Colin Currie Group with Synergy Vocals at Royal Festival Hall play music by Steve Reich

Steve Reich
Runner for large ensemble
Traveler’s Prayer [UK premiere]*
Quartet for 2 vibraphones & 2 pianos

Colin Currie Group
Synergy Vocals*

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 19 October, 2021
Venue: Southbank Centre, London - Royal Festival Hall

Since its foundation the Colin Currie Group has been closely associated with the music of Steve Reich, a recent 85-year-old who remains active as a composer if less so as an executant. The world and the work itself have moved on from the days when only Reich’s own ensemble seemed capable of mastering its particular challenges. For good or ill his once implacable idiom has mellowed, and this programme proved surprisingly varied in tone and address. While attracting a gratifyingly mixed audience it was presented in ‘classical’ style – dark shirts, plain lighting and an occasionally unwieldy sound balance perhaps intended to aid natural projection rather than faking the last word in crystalline transparency.

We began with Runner, a not-quite orchestral work choreographed by Wayne McGregor for The Royal Ballet’s Multiverse in 2016. Scored for 19 players, it not only retained that instantly identifiable propulsive throb throughout its fifteen-minute duration but felt at times like a playful conspectus of earlier compositions.

Next came Traveler’s Prayer, a piece of similar duration but fewer notes and an almost improvisatory feel. This was the evening’s novelty, commissioned by an international consortium of concert halls, broadcasters and cultural institutions and given its world premiere only days previously by these same performers at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. Four (vibratoless) singers – two tenors and two sopranos – plus eleven instrumentalists meditated on three short biblical texts customarily added to a prayer found in Hebrew prayer books. The score was completed during lockdown and, as Reich explains, “While these verses can certainly apply to travels by air, car, or boat, they can also be applied to travel from this world to the next.” The music uses Hebrew chant and feels closer to the medieval canons of Pérotin than the sounds and attitude of rock. As the haunting, sometimes stratospheric vocal lines hovered over a spartan, semi-devotional landscape with no hint of a beat, I wondered whether the audience might grow restless but in fact the response was warm.

The second half consisted of more familiar fare, fundamentally joyful. The jazzy, relatively relaxed Quartet was written for a compact incarnation of this group in 2013 and the performance was as precise as might have been expected. Colour-coded vibraphone mallets and the widest dynamic range added to the appeal. This was Currie’s one chance to play rather than conduct.

And so to one of Reich’s undoubted masterpieces and more psalms. Tehillim was the first of his creations to turn away from shorter-breathed ‘minimalist’ units (in 1981) while, coincidentally or not, reaffirming his Jewish heritage. One doesn’t have to be a believer to be swept up in those ecstatic, redemptive final Hallelujahs, coming home to the key of D major after the cul-de-sac of high modernism. Or perhaps given today’s headlong rush into superficial soft-focus harmonic mush it is the tautness and discipline of the process we should be marvelling at. This performance of the chamber version (23 players) was livelier and feistier than was technically possible forty years ago, the voice doubling of the clarinet miked-up more than some of the string chording, at least from my seat. No matter. Tehillim’s mix of the traditional and the new retains its freshness and quite rightly brought the house down.

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