Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 7, “Toltec”

Philip Glass was invited to compose a work for conductor Leonard Slatkin’s 60th birthday season with the National Symphony Orchestra in 2005; the result was the Symphony No. 7, “A Toltec Symphony”, based on the wisdom tradition of the ancient Toltec civilization of Mexico. The present recording, as Glass notes in his introduction, is the product of his most recent thinking on the score and is at this point the definitive recording.

The short essay by Victor Sanchez describes the — well, call it the “philosophical” contribution of the Toltecs to Mesoamerican civilizations before the arrival of Europeans. The emphasis is on dualities, which ideally are reconciled in a synthesis that produces a resolution that is more than the sum of its parts.

The first movement, “The Corn,” is without doubt one of the most unashamedly melodic pieces I’ve heard from Glass, not to mention highly symphonic. It takes a while for Glass’ signature repetitive rhythms to assert themselves, accented by brass fanfares, but assert themselves they do, although not in a way that entirely supplants the lyricism of the music. There’s no doubt, though, that this is a work by Philip Glass.

“The Hikuri,” the image for the second movement, is a sacred root that grows in the northern desert of Mexico, said to be the gateway to the world of the Sacred. This is a choral movement, strongly marked by Glass’ characteristic style, the strong rhythms reinforced by the chorus, in the sense that the two elements work together to develop tremendous momentum. It’s almost trance-inducing.

“The Blue Deer” holds the book of knowledge that points the seeker to the correct path. This is another lyrical movement, with a mood that can be read as relaxed (for Glass at least), if only briefly: it does attempt intensity in a series of crescendos that pretty much annihilate any peacefulness in the opening measures. I suspect this was meant to provide a glimpse of the Sacred in all its majesty — which strikes me as a very European take, frankly.

To be quite honest, I’m hard put to detect any of the program in the music, and if it weren’t for Sanchez’ discussion, I’d have had no idea what merited the title “Toltec” for this symphony. It’s very much in the vein of Glass’ work since the mid-1990s, although the large central section of the final movement, with its almost rote repetitions and blaring choral passages, is fully as annoying as anything he wrote in the ’70s. Happily, the final moments move back into something that can almost be taken as transcendent. It strikes me that part of all this may be due to the limitations of Glass’ vocabulary, particularly as regards the attempt to write a symphony about ideas.

The Symphony No. 7 is by no means the strongest work in Glass’ oeuvre, and at barely 35 minutes hardly counts as major by any measure. The performance, by the Bruckner Orchester Linz under the baton of Dennis Russell Davies, is probably the best that can be hoped for: the orchestra under Davies has long experience with contemporary music, particularly that of Philip Glass, and one can feel that their sense of the music is on target. On the whole, it’s a nice recording to have if for no other reason that that it portrays a different facet of Glass’ writing.

(Orange Mountain, 2010)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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