Inaugural balls weren't the only action last night in Washington. A good-sized crowd turned out at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall for something different - the world premiere of Symphony No. 7 by Philip Glass and a collection of German folk poetry set to music by Gustav Mahler.
Full of strongly evocative sounds, yet firmly rooted in the minimalist principles that propel all of his works, the new 35-minute, three-movement Glass piece aims high. The subtitle, A Toltec Symphony, refers to the ancient culture that thrived in the area from Texas and New Mexico down to Central America.
The work's breadth and even grandeur might surprise some of the composer's fans (and detractors). Much of the writing, especially in the last half of the gently churning first movement and all of the spacious finale, flirts with a melodic richness and sweeping gesture that suggest nothing less than - dare I say it? - old-fashioned romanticism.
The orchestration is on a large scale, taking advantage of the center's fine pipe organ and bringing in a chorus (the admirable Master Chorale of Washington) to intone an untranslatable chant.
Glass employs these forces carefully, often very subtly. Tom-toms provide just enough of a Native American hint; other percussive colors add a decidedly Mexican touch.
The finale is particularly potent, built on a series of slow-moving chords and punctuated by numerous silent pauses that create their own electricity. Several great crescendos create something of the release that Olivier Messiaen's spiritual music provides. But like the other movements, this one ends quietly and uncertainly, as if to suggest the fate of a long-ago world before Europeans arrived with their own version of civilization.
National Symphony Orchestra music director Leonard Slatkin seemed clearly enthused by the symphony and drew a mostly taut response from the NSO; some coordination details should get much tighter in the remaining performances.
The evening closed with 11 of the image-rich, brilliantly orchestrated songs from Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn, sung with exceptional insight by baritone Matthias Goerne. Slatkin was a most sensitive partner and, aside from a little raggedness in execution, so was the ensemble.