NOTES: Philip Glass Ensemble, “Music with Changing Parts”
The Philip Glass Ensemble returned to Carnegie Hall last night for the first time in a decade to present “Music with Changing Parts” (1970), an oft-overlooked and rarely performed early masterpiece from Mr. Glass’s prolific repertoire. The sold out concert was part of “The ’60s: The Years that Changed America”, a citywide festival at more than 35 participating cultural institutions, and also Mr. Glass’s residency as Carnegie Hall’s Deb’s Composer’s Chair for the 2017–2018 season, which is publicly supported by the National Endowment for the Arts.
This storied nine piece ensemble founded in 1968—the first interpreters of Mr. Glass’s considerable and technically imposing oeuvre—were unassumingly joined by the famed composer on stage, seated at a keyboard, and played alongside seven students from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, flanked by the San Francisco Girls Chorus.
“Music with Changing Parts”, which was last played in New York in 1981 and has only recently received newfound attention, is considered by Mr. Glass to be a transitional piece, following “Music in Similar Motion”, “Music in Fifths”, and “Music in Contrary Motion”—all composed in 1969—but coming before his breakthrough masterpiece, the more well-known “Music in Twelve Parts” (1974). Mr. Glass would, of course, go on to become a ubiquitous and iconic force in contemporary music, composing 11 symphonies and countless chamber and solo pieces, scoring 15 operas and over 45 films, and, at age 81, continuing to write at a dizzying speed.
But his early pieces, which shocked the music world, were bold, minimalist experiments, composed for his small ensemble and notable less for their melodic lines than for their rhythmic loops. “Music with Changing Parts” is a prime example. His first piece to feature vocalists, which would become a hallmark of later compositions, “Music with Changing Parts” is highly flexible in instrumentation and allows its players to improvise, which lends an unpredictable spontaneity to portions of the piece.
At Carnegie Hall, an august departure from the humble, scrappy downtown venues of the Ensemble’s early performances, “Music with Changing Parts” was thrilling and almost trance-inducing to hear and witness live. The piece, which clocked in at one hour and 28 minutes, charts an exciting and unpredictable course of rhythmic evolution that builds and swells to a sustained, orchestral sweep that is a harbinger of Mr. Glass’s later works. The piece is very clearly of its time, and not particularly easy to enjoy, but, nonetheless, it remains an important and fascinating work in the progression of a singular, American master.
Additional upcoming concerts at Carnegie Hall featuring music by Mr. Glass include appearances by the Louisiana Philharmonic on February 27th, Sō Percussion and JACK Quartet on March 6th, and the Pacific Symphony on April 21st.