Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Philip Glass: Music in Twelve Parts

Philip Glass, composer/keyboards

Music in Twelve Parts

Michael Riesman, Music Director/Conductor

Featuring the Philip Glass Ensemble:
Lisa Bielawa, David Crowell, Dan Dryden, Stephen Erb, Jon Gibson, Michael Riesman, Mick Rossi and Andres Sterman

Monday, February 16, 5pm
Davies Symphony Hall


Even though I arrived around 4:30pm to get my ticket at will call, I found myself in a jostling mob with no line control. I did not have my ticket in hand until 5:05, at which point the concert had already started, & the crowed was out to the curb. An usher at the orchestra level was telling people that the next seating break would be in 50 minutes. We filtered into the hall during the performance anyway. An usher tried to get me to my place, but I was unwilling to climb over several people. Instead I took a seat in a nearly empty row at the back of the orchestra section, where I stayed for the rest of the show. So unfortunately I cannot brag that I have sat through an entire performance of Music in Twelve Parts. I guess I heard Music in Eleven Parts. I hope that San Francisco Performances will look into better ways to handle will call in future.

I'm not a Philip Glass fan, so I had my doubts about being able to sit through 4 hours of his music, but at least I can say that I was not bored. There were only 7 musicians on stage: 3 electronic keyboard players, 3 wind players who picked up flutes, clarinets or saxophones as necessary, & one very game soprano. Everyone is miked. The procedure is that the ensemble plays a cell which is repeated several times, then they move on to another cell which is a variant, repeat that one several times, & so on. It's a continuous wall of sound, the foundation of which is the rapid arpeggios played by the keyboards, which sound like a harpsichord on the high end & an organ on the low end. There is little variation in the harmony, the dynamics or the basic pulse. The effect is trance-like. The big events are the abrupt shifts between parts & the end of a set, when the music just stops without warning.

I quickly began to feel sorry for the singer, Lisa Bielawa, whose music is really just another instrumental line. As vocal writing, it seems inhumane to ask the singer to keep repeating those solfege-like figures. Plus she has to keep this up for almost the entire duration of the piece. Ms. Bielawa was admirably clear, consistent & in tune. I missed her in the sections where she was not required. As she sat, poised & calm, with her hands on her knees, I felt she was the hero of the performance.

Glass periodically leans his head back then nods forward heavily, but otherwise there is not much to watch on stage. Michael Riesman is so efficient at the keyboard that he barely seems to move. During the dinner break, a Philip Glass aficionado explained to me that Glass's head nods signal the last 2 repetitions of the current cell. This turned out to be a great help in decoding the performance, as I could now occupy myself with counting how many repititions a cell got & noting the varying cell lengths.

This same Glass aficionado pointed out that Glass himself is not a technically proficient performer. He misses notes, & he is not rhythmically accurate. On the other hand, though there is this rote repetition in the music, natural variations in playing will occur. A performer may even need to drop out momentarily, or someone may be out of sync. It makes me think of those Andy Warhol silkscreens with their serial images. Even though the images are repeated, no two are truly the same, due to small variations in registration or color. I think you need these small differences to give the process life.

Mr. Glass is in his 70's, & his presence was a clear draw for the show. The audience gave the performers an immediate standing ovation, which is only to be expected after such a marathon for both musicians & audience.

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