Steve Reich
Clapping Music
Runner [UK concert premiere]
Music for 18 Musicians

Synergy Vocals & London Sinfonietta
Andrew Gourlay [Runner]

London Sinfonietta & Synergy Vocals at Royal Festival Hall – Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians
Photograph: Mark Allan Repetition, pulsation and synchronisation characterised the nature and execution of this Steve Reich traversal, more than forty-five years of his creative energy with Music for 18 Musicians (1976) as the main attraction. So too, in a minor way, Clapping Music (1972), an illustration of how music (albeit just rhythm) can appear to be static and organic simultaneously. Fascinating as its phasing technique may be, this account from two unnamed performers highlighted more than just the hypnotic effects of patterns fading in and out of sync. A parallel performance virtually occurred as sounds bounced off the walls due to discrete amplification.

Runner – for winds, percussion, pianos and strings – foregrounds melodic threads weaving in and out of ever-changing textures, lives up to its title, though at sixteen minutes it doesn’t exactly sprint by, and its finishing line came into view with a sense of relief. Conceived for Wayne McGregor and the Royal Ballet in 2016, all Reich’s hallmarks are present, but no amount of disciplined playing, coaxed by Andrew Gourlay, was going to elevate Runner beyond its arid processes.

Music for 18 Musicians is also built on carefully constructed systems yet its changing timbres, pulsing rhythms and shifting harmonies produce singular exuberance – a sort of aural sauna in which developing fragments swirl around in delicately-controlled pools. Tuned percussion and four pianos (along with two clarinets, violin, cello and four female singers) blur the distinction between strong and weak beats to fashion a dynamic rhythmic haze.

London Sinfonietta & Synergy Vocals at Royal Festival Hall – Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians
Photograph: Mark Allan The London Sinfonietta enabled Reich’s additive processes to unfold with astonishing ease and its kaleidoscopic layers found wonderful focus. Its kinetic energy was as revitalising to hear as to watch with several of the musicians casually moving from one instrument to another like viewers strolling around an art gallery. A raised clarinet to signal section changes would catch the eye as did the players’ unflagging concentration.

This performance stood out for remarkable control, clarity of detail, and joyful intensity, the emotional impact being far greater than the sum of its mechanistic parts.

  • This programme was given the following evening in Symphony Hall Birmingham and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)


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