Steve Reich: London Sinfonietta at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

London Sinfonietta, Synergy Vocals, Micaela Haslam, Andrew Gourlay (conductor), Sound Intermedia

Royal Festival Hall, 12th February in 2019

Steve Reich

  • Clapping Music
  • Runner for Large Ensemble
  • Music for 18 Musicians

Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? The good thing, in this case, being the minimalist music of Steve Reich. There are those music lovers for whom just a few minutes sets their teeth on edge I gather. Not me though. Repetition, repetition, repetition. That’s what I crave. Except that it isn’t really repetitive. It is just structured sound. Built on rhythm. Which evolves. As has Mr Reich’s music. Perfectly demonstrated in this programme.

SR composed Clapping Music in 1972 as an antidote to all the paraphernalia and kit that the Steve Reich Ensemble required to perform his major compositions at that time, (as witnessed by Music for 18 Musicians after the interval). Two performers and their hands. One part fixed, the other repeatedly moving from unison to one beat ahead then back again. Clever clogs. SR, and the two performers here, David Hockings and Tim Palmer. Looks easy? Try it with the help of the app. It isn’t.

Runner for Large Ensemble, of winds, percussion, pianos and strings, is a relatively recent work, from 2016, and comprises five sections played without a pause. The tempo remains broadly constant but note durations vary from sixteenths to eighths to a standard Ghanian bell pattern, (Ghana being the source of many of SR’s works), and then reversed. It ends in the wind section with pulses played for as long as the players can sustain. It is not a long work, 15 minutes or so, and has a little less melodic interest that much of what we might term “late period” Reich (though here’s hoping with having many more compositions to come). This is as close to High Baroque as minimalism gets. I loved it.

Though I could listen to SR’s music all day. As it now seems could half of London. Programmes of Reich and Glass’s music, at least the large scale works, now sell out and audiences are no longer comprised of solitary, rather dubious looking, fifty-something blokes (hello Tourist), but the hip and trendy creative twenty-somethings from East London.

I have blathered on before on this blog about Music for 18 Musicians so I’lll keep this short. This was a turning point for SR as pulse and rhythm of the works from the 1960’s and early 1970s (Piano Phase, Violin Phase, Drumming) was augmented by expanded ideas around structure and, especially, harmony, and electronic intervention was curtailed. The movement between chords is still restricted, but, over the piece, there are repeated cycles of 11 chords, each held for two “breaths” from the voices and wind section(clarinets) which the strings follow. The 4 pianos and the mallet instruments deliver a regular rhythmic pulse, and, as the chords are stretched out, small “pieces” in arch form are built on top to create harmony and changes in instrumentation. The effect is like early polyphonic voice compositions with a cantus firmus overlaid with instrumental “melismas”. The sections are divided by cues from the mettalophone who becomes a sort of director and the modulations within chords are marshalled by the bass clarinet. here Timothy Lines. (Andrew Gourlay only conducted Runner).

All clear. It takes a few listens to get the picture and even then it is easy to get lost in the apparent repetition but it helps to get the map in mind. Then the choreography of sound (and movement as percussionists shift position), the way the focus and texture of the sound shifts across the ensemble, becomes clearer, and moves beyond the “hypnotic wash”. Understanding the process reveals the beauty. At least that’s what I think. Synergy Vocals lead by Michaela Haslam are the world’s experts in Reich’s work and the London Sinfonietta has form in Reich too, and together they were, mostly faultless in delivering the seamless ebbe and flow of the music.

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