Last year, when San Francisco Performances announced their 2008-09 season, I asked for help in figuring out what to do about the planned performance of Philip Glass's Music in Twelve Parts. I ultimately purchased tickets, on the grounds that I would very likely not have another chance to hear the whole thing at one go, plus, I could always leave.
The performance was this past Monday night. I can't tell you what the encore was, because I only made it through part 9. Srsly, I hope there wasn't an encore.
Under different circumstances, I might have made it all the way through. I felt run down at the beginning of the weekend and still do. I reviewed a concert Saturday morning, and that night made a 2 a.m. trip to the ER with my mother (she's fine; it was nothing serious).
I had two problems with the Glass: amplification and sheer boredom. The piece was too fucking loud and the volume, which varied somewhat through the evening, eventually became intolerable. It's just not possible for me to fully enjoy or get lost in a concert when I'm worried about damage to my hearing.
I can't help but thinking that the amplification contributed to the boredom. Amplification flattens music by equalizing all voices; details disappear and you lose directionality. And amplification flattens how people listen because they simply don't pay attention the way they must to unamplified music.
In the case of Music in Twelve Parts, the engineers or producers or Glass himself balanced the amplification so that the keyboards completely dominated the ensemble. You could barely hear vocalist Lisa Biewala or the three wind players. Presumably this was an aesthetic decision, but I believe strongly that it was a bad decision.
But more on the boredom: jeez, what a repetitious piece. I know, I know, this could have been predicted - I did predict it, after all - but I was surprised to re-read the comment from last May and see the high opinions people have of Music in Twelve Parts. People! The newer Glass works I heard in 2007 were so much better.
Yes, Music in Twelve Parts was hugely radical for its time; yes, it's the Glass aesthetic and he is committed to it; yes, yes, yes, but I have to exercise some critical judgment here.
In the end, I wondered if the very formal concert hall presentation was a mistake. I see no way for the keyboard players to survive if acoustic instruments were used, but perhaps the amplification would have been saner in a small venue. Because of some kind of miscalculation about how many people would pick up their tickets at will call, the tiny Davies box office lobby was mobbed before the performance and many people were seated late. I think the piece is well suited for some kind of experiment that Greg Sandow would like. It would be intolerable for, say, Carter or Beethoven or, of course, Feldman: take out the seats, put down cushions, and let people come and go and talk all they want.
For that matter, you could turn the space into an opium den for the duration. That's probably the perfect state in which to hear this piece.