Old and new Reich mix in exhilarating fashion at Zankel Hall

Thu Oct 30, 2014 at 12:21 pm
Steve Reich's "Quartet" received its American premiere in a program of his music Wednesday night at Zankel Hall.

Steve Reich’s “Quartet” received its American premiere in a program of his music Wednesday night at Zankel Hall.

At this stage in his career, new pieces from Steve Reich sound like transitional, creatively restless, colorful patterns in a larger mosaic. On their own, most of the new works have been strong, even brilliant, but as Reich moves from one idea to another—many of them new in his career—the impressions of the newest music alters the perceptions that memory holds even for recent compositions.

Wednesday night at Zankel Hall, a surprisingly less-than-full crowd had the unique and exciting experience of being the first American audience to hear Reich’s recent Quartet (2013). Written for Reich’s core instrumentation of two pianos and two percussionists, playing vibraphones, the work was co-commissioned by Carnegie, Juilliard, the Southbank Centre, Cité de la musique, and the Kölner Philharmonic. The concert was part of Carnegie Hall’s “My Time, My Music” series, and drew a substantial number of young listeners.

The program was organized and expertly played by percussionists Colin Currie and Daniel Druckman, who were joined by pianists Simon Crawford-Phillips and Philip Moore for Quartet, and singers Sarah Brailey and Jamie Jordan, piccolo player Viola Chan, and the Juilliard Percussion Ensemble (which Druckman directs). The gathered forces played Drumming in the second half.

To clear the palate, Currie and Reich began with Clapping Music for four hands. Clapping Music is not much more than an exercise, but it does distill Reich’s ideas about making pieces through moving rhythms in and out of phase with each other.

In Quartet, one can immediately hear Reich’s personal accumulation of knowledge, of compositional problems solved from Octet (1979) through City Life (1994). The music is as propulsive as always, and there is the feeling of a lead line through the three continuous sections (fast-slow-fast). It also sounds entirely new, and changes the impression of Reich’s newly recorded Radio Rewrite from an exploratory piece to one that perhaps marks the end of a previous compositional phase.

Inside the larger sections, there is a start-stop structure to the music, with musical statements coming to a clearly defined pause before moving on to the next section. These statements are based around the most complex harmonic motion Reich has ever produced; the music is constantly modulating with a Beethovenian assertion that ignores preparatory chords. Reich will end a phrase by, say, moving the key up a perfect fourth, then end that statement without further resolution, then begin the following statement another third away.

On paper, this look frustrating, but in concert it was involving, Reich’s development and sequence relevant in the music world, like Roy Lichtenstein’s takes on Picasso and Matisse. This is new in his work, but it also has a clear, strong connection to his roots in counterpoint and the music of Bach.

There are unexpected and stimulating colors of polytonality in the slow section, and crunchy dissonances in the third; an extended vibes solo grows out of the constant interplay and counterpoint between the instruments, like something Stan Kenton might have done. In the program notes, Reich says the music demands ensemble virtuosity, and Druckman, Currie, Crawford-Phillips and Moore played the piece with obvious command and confidence.

Drumming is a magnum opus of his career, a piece that, when set alongside Music for 18 Musicians, sets the boundary of his phase music against his subsequent forty-year exploration of harmony and of musical structures that develop and build through repetition. Through four extended sections based around the instrumentation of tuned bongos, marimbas and glockenspiel—with the added colors of voice and piccolo, all musicians coming together in the final section—the piece develops by laying out the most rudimentary rhythms, building them through layers into complex music, then paring them back down to overlap with the next section.

Drumming is a beautiful work, the kind of music that is fully satisfying to the mind and body. Like a lot of Reich’s music, it is well known from recordings, but it must be heard live. The way the music is played is immediately exciting, especially with the aggressive élan Currie, Druckman and the student musicians brought. The musicians extended the opening repetitions, but played with such a perfect tempo, the entire work moved at an ideal pace.

Like Music for 18 Musicians, Drumming demands the musicians work together intimately on a common goal, and the way they stand together, passing along the music like on an assembly line, is fascinating and even moving, a dehumanizing element of society repurposed for communal aesthetics. And no recording can capture the inherent psychoacoustic effects of this piece, which had ringing, mellifluous waves of sound spinning through the hall.

The “My Time, My Music” series at Carnegie continues with Anne-Sophie Mutter November 11. carnegiehall.org.

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