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Reich Is Ripe at 80

January 31, 2017

Cal Performances

Several birthday boys receive parties at Cal Performances’ Berkeley RADICAL this season: Mark Morris, 60; John Adams, 70; and, on January 29, Steve Reich. In celebration of his 80th birthday, the New York-based new music group Ensemble Signal played a fantastic concert of his music at Hertz Hall.

Sunday’s performance, which featured four major works Reich wrote in the last decade, showcased his continuing vitality. In fact, the newest work was also the most exciting: Runner (2016), a U.S. premiere well worth the 14-minute set change that preceded it. The piece is for large ensemble (including violinist Ari Streisfeld and cellist Kevin McFarland, whom I was sad to see leave the JACK Quartet), and was conducted with great precision and integrity by Brad Lubman.

In a compelling application of the structural symmetry that organizes each work on the program, Runner’s five movements are based on different note values. The first movement is a sophisticated perpetual motion woven by individual lines firmly rooted in the two piano parts played by David Friend and Oliver Hagen. The wind players harness these sixteenth notes in the final movement, playing — to dynamic effect — as long as they can in one breath.

The second and fourth movements are based on eighth notes, first in open harmonies, but increasingly with density and complexity, enhanced by an irregular pulsation across the group. In the third movement, the piece’s apex, Reich sets a slowed-down Ghanaian bell pattern with delicious harmonic tension.

Another highlight of Sunday’s program was Quartet (2013), for two vibraphones (Bill Solomon and Doug Perkins) and two pianos (Friend and Hagen). Reich has written for this combination before, but here, it sounds new. Placid harmonies, populated by variously flavored seventh chords, revolve around the slow inner movement. In the outer movements, these harmonic journeys turn jazzy, with interlocking piano lines bolstered by vibraphone hits that eventually come into their own. The Ensemble Signal quartet played this brisk and purposeful music in perfect sync.

These characteristics feel inappropriate, however, in Radio Rewrite (2012), Reich’s piece inspired by Radiohead songs. The band’s M.O. has shifted over the years — lyrics have become increasingly abstract, more traditional rock writing has metamorphosed into the symphonic and electronic — but at the core has remained a rawness of emotion that is closely associated with singer Thom Yorke. Rarely does Reich’s writing hint at this power. In particular, the fast movements, based on the 2007 song “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” groove too genially: only in the final movement, with an incessant line played by electric bass (Greg Chudzik) and pianos, does Reich capture any of the Radiohead neurosis.

That’s fine with Reich. Radiohead may have provided some initial ideas, but the intention was always “to work them into my own piece,” he said. “I just wrote what I wanted to hear.” Even so, it’s hard not to feel disappointed that Reich didn’t take the opportunity to hit a different mark, and Radio Rewrite is more enjoyable while intentionally forgetting its genesis story.

n the other work for medium-sized ensemble, Double Sextet (2007), Reich’s strengths converge: captivating harmonic schemes, interesting gestures — the graceful lifts! — and writing that maximizes the performing forces at hand (on Sunday, two live sextets of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and vibraphone; though the piece can also be performed against a recorded sextet). It’s true that this Pulitzer-Prize-winning composition, which shares a similar language with Quartet and Runner, would have stood out more in a retrospective. However, given how often one hears Reich’s earlier seminal works like Piano Phase or Clapping Music (which, indeed, Lubman and Reich himself performed to open the concert), it was especially rewarding to hear Ensemble Signal play this piece.

Rebecca Wishnia recently earned her master’s degree in violin from UC Santa Cruz, where she studied with Roy Malan. A passionate chamber musician, she has performed in a variety of ensembles around the Bay Area, in addition to studying and teaching chamber repertoire at festivals each summer.