As the familiar sound of an orchestra tuning up filled the large De La Warr Pavilion auditorium, an expectant hush fell over the room. Some tonight may be intimately familiar with Philip Glass’ ‘Low and Heroes Symphonies’, but for many, myself included, our only reference points are the original late ’70’s David Bowie albums of the same names. The prospect of hearing the already deeply cinematic and ambitiously arranged material on those albums performed by a real orchestra was tantalising enough, a rare chance to hear it in the flesh even more so.
Before the music, though, there’s a 10 minute spoken introduction from conductor Charles Hazlewood. He comes across as likeable and enthusiastic with a clear passion for both Bowie and Glass’ work. Not only does he shed insight in the orchestra, a mixture of able bodied and disabled performers that seeks to promote integration between the two, but he also tactfully sums up how many in the room will have felt on the morning of the 10th January this year, upon hearing the news of Bowie’s passing.
After this introduction, the band begin the first of two roughly 45 minute sets. They open with ‘The Low Symphony’, adapted from three of the album’s more abstract pieces, ‘Subterraneans’, ‘Some Are’ and ‘Warzawa’. Intriguingly, ‘Some Are’ is actually not on the original ‘Low’ album, it was a bonus on the early ’90’s CD reissue of the album, and has never been made available on any other version of the record. It’s one of the most moving songs recorded in the album’s sessions but it’s hard not to wonder how many in the audience will be familiar with the piece.
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Opening with ‘Subterraneans’, the mood for most of the night is set instantly. Harmonic progression is slow on these pieces, they creep along, giving the audience plenty of time to absorb every minute detail of the rich sound the orchestra create. ‘Subterraneans’ soft, creeping bass line and undulating melody send the listener into a softly pulsating reverie, only occasionally interrupted by the stunning light show.
As deeply ambitious as the music, the light show had a captivating intensity to it that saw everything from razor sharp beams of light dancing around the room, to soft aquamarine hues envelope all on stage. Glass’ pieces soar and swoop, giving the listener no choice but to come along for the ride; the light show reflects this perfectly and, much like the music, if was often intense – sometimes blindingly so – but never too much.
During his spoken introduction, Hazlewood talked of how Mozart once said that he liked to “take his melodies for a walk”, suggesting that Glass had a similar attitude towards rambling melodies. As the show went on, this became more and more apparent. In the ‘Low Symphony’ in particular, pieces were often three, even four times longer than the originals and Glass used this time to stretch melodies out and take the pieces in new directions, sometimes rendering them almost unrecognisable by the end. Never once did it feel indulgent however, at all times the pieces were always vital, immersive and compelling.
‘Low’ and ‘Heroes’ are two of David Bowie’s most beloved works. Though never his biggest sellers, the sheer artistry and innovation on those records has lent the albums huge and devoted fan-bases. Glass’ interpretations are every bit as superb as the source material. Hazlewood and the orchestra give a truly incredible performance that earns them every last second of the standing ovation they receive at the end.