The Bowie Symphonies by Philip Glass – 9 May 2019, Royal Festival Hall, London

I put off the third for a long time — 20 years — before I realized that I owed them (Bowie and Eno) something
Philip Glass, Jan 2019

Since David Bowie died in 2016, live interpretations of his work has become commonplace. We’ve had the usual Bowie tribute/facsimile acts, all orange hair and platform boots (shoot me now). This is alongside the Mike Garson led “Remembering” concerts which seem to be a source of comfort for those musicians that Bowie played with. There was a Bowie prom, which felt somewhat hijacked by the marmite flavoured Amanda Palmer. Donny McCaslin is going from strength to strength, forging a new art-rock/jazz repertoire which one feels the Main Man would have endorsed. Tony Visconti and Woody Woodmansey’s Holy Holy project seems to be staying on the right side of the tricky tribute fence, with the insistence that only music that Visconti was involved in gets featured.

Philip Glass was a New York neighbour of Bowie, both composers and musicians bound by mutual respect. The third Bowie Symphony, Lodger, completes his reimagining of what gets commonly and incorrectly referred to as the Berlin Trilogy. Low was mostly recorded in France and Lodger in Switzerland. Only Heroes was recorded in Germany but the cap does fit in a loose commonality of vision across the albums – electronic, exotic, esoteric.

Glass composed his previous two takes on Bowie’s work a while ago, Low (his Symphony No 1) in 1992 and “Heroes” (Symphony No 4) in 1996. So here we are, more than 20 years later, for the third Bowie instalment, the European premiere of the Lodger Symphony (Symphony No 12).

On the night, the Symphonies were taken by the youthful London Contemporary Orchestra in the order in which they had been composed. The Low Symphony featured more space to breath with romantic sweeps of emotional strings, almost Nimrod-esque at time. All of the three movements, Subterraneans, Some Are and Warszawa, had recognisable motifs from the original recordings.

The elements of the Heroes symphony were shorter and sharper. Abdulmajid (which was recorded in the 1978 Berlin Heroes sessions but didn’t make it onto the original album) was like a clash of Hitchcock-era Bernard Herrmann with the Moorish textures of Gil Evans’ Sketches of Spain. The piece was underpinned by an insistent rhythm played on castanets. Sense of Doubt is a hoot, the tubas giving us a “how low can you go?” vibe for the Hammer House four note doom riff. I’d love to hear Sunn O))) drop it down a few more octaves and search for the apocryphal brown note. The muted trumpet which picked up the chorus of Sons of the Silent Age (“Baby I’ll Never Let You Go”) was gorgeous, another nod to Miles Davis and Gil Evans.

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Glass had said in his opening conversation in the Clore Ballroom that he had told Bowie about the planned Lodger Symphony in the last conversation that he’d had with him not long before his passing. Bowie was pleased that he’d picked up the mantle again. In retrospect, he sensed that Bowie knew he was dying although Glass was oblivious to the fact. Glass ploughed on. He asked the publisher for the lyrics and based his Symphony on words not melodies as opposed to first two Symphonies.

This switcheroo was startling when the Lodger Symphony was performed on the evening. For us hardened Bowie fans, it became a game of “I’ll name that tune in 387”. The orchestra kicked in and you were completely clueless to what the piece was going to be until Angelique Kidjo delivered the first line. It was then a matter of hold on to your hats as a bunch of familiar lyrics head off into hitherto unimagined directions. There was no hint of the original melody and in some instances, the previous verse chorus/structure was ditched too.

Kidjo was an inspired choice. She’d worked with Glass in 2014 and the use of an African voice gave flight to the travelogue aspects of Lodger. It’s arguably the closest that Bowie got to a World Music album. She released a rather brilliant version of Talking Heads’ landmark Remain In Light LP last year, an Eno produced record so the Bowie-Glass-Eno link was clear. Her deep range combined with the use of the Festival Hall’s restored organ gave the music real heft.

It was her personality that shone through. Boys Keep Swinging was performed as if she was a bewildered mother, complaining about her errant son’s behaviour. The Ashanti refrain of the much-derided African Night Flight was delivered as a spiritual. When she sang “We’re going to sail to the hinterland” at the end of Red Sails, we didn’t know where we were heading but my god, it was going to be hair-raising.

Lodger was the most Glass-like work,  a return to the repetitive phrasing and sheer energy of his Einstein in the Beach era. There may have been an absence of melody but the sheer energy of the performance made up for it. This was possibly the most punk interpretation of Bowie’s music that I’ve heard, either by Bowie or anyone else.

Glass is 82 years old now. He’s showing no sign of winding down or going gently into the night. It was a privilege to spend an evening in his personal and musical company.

Written by stue1967

After taking several readings, I'm surprised to find my mind's still fairly sound

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