I sometimes think of the artistic arc of Steve Reich as being something like that of the novelist Paul Auster. Both gave voice to New York City but, perhaps more interestingly, each made surprising, mid-career turns toward emotion. A maturity of expression is hardly uncommon, we can go back at least as far as the Beethoven quartets, but the turnarounds Reich and Auster exhibited are rather remarkable, from almost clinical dedication to form to works that can fill, or break, a heart. It would only be so much of an oversimplification to say that where Auster discovered human compassion, Reich looked to the scripture. 

Steve Reich
© Stephanie Berger

A strong sense of the humanism in Reich’s 1981 composition Tehillim – which was the first piece on the program at the Steve Reich Celebration concert by the Colin Currie Group and Synergy Vocals at Carnegie Hall – comes with the use of voice. It wasn’t the first time Reich included singers (indeed, Synergy sang his landmark 1976 work Music for 18 Musicians in the second half of the program) but singers are strongly featured in the work, and are singing Biblical verse. The vocals over hand-clapped rhythm at the outset call to mind his radical 1972 work Clapping Music (which is only that, no voices or other instruments), but strings soon join in and the rhythm is given over to a shaker. Even with the steady count, the music is received by the ear in three distinct segments: voices, slow strings and the persistent percussion, like beauty buried under busyness. 

The Colin Currie Group’s reading seemed fairly romantic, more fluid than a New York ensemble might offer, or maybe it was just the resonance in the storied room. The strings seemed a bit of a deluge, although Reich himself has commended Currie performances of his work as “the best I’ve ever heard”. The ensemble wore Reich’s heart on their sleeves.  

The Colin Currie Group
© Stephanie Berger

Traveler’s Prayer, receiving its US premiere, was begun before, but completed during, the pandemic, using texts from Genesis, Exodus, and (like Tehillim) Psalms, repeating some verses used in his WTC 9/11. The piece served well as a coda to the downward build of the second half of the previous piece, beginning quite gently, a sort of complex quasi-canon with retrograde inversions built in part from Hebrew chant melodies. Synergy’s magnificent tenors resounded deep within string intervals that suggested a hurdy-gurdy, the angelic sopranos held temporarily at bay. Reich’s work could rarely be mistaken for early music, but Traveler’s Prayer felt ancient with a contemporary mindset, not unlike much of Pärt’s work. And, again like Tehillim, it was not strictly metered. It breathed in a way more organic than mechanistic. 

Colin Currie and the Colin Currie Group
© Stephanie Berger

18 Musicians, after the interval, would be the test of the Brits on New York minimalism. That, of course, is a critic’s construction, and an unfair one at that. Both ensembles have played Reich’s music in the past, and in fact the Colin Currie Group was founded in 2006 to perform Drumming for a BBC Proms celebration of the composer’s 70th birthday. The ebb and flow of the near-staccato repetitions were played with precision (so we’ll blame the room for the watery Tehillim). The twin bass clarinets in particular sounded wonderful, playing different trains than the ones Reich would write twelve years later. The four pianos clearly articulated what seemed like impossible fragmented phrases. It was an intoxicating hour and a dizzying array of information. All was exquisite.

While I find Auster’s later fiction more appealing, I’ll admit to preferring Reich’s exhilarating early work. Where Reich went to the Holy Land to find salvation (we might speculate) from the city, Auster stayed home and found love for his fellow New Yorkers. Fortunately, since the comparison is just another critical construction, there’s no choice to be made.