Steve Reich, one of the avatars of musical Minimalism, has written barely at all for the traditional symphony. He gained fame with his compositions for the ensemble he founded, Steve Reich and Musicians.
Before “Music for Ensemble and Orchestra,” which had its New York premiere with the New York Philharmonic on Thursday at David Geffen Hall, his last piece for orchestra had come more than 30 years ago. “I’m someone who writes for ensemble,” he declared in an interview with The New York Times last year, when the work was new.
And in a program note for the Philharmonic (which co-commissioned it), he sounded a cautious note. By restricting the most virtuosic material in the 20-minute “Music for Ensemble and Orchestra” to a select group of strings, woodwinds, pianos and vibraphones, he noted that he was hewing rather closely to the intimate forces employed by his usual groups. To the supporting strings and trumpets — the orchestra, in other words — he had assigned “a simpler, more harmonically supportive role.”
This humility is charming. But Mr. Reich, 83, needn’t have downplayed his achievement. As melodically winning as his “Radio Rewrite” (2012, inspired by Radiohead) and more structurally intriguing than “Pulse,” from 2015 (which, like “Music for Ensemble and Orchestra,” features a prominent part for electric bass), this is no ripping up of Mr. Reich’s rule book. He still displays his old talent for blitzing, interlocking, mutating melodies, as well as for dramatic shifts in harmony.
But his use of the orchestra reveals a composer confident in his idiom, reaching out for new effects. Those “simpler” strings, while not intrinsically complex, lent moments of piercing harmony to the orchestral textures during the first movement, as the more featured instruments engaged in thrilling volleys of canonic imitation. Occasional eruptions from an electric bass often announced new motifs in the ensemble, and had intense power.
The work is written in arch form, in five movements that keep the tempo the same but change the length of the notes being played to convey the illusion of transition from fast to slower to fast. Around the midpoint there was also room for a sense of reverie, as the churning pianos familiar from some of Mr. Reich’s past works were allowed to relent (briefly). In its final moments, the piece took on the feeling of a meditative exhalation, suggesting prior touchstones like “Music for 18 Musicians,” without seeming derivative.
The Philharmonic players savored the sounds. Some scintillating passages for trumpets and vibraphones were brimming with a metallic resonance that the orchestra and its music director, Jaap van Zweden, balanced beautifully with the strings and winds. It was a good night for the orchestra, in general, in a program otherwise devoted to Beethoven.
In that composer’s Symphony No. 2, Mr. van Zweden suppressed his characteristic impulse toward feverish dynamic intensity, leading a suave and engaging performance that built to a satisfying climax. If the Larghetto was a touch draggy, Mr. van Zweden made up for it during the quiet middle movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. There, in partnership with the soloist, Yefim Bronfman, this conductor created a chilly sense of mystery. Mr. Bronfman was in touch with the concerto’s quick-changing energies throughout — ramping from naïvely winning melodies to stormy outbursts with reliable command.
This program of classics plus an exciting contemporary work is exactly the kind of eclectic, highly enjoyable evening that an elite orchestra can and should pull off regularly. But as I looked around Geffen Hall on Thursday, I wondered whether the audiences that pack the Brooklyn Academy of Music for Mr. Reich’s performances were aware of this major local premiere. This week, the Philharmonic’s website has been advertising an evening of “Bronfman and Beethoven.” That’s true enough, but hardly the whole story. This orchestra has changed its approach to the repertoire in recent years — but marketing habits die hard.
New York Philharmonic
This program is repeated through Saturday at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center; 212-875-5656, nyphil.org.
Source: Read Full Article