An Immersive Experience that Shakes a Listener to the Core

22/02/2018

Glass: Philip Glass Ensemble / Michael Riesman (conductor, keyboards), San Francisco Conservatory of Music Girls Chorus / Valérie Saint-Agathe (conductor), presented by San Francisco Performances, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 20.2.2018. (HS)

Glass – Music with Changing Parts

On a visit to York Minster decades ago, my wife and I sat in the choir space for a Sunday eventide and walked out under the massive bank of organ pipes, just as the organist’s improvised postlude reached a thunderous climax. It was a powerful blast of sound that shook our bodies, a sonic thrill.

Philip Glass’ Music with Changing Parts, performed Tuesday at Davies Hall by the Philip Glass Ensemble, powered a similar effect.

The piece starts swirling from the very first measure and doesn’t stop for an hour-and-a-half, the rhythm relentless. A kernel of melody begins with just two electronic keyboards, and eventually spreads to five. It’s repetitive: a hallmark of Glass’ earliest compositions—an ostinato taken to extremes. Subtle shifts in rhythm—notes added to and subtracted from the nucleus of the musical cell—keep nudging the meter in different directions.

The amplified sound is also loud. A dozen wind players add to the tonal texture (and eventually signal the approaching finish with a descending scale). A 32-voice chorus of sopranos and mezzos intones chords that provides additional color. Mezzoforte never occurs—let alone piano or pianissimo. It starts loud and gets louder and shakes a listener’s body to its core.

Glass worked on this ultra-minimalist piece from 1971 to 1974, before his name became a household word with his operas Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha. He had not performed it with his own ensemble since 1981 but, inspired by younger ensembles’ performances, he went back to the work and expanded the sonic palette, expanding the instrumentation. In his program note, he writes, ‘This presentation…is a richer version of the music and a more satisfying completion of the original idea.’ An earlier performance, with the same personnel, took place last week in Carnegie Hall.

In this version, two trumpets, two trombones, additional woodwinds and an extra keyboard deepens the sound. In form, it follows a signature Glass technique of building on small cells and positioning robust chords against a rolling ostinato.

Never having heard the original version live, I can only compare this with the 1971 recording, made before Glass finished massaging the piece further. The recording reveals more transparency than the dense current version, and a cleaner balance. The sound in Davies Hall occasionally descended into distortion, overwhelming the chorus. There were times when it was hard to make out how their harmonies were shifting, despite microphones on stands arrayed in front of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Girls Chorus, led by artistic director Valérie Saint-Agathe.

At the end, the audience must have been responding to the overall effect when it leaped to its feet for a prolonged standing ovation. It certainly sent me out into a chilly San Francisco night on a high.

Harvey Steiman

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