Monday, May 2, 2011

How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?

Why, you buy tickets of course!

Since my previous post about Kevin Volans set the precedent to step out of the bounds of architecture and design into the realm of music, I thought it would be nice to write a little review of the concert I saw last Saturday at Carnegie Hall.

Last fall, my oldest daughter started taking flute at school and has since been expressing a desire to go to a classical concert. So when I found out a few weeks ago that the music of Steve Reich, one of the nations most famous living composers, was going to be performed at Carnegie Hall as part of the celebration of his 75th birthday, I thought it would be a great opportunity for a daddy-daughter date to celebrate her recent birthday!

After a trip down to New York on the train, a little walk around Midtown ("Wow, those buildings are tall, Pai!"), and a nutritious dinner at McDonald's (kids are so predictable!), we settled into our seats in the nosebleed balcony of the beautiful and famous Carnegie Hall. (Based on a lifetime of "practice, practice, practice" jokes about the Hall, it was a bit surreal to actually be sitting in it for the first time.)

The concert presented four of Reich's recent pieces, Mallet Quartet (2009, performed by So Percussion), WTC 9/11 (2011, performed by the Kronos Quartet), 2x5 (2008, performed by Bang on a Can All-Stars), and Double Sextet (2007, performed by Bang on a Can All-Stars and Eighth Blackbird). Mallet Quartet, WTC 9/11, and 2x5 were all being performed in their New York City premier, and Double Sextet was the piece for which Reich received the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2009.

The pieces were pure Reich and featured many of his signature elements. Like the use of pulsing rhythms and what seem to be his favorite instruments like the marimba, flute, and piano. Because I knew she had not heard music like this before, in order to prepare my daughter's ears and my own for the concert, I purchased a recording of Double Sextet and 2x5 (the other two pieces are not available on recordings yet). To tell you the truth, though, I did not even make it through the recordings in their entirety, I found the beginnings of the pieces a bit tedious and not at all my contenders to become my favorite Reich. Though I was excited about going to the concert with my daughter and to actually hear some of Reich's work in person, I was a bit hesitant about it because of what I heard in the recordings ahead of time.

But was I ever proven wrong! Saying you could understand a piece of music from a recording instead of a good live performance would be like saying you can understand all there is about a building from a rendering. It just doesn't work! I found myself leaning forward on the edge of my seat for every intensely bowed, banged, struck, or blown note. Even from as far away as we were, you could see the passion with which the musicians performed, making the performance even more outstanding. The pianists were especially amazing to watch--in a Reich piece, there is no rest for the weary!

Though I am no music critic, many of the pieces performed seemed more melodic than some of Reich's earlier work with which I am more familiar. It was refreshing to hear the pieces move and develop in this way, even though I did feel it never stepped too far away from things he has been talking about and doing for many years. In fact, in the concert program, Reich himself commented about Double Sextet that "It's the kind of piece you would have expected me to write 20 years ago; it's not what you generally expect from 70-year-olds."

The concert began with Mallet Quartet, which followed the three-movement slow-fast-slow format of a number of Reich's pieces. The two marimbas and two vibraphones work together in a back-and-forth characteristic of Reich. There were four instruments and four musicians. But each musician held two mallets in each hand! How can they even think that fast!?

WTC 9/11, a sort of musical tribute to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, was the second piece to be performed. As with Reich's Different Trains piece about World War II, WTC 9/11 uses music to imitate recorded human speech. The speech gives the music its melody while the music gives the speech the overall mood, much like a soundtrack sets the mood for a movie. The piece is actually written for three string quartets and recorded voice. Two of the quartets were pre-recorded as was the speech, so only one part was presented live by the Kronos Quartet. Perhaps it was the recording, the sound system, our distance from the stage, or any number of other factors, but I really did not enjoy this piece--even though conceptually I really wanted to. I found the pre-recording of two of the quartets a bit disingenuous for a live performance. I had wanted to feel some sort of connection to it, as I have felt listening to a recording of Different Trains, but I was just not able to. I am sure much will be said and written about the piece, so I will leave it to others to say it much better than I would.

Following an intermission, 2x5 was performed by two groups of five musicians each. In total there were 2 pianos, 2 drum sets, 2 electric basses, and 4 electric guitars. It definitely had a "rock" sound to it, but was still very Reich. As with the Mallet Quartet, 2x5 followed a fast-slow-fast movement structure with no pause between movements. Although the super-high electric guitar squealing prevalent in the piece is not generally my thing, I found the piece to be fun and enjoyable and interesting insomuch as it is a bit of a departure from Reich's typical.

I think the program saved the best for last, and I can see why Reich won a prize for Double Sextet, a piece that seems to consolidate 50 years of his work into one coherent piece. In the same way that it could perhaps be criticized as very easily recognizable "haven't you done this before" Reich, perhaps that is also its strength. It is really a very melodic piece, and develops quite quickly over its 20 minute length when compared to other work Reich is famous for. As with a number of Reich's pieces in recent decades, Double Sextet was written for two identical groups of instrumentalists with the option of pre-recording one group to then be played with live. However, in the Carnegie Hall performance last week, all 12 parts (2 pianos, 2 vibraphones, 2 cellos, 2 violins, 2 clarinets, and 2 flutes) were played live. This live performance of all parts really added a depth and joyous intensity to the piece. I definitely do not think a performance where half of the parts were pre-recorded would have held the same interest or had the same power. The two pianists are totally my heroes, so intense was their performance! And my daughter loved the flute parts, which came to the surface several times to color the piece.

One funny thing I found while listening to the pieces being performed live at the concert was how one could begin to recognize when the pieces would end--not that I was wishing for that or anything! To the untrained ear, including mine the first time I listened to Reich, it would be easy to think his music is a lot of sameness. But, although there are many similar themes and Reich does seem to have a distinct "sound," as my composer friend told me on the day he introduced me to Music for 18 Musicians, with music like Reich's, it takes a longer time for themes and melodies to emerge, but they are still there. (Here is a link to a good piece about Music for 18 Musicians.) It was amazing to hear how those themes and melodic lines were present, and start looking for clues as to what would happen next. Usually near the end, the musicians got a little more intense (if that is even possible in a 20 minute piece of continuous pulsing!), the piece got a little bit louder, and then . . . silence . . . as the last note rung through the hall, and people hung at the edge of their seats.

Overall, it was a really great concert and I am so glad that I had the opportunity to go, especially with my lovely daughter. Apparently, based on the photo I saw on a review headline (linked above), Reich was in the audience that night and came up on stage at the end. We, however, left while the applause was still ringing through the hall in order to try to catch the train home and not have to wait another hour.

We missed it anyway!

If you are interested in learning more about Reich and his work, NPR has a couple of good resources, including his Music Artist Page, with links to many articles, interviews, and pieces; a review of the Carnegie Hall concert, including a video of Mallet Quartet (as of this writing, I have actually not read the review, since I did not want to cloud my comments with the comments of others); and an interview from a few days prior to the concert in which he talks about WTC 9/11. YouTube also has a number of interesting resources if you are interested in hearing some more Reich.