Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Philip Glass' Music in Twelve Parts: 7-12
We had the good fortune in sitting next to Eric Ross above who had flown in from Halifax, Nova Scotia for the performance. "Eric is the pre-eminent Glass admirer in all of Canada," is how a friend of his put it before he introduced Eric once to the composer. In any case, Eric owned both recordings of the piece and knew just about every note of the composer's music, so he was indispensable with information while being very funny.
"What are your favorite parts?" I asked him at the beginning of the concert, and after thinking a bit, Eric countered with "Two, seven, eight, and twelve," and by the end of the concert I was ready to agree with him. The most exciting aspect of the performance was that it literally was unique. The piece is structured out of musical measures that repeat for as long as Philip Glass wants them to, so when it was time to move on, he would very ostentatiously bow his head at the synthesizer to his colleagues. This meant that they were to go onto the next variation after repeating the present phrase two more times. (I think I've got that right.)
Since I have a low tolerance for boredom, I wasn't sure if I'd be able to survive this minimalist marathon but the longer it went, the more absorbing it became. I also liked how much of the piece sounded like a strange mixture of prog rock, East Indian music, and klezmer. The rest of the audience seemed to feel the same way because there was only a minor exodus during the intermission after Part 9.
The performance had become a serious event and it was fun to watch the serious Glass worshipers, such as the new head of the San Francisco Art Commission Luis Cancel (above), enjoying themselves so thoroughly.
Plus, everyone who was anyone seemed to be there, including Charlise the Opera Tattler who was not convinced. "It reminds me of cotton candy," she told her horrified companion.
My only complaint was that the sound mix was bad, with too much keyboard and not enough of the wind and brass instruments coming through. Also, the amplification was part of the soundscape but at times it was a bit hot and annoying. It didn't allow for any soft-to-loud dynamics at all.
I started to flag during Part 11, but Eric the Canadian was right. Part 12 was a stunning finale, and Lisa Bielawa (above) sang her twelve tones awesomely.
The entire ensemble, in fact, was superb. This music may sound simple but it's fiendishly difficult to play, and getting to watch its composer perform it with such an amazing musical group felt like a privilege. The piece itself felt like Ur-Glass, where he had finally found his voice and was experimenting with it fearlessly, and before his style became something of a formula. SF Performances should be thanked for not playing it safe and bringing it to San Francisco.