For those of us of a certain age and musical background, Steve Reich holds a position analogous to The Beatles for an earlier demographic: we have memories of listening to recordings in darkened rooms, discussing how this changed everything. So it’s a little disconcerting to find oneself, decades later, attending a concert in which a new piece by Reich, his first orchestral work in thirty years, is sharing a program with two warhorse-status works by Beethoven. While neither composer’s work particularly illuminated the other’s, they shared their program nicely, and Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic did ample justice to them both.

Jaap van Zweden © Hans van der Woerd
Jaap van Zweden
© Hans van der Woerd

The outer movements of Beethoven’s Second Symphony seemed to have been what captured van Zweden’s imagination. The first movement’s slow introduction hovers between Beethoven’s classical roots and the proto-Romanticist he was to become; those conflicting currents were clearly audible here. But in the Allegro con brio van Zweden led the orchestra on a merry chase, leaning forward into the tempo throughout. Crazily racing strings tumbled over gestures that seemed about to break free of their metric bounds, but never did. The inner movements did not seem to have as clear points of view, although the orchestra gave them a sweetly cottony sound; the Scherzo was simply too slow. This was the first symphonic work to have the third movement labeled “Scherzo” instead of “Minuet,” but here it sounded very much like a minuet. Perhaps the conductor feared diminishing the impact of the fourth movement, which was fantastically playful here, maximizing surprise and drama, far more scherzando than the Scherzo itself.

The ensemble in Reich’s Music for Ensemble and Orchestra consists of nine solo strings, pairs of woodwinds, pianos, vibraphones and electric bass; the “orchestra” is four trumpets and the remaining strings. This larger group doesn’t have much to do; for long stretches they sit idle, and when they play they are primarily providing harmonic support (in the case of the strings) or extra oomph for the climaxes (in the case of the trumpets). For much of the piece, the pianos provide steady, pulsating patterns, the strings and woodwinds are given angular, asymmetrical, interlocking melodies, and the vibraphones are there for punctuation and color. This is not a radical departure for Reich; I heard echoes of Tehillim in the shapes of the melodies, and of Desert Music (his last orchestral venture) in the way the vibraphones announced new sections and changes of texture. The way woodwind clusters were built up and sustained also has precursors in his other work, although I heard more dissonance here than I associate with this composer. Structurally the piece was delineated by changes in the patterns provided by the pianos, with each of the five continuous movements based on a different one; the end was signaled, delightfully, by the vibraphones taking over the last pattern from the pianos for a few measures. It’s a satisfying work that I would be happy to sit through again.

Yefim Bronfman gave an admirable account of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, getting through all of the flying figuration and chromatic scales with an industrious virtuosity that allowed for no fuss or flashiness. Fire and drama were evident in the cadenzas (Bronfman used Beethoven’s own), but the most arresting moments were the quiet ones, in which time seemed to stand still as ideas crystallized out of delicate piano notes. The second movement’s call and response between restrained piano and stentorian, portentous strings seemed to be the center of the piece, rather than a bridge between the two more exuberant outer movements.