Miller celebrates Steve Reich at 80 with “Variations”

Fri Sep 16, 2016 at 4:49 pm
Steve Reich photo

Composer Steve Reich (photo by Jeffrey Herman)

Variation form is easily the most common tool in a composer’s kit. Taking a phrase, turning it upside down and putting it backwards, pushing notes around on paper (as John Adams puts it) is the essence of composing.

Variations are also at the foundation of Steve Reich’s art. Reich, probably the most important composer of the past 50 years, has been working with little more than variations (and his own variation on canon form) for most of this career. He is celebrating his 80th birthday this year, and Miller Theater began the festivities with their season’s opening night concert on Thursday.

Titled Steve Reich: Variations, the program was two 21st-century sets of variations, Daniel Variations and You Are (Variations). Expertly played by Ensemble Signal, augmented with vocalists and conducted by Brad Lubman, the sold-out event was satisfying in and of itself, and a reminder of just why Reich has been such an essential figure in the classical tradition.

Despite bursting on the scene as an avant-gardist, Reich is a deeply traditional composer. The context of his times—the heyday of academic atonalism—and his early materials—tape loops—set him against what was the contemporary grain. Reich pushed repetitive structures as far as he could, breaking through to contrapuntal clarity, rhythmic vitality, and sonic beauty that renewed the power and utility of tonality, and that have reached a broad audience. Paraphrasing what Virgil Thomson wrote about Satie, Reich can be enjoyed without being understood.

Even more, Reich’s music is up-front about its own process, and the sheer pleasure of its sound is magnified by the pleasure of hearing it come together, through time, before one’s ears.

And that was further enhanced, through these two sets, by Signal’s superb playing. They have become, after Reich’s own ensemble, the composer’s leading interpreters (as can be heard on two recent Harmonia Mundi recordings). Energy is inherent in the music, and Signal expresses that not only through their instruments but through their bodies—they clearly feel the rhythms with a deep physicality, and comes out in their playing with a sense of swing that is perfect for the music.

On top of the rhythms are the tonal harmonies, essential to both the Daniel and You Are pieces. The first is a commemoration of the life of journalist Daniel Pearl, kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan in 2002. The texts Reich sets here (and in You Are) are even more compact than aphorisms, but through the simple means of consonance, dissonance, and harmonic motion, Reich expresses both wrenching and transformative feelings.

The vitality of the pieces and playing dug even deeper. Daniel Variations in particular, with Reich’s bright, sinewy orchestration, insinuates itself provocatively, the lovely colors and textures transmitting a subliminal message that sticks. There are important antiphonal parts (another ancient technique), with violin, viola, and clarinets responding to the voices, forceful reactions to the words, and the playing was full of a moving sense of determination.

In the second half, the jaunty You Are, the words a combination of Wittgenstein and Jewish philosophy, was a counterbalance of extroversion and optimism.

The only flaw in this otherwise ideal meeting of composer and performers was the always problematic acoustic at Miller. Reich requires amplification, and the mix was poor, with a muddy bass and brittle treble, the voices often lost amid the overall frequencies, and a strange whipsawing between an at times too centered sound image, and one that was fragmented into micro-locales. The ear eventually adapted to, then dismissed, this distraction, and the fulfilling experience of the performance came through.

Miller Theater’s Composer Portraits series opens with the music of John Zorn, 8:00 p.m. October 20.

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