motif Anton Bruckner was fond of. In it, a triplet is played over the first two beats of a measure, and two quarter notes over the last two beats. This cramming of five notes into four beats creates a sense of urgent speeding up and then slowing down, a romantic, longing quality shared with Bruckner’s symphonies. This tied together Van Zweden’s program for the evening.

In tempi and dynamics, Van Zweden largely sticks to the standard set by the LA Philharmonic in their recording of the piece’s premiere, with Gustavo Dudamel conducting. This piece, as do many of Glass’s works, requires an almost rock-like metronomic precision, and this was handled quite adeptly by the DSO- only in a few instances did the pianos, orchestra, and percussion section seem slightly out of sync. In the rhapsodic coda of the movement, the duo are finally brought out from within their orchestral shell and along with the low brass perform a wistful, late-night tango, like Astor Piazzola on quaaludes. In fact there is a distinct South American quality to the whole piece, and as high piano notes chase the triangle at the start of the second movement, one has the distinct feeling of wandering the Andes in search of a Shangri-la, like something out of Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon.

Deviating from traditional concerto form, Glass opted to make his third movement the slow one. After conversing briefly with the woodwinds and brass, the pianos once again take over. The most effective and affecting pianistic moments are when they are in unison, creating a kind of stereophonic shimmer. As the concerto reached its contrapuntal climax, Katia and Marielle thrashed about wildly like Kim and Kelley Deal, reminding my perceptive seatmate that the piano is a percussion instrument. Finally in a state of peace, Glass and Van Zweden gently lay us down in a lost paradisiacal mountain village as a brilliant double piano rainbow illuminates the sky above, lingering there for an all-too brief moment.

Following a rousing ovation for the performers and yellow tulips for the Labèque sisters, we were back in our seats, ready to be taken on a different journey, this one through time rather than space. In Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8, low strings open with their descending chromatic theme, and we are whisked back to the beginning of the world, a sort of birth. Maestro Van Zweden’s tenacious command of the orchestra will be sorely missed in these parts, as he heads to his new position as 26th music director of the New York Philharmonic next season after ten years with the DSO. Here in this hall, with the massive orchestra — now adding, among other instruments, six Wagner tubas and three harps, and subtracting four percussionists — in the center, the drama and the tension he and the DSO pulled from Bruckner’s diminished chords were almost palpable. The “Bruckner rhythm” is in full force in the melodic material of this movement, although in contrast with the Glass Concerto, a 2+3 figure is employed rather than 3+2. As the movement comes to a vaguely ominous close, we are reminded that we are hearing Bruckner’s 1890 revision of the symphony, in which the original bombastic ending was traded for a gentle one.

Much has been made of Bruckner’s tireless editing of this symphony for three years after the original version was finished in 1887, and this reflects the torment of the perfectionist, a malady Bruckner suffered from even later in his life — he wrote this symphony well into his sixties. Insecurity plagued the composer throughout the composition of Symphony No. 8. One wonders how such beauty could possibly have been improved.

As Van Zweden blazed into the Scherzo at breakneck speed, the violas and cellos played a recurring four-bar theme (known as the “Deutscher Michel”) that sets a swirling, spiraling tone for the rest of the movement. The sudden changes in the dynamics Van Zweden evoked with the DSO felt like walking into a brief patch of cold, then of warmth, then cold again.

From there we are taken from the cold front and warmed by the lush adagio of the third movement, which explores similar territory of Germanic sehnsucht as his logical predecessors Beethoven and Wagner. But the powerful switch from major coziness to minor austerity at the beginning predicts the tortured duality of Mahler’s later symphonic works. Van Sweden mimed a vibrato to his string section with his left hand, as if he could somehow channel his own sehnsucht among them by placing it on each individual fingerboard. The conductor, in contrast with the swiftness of the previous movement, unabashedly allowed for generous breaths of silence after the many fermata’d rests. These fermatas are a crux of Bruckner’s music, and indeed it was so quiet I could hear my pulse slowing down every time, illuminating the music surrounding the pauses. The fourth movement arrives amidst a crescendoing burst of brass and driving timpani, and Van Zweden leads the DSO into the death march and “transfiguration” sections, and finally, after one hour (a very short running time), the symphony came to its crashing finale.

Upon exiting the Meyerson, I was struck by the feeling that I wasn’t alone- that I and many of my fellow concertgoers would return to our respective houses, apartments, hotels, and lie awake in our respective beds for an extra few minutes ruminating on what we just saw and heard. Maybe we’d be pondering the precision and the tonal colors of the Philip Glass piece. Or the sheer depth and power of the Bruckner symphony would make us existentialists in the final hours of the day. In any case, I left this concert with more than I had before it. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Labèque sisters, and Jaap Van Zweden, through these two pieces, offered a richer understanding of what it means to be human, something all performances should aspire to.