Steve Reich Radio Rewrite – London Sinfonietta at Town Hall Birmingham

Steve Reich
Clapping Music
Electric Counterpoint
2 x 5
Radio Rewrite
Double Sextet

Steve Reich & David Hockings (hands)

Mats Bergström (guitar)

Sound Intermedia (sound projection)

London Sinfonietta
Brad Lubman

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 6 March, 2013
Venue: Town Hall, Birmingham

Steve Reich. Photograph: stevereich.comTown Hall events provided a notable platform for post-war music in the US, so it made sense that this concert focussing on one of the seminal living composers took place in Birmingham’s Town Hall – whose imposing Greco-style architecture was home to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra until 1991 and which has put on a range of cultural activities since re-opening after a lengthy period of refurbishment. While he now seldom performs in public, Steve Reich introduced the programme in his typically laconic manner and subsequently appeared at the start of the concert with David Hockings for a rendition of Clapping Music (1971) – the ultimate in portable Minimalism such as never fails to engage.

The very consistency of Reich’s musical idiom over the five decades of his composing has meant that, while he has rarely – if ever – written an intrinsically bad piece, he has written quite a few boring ones. Not the least among them is Electric Counterpoint (1987) – one in a series of pieces for solo instrument playing ‘live’ against multiple pre-recorded versions of itself, over three continuous movements whose changes in tempo and harmony secure little in the way of expressive variety: the music remaining at the level of stylish aural window-dressing even with so dedicated an exponent as Mats Bergström, whose lively stage presence and addition of a few power chords at the close still failed to convince.

Although ensemble works have been the mainstay of Reich’s output over the past decade, a willingness to try out various instrumental formations has itself brought the requisite variety. There was a good deal of interest when 2 x 5 (2008) first appeared on account of its scoring for rock quintet (two electric guitars, electric bass, keyboard and drum-kit) – again playing against its pre-recorded double – but the outcome is too static in terms of its range and stolid in rhythmic profile to sustain its 20-minute duration. Or maybe the fault lay more with a reading that, for all its unanimity, remained steadfastly tied to the underlying beat: chamber music for rock instruments arguably needs rock musicians to do it justice.

After the interval came a second hearing (following its premiere at the Royal Festival Hall the night before) for Radio Rewrite (2012) – Reich’s latest piece in which an 11-piece ensemble gets to grips with his re-working (‘deconstruction’ might be more appropriate) over five continuous movements of two songs by the band Radiohead, whose often-questing approach to music-making clearly struck a resonance with the composer. Thus ‘Jigsaw Falling into Place’ is made the basis of the faster odd-numbered movements while ‘Everything in its Right Place’ features in the even-numbered ones; in the former, the song’s elliptical unfolding and oblique content are rather ironed out in music whose rhythmic drive lacks a distinctive harmonic presence, but not so the latter – where the song’s tonal ambiguity and tonal ambivalence has facilitated some of Reich’s most resourceful and evocative writing. The closing bars even evince a degree of rhetoric rare in his music – something which the London Sinfonietta players handled with deft assurance and not a little aplomb.

Brad Lubman directed with incisive conviction both here and in the account of Double Sextet (2007) that rounded off the evening. Glib as it might be to suggest that the best was saved until last, this piece is something like Reich at his best – though it may have helped that the diverse sextet is here pitted against its double ‘in real time’, so making for a visual symmetry and, moreover, sonic interplay over three movements in which the changes in tempo and key-signature create an evolving harmonic rhythm and an emotional frisson that Reich has arguably not approached since Different Trains some 25 years ago. The present work may not be the equal of that undoubted masterpiece, yet it exudes a not dissimilar expressive impetus which the present performance captured in ample measure. The near-capacity audience greeted the composer with a lengthy standing ovation: recognition, no doubt, that Reich’s legacy, whatever its shortcomings, is likely to prove as enduring as that of any composer in the post-war era.

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