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Philip Glass tantalises with new symphony

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Symphony No 12 possesses his trademark noodling arpeggios, hiccupping syncopations and hieratic brass fanfares. The symphony form has always inspired Glass to transcend these minimalist formulas and find thrilling worlds of orchestral and vocal colour.

Los Angeles

AFTER a half-century in the spotlight, Philip Glass continues to intrigue. His Symphony No 12 - which received its premiere performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles on Thursday - possesses all of the composer's trademark noodling arpeggios, hiccupping syncopations and hieratic brass fanfares.

But the symphony form has always inspired Glass to transcend these minimalist formulas and find thrilling worlds of orchestral (and, as here, vocal) colour.

With its prominent organ part - the Disney Hall pipe organ sounding splendid in James McVinnie's hands - the work's scoring suggests the sound of the 1970s-era Philip Glass Ensemble blown up into a full-scale French organ concerto: part rollicking fairground calliope, part Grand Guignol spectacle. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, which commissioned the piece, was conducted with dedicated warmth by John Adams and played this work as if the musicians had known it all their lives.

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Symphony No 12 is Glass's third symphony based on material from David Bowie and Brian Eno's Berlin Trilogy of albums. But unlike the purely orchestral Low and Heroes symphonies, based on Bowie's melodies, Glass resets Bowie's elusive, stream-of-consciousness lyrics from the Lodger album to music of his own devising, in something akin to a symphonic song cycle. His lyric setting has often felt straitjacketed by attempts to wedge words into his repetitive musical patterns. In Symphony No 12, Glass creates a freer, more expressive singing line and, rather than employing an operatic soloist as usual, has given the vocal part to West African pop star Angelique Kidjo.

The soaring ease of Kidjo's voice lent a free, almost jazzy feeling to the score's central songs. Appearing rather grim and constrained earlier in the symphony, she sounded under-rehearsed and went out of tune on more than one occasion. Once Kidjo relaxed into what is surely a strange musical idiom for her, the subsequent performance on Sunday probably sounded more lived-in and vocally seductive.

Before the Glass premiere, Adams conducted a terrific performance of his 1982 work, Grand Pianola Music, glamorously cast with piano soloists Marc-Andre Hamelin and Orli Shaham, and a vocal trio (Zanaida Robles, Holly Sedillos and Kristen Toedtman) whose blend of voices was ravishing. It was a pleasure to rehear this almost shamelessly exuberant mash-up of Glass, Steve Reich and Rachmaninoff, with its dollop of sweet, Copland-esque lyricism.

Perhaps the evening's biggest surprise was the opener, Tumblebird Contrails, a 2014 work by 27-year-old Gabriella Smith. Ostensibly a collage of beach-inspired nature sounds, the piece is less a literal evocation than a surging, astonishingly scored soundscape.

Most arresting was a harmonically rich kind of white noise created by string players scraping their bows between the bridge and tailpiece of their instruments - kudos to the Philharmonic strings - while other sections moaned in glacially slow glissandos around them. It gave the uncanny sense of hearing the final seconds of some grand symphonic work stretched into a slow-motion, 12-minute span.

Uncompromising and unconventionally gorgeous, it brought the audience to its feet. Smith is a composer to watch. WP