Conductor Dennis Russell Davies has spent much of his career performing works by Philip Glass, the celebrated American composer who helped shape modern classical music. Last Friday, Davies and the Bruckner Orchester Linz performed the West Coast premiere of Glass’ brand-new Symphony No. 11 on a program at the Mondavi Center in Davis. Davies is a staunch supporter of new music, to be sure. But he also maintains a strong connection to masters of the past.
“When I was younger I had the chance to work closely with composers like Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berrio, Aaron Copland,” Davies says. “And these were all composers who had an understanding and a love for the music of the past and I was infected by it, I thought, ‘it’s the way to do it’ to be able to juxtapose pieces…”
Davies says that he likes adding modern pieces to programs more classical in nature to create a dynamic and diversified listening experience. He notes that by working with modern day composers he has a better understanding of the music of centuries past.
“This relationship I’ve had with living composers has enhanced my relationship with Beethoven and Brahms,” Davies explains. “The fact that I’ve been able to work with these composers and ask them questions, it’s the same questions I ask the ‘old guys.’ ”
Davies and company had two performances last weekend and judging by the crowds at the Mondavi Center, it’s the music of the “old guys” that sells tickets. The Mondavi's Jackson Hall was full for Saturday’s concert, stacked with Strauss and Schumann. Friday for Glass ... half empty. Or, half full. When asked about the disparity, Davies said the challenge is nothing new.
“When the Metropolitan Opera first did Philip Glass in 1992, they had a hard time finding an audience because Philip Glass’ audience wouldn’t be caught dead going to the Metropolitan Opera,” he says. “Now, twenty years later, that’s completely changed and the Met puts on Satyagraha and the place is booming and full!”
There's another inherent challenge when it comes to presenting new music and that's because it's new music. It hasn't been around for a century or more and people don't necessarily know what to expect. Davies compares the issue to a new piece of art hanging in a museum.
“You can look at it, enjoy it, walk away, come back and look again. But when you hear a piece [of new music], you hear it once and it’s gone. It makes it much more difficult to be able to take it with you when you leave the hall,” he says.
Such was the case with the West Coast premiere of Glass’ 11th symphony on Friday night. The orchestra played it and then it was gone and as of now, there is no recording on the horizon. As for the fact that there were a lot of empty seats that night in Jackson Hall, that didn’t bother Davies.
“I loved that audience," Davies says. "They made enough noise for three audiences! They were so enthusiastic and loved it so much that that’s gratifying to me. That’s what I want, I want people there who want to be there, to hear that which we are doing!”