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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Concert Review: A Minimal Fuss

Steve Reich’s Three Generations opens with John Adams and Terry Riley.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
John Adams and Terry Riley. Their music was celebrated on Thursday night at Zankel Hall.
Photo courtesy Carnegie Hall.

The composer Steve Reich currently occupies the Debs Composers' Chair at Carnegie Hall. That makes 2017 a good spring season for New Yorkers whose tastes run to the masterworks of the late 20th century. Two of those masterpieces were programmed on Thursday at the opening night of Three Generations, a four-concert series that Mr. Reich is curating at Carnegie’s subterranean venue Zankel Hall. Following the performance, Mr. Reich led a short discussion with fellow composer John Adams and Brad Lubman, leader of the evenings performance.

The concert featured members of Ensemble Signal, Mr. Lubman's new-music performance ensemble. Their program: John Adams’ Shaker Loops and Terry Riley’s In C, two watershed works from what became known (to the composers' eternal chagrin) as the "minimalist" movement. Mr. Adams’ piece went first, performed in a version for chamber ensemble, with all four of the major orchestral string instruments represented by a group of players.

Shaker Loops is the work that put Mr. Adams on the map in 1978, when it premiered in San Francisco. It was created from the bones of an earlier string quartet, and uses the warm tonality of Shaker church melodies as the source for its tiny musical cells. However, Mr. Adams eventually reigned in his sense of experimentation and from the score in a shape he liked, lending it a permanence that had translated well to the concert stage.

Like the growth of a great tree, the tiny fragments of Shaker hymns are divided and reconfigured into still smaller musical cells. Mr. Adams uses repetition, dynamic and the ever-present pulse changing colors between the instrumental voices. He builds his material into towering structures, akin to how the cellulose of a plant grows and bursts into an enormous tree, There are four of these towering structures in this work, each beautiful and simple in its offered musical gifts.

Terry Riley’s music has influenced everyone from Mr, Adams and Mr, Glass to rock musicians like Pete Townshend and Brian Eno. In C is his best known piece: essentially a set of 53 short "ideas" which are played by any number of players, all following a long list of relatively simple performance instructions. The object: create an organic, flowing work that can vary in length and even sound depending on the instruments employed.

Mr. Lubman excised the central feature of most renditions of the piece: a guiding, endlessly repeated high C on the piano that serves as a sort of rhythmic guidepost for the players. The musicians here seemed fine without it, and its absence opened up the rich harmonies of the work to the ear. They also had an expanded palette to work with, playing xylorimbas, vibraphone, double bass, piano and on string instruments to give the players four octaves of range with which to express the different thematic ideas.

With Mr, Lubman on mallets, the pulse started, gathering power as the form of each section started to shape itself before metamorphosing into the next one. The musical center kept changing from the percussion to strings and to the piano and even the bass clarinet, all building the musical structures from interlocking small ideas. The performance was a triumphant one, giving listeners a new way to experience this masterpiece, a work that, in its simple eloquence speaks with oone of the loudest voices of the last century.

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