Music Legend with Changing Parts

  • by Philip Campbell
  • Wednesday February 28, 2018
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Composer Philip Glass performed in Davies Hall with the Philip Glass Ensemble, students from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus
Composer Philip Glass performed in Davies Hall with the Philip Glass Ensemble, students from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus

At 81, American composer Philip Glass deserves to be called a living legend. For five decades the prolific writer has been at the forefront of music. An endless oeuvre of operas, symphonies, film scores and collaborations with poets, choreographers and rock stars is crowned by the many influential compositions written for his ensemble founded in the late 1960s.

The ongoing 80th birthday celebration finally made it to Davies Symphony Hall recently when San Francisco Performances presented the composer (still very much a working musician) with Philip Glass Ensemble under Music Director Michael Riesman, seven students from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus (Artistic Director Lisa Bielawa and keyboards), conducted by Valerie Sainte-Agathe.

An evening-long performance of "Music with Changing Parts" (1970) got a special out-of-town tryout at Carnegie Hall just four days before electrifying a packed house at DSH last Tuesday. Left Coast music-lovers have always embraced the new and unusual, and seeing the fresh and intensely focused faces of the SFGC backing the famous Ensemble with additional local instrumentalists added a special sense of connection.

The seminal work has been revisited by the composer because of the success enjoyed by younger performers. He has gratefully acknowledged them "by enlarging the original score with a brass and a vocal ensemble," adding that this presentation "is a richer version of the music, and a more satisfying completion of the original idea."

The wisdom of his decision to expand the hypnotic and immersive score was proved by the high-energy performance. Once into the hot tub of "Music with Changing Parts," listeners surrender to the composer's repetitive figures, which incrementally create harmonies of growing exhilaration. Ninety spellbound minutes later, the jets are abruptly turned off, but the rapturous feelings of a sometimes fierce experience remain.

The entire audience rose in unison for an extended ovation, stunned in admiration of the tireless performers and impressed by the exceptionally clear conducting of Michael Riesman and Valerie Sainte-Agathe.

Iconic is a word often used incorrectly and, like standing ovations, too easily reflexive, but no one could stay seated in the presence of Philip Glass. It may have been one more gig for him, but it was a chance for us to show sincere appreciation of a tremendous career.

Violinist Vadim Gluzman performed with the San Francisco Symphony. Photo: Marco Borggreve  

Another birthday boy

The San Francisco Symphony's season-long celebration of
another genuine American musical icon came to an end last week with
performances of contrasting works by Leonard Bernstein. The beloved composer's
enormous legacy has been well-served by the birth centennial celebration at
DSH. Guest conductor Andrey Boreyko and violinist Vadim Gluzman wrapped the
party with equal shares of fun and serious expressivity.

The delightfully goofy Divertimento was a great way to start
the concert. Writing in 1980 for the Boston Symphony Orchestra's centennial,
Bernstein created a happy-go-lucky parade of parodies of other composers and
musical genres. It ended up sounding like a quick tour of his greatest hits. From
Bernstein's Broadway ("West Side Story" and "Candide") to
exuberant theatre works like "Mass," Divertimento is filled with
characteristic joie de vivre. Boreyko
was a careful curator, but the idiomatic SFS musicians broke out with their own
irrepressible enthusiasm.

The conductor was more at home with the altogether more
serious-minded Serenade. Vadim Gluzman was the fine interpreter of the
important violin soloist's role. The piece is a loosely allied musical
treatment of Plato's "Symposium," but inspiration aside, the score is
unmistakably Bernstein. Gluzman essayed the deeper moments of contemplation
with a beautiful lyricism. He was especially exciting in the virtuoso displays
of the faster sections.