SFS Pays Tribute To Maverick Reich As He Turns 80

Eighth Blackbird and members of the San Francisco Symphony perform Steve Reich's Double Sextet, closing a concert devoted to the American composer's music at Davies Symphony Hall. Photos: Cory Weaver

Eighth Blackbird and members of the San Francisco Symphony perform Steve Reich’s Double Sextet, closing a concert devoted to Reich’s music at Davies Symphony Hall. (Photos by Cory Weaver)

By Richard S. Ginell

SAN FRANCISCO — There was a time when Steve Reich was considered some kind of dangerous gadfly, infiltrating the sanctuary of so-called classical music with repetitious and irresistible rhythmic grooves from forbidden sources. But that was long ago. Now, on the eve of his 80th birthday (Oct. 3), Reich is being venerated by many as America’s greatest living composer. All right, it’s misleading to say that about anyone, but the pendulum is definitely swinging more in the latter direction than the former — and nowhere was the urge to commemorate Milestone 80 greater than in San Francisco.

It was in San Francisco that, thanks to the sheer accident of discovering phasing when two tape loops went out of sync with each other, that Reich produced It’s Gonna Rain, which he now calls his Opus 1. The San Francisco Symphony under Edo de Waart gave Reich his first shot at writing for an orchestra in 1980 with Variations For Winds, Strings, and Keyboard, and one of his earliest champions, Michael Tilson Thomas, has been in charge of the SFS since 1995. With this history in mind, the SFS launched its 2016-17 season in Davies Symphony Hall with a Steve Reich mini-festival, boldly playing Three Movements at the opening night gala Sept. 7 and continuing through the following weekend.

Michael Tilson Thomas and Steve Reich: 'Clapping Music.'

Michael Tilson Thomas and Steve Reich: ‘Clapping Music.’

In a nutshell, Reich stripped music down to a skeleton and built it up anew with processes influenced by jazz, West African drumming, Stravinsky, Pérotin, and much more. But what gives Reich’s music its lasting appeal, I think, is that he comes up with terrific riffs and grooves that can bear the repetition he puts them through. Also, he keeps on re-inventing himself, less so in recent years, but enough that his fans still eagerly await what he might come up with next.

But first, as if to place Reich in some sort of American context, Tilson Thomas opened the Sept. 10 concert with some Copland and a taste of Gershwin. The performance of Copland’s Billy The Kid suite had bracing passages of brash, clearly etched Western Americana and other moments that sounded surprisingly routine. Soprano Susanna Phillips turned in a dazzling rendition of four of Copland’s Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson, her lovely lyric soprano easily conveying wonder, humor and surprise as the orchestrations glistened. The Gershwin songs “Summertime” and “I Got Rhythm” were a carryover from the glitter of the opening night gala, particularly when Phillips and MTT revved up some swinging Broadway pizzazz in the latter.

Up until now, Reich’s Double Sextet (2007) — which won The Establishment’s seal of approval, a Pulitzer Prize — struck me as being little more than just another good example of Reich’s recent preoccupations with predictable structural patterns. This was true on both recordings of the piece by Eighth Blackbird and Ensemble Signal, and in Eighth Blackbird’s live performance at the Ojai Festival some seven years ago.

Reich's 'Six Marimbas' (1986) is a transcription of his 1973 'Six Pianos.'

Reich’s ‘Six Marimbas’ (1986) is a transcription of his 1973 ‘Six Pianos.’

But this performance, in which six members of Eighth Blackbird were integrated with six members of the SFS — including concertmaster Alexander Barantschik — lifted the piece to another, higher level. Though the rumbling rhythmic engines of the piano and mallet instruments were buried underneath the sustained dual violins, flutes, and clarinets, they still generated an insistent underlying drive that grew stronger as each outer movement unfolded. Moreover, the San Francisco players, particularly Barantschik, brought a new lyrical ardency to the inner slow movement.

I’m still not convinced of the viability of Reich’s Three Movements (1985), though even after a valiant effort by Tilson Thomas and the SFS to lift it off the ground. The problem is that Reich’s engines are bogged down by all of that orchestral weight; his distinct sonic profile becomes trapped in a conventional mold. It figured that Reich would soon abandon that format and concentrate on smaller groups (although he is planning to try again with Twenty Soloists and Orchestra, due in 2018).

The Kronos Quartet performed Reich's 'Different Trains.'

The Kronos Quartet performed Reich’s ‘Different Trains.’

