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February 18, 2009

When you write a preview piece for a newspaper or magazine about a performance event, you play a kind of guessing game about what the event is going to be like. No two performances are alike, so even if you're familiar with the work being presented, you really have no idea how it will play out and how audiences will respond.

With this is mind, it was interesting to attend the west coast premiere on Monday of Philip Glass' Music in Twelve Parts at Davies Symphony Hall. Here's what I wrote up about the concert for this week's issue of SF Weekly:

From his operas like Einstein on the Beach and Appomattox to his film scores for Koyaanisqatsi and Notes on a Scandal, the American composer Philip Glass is known for spinning minimal musical notes and rhythms into maximal structures. Written between 1971 and 1974, Glass' chamber music masterpiece is nothing short of epic. An extended cycle of music involving keyboards, woodwinds, a vocalist and an onstage audio engineer and normally requiring three live concerts to perform in its entirety, the piece tests the limits of the ensemble players' physical and psychological endurance - not to mention the audience's ability to sit still for several hours. On President's Day, the nine-member Philip Glass Ensemble featuring the composer on keyboards will perform the entire work in one marathon sitting (box dinners will be provided during the half-time break) at Davies Symphony Hall. Today, the sheer length of Glass' era-defining three hour and twenty-six minute work makes experiencing it seem more like a religious ritual than a concert. Back in the early 1970s, though, listeners had a more forgiving relationship to time. As Glass fondly recalls: "It was easy to find people to listen to this music every Thursday night because nobody had anything else to do anyway."

The piece feels like much more of an assault on the senses performed live than it does on a recording. At the start of each of the 12 movements, you feel like you're being air-lifted into the middle of an unfamiliar and extremely wild landscape and simply dropped right in. Then, at the end of each movement, the imaginary helicopter swings by, just as quickly, to pull you out.

Over the course of the evening, I swung between many different emotional states. At times, the music carried me along as if on clouds. The feeling was blissful. It almost rocked me to sleep with its spiraling undulations of sound. At other times, the music swarmed like an angry beehive. I was screaming inside for it to stop. At one point during Part 5, I came very close to running out of the concert hall.

On various occasions, the texture alternately called to mind Bach fugues, cathedral organs and fairground music. On other occasions, I heard scratched records, casino slot machines and traffic jams. Wild stuff. The experience was sort of religious in the sense that listening requires surrendering oneself completely to the sound. It also takes quite a devotee to sit still for that long.

On that note, it was fascinating to see how the people sitting around me reacted to the event. Some people fell asleep or at least shut their eyes. Others jiggled their feet and looked at their watches impatiently. A bald, plump-bellied man sitting across the aisle twitched spasmodically to the music, moving his hands up and down an invisible wind instrument. He looked at one with the world playing his air saxophone. Somewhere up in the balcony behind the stage early on in the program, an elderly person appeared to go into some kind of seizure. An army of paramedics arrived to cart them off.

Glass isn't my favorite minimalist composer. I generally feel more engaged by the music of, say, Steve Reich. Still, I had a great time and managed, mostly, to stay awake. I only wish that I'd taken a lead from some of my fellow concert goers and smoked a little pot before I went.


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