For me, Vivaldi’s music has always been heavily predictable. Whether listening to “The Four Seasons” or something else he composed, the buoyant melodies all traveled at the same rate, arrived at the same place, and hop-scotched on chord progressions that could be seen from miles away. Despite my father’s interest in this musical period, I felt Baroque music was the opposite of “interesting”, no doubt a result of my spoiled ear that was used to surprise and spontaneity. But as time goes on, I’m a little shocked to realize that Baroque and Minimalism may be closer cousins that I initially thought; both are precise in their math and both discourage but don’t altogether prohibit improvisation—at least in performance. So while violinist Robert McDuffie’s request to have modern composer Philip Glass write a sister suite to “The Four Seasons” may feel like asking Jasper Johns to recreate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it’s not that much of a stretch.
But “The American Four Seasons” is a 21st Century violin concerto, gosh darn it, and the rules can and will be stretched. For one thing, the movements are only named with numbers, no seasons. As far as which are which, you are left to figure that one out for yourself. Secondly, each movement is preceded by a brief violin solo piece; a prelude and three “songs”. And lastly, McDuffie and Glass allowed their differing interpretations of the work to become a factor that could alter the piece’s mood. As for what the finer points of these discrepancies are, they too remain a mystery. Old Antonio would probably not know what to make of this.
Under the baton of Marin Alsop (who is primarily known for her works with Romantic music in the Baltimore area) and supported by the London Philharmonic, “The American Four Seasons” is more than just a didactic work, it’s the fearless practice of writing acrobatic violin solos in an age where most modern composers wouldn’t dare try it out of fear of being labeled a throwback. It’s the distillation of two styles that really feel like one. Glass’ minimalism does not get written out of the picture; it just takes a back seat and gives directions. His homage to the Baroque period is more playful than reverence would normally allow. Through it all, Glass somehow makes it all feel like child’s play.
Each movement, thanks to the anonymity of the titles, is independently strong. They begin unassumingly only to gain fierce momentum. They are like a bicycle race where the finish line is at the bottom of a very steep hill, and you can feel McDuffie, Alsop, and the London musicians pedaling faster and faster, glancing at each other, making sure they are all lined up and never falling out of synchronization. McDuffie, in particular, is probably in a violinist’s seventh heaven since he gets to peel off leaping arpeggios in repetition. This is the minimalism people never tell you about; the kind that gets your pulse moving.
In a nation that is not exactly known for being the nexus of classical music, Americans embrace their composers. Philip Glass has benefited for adoration for many years, but “The American Four Seasons” is proof positive that he worked hard for that reputation. He is hardly the first 20th century composer to blend the old with the new (Ellen Taaffee Zwilich comes to mind). But a piece like “The American Four Seasons” is one that gives you pause to think about the links between the music of the 18th century and the 20th. Are they really that different? Are there similar bridges we haven’t explored? And is this what it feels like to come full circle?