Steve Reich turned 80 last month, and New Yorkers finally pencilled him, between the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade and the daunting presidential election, for a big birthday bash at Carnegie Hall. The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), conductor David Robertson, Sō Percussion, and Synergy Vocals led the celebration for the composer whose influence has inspired performers and galvanized super-fans, showing convincing proof that his legacy will not only remain alive in the concert hall through the next century, but also enjoy virtuosic interpretation from performers who know and understand his works. Popular geniuses are few and far between in today’s Kardashian-worshipping society, and Reich is a glimpse of hope that one can be stoic, intelligent, and famous in the 21st century.

Steve Reich © Wonge Bergmann
Steve Reich
© Wonge Bergmann

Reich’s Quartet, played by Sō Percussion, served as a prelude and overview of his career by highlighting his stylistic use of repetitive motives, doubled patterns, and subtle modification. Pianists Cory Smythe and Jacob Greenberg and vibraphonists Nathan Davis and Adam Sliwinski beat out an intriguing performance of the piece with the finest level of intuitive chamber musicianship. When executed as precisely as Sō Percussion, many moments of Quartet can easily trip the mind of all but the most focused listener.

Commissioned by (deep breath!) Carnegie Hall, Los Angeles Philharmonic and Music Director Gustavo Dudamel, the Barbican, Kölner Philharmonie, KölnMusik, and Philharmonie de Paris – how many co-commissioners does it take to change a lightbulb? – Pulse is also emblematic of Reich’s idiosyncratic style since his beginnings in tape music. Alluded to in its title, the underlying pulse of the work is derived from the electric bass and piano. Harmonically, the work could function as the base layer of a standard pop song, but under its surface, Pulse shows how innately Reich’s music reflects nature. Composers like Nielsen and Mahler are often credited for perfectly capturing the sounds of nature, but Reich also deserves a spot on that list because so many of his techniques – repetition, systematic proportioning, evolution, etc – are evident among life on our planet.

Maestro Robertson displayed an instinctive awareness of the underlying subtle phrases that drive Pulse forward. A second-rate conductor might easily assume “minimalist” music only requires a steady beat for steady execution, but Maestro Robertson led members of ICE away from any mechanical inclinations with his flowing, dance-like gestures. The Berliner Philharmoniker is often lauded as an orchestra of chamber musicians, but ICE is a chamber orchestra of soloists. Even under Maestro Robertson’s diligence, the performance could have easily blended into a colorless machine, but the soloistic tendencies of the musicians of ICE built the piece from individual units.

Now the most bizarre piece on the program was Reich’s collaboration with his wife Beryl Korot, Three Tales, which offers a glimpse into the composer’s style of storytelling. As is sort of expected, Reich and Korot imagined tales akin to many of those from the end of the 20th century: remembrances of war, cultural imperialism, genetics and artificial intelligence. Throughout Korot’s films, distorted voice-over narrations summon a disturbing atmosphere that leaves the mind feeling uneasy. Reich, however, built musical connections between the speech patterns and the oratorical choruses, which Synergy Vocals nailed, that utilize his musical style to simultaneously depict the story through the instrumentalists and chorus. The effect heightens the piece’s overall sense of urgency but dampens the blatantly cruel and mocking implications of the imagery. The listener can then take a break from the stress of the Hindenburg or the atom bomb or cloning or cyborgs and enjoy the music for its own sake.

Fortunately, Reich won’t just drift back into hibernation for ten years before the next dectastic celebration because he currently holds Carnegie Hall’s Richard and Barbara Debs Composer Chair this season where he will frequently be curating concerts. Cheers to Mr Reich for many more birthdays, commissions, co-commissions, and co-birthdays to come!

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