A Steve Reich celebration at Northwestern

Northwestern University Contemporary Music Ensemble
Northwestern University Percussion Ensemble
Alan Pierson, conductor
Pick-Staiger Concert Hall
Evanston, IL
February 9, 2017

Reich: Clapping Music
Reich: City Life
Reich: Music for 18 Musicians

As winner of the 2016 Nemmers Prize in Music Composition, Steve Reich is undertaking a pair of residencies at Northwestern University, the first of which culminated in a performance by the university’s Contemporary Music Ensemble and Percussion Ensemble.  Much attention has been given to Reich in recent months, coinciding with his 80th birthday last October (incidentally, a threshold which minimalist compatriot Philip Glass crossed just a couple weeks ago, acknowledged locally by the Bruckner Orchester Linz).  Three of Reich’s most representative works were programmed, expertly performed by student ensembles, and an engaging onstage Q&A between Reich and conductor Alan Pierson served as an intermezzo before the final selection.

Steve Reich and Alan Pierson, photo credit Todd Rosenberg

The evening began with Reich’s iconic Clapping Music.  Dating from 1971, it was the product of the composer’s aspiration to write music that solely relied on the human body as an instrument.  Ten pairs of performers were onstage, with one clapping a fixed pattern and the other navigating the intricate rhythmic shifts, eventually coming full circle to conclude in unison.  Pierson gestured with his head to punctuate each new segment which ensured all 20 performers remained together, and he was paired with Reich himself – in an age when composition and performance have become increasingly separate disciplines, it was a rare treat indeed to see a composer perform their own work.

The first half was rounded off with the most recent work on the program, City Life (1995), a bustling and not altogether charitable portrait of New York City.  The scoring included two sampling pianos, loaded with an arsenal of prerecorded sounds as a veritable digital incarnation of the prepared piano.  Seamlessly woven into the fabric of the work, the sound samples used functioned as instruments in of themselves.  Ambient mood lighting illuminated the stage, changing color to mark each of the five movements, and added an additional visual dimension to the performance.

It opened with earthy harmonies, almost reminiscent of Copland, before shifting to Reich’s more familiar textures.  The second and fourth movements were the only ones to eschew speech samples and were dark and often tragic in character.  In the central “It’s been a honeymoon – can’t take no mo’”, frenetically repeated figures were marked by rhythmic precision and a detailed use of phasing.  The concluding “Heavy smoke” was the most arresting, with the stage ominously shrouded in a deep red.  The sirens from the opening movement returned, which Reich indicated were an artifact of the World Trade Center bombing of 1993.  Matters ended seemingly peacefully with the stage now a softer blue, but this was an apotheosis of questionable authenticity.

The Music of Steve Reich
City Life, photo credit Todd Rosenberg

The monumental Music for 18 Musicians was the evening’s highlight, and was preceded by a brief discussion with Reich – a fascinating look into the mind of the composer himself (a very short clip can be viewed here).  Reich touched on his ambivalent relationship with New York City that informed the contents of the previous work, described the medium of Music for 18 Musicians as a “large chamber ensemble” (i.e. not requiring a conductor), and spoke with admiration of the Northwestern student performers.

Conductor-less indeed, the final work took its cue from Balinese gamelan and others where the musicians themselves serve as conductor from within the ensemble, obviating the need for a separate entity.  Here, the metallophone functioned as a de facto conductor, cueing the start of each section.  Spanning the continuum of nearly an hour, it’s difficult to describe the sheer aural impact of the work, one that should surely be on the bucket list of every concertgoer.  Throughout the duration, the effect was singularly mesmerizing, often reaching ecstatic heights.  I was particularly struck by the ethereal voices of the four singers, incidentally, the only performers to be amplified.  The cohesiveness and stamina the titular 18 musicians exuded was a sight to behold, sustained through the otherworldly final moments wherein matters were distilled to the solo violin.

Reich’s next residency and associated concerts will take place in November 2017 – much to look forward to indeed.

After Music for 18 Musicians (Steve Reich on stage at far right), photo credit Todd Rosenberg

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