Tribute to two great contemporary composers

Two recent National Symphony Orchestra programs at the National Concert Hall have focused on a pair of well-established contemporary American composers, each with their own particular following, but with one best known through his involvement with the ‘big screen’ especially Jaws and star wars.

New York-born John Williams is the more recognizable household name than Philip Glass, but that may have come from the first’s staggering production for Hollywood movie studios. The NCH concert celebrated the composer’s 90th birthday last month.

The anniversary mix came from a selection from the prodigious breadth of Mr. Williams’ film scores, although the breadth of his compositional output extends far beyond the film sphere. Under the direction of his compatriot and very sympathetic conductor Richard Kaufman, the program was performed in front of two “sold out” houses.

The other concert brought two substantial symphonies by Philip Glass, born in Baltimore in 1937. These were conducted with penetrating control by our own David Brophy and, like the extravagance of John Williams later, showed that the ONS were in particularly good shape.

to venture

Mr Glass waited some time before venturing into the symphonic arena with his First Symphony, subtitled moo, dating from 1992, and his Fourth, entitled Heroes, written four years later. The two are linked by what might be considered an unlikely source – 1970s albums by Irish-born English singer-songwriter David Bowie (1947-2016) and his multi-talented occasional collaborator Brian Eno (born in 1948).

Mr. Glass called his Fourth Symphony in six movements “a symphonic ballet – a transformation of the original [Bowie] themes combined with new materials that belong to me and presented in a new dramatic form”. The original recognition of her ballet potential came from American choreographer Twyla Tharp with whom Glass had previously worked on the theatrical piece. In the Cenacle for his dance company in 1986.

I found both symphonies extremely satisfying, and David Brophy is to be congratulated for presenting them to us in such exhilarating ONS performances. Interestingly, Mrs. Glass’ 2018 Symphony No. 12 Lodger also has its roots in another David Bowie album, which, along with moo and Herobowie shape Berlin trilogy.

If we look for a link between MM. Glass and Williams, so maybe he’s in Summon the heroes – John Williams’ tribute to the opening show of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.


Mr Williams’ offerings at NCH can be described as belonging to the genre of late romanticism or neo-romanticism. Often luscious in its orchestrations, the music oscillates between distinctly lyrical and confident audacity.

I particularly liked the melodious music of Mr Williams Memoirs of a Geishabeautifully voiced by ONS Principal Flutist Caitríona Ryan, and the contrasting brilliance of her Superman March. However, there were times when I felt there was excessive similarity in the chosen content, but that’s an accusation that could well be leveled against a retrospective of many respected artists, writers or composers.

Intrepid conductor Richard Kaufmann also presented the music succinctly with a number of personal anecdotes thrown in for good measure. The audience responded with a standing ovation for him, the interpretative intensity of the ONS and, of course, the music.

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