Steve Reich

Clapping Music
Nagoya Marimbas
Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ

Colin Currie, Richard Benjafield, Antoine Bedewi, Joby Burgess, Owen Gunnell, Dave Jackson Adrian Spillett, Sam Walton (percussion)
Andrew Cottee (percussion/synthesiser)
Rowland Sutherland (piccolo)
Synergy Vocals [Micaela Haslam, Amy Haworth (sopranos) & Heather Cairncross (alto)]

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 10 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Unlike some composers whose anniversaries are being marked by works being performed frequently throughout this Proms season – or, indeed, those who have been totally ignored – Steve Reich’s impending 70th-birthday (on 3 October) was celebrated with this ‘one-off’ late-night concert.

Like his contemporary and compatriot Philip Glass, Reich has been proprietorial about performances of his music, preferring to reserve them for himself and his own group of musicians. He would surely have been delighted, therefore, by the work of these players from a younger generation. Their commitment and enthusiasm was a source of pleasure in itself. Colin Currie and Richard Benjafield (the latter the most ‘senior’ of the performers) started the programme with Clapping Music which encapsulates the technique which Reich has frequently deployed – whereby a rhythm gradually becomes out of ‘phase’ with itself whilst the original continues. A good speed was set, but the sound – amplified – was rather blurred, preventing complete clarity.

Currie and Benjafield returned for Nagoya Marimbas. Dating from 1994 – all the other music this evening was from the early 1970s – one noticed that whilst there are similarities with Reich’s earlier work, the melodic lines are more elaborate, with hints of chromaticism. The piece was played affectionately, with the liquid tones of the instruments registering warmly.

Joined by six other members of the ensemble, plus the ladies of Synergy Vocals, Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ was given a mellow, beguiling performance, each instrumental and vocal line being most clearly heard and extremely well-balanced. A pity a synthesiser was substituted for the electronic organ of the original whose warm timbre was somewhat missed. One might have thought that music of this kind would simply have curiosity or nostalgia value but, thirty-odd years on, it stands up strongly, and if there is perhaps a scent of late nights in a New York apartment with a cosy group of friends, then this merely adds to the music’s charm.

An altogether more challenging piece, Drumming can, in many ways, be considered the culmination of Reich’s work up to that point. Completed in 1971, there is the strong influence of multiculturalism, reflecting not only Reich’s then-recent drumming studies in Ghana but also interest in the Gamelan, whose percussion sonorities are reflected in the choice of instruments.

Like Music for Mallet Instruments…, Drumming is in four parts each scored differently. Clocking in at around 49 minutes, this performance was some 35 minutes or so shorter than Reich’s first (1974) recording (now on DG’s 20-21 series). The composer’s remake on Nonesuch (from 1987) lasts just over 56 minutes. This compression was achieved by fewer repetitions but, even so, no-one can have felt short-changed as it was a marvellous rendition, all the more remarkable when many players were performing from memory and this is not an ensemble who play together regularly in the group as constituted.

No-one was credited as being responsible for the overall direction, but it was taut, finely judged and largely impeccably executed. The varied tones and rhythms of the first part – for tuned bongos – were effectively contrasted with the marimbas and voices for the second. Glockenspiels, whistling and piccolo appear in the third section, whilst all are combined in the fourth, which builds to an exuberant climax. The ‘links’ from one section to another were most effectively managed – the players from one part literally ‘fading out’ whilst those for the next gradually emerge.

No praise can be too high for these singers and players, and the composer would undoubtedly be satisfied that his music can now be entrusted to performers who are not under his direct supervision.

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