If one was to sum up, in one word only, yesterday’s Steve Reich at 85 tribute by Colin Currie Group and Synergy Vocals at Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, the word applied would be ’joy’. For there was such a joy of music-making and a joy of sharing, not to mention the all joy contained within the musical works performed in the course of the exquisite evening.
Although the three works on the evening’s playlist convey a multi-layered spectrum of human emotion, the joy of hearing Reich’s musical imagination flourishing at its fullest was simply palpable, both onstage and in the auditorium. Conducted by Colin Currie, the evening provided a wondrous cross-section of the composer’s music for voices and large ensemble.
The centerpiece of programme was the German premiere of Reich’s latest work, Traveler’s Prayer (2020) for two string quartets, two vibraphones, piano, two tenors and two sopranos. Jointly commissioned by NTR ZaterdagMatinee, Southbank Centre, Carnegie Hall, Philharmonie de Paris, Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, Cal Performances and Tokyo Opera City Cultural Foundation, Traveler’s Prayer was first performed by Colin Currie Group and Synergy Vocals at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam on 16 October, followed by the UK premiere on 19 October.
Luminously reflective and clad in textures of utmost beauty, there are spellbinding musical processes at play throughout the sixteen-minute score, many unprecedented in Reich’s mature output. Although various canonic procedures have been at the core of the composer’s sonic architecture ever since the early tape pieces It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966), they have been conceived, hitherto, by interlocking identical voices into intricate contrapuntal textures.
In Traveler’s Prayer, the individual voices are woven together not in unison but in retrograde, inversion and retrograde-inversion, resulting in dazzling harmonic and rhythmic freedom within characteristically solid musical architecture.
Another striking aspect of Traveler’s Prayer is the absence of tactile pulse. While the shifting meters can certainly be counted, there are no drummed-out pulsations. Instead, the rhythmic profile is submerged into the musical fabric. Although the score still bears many traits of Reich’s previous works, Traveler’s Prayer marks a notable departure for the composer.
”I started the piece because I was 83 years old. It is definitely an older person’s piece, in the manner of Igor Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles. I found myself doing things I’ve never done before. And at this age, that’s nice! By making these very free canons, the intervallic harmony changes and there’s a feeling of variety. In music history, you could say, it is closer to Josquin des Prez than Stravinsky, and that’s completely new thing for me”, Reich accounted the genesis of Traveler’s Prayer in our recent Adventures in Music talk.
As suggested by its title, Traveler’s Prayer is a setting of three short excerpts from Genesis, Exodus and Psalms, ones usually added to the full Traveler’s Prayer found in Hebrew prayer books. The opening text and the vocal melody are derived from the last movement of Reich’s WTC 9/11, where they appear as pre-recorded musical material, sung by a cantor and subsequently imitated by strings.
In Traveler’s Prayer, the music is set in contemplative motion by the first tenor introducing the original melody, rhythmically fine-tuned by the composer. Joined by strings and the second tenor, the fabric is transformed into a graciously unfolding incantation, clad in ravishing counterpoint. As the melodic lines unravel, their trajectories are joined by deep, bell-like notes from the piano, to an enthralling effect.
Halfway through the piece, two vibraphones enter, sublimely paving the way for the two sopranos. Suddenly, there is a fascinating change of colour and texture, as Traveler’s Prayer enters into sonic transfiguration. In the otherworldly closing section, vibraphones fall silent, leaving it to voices, piano and strings to guide the music through the translucent final pages, eventually dissolving into intense silence.
An absolutely unique experience, Traveler’s Prayer was given a terrific German premiere at Elbphilharmonie. Performed with utmost melodic beauty, rhythmic fluency and textural finesse, the members of Synergy Vocals and Colin Currie Group embraced Reich’s gorgeously free-floating musical fabric with tremendous skill and commitment under Currie’s direction. Seldom, if ever, have I felt such spiritual transformation as I did within those sixteen minutes of pure sonic wonder and craft. With its intertwined aspects of farewell and reunion, Traveler’s Prayer is indeed a very special piece.
