Ensemble Signal Performs Steve Reich in Berkeley

The time between NAMM and this past weekend’s performances has been quite busy for music, not only performing but also attending a variety of concerts. Today we look back at a concert featuring the work of Steve Reich by Ensemble Signal at Hertz Hall in Berkeley, California.

[Ensemble Signal performs music by Steve Reich on Sunday, January 29, 2017 in Hertz Hall. Photo by EMPAC Rensselaer, courtesy of Cal Performances.]

We also had the opportunity to hear a full concert of Steve Reich’s music last year by the SF Symphony – the composer has been receiving a great deal of attention since his 80th birthday. Two of the pieces from that concert were on this program as well, including Clapping Music and Double Sextet.

Clapping Music opened the evening, with the composer himself joining Ensemble Signal conductor Brad Lubman. Similar to last year, I consider it quite a treat to here Steve Reich performing this piece. Double Sextet closed the concert. It is a large and complex work, with the two quartets performing similar but non-identical parts that come in and out of phase rhythmically and harmonically.

Vibraphones feature prominently in Reich’s music and in this concert in particular, including the second piece Quartet for two pianos and two vibraphones. Interestingly, the use of two pianos featured prominently this concert as well. The piece has many of the characteristic elements of interlocking harmonies and repeating patterns, but there were more sudden changes and gaps in this piece (composed in 2013) than in some of his earlier works, where the changes only occurred gradually.

However, the two pieces immediately before and after the intermission were what made this concert unique. First, there was the U.S. premiere of Runner a piece for large ensemble co-commissioned by Cal Performances (who hosted the concert). It featured winds, percussion, piano and strings in a series of rhythmic patterns over five movements, played without pauses. It forms a rhythmic palindrome of sorts, with even sixteenths followed by irregularly accented eighths, and then a standard bell pattern from Ghana before returning backwards to the eighth-note patterns and finally the even sixteenths. It’s a long and complex piece, and was undoubtedly an endurance test for the musicians, but Reich’s music in the hands of the right performers can sound effortless.

Radio Rewrite had perhaps the most interesting backstory of any piece in the concert. It was composed by Reich in 2013 after hearing Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead (who had made backing tracks for Reich’s Electric Counterpoint). The piece, also in five moments, draws upon two Radiohead songs “Everything it its Right Place” and “Jigsaw Falling Into Place.” It’s not a set of variations or quotations in the traditional sense, although bits of the original songs to make their way into the melodic and harmonic material. And the instrumentation is quite unlike a standard rock band, save for the inclusion of electric bass. Musically, this was probably the most distant from the idioms of Clapping Music, but a powerful contrast to the other pieces on the program. It was lush, intense, and once again quite an endurance test at 17 minutes.

Overall, this was a great concert in a gem of a concert hall, and it’s always great to see composers like Steve Reich on hand. We will continue to follow his music and hope to see new works.

San Francisco Symphony performs 2001: A Space Odyssey

[Image courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony]

Today we look back at the live soundtrack performance of 2001: A Space Odyssey by the San Francisco Symphony. The performance featured the full orchestra on the direction of Brad Lubman along with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus directed by Ragnar Bohlin.

Kublick’s film is of course a masterpiece, as is the film’s score, which comes from a variety of sources, including Richard Strauss and György Ligeti (one of our musical heroes). Hearing it live in a concert hall with the movie on a big screen is a different experience. The orchestra seats did allow us to both see the film clearly and get spatial effects particularly from the chorus. Indeed, some of most powerful sounds was the choral sections featuring Ligeti’s eerie clouds of pitches. What was also particularly apparent in the live setting was just how sparse the score is. Much of the film has no music at all.

The scenes on the space station – overall an under-appreciated part of the film – popped out more strongly as a result of live score, contrasting the (Johan) Strauss music leading up the docking with sparse texture of dialog and machine sounds of station’s interior. Perhaps, however, part of the fun of these scenes is how dated they look, more like an idealized airport interior from the 1960s. By contrast, the scenes aboard the Discovery seem more contemporary. And the audience of 2016 had quite a bit of fun at HAL’s expense, as we live in an age where computers with both voices and voice recognition are becoming part of our daily lives (”Hey Siri, what do you think about HAL 9000?”).

2001: A Space Odyssey was presented as part of the Symphonies ongoing feature film series. Sadly, we were not able to attend the talk beforehand with professor of music Kate McQuiston, or the appearance by Keir Dullea on an earlier date.