After a long wait, the New Yorkers finally got to celebrate Steve Reich on Tuesday evening at Carnegie Hall, with a terrific programme by Colin Currie Group and Synergy Vocals, featuring the highly-anticipated US premiere of Traveler’s Prayer (2020), alongside two veritable classics of contemporary music, the luminous psalm setting Tehillim (1981) and the ground-breaking masterpiece Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76).
Coming to New York a year after the composer’s 85th birthday concert tour in Europe, Carnegie Hall’s presentation of the programme under the title of A Steve Reich Celebration, truly lived up to its name. Led by Colin Currie, the performances delved deep into the core of the composer’s unique style, bet it in its latest guise or in earlier renditions.
Heard at the core of the evening’s playlist, the sixteen-minute Traveler’s Prayer opens a whole new chapter in Reich’s ever-evolving oeuvre. Scored for two tenors, two sopranos, two string quartets, two vibraphones and piano, the most instantly striking feature of the new piece is the absence of an articulated pulse, lending the music an unprecedented level of contemplation.
”In music history, you could say, it is closer to Josquin des Prez than Igor Stravinsky, and that’s completely new thing to me. It also uses techniques I’ve known about all my life, but I’ve never used them; retrograde, inversion, retrograde inversion. I wanted to stay put harmonically; the whole first eight minutes or so is in one flat. But I also wanted harmonic variety. And I found, if I make these very free canons, if the first voice is in the original notes, but the second voice is in inversion, the intervallic harmony changes, and there’s a feeling of variety. But for me, it was a complete surprise; I found myself doing things that I’ve never done before”, the composer recalled in our recent conversation.
Although completed in the midst of the lockdown in May 2020, Traveler’s Prayer was not initially conceived as a pandemic meditation.
”I started the piece, because I was 83 years old. It is definitely an older person’s piece, in the manner of, let’s say, Requiem Canticles, which was written by Stravinsky for his own funeral; fortunately for him, he wrote it a little too soon. Now, while I was working on it, here comes the virus, and then suddenly there is an avalanche of death and illness. So then, it took another colour or meaning, so to speak, that I had had no reason to start with. While I didn’t really change the way I was proceeding musically, the circumstances did change what this piece was about, whether I liked it or not.”
In accordance with its title, Traveler’s Prayer sets three short texts from Genesis, Exodus and Psalms, respectively. The first and the last are also found in the last movement of WTC 9/11 (2010) for string quartet and pre-recorded voices. In the new score, some of the words are set to melodies found in Biblical Hebrew chant, while others are clad in musical lines devised by the composer.
In terms of texture and ambiance, perhaps the only precedent proper in Reich’s music can be found in the hovering central section of Reich/Richter (2019), where the music gradually becomes more and more devoid of the sense of pulse. However, in the earlier score, the effect comes off en passant, whereas in Traveler’s Prayer, it constitutes the very root of the music.
The music opens with a single tenor line, joined by violas, celli and piano. Following the immensely beautiful opening statement, a translucent sequence of free canonic formations starts to unfold, with recurring, bell-like low note-anchors from the piano embedded. In genuinely Reichian fashion, the refined textures resonate with profoundly emotional undertones, without ever giving in to superficial sentimentality of any kind.
Halfway into the arch, vibraphones and sopranos join, providing further colorist enrichment to the dazzlingly woven counterpoint. Closing with a subtle prayer for voices and instruments, the music gradually evaporates into the silence from whence it first took shape, yielding to a dazzling effect.
Throughout his exquisite score, Reich wants the voices and the instruments to be blended together in equal measure, giving rise to a spellbinding mix of words and music, somewhat akin to the textural procedures at play in the composer’s works featuring speech samples as a part of the musical fabric. An enthralling feat, Traveler’s Prayer opens into intriguing new sonic vistas.
Given in an outing of dark-hued meditation, the score was unraveled with layered misterioso intensity by the members of Synergy and Colin Currie Group. Transcending time and space, Traveler’s Prayer is a compelling study of melody and harmony, luminously served by contrapuntal designs of refined inspiration.
Opening the evening, a ravishing account of Tehillim was heard. Premiered in 1981, Reich’s Symphony of Psalms has become a veritable cornerstone of the repertoire over the past four decades. Cast in four movements, the thirty-minute score is a striking setting of verses from Psalms 19, 34, 18 and 150 for four singers and a large instrumental ensemble of piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, two clarinets, six percussion, two keyboards and strings.
In terms of its musical architecture, Tehillim embodies several quintessentially Western formal devises, as manifested by its overall structural plan of an upbeat opening movement with exposition, development and recapitulation sections, followed by a set of variations, a genuine slow movement (Reich’s first) and a jubilant finale revisiting previous movements. Looking from within, the music is mainly built on various canonic processes and variation techniques, which give rise to a series of riveting settings, with the texts carried by the most beautiful melodies, laid down in ever-changing meters.
Yet, no verbal description comes close to the sheer visceral effect of the music. Be it the astonishing canvases of the opening movement declaring the glory of G-d, the ingenious variations and elongations of the second, the striking tritone word-paintings of the slow movement or the festive Hallelujah of the finale, Tehillim is a musical Credo of life-affirming intensity.
Performed with utmost dedication and rhythmic acuteness, with melodic lines soaring throughout the hall, Tehillim was shrouded in an avalanche of ovations by the full house. Currie and his fellow musicians owned the piece from beginning to end, delivering an astounding performance; one for the books, no less.
The second half of the joyful evening was dedicated to Reich’s Magnum Opus, the hour-long festival of colour and harmony known as Music for 18 Musicians. Conceived with musical architecture worthy of the finest of symphonies, the score is based on a cycle of eleven dominant chords, introduced in the manner of a pulsating chorale for full ensemble and subsequently elongated into a series of five-minute sections, each based on a single chord, subjected to the full array of Reichian procedures; unison canons, elongations, gradual build-ups and deconstructions, washed with recurring pulses of musical rain.
Scored for an ensemble of mallet percussion, pianos, two clarinets doubling bass clarinets, violin, cello and four voices, Music for 18 Musicians is abundant with the most resplendent instrumental colours. The vocal parts are conceived in instrumental manner, somewhat akin to scat singing à la Ella Fitzgerald, with distant echos of Debussy-tinged Sirens embedded. Interestingly, in the context of the evening’s programme, the blending of voices and instruments in 18 came off as a precursor of sorts to the textural design of Traveler’s Prayer.
With Colin Currie Group and Synergy Vocals, Music for 18 Musicians was given in stellar rendition of radiant colour and virtuoso counterpoint. With conducting duties distributed across the ensemble, led by the master drummer vibraphone player, Reich’s score is chamber music to the bone, seamlessly realized in Tuesday evening’s performance. To be recorded by the group for a forthcoming hi-res audio release, Music for 18 Musicians will keep on inspiring its ever-widening audiences.
A celebration of wondrous musical items, Carnegie Hall’s all-Reich programme served as an apt reminder of the composer’s Stravinskyan ability to keep on reinventing himself, while remaining true to the fundamental ingredients of his unique style. Where will he go from Traveler’s Prayer remains to be seen, but one awaits the unfolding of Reich’s next endeavours with joyful anticipation.
Colin Currie Group
Colin Currie, conductor
Steve Reich: Tehillim (1981) for voices and chamber orchestra
Steve Reich: Traveler’s Prayer (2020) for large ensemble and voices
Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76)
Carnegie Hall, New York City, NY
Tuesday 1 November, 8 pm
© Jari Kallio