An American in Germany brings Glass stateside
Dennis Russell Davies has made a career of successfully going against the grain of an old stereotype — that of European conductors at the helm of American orchestras, primarily performing European music. He has inverted the stereotype — an American conductor at the helm of European orchestras, championing American music.
Born into a blue-collar community in Toledo, Ohio, in 1944, he has held a number of American posts, such as music director of the American Composers Orchestra (which he co-founded in 1997 and for which he is now conductor laureate) and principal conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic (prior to Robert Spano). But he has primarily lived and worked abroad since 1980, when he was hired as general music director of the Stuttgart Opera.
Of Davies' five current music posts he holds, four are in Germany and Austria. One of those is chief conductor of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, a group that is making only its second tour of the U.S., including a stop this weekend at Spivey Hall, in its 50-plus years. The tour's repertoire includes the first U.S. performances of Philip Glass' Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (sometimes Americanized as Concerto Tyrol, though Glass himself is consistent about spelling it "Tirol").
"When the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra offered program choices for their U.S. tour, I selected the most adventurous repertoire," says Sherryl Nelson, executive director of Spivey Hall. She says she asked for the Glass concerto in part to showcase Davies as keyboardist as well as conductor, but also to give new-music fans an opportunity to hear the piece performed by an artist known for playing the music of living composers.
"This may not be the safest choice for audiences uneasy with contemporary music, but it promises to be the most exciting," says Nelson.
For people who enjoy new music or have an interest in German culture, the choice may be very safe indeed. The Tirol Concerto was composed at the behest of Austria's Festival Klangspuren, with support of the Tyrol Tourist Board and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra. Given his long friendship with Davies, it's no surprise that Glass was chosen to write the piece, which utilizes materials from traditional Tirolian songs to showcase the mountainous region.
The "business and tourism" element does not escape Spivey's director. Nelson notes that the SCO concert, for which Spivey partnered with the consulate general of Germany and Atlanta's Goethe Institut, is only one of the many collaborations with Atlanta's international communities. The idea is that such partnering not only enriches the city's cultural life, it creates context for international trade, as well as incentives for international investment and economic development.
"Arts and culture play a major role in attracting international investors to Georgia and nurturing those who make our state their home," says Nelson. All the better if those extra-musical concerns can make possible high-level and cutting-edge programs in metro Atlanta that might not otherwise find sufficient sponsorship and funding.
The public audience, however, surely exists there for the music itself. Davies is a powerhouse conductor and pianist, and the opportunity to hear him do both at once is rare on this side of the Atlantic — especially in a work written by a composer like Glass, who thoroughly knows Davies' personal interpretive and technical skills.
As for those less attuned to music by living composers, the concert is rounded out with Haydn's Symphony No. 36 and Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence.