Phases – The Music of Steve Reich: The Desert Music

Three Movements
The Rite of Spring
The Desert Music [arr. Pierson]

Synergy Vocals
D-Fuse (visual projections)

London Symphony Orchestra
Xian Zhang

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 1 October, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The Barbican’s Steve Reich at 70 retrospective (“Phases”) had a ‘taster’ with this concert by the London Symphony Orchestra. Not that many of its musicians took part in the airing of “The Desert Music” (1983): settings of American poet William Carlos Williams in a cantata whose initially extensive choral and orchestral forces constitute the grandest of Reichian concepts. Initially! On this occasion, “The Desert Music” was given in the composer’s reduction for ten amplified singers and chamber orchestra, along with brass parts adapted (or should that be simplified?) by conductor Alan Pierson back in 2001.

This was a pity: logistically, because the orchestral numbers required were on hand in the first half and could have been deployed here (and no doubt the London Symphony Chorus could have participated); musically, because whatever the virtues of clarity and balance claimed for this reduction, the work’s content gains considerably when heard in the original version – endowing Reich’s synthesis of incremental rhythmic change and contemplative harmonic suspensions with a richness of texture such as draws the listener (however unwittingly) into the unfolding process. As it was, very little height and depth came across, with the music streamlined so that any acoustic resonance was effectively ironed out.

The members of Synergy Vocals sang with enviable purity of intonation and cleanness of attack, but their word projection was surprisingly approximate at times – unfortunate in a piece where verbal comprehension should be paramount. The LSO players were expertly marshalled by Xian Zhang, though the strings made rather heavy weather of their cross-rhythms during the second and fourth sections, and the summating interlude before the final section went for precious little: evoking neither physical nor psychological ‘desert’, and thus failing to capture a sense of Man’s existential crisis in the nuclear age that is as central to Williams’s verses as it is to Reich’s treatment of them.

The performance was enlivened, for the most part, with computer images generated in real-time by D-Fuse. These did not entirely avoid being a visual backdrop, but their graphic density and immediacy evinced sensitivity as well as expertise in the medium, and provided a perspective on the music that the performance often lacked. A ‘wrap-round’ – of the stage if not the auditorium – would, however, have avoided the ‘film show’ ambience that two screens suspended centre-stage tended to evoke.

The two screens were reduced to projecting a few simple images in Three Movements (1986), which opened the concert. Reich’s venture into full-blown orchestral music proved short-lived and it is easy to hear why. What is essentially a concert overture (of the fast-slow-fast variety) lacks nothing in Reichian hallmarks – the strings’ cumulative antiphonal exchanges in the first part, the elegant and not at all impersonal part-writing at the centre, and vividly ricocheting canons of the final part – and Xian Zhang drew a virtuoso response from the LSO to suggest the work might yet establish itself as a latter-day showpiece. Missing is a sense of re-thinking the possibilities of orchestral composition from the inside, making for a stylish but non-involving rehash of past innovations. We may be glad that, with Different Trains (1988), Reich took a radically different tack which – whatever the success of recent projects – has at least ensured that he embraced the ‘mainstream’ strictly on his own terms.

Currently Associate Conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and with a burgeoning career abroad, Xian Zhang would seem to have it all before her. That said, her approach to The Rite of Spring seemed predicated on accurate if inflexible time-beating, leaving the LSO to power through a work that it is, after all, highly equipped to play without a conductor. Projections of each section-title kept the largely young and enthusiastic audience fully abreast of the action, and the response was certainly positive. Hopefully this will have been inspiration enough to attend a more illuminating performance in the future.

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