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.

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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.

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After Music for 18 Musicians (Steve Reich on stage at far right), photo credit Todd Rosenberg
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Chicago Symphony’s return marked by a jovial program with Bramwell Tovey

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Bramwell Tovey, conductor
Symphony Center
Chicago, IL
February 4, 2017

Walton: Orb and Sceptre
Britten: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34
Tchaikovsky: The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66 – Act II

After devoting January to an extensive and triumphant European tour, the Chicago Symphony returned to Symphony Center last weekend in their first concert on home turf since mid-December.  This also marked the subscription debut of the talented British conductor Bramwell Tovey, who currently serves as music director of the Vancouver Symphony.  The repertoire choices spanned the European continent from a British first half to a Russian finale, alluring in their ebullience.

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Bramwell Tovey

A rarity (and first performance for the CSO) opened in Walton’s Orb and Sceptre, a spirited coronation march he wrote for the crowning of Elizabeth II in 1953.  It began with extrovert playing in brass, sounding not unlike the ubiquitous Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The score called for an organ which gave matters a particularly ceremonial quality.  The work’s showstopping moment came in the contrasting lyrical theme which invoked the nobility of Elgar, and returned in the concluding peroration – the CSO’s energetic playing bordering on the overzealous.

Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra began with a stately presented of the Baroque theme, derived from the Rondeau of Purcell’s incidental music to Abdelazer.  Opening with the force of the full orchestra, the variations are distilled to each of the constituent instruments, teaching the titular young listener to identify the characteristic sound of each.  Among the highpoints were Keith Buncke demonstrating the lyrical potential of the bassoon, and the trumpet duet between Mark Ridenour and Tage Larsen.  The closing fugue was innocently initiated in the piccolo by Jennifer Gunn (though regrettably, not without a few missed notes), building up to the thrilling climax in which Purcell’s original melody is superimposed over Britten’s fugue subject.  The dignified manner in which the musicians presented the work made the case that only the subtitle – “Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell” – was necessary, this being a work of much more than mere didacticism.

The latter half was devoted the entire second act of Tchaikovsky’s seminal ballet score, The Sleeping Beauty.  Despite the act’s abundance of first-rate music, it’s also some of the ballet’s least-known as none appears in the familiar suite the composer extracted (and of which Muti conducted during a memorable all-Tchaikovsky program in Millennium Park at the beginning of the 2014-15 season).  Tovey provided the audience with a spoken introduction, detailing the act’s plot and brimming with his characteristic British wit.

A rustic atmosphere drew the audience into Tchaikovsky’s fairy tale world, as portrayed by the brilliance of the horns.  Tovey suggested that the harp represents the realm of the supernatural, and it was beautifully played by Sarah Bullen, a noteworthy addition to the score’s rich colors.  Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson’s silvery flute vividly brought the Lilac Fairy to life.  The farandole was another delightful moment, though Tchaikovsky imbued it with an ineffable Eastern tinge, à la the mazurka.  John Sharp’s cello solo truly yearned in the Pas d’action, only to be outdone by concertmaster Robert Chen’s extended passagework in the Entr’acte that heralds the act’s finale (and originally composed for Leopold Auer).  Heretofore silent, the percussionists finally had their due in the concluding moments, Cynthia Yeh’s gong dramatically signifying the long-awaited awakening of Aurora, and the act concluded in rousing fashion.

Vocal and visual spectacle in Lyric Opera’s Les Troyens

Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House
Chicago, IL
December 3, 2016

Berlioz: Les Troyens

Christine Goerke, Cassandra
Susan Graham, Dido
Brandon Jovanovich, Aeneas
Okka von der Damerau, Anna
Lucas Meachem, Chorebus
Christian Van Horn, Narbal

Sir Andrew Davis, conductor
Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra
Tim Albery, director
Tobias Hoheisel, set designer

With works on the scale of La damnation de Faust and Roméo et Juliette to his credit, one would certainly expect an opera from Berlioz to be of the grandest proportions.  Les Troyens certainly does not disappoint on that front, and Lyric Opera of Chicago’s first traversal of this epic – lasting nearly five hours – was a major achievement.  Scored for a large cast, massive choir, sumptuous orchestra, and corps de ballet, this lavish production directed by Tim Albery and designed by Tobias Hoheisel was given a run of just five performances as it was no doubt a costly investment for Lyric.

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Lyric Opera’s Les Troyens, photo credit Todd Rosenberg

Berlioz had something of an obsession with Virgil’s Aeneid on which the opera is based, and accordingly provided his own libretto, notable for its directness.  The opera is conceived in five acts, further divided into two parts (The Taking of Troy and The Trojans at Carthage respectively).  The central image on stage through the duration was of a mighty wall, crumbling and dilapidated in Troy, opulent and shining in Carthage, yet in a continuing arc it was the same wall, suggesting the cyclical rise and fall of human civilization.  On that note, one was struck by the suggestion of the Trojan refugees crossing the Mediterranean in flight of their destroyed city, evocative of the plight of the Syrian refugees in today’s no less tumultuous political climate.

The latter part begins at the third act, and it was here the wall was rebuilt, brilliantly shrouded in pearly white light, allowing for a striking visual effect of shadows on the wall.  Act IV was a highpoint with its tender moments in an otherwise bloody drama.  The corps de ballet beautifully portrayed nymphs and satyrs, and Mingjie Lei’s dulcet tones depicted the poet Iopas, accompanied by the harp and oboe.  The act built up to the soaring duet between Dido and Aeneas (“Nuit d’ivresse”), the otherworldly atmosphere further enhanced by celestial images of the stars and planets.  In the last act, Susan Graham’s Dido was impassioned and heartwrenching in her final, desperate cries, and the opera ended with the word “ROMA” projected on the wall suggesting her parting vision of Carthage being destroyed by Rome.

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Susan Graham (Dido) and Brandon Jovanovich (Aeneas), photo credit Todd Rosenberg

Dido was originally to be sung by Sophie Koch who withdrew for personal reasons, and fortunately for local audiences a seasoned a Dido as Graham was on hand to take her place, and she provided a bounty of beautiful singing.  Brandon Jovanovich’s Aeneas was imposing and authoritative, amply filling the dimensions of this substantial role.  Also worthy of note was Christine Goerke as Cassandra, the daughter of Priam (king of Troy), appearing only in the first part to haplessly warn of city’s impending destruction.  The chorus and orchestra, led by Michael Black and Sir Andrew Davis respectively, were major forces to be reckoned with, serving effectively as dramatic characters in their own right – unwieldy as the work may be, all the moving parts came together in tight control.

Following the curtain, there was a Q&A session moderated by general director Anthony Freud with Brandon Jovanovich, Susan Graham, Christine Goerke, and Lucas Meachem – thanks are in order to them for providing a fascinating perspective on the heels of what was surely a physically exhausting performance.

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Post-opera Q&A, L-R: Susan Graham, Lucas Meachem, Christine Goerke, Anthony Freud, Brandon Jovanovich