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SFGC Presents:
Philip Glass and the Class of '37

  • Herbst Theatre 401 Van Ness Avenue San Francisco, CA, 94102 United States (map)

October 25, 2017 @ 8:00pm

San Francisco Girls Chorus
Valérie Sainte-Agathe, MusicDirector & Principal Conductor
Members of the Philip Glass Ensemble:
Michael Riesman, keyboard
Andrew Sterman, saxophone/flute

SFGC's season opens with a program – Philip Glass and the Class of ’37 – in celebration of the composer’s 80th birthday. The concert features a selection of Glass’s works that are available for performance only with members of the Philip Glass Ensemble, including excerpts from the operas Einstein on the Beach and Hydrogen Jukebox; mixed-media work The Photographer; and the soundtrack to Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi.

Setting context for Glass’s unmistakable style and remarkable contributions to the classical music world, the program begins with works from composers born in three different centuries who share the “’37” birth year with Glass - Dietrich Buxtehude (born 1637), Joseph Michael Haydn (born 1737) and Mily Balakirev (born 1837). 


Philip Glass: Building and Knee Play 5 from Einstein on the Beach
Philip Glass: Act III from The Photographer
Philip Glass: Vessels from Koyaanisqatsi
Philip Glass: Father Death Blues from Hydrogen Jukebox
Dietrich Buxtehude: Excerpts from Salve Jesu, patris gnate unigenite
Johann Michael Haydn: Excerpts from Leopold Mass
Mily Balakirev: Selected Songs and Romances

Concert Notes

By Giacomo Fiore
Regular contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice and faculty member of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

At the tender age of eighty, Philip Glass can look back at a long and varied career. As a protagonist in the “minimal moment” of the mid-1960s, he helped create the first U.S. classical idiom to gain international recognition; as the leader of the Philip Glass Ensemble, he pioneered a new model for composers to ensure the rehearsal, performance, and distribution of their own works. Since then has lent his immediately recognizable musical voice to a staggering variety of genres and contexts, composing eleven symphonies, eleven concertos, dozens of operatic and theater works, countless pieces of chamber music (mainly but not exclusively featuring amplified instrumentation), music for dance, and numerous documentary and film scores.

This program presents a selection of Glass works, all dating roughly from the “middle period” that followed the completion of Einstein on the Beach (1976), the first example of the composer introducing harmonic progressions to the repetitive rhythmic structures he had mastered in his earlier career. The two selections from Einstein, both excerpted from the latter quarter of the opera, showcase the work’s unbridled motor energy as well as the incantatory, time-stopping quality of both repetitive rhythms and solmization lyrics. In the fifth and final Knee Play (a term coined by director Robert Wilson for the short entr’actes that act as joints in the work), a poetic text describing two lovers on a park bench brings the four-plus hour musical journey to a warm, unforgettable close.

In the early eighties Glass collaborated with filmmaker Geoffrey Reggio on the first installment of what would become the Qatsi Trilogy. Koyaanisqatsi (“Life Out of Balance” in the Hopi language), an 85-minute documentary devoid of dialogue or narration, stunned audiences in 1983 with the combination of mesmerizing (if foreboding) images and entrancing music for orchestra and choir. Natural phenomena, rocket launches, factory assembly lines, monolithic skyscrapers, and traffic gridlock are shown at a relentless pace, with sharp cuts from one to the other inducing a feeling of alienation and dread. Thirty-five years later, the alarm bells sounded by this iconic work keep ringing, unheeded.

Composed at the same time as the music for Koyaanisqatsi, The Photographer is a unique stage work in three distinct acts including a play, a violin solo, and a dance, exploring the life and work of Eadweard Muybridge, a nineteenth-century Englishman who broke new photographic and motion-picture ground in California (including shooting several iconic sequences of stills depicting animal locomotion), before being tried for murder in 1874. The third act presented here is the dance, intended for the same characters who play out the trial in the first act. Shadowing one of Muybridge’s horses, the music appears to walk, trot, and finally gallop in an ecstatic build-up.

Towards the end of the decade, Glass collaborated with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in another unusual stage work. Hydrogen Jukebox is a chamber opera featuring six archetypes of U.S. society—a cheerleader, a priest, a mechanic, a businessman, a policeman, and a waitress—who comment on changing and unchanging political, social, and environmental issues from the 1950s to 1990 through a selection of Ginsberg poems. “Father Death Blues” is once again the final number, featuring crystal diatonic harmonies and poignant textural changes, as one voice grows into six before shrinking back into lonely and serene resignation.  

The other works on this program serve as a preamble, leading up to Glass with selections from the middle Baroque, late Classical, and Romantic eras. Unlike some of his more iconoclastic U.S. cohorts, Glass has always assumed an eclectic and interested stance towards past European musics; after all, he trained at Juilliard and with Parisian composer Nadia Boulanger, one of the most celebrated—and strictest—pedagogues in recent musical history. Glass’s classical upbringing is especially evident in his contrapuntal fluency, and the music presented in the first half serve as referents for our ears to draw subtle, but meaningful connections.

Dieterich Buxtehude (1637~1707) is among the foremost German composers of the mid-Baroque period. Salve Jesu, patris gnate unigenite, scored for continuo, two violins, and two sopranos, combines the newfound chordal emphasis of the period with inventive contrapuntal finesse. Over the course of music history, stylistic trends have swung from simplicity to complexity and back; with Buxtehude we can savor a kind of mid-swing moment, as the language edged back towards polyphonic complexity from the monodies of Stile Moderno. A further reminder of changing musical habits is offered by Buxtehude’s figured bass notation—a shorthand consisting of a bass line and symbols indicating the harmonies to be played above it, but leaving voicings and contrapuntal choices up to the performer themselves; the saxophone solo in Building from Einstein on the Beach provides an analogous example of improvisatory performance practice in classical music.

The younger brother of fan-favorite Joseph, Johann Michael Haydn (1737–1806) was nonetheless an accomplished composer, and especially regarded for his sacred vocal compositions. His early works tended to favor the contrapuntally rigorous Stile Antico (a term that can refer to a range of previous, older styles, depending on the timeframe of its use), but towards the end of his life he composed several pieces in the simpler, more homophonic textures we expect of Classical-period music. In 1805 Haydn completed the St. Leopold Mass in honor of its namesake, the late Emperor Leopold II, on a commission from his daughter-in-law, then Empress Maria Theresa. Each prayer of the Mass is based melodically on existing plainchants, which are intoned briefly at the beginning of each movement in the guise of a psalm; the ensuing harmonizations are however thoroughly modern, making for an exhilarating listening experience.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Russian classical music was at an impasse, struggling to establish a distinct national identity free from the influences of the French and German mainstreams. Much credit to the eventual formation of the idiom we associate with Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov goes to Mily Balakirev (1837–1910), a musical outsider who made up for lack of formal training with intuition and sheer determination. One of Balakirev's Russian nationalist endeavors was the formation of “The Five” (or, as they were known among Conservatory critics, “The Amateur Five”), a cohort of composers that included Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov; though they eventually forsook their sometimes overbearing mentor, his influence in stoking their interests in Russian sources and themes is undeniable. “Thou Art So Captivating,” excerpted from an 1855 collection of three “Forgotten Romances,” is an early work, and it predates the development of Balakirev’s nationalistic ethos; yet in it we can still gleam good compositional instincts, such as an ear for graceful melodies, tasteful chromatic touches, and the ability to craft a finely balanced, tripartite miniature. 

Later Event: November 18
SF Opera Presents:
Puccini's Turandot