| Barbican Centre: Hall, London
London Symphony Orchestra
|Barbican Centre: Hall, London, Silk Street, London EC2Y 8DS, United Kingdom|
Saturday 15-Oct-11 07:30pm
London Symphony Orchestra
Tickets £10 £15 £19.50 £27 £35
Steve Reich has been a Barbican mainstay of 2011. In his 75th birthday year, the composer’s significant influence on contemporary classical music was honoured with the Reverberations Festival in May. Now, the London Symphony Orchestra has dedicated this third week in October to his work including this concert of Reich works for an orchestra of symphonic proportions under the spritely baton of Kristjan Järvi. Clapping Music featured Reich himself on stage, displaying his personal and musical humour as one of the Clapping pair. This was an identical performance to the final concert of Reverberations, but proved once again what a timeless, fizzy ice-breaker it is. Neil Percey lead confidently, as requested in Reich’s instructions to the 12-bar score (repeated 12 times with the second ‘clapper’ changing his rhythm each bar).
In a interview with Ronen Givony for his Pulitzer Prize-winning disc Double Sextet, Steve Reich spoke about his preference for writing counterpoint for a lean ensemble, saying ‘I discovered back in the 1980s that I really don’t need to write for the orchestra , because it’s not good orchestration for me’. Appropriately then, this concert could be said to display the composer out of his comfort zone. The varying success of the evening’s orchestral pieces, written between 1982 and 1987, demonstrated that Reich became more adept at writing for a large orchestra as the 1980s progressed, shuffling and adapting the orchestra’s make-up to suit his style and adding more percussion; often, as tonight, this percussion comes to the front of the stage, ensuring it leads the musical journey.
The Four Sections (1986-87), the most recent work played by tonight’s 108-strong outfit, was the most successful. Typically of Reich, rhythmic canons travel around the orchestra. The swells and ebbs in the repeated motifs were accentuated by the LSO to absorbing, trance-like effect. The Four Sections is fantastically paced, building up from a moderate beginning to full orchestra pulsing its way toward a bold ending, moving through brass and percussion on the way. Next up, Järvi’s interpretation of Three Movements (1985-6) was a memorable affair in which the antiphonal effect created by splitting the violins up, seating them at the right and left of the stage, was accentuated by some indulgent exaggeration of dynamics and articulation throughout the three different moods. Rippling waves of sound rebounded in circular pulsing motions and Järvi made the most of the variations in character.
The decision had been taken to stick to the original 87-person score in Reich’s 1985 version of The Desert Music, but as only ten voices were present at the back of the stage in place of the proportionate 27, the performance sounded front-heavy. Not until the final two movements did the singers find prominence; ironically, one of their best moments was repeating the word ‘difficult’. William Carlos Williams’ words didn't add much to the piece as it came across tonight other than to enable the curious, aurally teasing effect of using voices as one would orchestral instruments. To be fair to Järvi and the LSO, the piece’s structure makes sustaining momentum fundamentally difficult; resolution is deferred too long over a tiresome middle movement centred around slowly morphing sequences, contained by the irritating jerky, sing-song violin themes in the first and fifth movements. Its performance sometimes felt hesitant, often unstable and meandering. But it was actually the most interesting and complex work of the night, infinitely layered and arching centrifugally from the aforementioned languorous middle movement to encompass an astonishing scope of register and timbre. The problem was that manoeuvring all these elements into an engaging and well-paced performance sounded like steering a zig-zag course with a large ship that refuses to turn quickly. Tidiness suffered too, particularly in later canonic interchanges between violin sections. Another curiosity of the piece’s structure is its abrupt ending, which gathers quickly and doesn’t feel quite natural.
But it would be grossly unfair to end on the negative, even if Reich's appeal is a matter of taste for his distinctly repetitive style. As a hearty standing ovation showed, Reich’s sonic landscapes continue to fascinate his loyal audiences with their rhythmic colour, harmonic story-telling and enticing restlessness. The LSO ably embodied those characteristics.