Image credit: Basil Tourism Board Basel Symphony Orchestra Dennis Russell Davies

Basel Symphony Orchestra ‘Three Minimalist Classics’ | Live

Steph Power was at St David’s Hall to reviews a Basel Symphony Orchestra performance of Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass, and John Adams, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies.

It is several decades now since Michael Nyman and others first alighted on the term ‘minimalism’ in the late sixties to describe the musical phenomenon then emerging from the USA and elsewhere as a parallel to recent developments in the visual arts. Not so much a style as a sensibility, this new music sent shockwaves through the academic establishment with its simple tonality, hypnotic repetition of melodic and rhythmic patterns, emphasis on process rather than motivic development and, above all, its overturning of the teleological assumptions that had characterised Western music for centuries. For those people struggling to navigate the seemingly esoteric complexities of much new music at the time – in contrast to the rising rock and pop culture – encountering the likes of Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley in the Seventies was nothing short of mind-blowing. These and other equally individual composers were initially dismissed as enfants terrible, but together they went on to drastically alter the so-called ‘classical’ music landscape.

However, as with all loose descriptors that are seized on and become labels, the term minimalism quickly became stale for many of the composers to whom it was applied; Glass revealing his frustration with it as early as 1980, when he declared: ‘I think the word [“minimal”] should be stamped out!’ Moreover, such is the way of revolution that what was once new and liberating becomes the new orthodoxy and thence becomes history; where it continues today, minimalism is by and large very much part of the establishment, and its originators are now considered the old guard. Nevertheless, minimalism was a hugely positive development in many respects and its influence is still clearly felt. Not only did it shake loose many antiquated classical music conventions but, as Paul Hillier points out in an interview elsewhere in this edition of Wales Arts Review, it opened up different areas of classical music for new audiences to enjoy.

That minimalism was always a broad term to anyone beyond certain purists and critics is evidenced by John Adams’ inclusion in this intriguing concert, advertised as ‘three minimalist classics’, by the Basel Symphony Orchestra. Indeed, if labels are to be used at all, then Adams’ Harmonielehre, which formed the high point of the evening, is not so much minimalist as neo-Romantic; an entirely different kettle of chords, so to speak, in its post-19th century chromatic harmony and emotional expressivity. Given the charges of betrayal directed at Adams following the work’s premiere in 1985, it therefore seems doubly ironic that Harmonielehre should have been the only true ‘classic’ on this Cardiff programme. For the piece was written in response to Adams’ own struggle with minimalism, as the title – taken from Schoenberg’s influential 1911 textbook on harmony – suggests.

Today, of course, minimalist or otherwise, Harmonielehre is firmly accepted in the orchestral canon – and rightly so, as it is an extraordinary piece; utterly individual and yet managing to reference composers as diverse as Wagner, Mahler, Debussy and Stravinsky in a profound symphonic journey through aesthetic crisis to breakthrough and renewal. This evening’s performance, conducted by minimalist interpreter extraordinaire, Dennis Russell Davies, brought Adams’ glimmering textures and rollercoaster momentum surgingly to life. From the walloping E minor chords of the first movement, to the eerie dissolving and coalescing of the second movement (The Amfortas Wound) and the brilliant, almost pointillist, orchestral richness of the third (Meister Eckhardt and Quakie), there was both grandeur and delicacy aplenty from this excellent orchestra, here making its Welsh debut.

Clearly, both the orchestra and their artistic director of some five years know this piece inside out, and they plunged beneath its seething surface to produce the depth of sound so crucial to Adams’ lavish, yet translucent scoring. But for all that, I had the feeling that the players were showing signs of wear as they drew towards the end of their punishing UK tour; this being the penultimate of seven concerts presenting four separate concert programmes within just a week. Not that there was anything overtly wrong or lacking in the performance, just the quiet sense that the orchestra was not as on fire as it could have been.

Still, the players had already acquitted themselves with distinction in the first half – and perhaps a fuller audience might have encouraged them further. As it was, both the Pärt and the Glass were extremely well played. Arvo Pärt is, of course, oft-saddled with the usually pejorative ‘holy minimalist’ label due to the mysticism and devotion to matters of Orthodox belief that permeate his music, as well as its apparent simplicity. That this is both misleading and unhelpful would require too much space to unravel here; suffice it to say that the composer has achieved huge popularity despite this – though it is high time that other fine Estonian composers were allowed to do more than peep out from behind his coat-tails. “These Words …” was full of Pärt’s characteristic and highly appealing resonant stillness, and would make an enticing introduction to his 4th Symphony of 2008-9, which utilises its material in the second movement, to those unfamiliar with the longer work.

Glass is another composer suffering from over-exposure in my view these days, but his music remains strangely compelling, and often refreshing to hear live, no matter that he has long since become predictable and almost literally self-perpetuating. Indeed, English National Opera’s revival of his opera Satyagraha last year was stunning in all departments. The Cello Concerto No. 2 performed here in Cardiff scaled no such heights but was given a warm and lyrical rendition by Basel Symphony Orchestra soloist Matt Haimovitz. All told, at forty minutes, the piece teetered on the edge of overlong, but Haimovitz and the orchestra just about held the interest through the seven sections; a symmetrical – and non-programmatic – arrangement of material taken from Glass’s score to the 2002 film Naqoyqatski (the third of the Qatsi trilogy documenting the relationship between humans, technology and nature). Elder statesman of ‘minimalism’ he might be despite his protests, but there is no sign yet of Glass either altering his style, or of slowing his prodigious output.


St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 29 April 2014

Arvo Pärt – “These Words …”
Philip Glass – Cello Concerto No. 2 ‘Naqoyqatsi’
John Adams – Harmonielehre

Basel Symphony Orchestra
Cello: Matt Haimovitz
Conductor: Dennis Russell Davies


Steph Power is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.