Song of praise
Steve Reich: Eight Lines
Steve Reich: Tehillim
Steve Reich: You Are (Variations)(UK premiere)
Stefan Asbury (conductor)
Ensemble Modern, Synergy Vocals
To judge from the themes he addresses, notably the Frankenstein potential of science, Steve Reich seems to be a devout secular humanist, but he could equally well be described as a holy minimalist without abusing the meaning of the words. "Minimalist" is probably the more contentious of the terms: this concert, consisting of two works from the early 1980s and one from last year, showed that he has long used sustained, subtle melodic developments, based in part on Jewish liturgical chanting, to provide the emotional thread through his apparently mechanical rhythmic and textural accretions. When you tune into one of Reich's works, it is a bit like realising that the stick figures in a panel on a Greek Geometric pot are carrying out a funeral procession and expressing recognisable profound grief; the schematic surroundings become a human attempt to organize a chaotic world rather than empty space-filling. One of his best known and most moving works, Different Trains, generates the rhythm and melody of travel from the sampled voices of Holocaust survivors and Reich's family in America, all of whom were riding in trains in the years 1939 to 1942. Different Trains appropriately formed part of a broadcast memorial concert from Auschwitz at the weekend.
Ensemble Modern, Germany's answer to the London Sinfonietta, have recorded several of Reich's works and have the perfect sound for them, luscious but lucid, and rich in textures. (The composer mixed the sound personally for this concert.) The instrumental Eight Lines, exactly what its title says, eight instrumental parts combining and separating, was purely enjoyable but also uplifting, an overture to the two vocal works that formed the core of the programme. Tehillim, from 1981, is a four-movement setting of texts from the Psalms that emphasizes the root of the title, the Hebrew word for psalms, in the word for praise, also found in "halleluia". The first and fourth movements are exhilarating versions of familiar texts, "The heavens are telling" from Psalm 19, set by Haydn to celebrate the completion of God's creation of the world, and lines from Psalm 150, "Praise him…", also set by Benjamin Britten. The admonitory second movement, from Psalm 34, is also cheerful, suggesting that it is fun to be good, while the slower third movement, from Psalm 18, evokes God's mercy and probity with the virtuous, with a sting in the tail for the twisted set with engaging cool. It is certainly better to be good and stay in a state where you can praise God.
The new work, You Are (Variations), is also in four movements and sets existing texts, all brief quotations from Jewish writers, two in English and two in Hebrew, in a kind of secular mirror of Tehillim that retains its straightforward spiritual optimism while exploring a more sophisticated dialectic of ideas and music. The outside movements "You are wherever your thoughts are" and "Ehmor m'aht, v'ahsay harbay (Say little and do much)" strongly affirm the power of humanity in assertive reiteration and pure joie de vivre, while the second movement "Shiviti Hashem L'negedi (I place the Eternal before me)" suggests a joyful spiritual dimension. The third movement, "Explanations come to an end somewhere" (a quotation from Wittgenstein), like the third movement of Tehillim, briefly and wittily hints at the futility of the alternative, with musical phrases suddenly truncated.
Synergy Vocals worked seamlessly with the instrumentalists and contributed greatly to the joy of the performance.