A maximal night of music from Glass and Reich at BAM
The Philip Glass Ensemble and Steve Reich and Musicians are bands more than classical music ensembles.
While the trend in contemporary classical music has been for new music ensembles to play like rock groups, with audible beats and riffing melodies, Glass and Reich were making music with those elements—and greater sophistication—forty years ago. The ensembles they formed to play what was at the time a highly specialized style always played like rock bands, their seriousness of purpose balanced with a transparent sense of playing to an audience of equals, friends sharing common values.
The two bands, and the two composers, are reuniting for the first time in 30 years, opening the 2014 BAM Next Wave Festival, which is also a celebration of the legacy of Nonesuch Records. A concert Tuesday night was the first in a series, and the two groups played important music from each composer—with a monumental performance of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians in the second half. Glass and Reich played together in the opener, Reich’s Four Organs.
This is an early and lesser-known masterpiece from Reich, a work that expresses his ideas, albeit reversed from how they’re commonly heard. It begins with quick chords that are then, over about fifteen minutes, gradually and steadily stretched out, so that what at first was all the notes together becomes a ravishing and suspenseful set of slow, arpeggiated chords. Listening to the piece work through its process is like solving a puzzle.
That puzzle is fiendish, and played by a starry pick-up group—Glass, Reich, Nico Muhly and Timo Andres, with David Cossin playing the grueling, perpetual maraca part—the music came close to falling apart soon after it began. But Mulhy took charge, cueing the downbeats with dramatic motion of his head and torso, using his left hand to cut off held chords at the exact time; he even counted the beats out loud. The music cohered and then blossomed. When all four organs sustained the massed chord, the sound was rich and satisfying.
Glass Ensemble had some rough patches too. After a stately, march-like excerpt from CIVIL warS #2—Cologne Edition, the group played the first two sections of his Music in 12 Parts, a magnum opus more central to his career than even Einstein on the Beach. “Part 1” is the most beautiful piece Glass has written, limpid music that flows gently around wordless singing (Lisa Bielawa), as if the voice was a polished stone in the middle of a stream. There is a constant pulse, but where it falls is difficult to pin down, and instead the ear follows the seductive counterpoint and the sensual interior woodwind lines that twist around each other.
“Part 2” is forceful and energetic, the music driven by repetition and syncopation. The winds play almost continuously, and they grew fatigued and faltered. Then, a bit more than half-way through, the voice takes the lead with a series of arpeggiations that start slow, then grow faster, before returning to their slow beginning. All the musicians seemed galvanized by the singing, and the band, including the winds, played with whipcrack focus and intensity. The galvanizing music from Act 1, Scene 1 of Akhnaten, the “Funeral of Amenhotep III,” ended the first half with power and dignity.
Music for 18 Musicians is one of the rare signpost pieces in the classical tradition: it propelled what had been avant-garde music into the mainstream and initiated the large-scale acceptance of a new style; the piece, and the album on ECM, changed history. Before the playing began, Reich dedicated the performance to the memory of James Preiss, who had been an original member of his ensemble and who died early this year.
Cossin, Preiss’ student, took his place at the vibraphone, a complex symbol of how Reich’s music is now in the standard repertoire, played by musicians all over the world. The composer no longer needs a specialized group to play his music, but there was a poignant feeling hanging over the performance, the sense that this series of concerts might be both a celebration of the music and a farewell to musicians like Bob Becker and Russell Hartenberger, who helped open up the future.
Perhaps that was the source of the elegiac air to the playing, a quality that was calm, assured, and stunningly musical. There was an ineffable maturity—a tempo that was relaxed and ideal, a sense of phrasing that is not usually prevalent in minimalist music, and an eloquence equal to that of the greatest orchestral playing. Packed with inherent psychoacoustic effects, the sound was studded with new and dazzling qualities.
Live performances of Music for 18 Musicians are always special, it is moving to see the musicians work together, especially spelling each other. The opening and closing pulses are built around the duration of breath from the singers and the clarinets, and that makes a powerful connection with the listener. And as music is fundamentally a social activity, this piece is the greatest example of abstract music as social organization. The musicians cue each other, primarily from the vibraphone set at the center, which serves as the equivalent of a talking drum.
The music-making was lithe but with expressive weight. As each moment passed, there was a burgeoning sense from the musicians and in the audience that this was a special performance for this occasion —beautiful and meaningful as well.
The Philip Glass Ensemble & Steve Reich and Musicians concerts continue tonight and tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. bam.org