If you’re like me, when you were first introduced to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, you probably assumed that it had something to do with the conflict that made the year famous in North America: the war of 1812 between the United States and British Canada. Of course, this common assumption quickly folds under even the slightest bit of scrutiny, but most people tend not to think too hard about it. As most of us quickly figured out, Tchaikovsky’s bombastic favorite–despite its status as a staple at summer concerts all over the country–is really a commemoration of the Battle of Borodino, at which Russian troops stopped Napoleon’s advance into Russia. The music is heroic, exciting, and military in character, making it a perfect choice for appropriation at 4th of July celebrations across the United States. But it’s hardly a real American piece, and at least one musician thought it was time to get the United States and Canada an 1812 overture that’s about what we all think it’s about.
That musician is the quintessential modern American composer Philip Glass. On June 17, Glass’s new “Overture for 1812” had a double world premiere, played simultaneously in Baltimore (by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra) and Toronto (by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra). Fittingly, Glass hails from Baltimore, so the overture is an authentic piece of new Americana. The piece draws inspiration from both the “original” 1812 Overture as well as Glass’s own trademark minimalist style. “It’s signature Philip Glass,” says Matthew Spivey, the BSO’s vice president of artistic operations. But “the influence, the subject matter is unmistakable. There’s a lot of pretty martial-sounding percussion; it’s even got an anvil. It’s very much a blend of Philip and what the source of inspiration was.”
The “Overture for 1812″ is not Glass’s first American spin on a classical warhorse. His second violin concerto, “The American Four Seasons,” is a response to Vivaldi’s classic piece, and Toronto Symphony Music Director Peter Oundjian hears similarities between the new overture and the 2010 concerto, “especially in the closing passages,” he says. “[Glass] adds another layer of complex rhythms, 9 against 6 against 4.” As for Oundijian’s take on the new piece, he said before the premiere, “It looks like [the Overture for 1812] is going to be very entertaining and gripping. There’s enough interest in the harmony, a very slight bitonality going on, to give it a little spice, some pizzazz.” Despite a potentially problematic dearth of rehearsal time, the overture was premiered successfully. The outlook for Glass’s festive work seems bright: according to the BSO’s Mark Spivey, the BSO has already received five or six calls from other orchestras interested in the piece. Perhaps this new “Overture for 1812″ will make an appearance at a 4th of July concert near you!