Last night in Herbst Theatre the San Francisco Girls Chorus (SFGC) began its 2017–2018 season with a program entitled Philip Glass and the Class of ’37. This is the first of two of the programs in the season that have been designed to celebrate the 80th birthday of Philip Glass, which took place this past January 31. The “class of ’37” refers to three other composers, each born in the 37th year of a different century: Dietrich Buxtehude (1637), Michael Haydn (1737), and Mily Balakirev (1837). Short selections from each of them opened the program, after which all of the works were by Glass with SFGC Artistic Director Lisa Bielawa contributing to arrangements of two of them.
It is important to note at the beginning that all of the Glass selections were written for theater pieces. Glass’ career has been rich with experiences that required him to be a “team player;” and some of the products of those experiences maintain a rich connection to Glass’ own name. Excerpts from two of them were included in last night’s program, the monument-scale four-act opera Einstein on the Beach, created with artist and stage director Robert Wilson, and the soundtrack for Geoffrey Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi. However, the most compelling performance last night came from the third and final act of a mixed media chamber opera first performed in 1982, The Photographer.
The photographer referred to by the title is Eadweard Muybridge, best known for his pioneering motion studies. To the extent that the opera had a narrative, the plot was based on Muybridge having been tried from the murder of a man he suspected to be his wife’s lover. In the original production, the final act involved bringing together all of the characters from the first act (the basis for the trial) for an extended dance. The music for that dance is moderately long; and it is repeated three times, each time at a faster tempo.
When The Photographer was first performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, attention to the narrative was almost entirely absent. The dance in the third act, choreographed by David Gordon, was, instead, inspired by Muybridge’s motion studies. The realization of that concept did not quite work, and the overall duration of that act proved to be rather a strain on even the most attentive members of the audience.
The music for the dance was scored for chamber ensemble and chorus vocalizing without any words. Last night SFGC and local instrumentalists were joined by two members of the Philip Glass Ensemble, Michael Riesman on electric keyboard and Andrew Sterman, playing flute for the Photographer excerpt. Some sense of the strain of the overall duration remained, even 35 years after the piece was first performed. Perhaps because it was the final work on the program, my vantage point provided me with a generous view of people getting up to leave while the music was still being performed.
Nevertheless, Music Director Valérie Sainte-Agathe clearly appreciated the three stages of tempo in the score. They could not have been more clearly distinguished, as was the rising tension in the final iteration. Considering the minimality of content and the scrupulous need for precision, the SFGC singers could not have been better. This was a performance that was not afraid to remind us of how notorious Glass was when pieces like this were first presented; and those three and one-half decades have not blunted the sharp edginess of the composer’s rhetorical stance. Indeed, the fact that this was a performance that could still provoke may be the best testament to its staying power.
On the other than the two excerpts from Einstein on the Beach were sufficiently short that they were hardly provocative at all. Indeed, listening to “Building” (the first scene of the fourth and final act) without the eyes being flooded by Wilson’s vast images and his dancers’ glacial pace, one could pay more attention to the lyrical wailing of Sterman’s saxophone work (which never rises above the background with much strength in the recording of this opera). The same could be said for the violin solo performed in “Knee Play 5.” (The violinist was supposed to be the embodiment of Albert Einstein. Last night the solo was taken by Owen Bhasin Dalby.) On the other hand the narration that takes place while this music is performed (“Lovers on a Park Bench”) was omitted last night, thus depriving listeners of appreciating just how affectionate the concluding moments of this opera could be.
The excerpt (“Vessels”) from Koyaanisqatsi was situated in the program between Einstein and The Photographer. While this reading was as attentive as the other Glass selections had been, there is a good chance that those familiar with the film missed the images. Glass did not write his score for this film to be “art music;” and this was a case in which the part could not stand on its own without the whole being present.
A similar problem with lack of context arose with “Father Death Blues,” originally written for six solo voices at the conclusion of Hydrogen Jukebox a chamber opera in two parts with a libretto created from poems by Allen Ginsberg. “Father Death Blues” is the song that brings together all six of these characters; and the choral arrangement (prepared jointly by Glass and Bielawa) did nothing to establish connections between words and personalities. Instead the music amounted to an abstract depiction of the process of adding voices to a mix and then removing them. Any semantic link to the text was purely coincidental.
Nevertheless, in a context rich with Glass’ imaginative rhetoric, the members of “the class of ’37” seemed awkwardly out of place. The readings of all three of the composers emerged as almost entirely featureless and little more than routine. This was more than regrettable, since the selections themselves reflected wide differences in personal outlook across these three composers. The overall result was a program that could have done with far more attentiveness to part-whole relationships.