Setting the programme into kinetic motion, the evening began with a marvellous outing for Reich’s brilliant Runner (2016). Written for a large ensemble of two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, joined by two vibraphones and two pianos, alongside double string quartet and bass, Runner retains more or less constant tempo throughout its sixteen-minute arch. However, there are five movements, played attacca, that are based on different note durations, yielding to an ABCBA overall form. Two years later, Reich would adopt a similar scheme for his Music for Ensemble and Orchestra (2018), Runner’s orchestral counterpart.
Despite its unmistakably Reichian conception and sonics, Runner bears also fascinating, quasi-Baroque hue. Conceived in virtuosic counterpoint, Reich’s musical design comes close to the orchestral writing of Bach and Handel, while maintaining its essentially contemporary appeal. Out of its core pulsations, canonic formations, irregular accents and melodic lines of astonishing vividness emerge, giving rise to an invigorating musical circuit. Mantled in gripping autumnal harmonies, Runner’s musical scheme evokes imagery of journey and transformation, rooted in Reich’s marvellous instrumental writing.
A performance of insistent dramaturgy and extraordinary ensemble virtuosity, Runner was a captivating affair, one with apt edge and buoyancy. Well served by sound engineering, the harmonic colours were laid out with clarity and detail, giving rise to an energetic start for the evening.
Following the intermission, one of Reich’s best-loved masterpieces was heard in resoundingly joyful performance. Composed in 1981, Tehillim is a masterful psalm-setting for voices and chamber orchestra, worthy of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (1930/1948) in its ravishing invention and immense vitality. Written for four solo voices, high soprano, two lyric sopranos and alto, and a chamber orchestra of strings, winds, keyboards and percussion, Tehillim is a four-movement entity of almost symphonic proportions.
In the feast-of-a-score, musical procedures from the composer’s earlier output are re-invented in a setting of fully-fledged melodic writing, constantly changing meters, variation forms and an abundance of vocal and instrumental colour.
”In Tehillim, it is actually a normal way of setting a text, in a completely new musical context, for me. In other words, it is one step back and one step forward; something very old, and something, personally, very new”, Reich summed up the essence of the music in our interview.
The opening movement is the most extended of the four, based on a series of luminous canonic formations, transforming the celebratory opening of Psalm 19 into the most uplifting musical sequences, aptly suited for praising the Eternal’s creation. A feast of melodic writing, both vocal and instrumental, invigorated by toe-tapping rhythms form the percussion section, the first movement is pure inspiration. Resuming without pause, the second movement switches from canonic design to variation form, conceived trough elongation and ornamentation. The musical material is developed in dialogue between two or three-part vocal textures, woodwind lines and percussion parts, yielding to a flourishing musical fabric, inspired by Psalm 34.
Following a short pause, engulfed in applause at Elbphilharmonie, the third movement comes off as another surprise. Not only it is Reich’s first slow movement proper, but it also ventures into dissonant harmonies, eventually leading to prominent tritone utterances. Supported by nocturnal pulsations from vibraphone and marimba, the voices join in a series of duets, giving rise to an enthralling sonic sequence based on Psalm 18.
Picking up speed, a swift transition leads to a jubilant finale, where musical procedures from previous movements are revisited in genuinely Beethoveninan manner. A festive account of Psalm 150, the orchestration features instruments mentioned in the text, from tambourines without jingles to crotales and soaring flute lines. The dexterous vocal writing culminates in elated Halleluyah, where words and music merge into glimmering sonic tapestry, bringing Tehillim to its life-affirming close.
Bringing the house down, the performance was certainly one of the most intensely beautiful in the piece’s forty-year history. Endorsing the music that began their joint careers twenty five years ago, Synergy Vocals mastered Reich’s vocal writing with tremendous virtuosity and immaculate detail. The wonderful musicians of Colin Currie Group came off as their equal partners, delivering an astounding account of Reich’s orchestral writing. Admirably paced by Currie, Tehillim was founded in firm grasp of its sonic architecture, providing the performers with a perfect setting to shine.
An outstanding tribute to one of the most original composers of our time, the evening at Elbphilharmonie will long dwell in joyful memory.
Colin Currie Group
Colin Currie, conductor
Steve Reich: Runner (2016) for large ensemble
Steve Reich: Traveler’s Prayer (2020) for large ensemble and voices
Steve Reich: Tehillim (1981) for voices and chamber orchestra
Tuesday 26 October 2021, 8 pm
© Jari Kallio