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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Concert Review: Reunited With Minimal Fuss

Steve Reich and Philip Glass open BAM NextWave--together.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Across the great divide: the composers Philip Glass (left) and Steve Reich.
Photo courtesy Nonesuch Records.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Philip Glass and Steve Reich were friends and sometimes collaborators. A rift between the two men resulted in each becoming a separate driving force behind minimalism, a compositional style that favored small melodic cells, expanded, repeated and grown into huge crystalline structures that beguiled the ear and soothed the mind. Both men are now 77, and have ended their forty-year feud. On Tuesday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music,  the composers took the stage together for the first time in decades.

This was the first of three scheduled concerts this week, with each night offering a different combination of Reich compositions and Glass works The performance featured both composers and their respective regular ensembles (The Philip Glass Ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians) augmented by special guests. The concerts are the kickoff of the 2014 BAM NExtWave Festival as well as Nonesuch Records at BAM, a celebration of the new music label's golden anniversary.

The most prominent among these guests was Nico Muhly. The young opera composer who joined the two 77-year-old composers for Four Organs, Mr. Reich's seminal composition from 1970. The quartet of electric organists sat facing each other around a central percussionist, who provided an exact meter by shaking a single maraca. Mr. Reich's work starts with a pulsing chord that repeats and expands with each set of repetitions, a technique the composer calls "phasing."

As the phase pattern expanded, the block-like unison organ chords slowly began to unpack their component notes. Eventually, as the parts disperses, micro-intervals and patterns appeared, pleasing and hypnotic to the ear. No actual two or three note melodies were tossed from one instrumentalist to another, but the phase differential tricked the ear into hearing sounds that can't be made--development that may or may not actually exist. The work was penetrating, hypnotic and powerful, culminating in the chords at their fullest expansion and fascinating the listener.

Three pieces by Mr. Glass followed, led by the composer's frequent chosen conductor Michael Riesmann. An excerpt from Civil Wars (one of the composer's many collaborations with Robert Wilson) showed the meditative side of this composer's style. It was followed by the first two sections of the enormous Music in 12 Parts, a 1971-74 work that served as a mission statement for early minimalism, combining keyboard drones, winds and voices in a hypnotic web of sound that sparkled around the listener even as its musical structures slowly tightened. Each segment was about 15 minutes with the second being slower in tempo and more delicate in orchestration.

The most compelling part of the first program was a re-arrangement of the "Funeral of Amenhotep" from Mr. Glass' opera Akhnaten, the 1983 work which explores the ruise of pre-Christian monothemism in Egypt and the perils of absolute power. Recast into a deceptively simple arrangement for synthesizers, keyboards electro-acoustic percussion. The powerhouse rhythms dominated the auditorium, creating a swirling, potent vortex of sound that made the gala night audience vibrate in their seats. It was simply earth-shaking and a good argument for a New York revival of this important opera.

The second half of the concert featured Music for 18 Musicians, Mr, Reich's enormous 1976 canvas for four pianos, xylophones, marimbas, cello, violin, clarinets, bass clarinets and vibraphone. The 18 musicians (including Mr. Reich) did not all play at once, except for The work is divided into 11 sections or "Phases" and are played without pause.  The changes in personnel and instruments parallel the shifts from one phase to the next as the musicians moved around the stage, sat in or even rested in a special offstage "bull pen."

The bass clarinets emitted deep, resonant phasing sounds, electronically slowed and amplified with their reeds buzzing and swelling. The four singers engaged in vocalise, paralleling and augmenting the clarinet and violin. The marimbas and pianos alternated the pulse. The effect of this perpetual massive groove is all-encompassing and engulfing, giant waterfalls of notes cascading onto the listener with unrelenting, repetitive force. In other words it was simply glorious.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.