The next evening, Sept. 11, brought a marvelous Reich retrospective that touched on several aspects of his evolution over the years. Six Marimbas (1986) is a transcription of 1973’s Six Pianos, the piece in which Reich abandoned phasing and further developed his additive experiments. As often the case with Reich, the re-scored version is more effective than the original, sharpening the swinging quality of his collection of inspired riffs. Within the reverberant walls of Davies, the grooves were surrounded by a blurring halo effect; you could either relax and float downstream (with apologies to John Lennon) or bob up and down to the groove. One striking thing about this performance — and all the others on this weekend — was how comfortable today’s musicians have become with Reich’s arduous demands, how the control of dynamic levels and expression is more sophisticated and subtle than on earlier recordings and performances.

WTC 9/11 was originally scheduled for this concert but was scrapped in favor of Different Trains (1988). This was just as well, for the grim WTC 9/11 would have been too much to take on this tragic date — and in any case, Different Trains is a much better example of Reich’s innovative use of pre-recorded voices and multi-layered string quartets. The Kronos Quartet, which first spread the word about the piece, officiated again, energetically, passionately, as the first-nostalgic, then-harrowing sounds of the tape reverberated through the hall. Inevitably, some of the piece’s shock value has worn off with time, but it can still convey horror, especially on this particular day, with the wailing sirens of Part II.

Derek Johnson, joined by prerecorded electric guitars, performed 'Electric Counterpoint.'

Derek Johnson was the sole live musician in ‘Electric Counterpoint.’

Electric Counterpoint (1987) might be the closest Reich ever came to writing American popular music, given its instrumentation for pre-recorded electric guitars and live soloist, and especially its wonderful complex collection of catchy tuneful riffs. Guitarist Derek Johnson plugged in and grooved with a swaying motion, clearly delighted by Reich’s inventions. Another performance of Double Sextet wrapped up the evening, this time even faster and more insistent than the night before.

The advance publicity suggested that Tilson Thomas would be providing narration and insights throughout the evening, yet his spoken contributions were limited to a very brief introduction and a couple of short video interviews with himself and Reich. [MTT and Reich describe their experience performing 4 Organs at Carnegie Hall, below.] But as a surprise insert after intermission, MTT and the composer performed the perennial concert-opener Clapping Music for old times’ sake. The audience skewed noticeably younger than your usual symphony crowd, and they whooped and hollered.

Reich’s birthday is being celebrated widely this season — and there will be some new music from the restless octogenarian-to-be. David Robertson, ICE and So Percussion perform the world premiere of Pulse, along with the Quartet and the video oratorio Three Tales, in a Reich 80th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 1. The Britten Sinfonia gets Pulse next in London on Nov. 5 as part of the Barbican’s “Steve Reich at 80” weekend. Jeffrey Milarsky and the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group offer the West Coast premiere of Pulse at Disney Hall on Jan. 17, 2017, as part of an all-Reich concert (with Mallet Quartet and Tehillim), followed by ICE’s performance at Stanford Live on Jan. 21, 2017.

Another new Reich work, Runner, receives its world premiere from the Royal Ballet at London’s Royal Opera House on Nov. 10, choreographed by Wayne McGregor. The U.S. premiere, with Brad Lubman fronting Ensemble Signal, takes place at Hertz Hall in Berkeley on Jan. 29, 2017, as part of another all-Reich evening.

Reich’s music will be heard in a couple of new-music marathons on both coasts. Eight Lines will be done in Disney Hall as part of the LA Phil’s all-day “From Noon To Midnight” jamboree Oct. 1, while New York’s Symphony Space promises a “Wall-To-Wall Steve Reich” career-spanning retrospective April 30, 2017, that is expected to last 420 minutes.

On Sept. 9, Deutsche Grammophon reissued on vinyl a three-LP set containing the first recordings of Six Pianos, Music for Mallet Instruments Voices and Organ, and the complete Drumming. First released in 1974, this luxurious set was then an audacious gamble for a prestigious German label on a little-known American outsider. ECM is putting out a triple-CD reissue of its early Reich material — Music for 18 Musicians, Octet, Music for a Large Ensemble, Violin Phase and Tehillim — Sept. 30.

There are some new Reich recordings out, too, though nothing as lavish as the above. The LSO Percussion Ensemble has a good package containing Clapping Music, Music For Pieces Of Wood, and Sextet (LSO Live); Lubman and Ensemble Signal offer Double Sextet and Radio Rewrite (Harmonia Mundi); and Third Coast Percussion puts its own boldly opulent spin on Music For Pieces of Wood, Sextet, Mallet Quartet and Nagoya Marimbas (Cedille).

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.

Date posted: September 16, 2016

Comments are closed.