A Reich string feast and a farewell at Lincoln Center

Wed Jul 20, 2016 at 12:30 pm
Music of Steve Reich was performed by JACK Quartet and Ensemble Signal Tuesday night at Lincoln Center.

Music of Steve Reich was performed by JACK Quartet and Ensemble Signal Tuesday night at Lincoln Center.

The upcoming 2016–2017 classical music season in New York is full of celebrations of Steve Reich’s 80th birthday. Getting an early start is the Lincoln Center Festival, which is presenting a three-concert survey, “Reich/Reverberations.”

Reich deserves the attention. He is the indispensable contemporary composer, the man who (almost single-handedly) hauled centuries of the classical tradition into the present day with a style that pleases both the intellect and the senses, through the sheer beauty of his processes.

The music on the second of the three concerts, heard Tuesday night at the Appel Room, represented some of his most outstanding work, and also marked a retrospective look back at the point in time where he went from being an avant-gardist, with his own specialized ensemble, to a composer writing for the wider repertory.

The most important of these pieces was Different Trains, written for the Kronos Quartet in 1988, and played on the concert’s second half by JACK Quartet. In the opening half, JACK, augmented with string players from Ensemble Signal led by conductor Brad Lubman, played the 1998 Triple Quartet and the recent WTC 9/11 (2010), both also Kronos commissions.

All of these pieces are for string quartet and pre-recorded audio, although for the opening Triple Quartet, that means a recording of the same quartet playing two accompanying parts. Three quartets can play it live, and that’s what JACK and Signal did.

Hearing this piece, and the whole concert, reinforced how deeply Reich is set in classical music history: three pieces for strings, each in three fast-slow-fast movements, the music full of counterpoint and harmonic and melodic rhythm: that could also describe a C.P.E. Bach concert.

Reich’s style is identifiably contemporary, but his virtues are enduring. His music demands a Haydnesque energy as well, and the musicians delivered. Although some complex cross-rhythms in the opening movement produced anxious, effortful playing, the performance was largely fine and polished. JACK and the Signal players kept exact and clear intonation through all of Reich’s vibrato-less sustained tones, and they attacked each note and rhythm with the unique Reich-ian accent, an uncanny combination of the sharp and curved.

This was forceful Reich playing, each line etched and firm. This approach connected the composer’s work to the great mid–20th century legacy of American music, the dynamic and transporting sound of people moving with purpose, the building of great structures. Paul Coleman’s amplification reinforced this, pushing out a sound that emphasized a sinewy, glassy edge.

WTC 9/11 comes out of a different American era, and the diminished quality of the music reflected that. Like Different Trains, WTC 9/11 is a narrative of a terrible historic tragedy, and in it Reich uses the same technique of deriving rhythms and melodies from spoken words.

But while Different Trains is a masterpiece that becomes more expressive and beautiful with each hearing, WTC 9/11 is desultory. The underlying audio is made from NORAD and FDNY recordings, along with interviews Reich conducted with witnesses to the attack and with women who performed the long, excruciating vigil of shmira over the remains.

This is Reich’s weakest piece, and no level of commitment to the playing can rescue it. The rhythms, phrases, and structures felt rote and clumsy, like first drafts. There was neither musical nor expressive direction, no compositional nor emotional process—the music was too active to make room for contemplation. 9/11 may still be simply  impossible to transform into successful musical art, at least in the current generation.

Different Trains not only has the inherent force of revivifying memories that have now almost all vanished, but is extraordinarily made. One continues to be amazed at how effectively the train metaphor can uncover humanity in the midst of horror.

Call it a sonata for train whistle. The sound on the audio tape, doubled by the strings, was romantic and exhilarating, then chilling when it turned into an air raid siren. In the final movement, “After the War”—after the trains that carried Jews to their deaths are gone—the whistle triggered complex feelings of comfort and dreadful loss.

JACK’s playing carried along the bare, evocative spoken phrases, not only repeating but preserving and exalting them. In the final movement, the music was both rescue and hope for survivors, back on the train “from New York to Los Angeles.” There were tremendous musical satisfactions, like the tension that builds with repetition of “1939,” then releases into an entirely new world with “1940,” and the gentle, almost wistful finish.

The farewell in the music was doubled in that this was the final New York performance of the original JACK Quartet—violinist Ari Streisfeld and cellist Kevin McFarland are setting out on new paths, to be replaced by Spektral Quartet violinist Austin Wulliman and the frighteningly talented cellist Jay Campbell. The warm ovation at the end of the concert was as much a gesture of gratitude to JACK as it was to Reich.

“Reich/Reverberations” concludes 8 p.m. Thursday with Ensemble Signal playing the Double Sextet and Music for 18 Musicians. lincolncenterfestival.org

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