Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Phases: The Music of Steve Reich (2) @ Barbican Theatre and St Luke’s Education Centre, London

7 October 2006

A minimalist marathon.

Not a prospect that might immediately set themouth watering, but one that in reality proved to be an utterly absorbingseries of concerts, a fitting 70th birthday tribute to a man increasinglyrevered as one of the 20th century’s most important classicalcomposers.

The festival was presented by the Barbican but minded by the New Yorkcontemporary music ensemble Bang On A Can, in association with SteveReich himself.

The programmes drew back a little in order to examineReich’s influences, both past and future, whilst looking at his own works,early and late.

There was only one way to start – ‘In The Beginning’, with Reich’sradical discovery of the ‘phase’ process, It’s Gonna Rain. Theeffect was akin to being caught in a musical strobe light, with the rapidfire of Brother Walter’s voice something of a shock in its immediacy,revealing also an early anticipation of techniques now employed inelectronic dance music. Something more sonorous was required in response,provided by Four Organs, with the extended cadence given appropriateroom by the Icebreaker quartet. Performance here was immaculate,though the unfortunate Dan Gresson was given the pulse-defining’shaker’ role, and looked in need of refreshment when his heroic task wasdone!

With St Luke’s shrouded by curtains the rather sinister Come Outrenewed acquaintance with Reich’s manipulation of speech through tape,while Michael Gordon‘s Yo Shakespeare was the first of theReich-influenced pieces to be aired, its dance-based material taking injazz and funk rhythms. This complemented Reich’s rather more acerbic worksnicely, but proved less concentrated in its development of melodicmaterial.

The early Reich returned with Piano Phase, in an innovative videointerpretation by David Cossin, who performed ‘against himself’,reproducing the piano patterns on video and in person from MIDI drum pads.This was cleverly lit, so that the pre-recorded part was projected onto thelive performance, resulting in a striking visual guide to the music.

From this first concert it was clear the power Reich’s early work stillholds, so much so that the key phrases remained in the head right up untilthe second instalment. For ‘Distant Voices’ the curtains were drawn,leaving St Luke’s bathed in autumn sunshine, as if outdoors.

We proceeded to examine Reich’s past influences through a canonicGloria from Dufay, four anonymous Hockets and Perotin’smoving Beata Viscera, sung with a restrained beauty by PaulHillier and the Theatre of Voices. Viderunt Omnes was thereal eye-opener, using techniques of repetition and word setting thatanticipated Reich’s techniques even then. As Hillier said in a brief asideafter a virtuoso anonymous organ voluntary from Thomas Rischel, ifwe had been celebrating Reich’s 700th birthday, that might have been themusic we were listening to!

Having set the scene the singers were joined by two keyboards andvibraphones for Proverb. The piece had an Eastern European feel,less obviously minimalist than the early works, but with the weightlessnessof the parts, the voices suspended above light accompaniment fromelectronic organs and percussion, it proved a moving and beautifulexperience.

The dedicatees of Different Trains followed, Reich’s innovativeblend of tape and string quartet radical as ever. The Kronos Quartethave had this work under their fingertips ever since its 1988 genesis andit showed, their authoritative playing not even disturbed by first violinand founder David Harrington losing his electronic pick-up for abrief moment early on.

With lengthy breaks between works the gaps between the concertsthemselves were shortening, so a walk to the Barbican hall left onlyfifteen minutes to gather the mind for a rather bigger string orchestra,that of the BBC Symphony.

They helpfully kicked off ‘Diversions’ by throwing Reich’s orchestraloutput into context with Bartk’s Music for Strings, Percussion andCelesta, though this suffered at the hands of the Barbican Theatre’sexcessively dry acoustic. The orchestra were spread far back, whichenhanced the third movement’s atmospherics as heard from afar, but alsomade the faster music rather detached and a little perfunctory, though heldtogether well by conductor Alexander Rumpf.

Reich’s amplified music fared much better in this environment and thesecond UK performance of the strident You Are (Variations) was arousing experience. Dedicatees Synergy were attuned once again tothe canonic demands of the first movement, but were stood too far back forvisual communication. The thrusting writing for the quartet of pianospropelled the music on at quite a rate as part of Reich’s ‘ideal’orchestra, conducted with verve by Stefan Asbury.

Asbury also presided over Tehillim, in effect Reich’s SymphonyOf Psalms and something of a gateway in his output. Here there was acommon side-effect found in performances of minimalist music, the tensionbetween the performers as the rhythms hang on a knife-edge. Here it wasagain with the unaccredited ‘shaker’, who performed commendably under thespotlight, allowing Synergy to once again weave their vocal magic withReich’s canons.

An auspicious trio with which to start the festival weekend, after whichwe were all ready for a lie down – and that came in the shape of Bang On ACan’s foyer performance of Brian Eno‘s Music For Airports, aserene comedown in its instrumental arrangement. It emphasised the expertplanning behind ‘Phases’ – with many more rewards still to come.

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