Saluting two great contemporary composers

Saluting two great contemporary composers National Symphony Orchestra principal flautist Caitríona Ryan.

Two recent National Symphony Orchestra programmes at the National Concert Hall focussed on a pair of well-established contemporary American composers, each of whom has his own particular following but with one better known through his involvement with the ‘silver screen’ not least Jaws and Star Wars.

New York-born John Williams is the more recognisable household name than Philip Glass but that may stem from the former’s staggering output for Hollywood’s film studios. The NCH concert celebrated the composer’s 90th birthday last month.

The anniversary medley came through a selection from the prodigious expanse of Mr Williams’ film scores, although the breadth of his compositional output extends well beyond the movie sphere. Under compatriot and highly sympathetic conductor Richard Kaufman, the programme played to 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 later John Williams’ extravaganza, showed the NSO in particularly fine fettle.


Mr Glass waited some time before venturing into the symphonic arena with his First Symphony, subtitled Low, dating from 1992, and his Fourth, having the title Heroes, written four years later. Both are connected through what might be considered an unlikely source – albums, dating back to the 1970s, by English singer-songwriter of Irish extraction David Bowie (1947-2016), and his occasional multi-talented collaborator Brian Eno (b 1948).

Mr Glass referred to his six-movement Fourth Symphony as “a symphonic ballet – a transformation of the original [Bowie] themes combined with new material of my own and presented in a new dramatic form”. The original recognition of its ballet potential came from American choreographer Twyla Tharp with whom Glass had already worked on the theatrical piece In the Upper Room for her dance company in 1986.

I found both symphonies richly satisfying and David Brophy is to be congratulated in bringing them to us in such exhilarating performances from the NSO. Interestingly Ms Glass’ Symphony No. 12 Lodger of 2018 also has its roots in another David Bowie album, which, with Low and Heroes, forms Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy.

If one is looking for a connection between Messrs Glass and Williams then maybe it is to be found in Summon the Heroes – John Williams’ salute to the opening spectacle of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.


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

I particularly liked Mr Williams’ mellifluous Memoirs of a Geisha, beautifully expressed by NSO principal flautist Caitríona Ryan, and the contrasting brilliance of his Superman March. However, there were times when I felt there was an over-similarity in the chosen content but then that is a charge that could well be laid against a retrospective of many a respected artist, writer or composer.

Intrepid conductor Richard Kaufmann also introduced the music succinctly with a number of personal anecdotes thrown in for good measure. The audience reacted with a standing ovation for him, the NSO’s interpretative intensity and, of course, the music.