It is indeed rare,
extremely rare, when a piece of music strikes me in such a way
as to stop me in my tracks and absolutely demand my undivided
attention until its completion. Such a work is Steve Reich’s
Different Trains, originally composed for the Kronos
Quartet in 1988, here presented in its orchestrated version
from 2000. Scored for string orchestra with an accompanying
pre-recorded tape, this is a work that through its very sounds
evokes a time gone by, and conjures both memories (for those
alive then) and vivid images (for those who were not) of an
era in which the locomotive was the dominant mode of transport,
for both good and evil.
Reich is one of
the big three so-called ‘minimalist’ American composers. He
quickly makes you forget that he is using a ‘technique’ per
se, and conjures a sound-world that is both musically stimulating
and, through the masterful use of snippets of recorded voices,
a realm that is incredibly visual. That Reich composed his music
around the pitches of the natural rise and fall of the speakers’
inflections could, in the wrong hands be trite. Here it is a
stroke of absolute genius. Divided into three sections, there
are three periods and places portrayed: America before WWII,
Europe during the war, and America again just after the Allied
victory. From the first intonation of “From Chicago to New York,”
the listener is catapulted back in time to the black and white
newsreel world of our parents and grandparents.
Although I would
never wish for music composed in the United States to remain
the sole province of American orchestras, I cannot help but
sense some crazy lack of equilibrium as fine recording after
fine recording of American music continues to appear from foreign
orchestras. In this case, the Orchestre National de Lyon is
on deck, albeit led by an American conductor, and they perform
this music to near perfection. They are rhythmically taut, flawless
in intonation and they capture the spirit of this music by playing
it as if it were second nature, and not the work of a composer
famous for a specific set of techniques.
Two other fairly
major works round out the program, though I must confess that
despite their high quality, they do not impress nearly as profoundly
as different trains. The Triple Quartet for string
orchestra is a rather hypnotic piece. Far more interesting is
The Four Sections - a work that begins softly and gently,
dominated by the string section with occasional incursions from
the winds. In the second movement it takes on a great deal more
rhythmic vitality with the addition of two pianos and a large
complement of percussion. It returns to a more sedate ending
in the third movement.
music director designate of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
and until recently music director of the Lyon group leads spellbinding
performances. If you are interested in a painless introduction
to some more modernist music, then this is a place to start.
Regardless of your tastes, Different Trains, like John
Adams’ Harmonielehre and Philip Glass’s Music in Twelve
Parts is a must-have for any serious music lover.
A complete winner,
this. Highly recommended.