Bang on a Can Festival: Steve Reich

Wednesday, July 29
NORTH ADAMS -- Validating once more the old adage about giving people what they want -- even in hard times -- a capacity crowd jammed Mass MoCA's Hunter Center Saturday evening for a concert titled "Bang on a Can Plays Steve Reich."

The performance was the first major musical event in this eighth summer residency at the museum of Bang on a Can, the New York-based organization dedicated to cultivating and performing the music of our times. And on its agenda were three distinctive works by this year's Pulitzer-Prize winner in musical composition.

It was a milestone day for Mass MoCA. For Reich not only has produced music of incredible brilliance over more than four decades, his example also has profoundly influenced the scores of others who have labored under the banner of what we call Minimalism. He was a close friend of Sol LeWitt, and, in a special afternoon lecture, spoke warmly and knowledgably about that great graphic artist whose work is adorning the walls of three floors of gallery space at the museum.

Saturday's trio of pieces demonstrated the intense, and longstanding, gifts of Reich: Each either was an effort from the composer's earlier output or found its roots in earlier works, and yet freshness and immediacy were hallmarks of the evening.


Just as many of the legendary masters who preceded Reich, he clearly has an acute grasp of the various instruments of the orchestra and their possibilities. But Reich employs this skill to carry him a few steps further, his scores summoning unusual instrumental combinations, and consequential tonal textures that are wondrously fresh.

Epitomizing this rare talent is his composition, "Music for 18 Musicians," which occupied the entire second half of Saturday's concert. In fact, it ran what might have been a record 66 minutes -- of breathlessness, not only for the players but for listeners as well.

This piece, with lots of percussion -- marimbas, xylophones, pianos, metallophone -- also calls for violin, cello and doubling on a couple of clarinets and bass clarinets, along with four female voices. It is based on a cycle of 11 chords, introduced at the beginning. Each chord becomes the basis then of a section, or what the composer calls a "pulse," expanded to emerge as an individual piece of music with its own melody and harmonies. Taking direction in the form of a musical statement from the metallophone (unplugged vibraphone) or one of the bass clarinets instead of a conductor, the other instrumentalists, following scores, know exactly when to change to a new pulse.

Aside from the meter, or time, set by the pianos and mallet instruments, human breath provides a second, and more variable, meter, in Reich's score, with the female voices and clarinets issuing notes for as long as the breath of each individual allows him, or her, to do so.

One of Reich's seminal compositions, "Music for 18 Musicians," actually 19 on Saturday, is, by turns, majestic in some of its thicker-textured sections, intricate, and above all demanding, especially for the percussionists who were challenged in most cases with little rest. Some of the harmonies in the piece are gut-wrenchingly spectacular, but the final, meditative resolution is given to the violin.


Considering the technical demands Reich's 1979 "Octet" posed for string players, he revised it in 1983 for larger ensemble, and the result was "Eight Lines," a five-part work built on short phrases quite seamlessly assembled into longer melodic lines.

Brad Lubman conducted the 16-minute work, which, at its center, moved along on a kind of samba beat, anchored by an insistent minor chord. Percussive propulsion was driven by the pianos, pizzicato phrases by the strings and the two clarinetists doubling on bass clarinet.

In Reich's "Piano Phase," composed in 1967, two pianists play the same repeating pattern, one of them gradually increasing tempo to move eventually as much as an eighth note ahead of the other. It was updated technologically in 2000 by David Cossin, Bang on a Can's superb percussionist. In that piece, now called "Piano Phase/Video Phase," Cossin was shown Saturday in a pre-recorded video playing the first piano part on midi-percussion pads that trigger piano samples of the notes. Behind the screen, he performed the second piano part live, with his arms backlighted in performance, conjuring an image reminiscent of the Hindu goddess Kali. Cossin's fine performance was a tribute, not only to his endurance, but also his artistic precision.

Praise for Cossin also might be extended to the team of faculty and students performing the other two works. They were extremely demanding and reflected immense credit on these artists, young and seasoned, who had been together for only a week, tucking rehearsals for Saturday's program between actual concerts and other activities prescribed by the Bang on a Can Institute.


Interestingly, virtually none of the more than 600 in Saturday's audience departed before the last note and the long bows. Steve Reich's music becomes mesmerizing, sharpening the ears to details and conquering any latent tendency to drift off. It is mentally striking in the same fashion as the LeWitt exhibition, and those contemplating attending the annual Bang on a Can Marathon this SaturdayAug. 4 evening might consider arriving early for a walk through the LeWitt show. It's an excellent visual prelude to the musical extravaganza to follow in the Hunter Center.


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