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Reich: Steve Reich (piano/clapping), London Sinfonietta, Bang on a Can All-Stars, Talujon Percussion Quartet, Synergy Vocals, Royal Festival Hall, London 31.10.2009 (CR)

This performance was set to be one of the highlights of London’s contemporary music calendar this year, with a collaboration between some of the great new music performers, and Steve Reich performing his own music. Devised by Stage Planet, Ikon Arts Management and the South Bank Centre, this was a memorable performance which filled both the Festival Hall’s auditorium and the foyer, where the concert was relayed on a video screen in the Clore Ballroom.

The concert began with the short but nevertheless fascinating Clapping Music, performed by Reich and David Cossin. This is perhaps one of Reich’s simplest works, and was for me one of the first of his works that I encountered, while still at school. Reich’s famous rhythmic pattern shifts in small increments in one part, while being held stable in the other, so that the lines move gradually further apart and then finally come together again in unison at the end of the piece.

Electric Counterpoint
is another iconic Reich work, written in 1987 for Pat Metheney and scored for electric guitar and electronics. This fifteen minute work falls into three sections (fast, slow, fast) which are played without a break. This evening’s performance was given by guitarist Mark Stewart, founder member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars and also a member of Steve Reich’s own ensemble. Stewart’s playing was expressive and musically phrased, providing a sense of development through the work, with clearly characterised sections.

The first half ended with Sextet, a work lasting almost half an hour for four percussionists and two keyboard players. Reich’s control of musical structures is apparent in this work, with the sections becoming slower towards the centre of the work and the pace increasing again towards the end. The effect is hypnotic, with the feeling of going into a trance and emerging afterwards, carefully judged and well managed. The growing tension towards the end of the work was electrifying, as more dissonances are added to the harmony and the pitch steadily climbs. Despite this, however, the performance overall contained some disappointments, primarily due to balance problems; for example, the synthesiser was too loud at the start and the bowed vibes were inaudible at times, and some feedback interrupted the sound at one point in the piece.

The second half consisted of the hour-long Music for 18 Musicians, performed by members of the London Sinfonietta and Synergy Vocals with Steve Reich. This is arguably one of Reich’s best works, with instrumental colours emerging through overlapping crescendos and diminuendos and intelligently-conceived vocal lines whichare used instrumentally to add a further timbral dimension to the sound. This is a piece that works on many levels. Firstly, the ear picks its own path through the multiple ostinato lines, with options of picking out individual sounds, groups of instruments or the overall sound together. The rhythmic patterns also provide a series of choices; it was fascinating to see audience members around me tapping feet and nodding heads along with the music, each in time but picking a different tempo pattern to join in with. For me, one of the most magical things about this piece, and a compelling argument for experiencing a live performance rather than a CD recording, is the interaction between players. Unconducted, the piece holds together through a series of cues from different players, sometimes intended for the whole ensemble, and other times intended just for individual musicians, with the players communicating in pairs. Hand-overs occur frequently, where, for example, a player might take over a line from another player on the same instrument, without pause in the musical line. If your eyes were closed, you would never know a new player had taken over. At one point in the piece, three percussionists play the same marimba, demonstrating excellent choreography and team-work. The players move gradually around the stage during the performance, changing instruments and giving a sense of fluidity to the proceedings.

The psychology of this piece is one of its most fascinating elements, and the hour-long duration felt surprisingly short. This was a truly spectacular performance by these eighteen musicians, who gave their all, both physically (I felt particularly sympathetic towards the maracas players!) and mentally, to provide a triumphant and dazzling display.

Carla Rees

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