Conductor: Michal Biesman
Conductor: Valérie Sainte-Agathe
Music with Changing Parts
Philip Glass and the Philip Glass Ensemble
Students from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music
San Francisco Girls Chorus
Twenty-four hours after enjoying a very satisfying concert of iconic crowd-pleasers by Mozart and Beethoven and a short novelty by Bryce Dessner, I was back in Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium for an evening dedicated to Philip Glass, specifically to an updated version of his seminal Music with Changing Parts, as part of Carnegie Hall’s “The 60s: The Years that Changed America” series and the composer’ residency.
The original work was actually premiered at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in November 1970, a few blocks east of Carnegie Hall, and was heard for the last time at Town Hall, a dozen blocks south in Midtown. However, since new ensembles have lately discovered and played it to impressive success, Glass went back to it and added brass, wind and vocal components. This latest, and possibly final, version was arranged by Michael Biesman, Lisa Bielawa and Philip Glass, and was performed at Carnegie Hall last Friday evening.
The stark contrast between the two musical genres, Viennese classical style and American minimalism, was obvious even before the concert started by just looking at the long sold-out, remarkably eclectic and markedly younger crowd packing the hall. I have to reluctantly admit that for once I probably belonged to the older half of the audience. While that was not pleasant observation for my self-esteem, that was definitely a good sign for the future of classical music, so I decided to suck it up and literally got on with the program.
A couple of days before the concert I had received a friendly but firm phone message from Carnegie Hall informing me that there would be no late seating, presumably because the score calls for uninterrupted flow. And sure enough, at 8 P.M. sharp, members of the Philip Glass Ensemble, including the man himself, took center stage behind their fancy electronic keyboards, with a bunch of brass and wind music students from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music behind them, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus on each side. And then we were all off for the next one and a half hour.
A dazzling example of minimalism in its purest form, Music with Changing Parts maintains a flawless continuity while featuring seamlessly integrated variations that present themselves as anything from barely perceptible details to lush waves of sounds. On Friday evening, the performance was musically fascinating, mentally hypnotic and strongly conducive to losing one’s sense of time and place. In fact, since the piece came out in the early 1970s, I could not help but think of the tripping power that kind of music would have had ̶ and still would have ̶ when experienced under the influence of mind-altering substances.
The combination of exacting rigor and intrinsic dreaminess of the composition was brand new in those days, and Friday’s performance categorically proved that it has more that withstood the unforgiving test of time and sounds as ground-breaking and exciting today as it did back then, almost half a century ago. Density, complexity and esotericism can be a welcome breath of fresh air in any era, and they felt like a particularly positive musical statement on Friday.
Occasionally glancing at the audience was a rather interesting exercise as well. While most of us were happily indulging in the music, others were clearly wondering what they had gotten themselves into, and either valiantly hung in there for dear life or upped and left in utter puzzlement. Fact is, if you did not get into the spell-binding but admittedly unconventional minimalist groove, you were in for a very long 90 minutes. The vast majority of us, however, fully enjoyed the stellar journey all the way to its abrupt and liberating end, and felt all the more grateful for having been part of it.