Philip Glass' 'Overture for 2012' to get dual premiere

The most famous piece of music about a conflict in 1812 has nothing to do with what is dubbed the second war of American independence.

That won't stop Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," with its famous bells and cannons, from being part of the "Star-Spangled Symphony" concert June 17 as part of the events in Baltimore commemorating the War of 1812 bicentennial.

But Tchaikovsky's depiction of Russian and French armies colliding at the Battle of Borodino will have an American companion piece on this Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program. It's "Overture for 2012," newly written by Baltimore-born Philip Glass, a major figure in the genre known as minimalism.

His 12-minute orchestral work will not be quite as noisy as Tchaikovsky's.

"No cannons," said Matthew Spivey, the BSO's vice president of artistic operations. "It does have an anvil, though. And there's some martial-sounding percussion, with snare drum, and some fanfare-ish brass writing. It's unmistakably by Philip Glass."

The piece is the result of an effort to add extra spice to this year's anniversary.

"Governor [Martin] O'Malley, starting back when he was Mayor O'Malley, thought that Maryland really needed a piece of music for the bicentennial that was not Tchaikovsky, something uniquely created for the occasion," said Bill Pencek, executive director of the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission.

The effort to generate a new work involved two bicentennial organizations, two countries, two cities and two orchestras. "Overture for 2012" will receive simultaneous premieres by the BSO and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, helping to underline an aspect of the War of 1812 that may not be as well known by Americans as the story of Fort McHenry and all those "bombs bursting in air."

When the young United States declared war on Britain, largely over issues of trade and maritime rights,, American forces attacked one of the enemy's most desirable colonies, Canada. Things didn't go so well in the end, disappointing expansionists who had imagined Canada being easily annexed. But the Americans did have a victory in 1813 at the Battle of York (now Toronto) and celebrated by burning down the Parliament buildings.

"One of the principal reasons the British burned our capital was in retaliation for what happened in Canada," Pencek said. "There would have been no 'Star-Spangled Banner,' no Francis Scott Key, if not for the British invasion."

The Canadian side of the story is not necessarily more familiar across the border than it is here.

"In Canada, you study 1812 for 90 minutes in Grade 7," said Sandra Shaul, project manager for the City of Toronto's bicentennial commemoration. "If you were sick on that Tuesday, you missed the War of 1812. That stupid little war, as I call it, was not particularly impressive militarily but had huge ramifications for both countries."

Although neither side won much, Americans and Canadians ended up feeling more confident and secure in their national identities, resulting in a relationship that has remained friendly ever since.

As the bicentennial organizations on both sides of the border set about planning for the anniversary, the idea of commissioning a composition took hold.

"When I spoke with Sandra about our wish list, we both felt it would be wonderful to get our great orchestras involved," Pencek said. "This exchange of symphonic works really celebrates two centuries of peace between our two countries."

The multi-genre Luminato Festival held each June in Toronto became part of the project. For 2012, the festival planned to present a free concert by the Toronto Symphony, an ideal occasion to introduce a new composition.

And because the festival already had a vintage work by Glass on the schedule, a revival of the seminal 1976 opera "Einstein on the Beach," the composer's name was in the air when discussions about commissioning a bicentennial work began.

"He seemed like the perfect guy," Shaul said. "He was born in Baltimore, he does a lot of work in Canada, and he's a household name."

The BSO liked the idea of approaching Glass, too.

"It took all of one conversation to pitch the idea to him," Spivey said. "And he got the score to us a month early."

Whether "Overture for 2012" enters the mainstream repertoire remains to be heard, but Shaul sounds an optimistic note.

"The last time someone wrote an 1812 overture, it had real staying power," she said. "I hope this one lasts as long. If anyone can pull that off, it's Philip Glass."

"Overture for 2012" will be performed in a concert by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop conducting, at 7 p.m. June 17 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $15. Call 410-783-8000 or go to

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