PROM 37: Steve Reich Classics in a Late-Night Prom 

14/08/2014

 Prom 37 Steve Reich, BBC Singers, Endymion, David Hill (conductor) Royal Albert Hall, London, 13.8.2014 (RB)

It’s Gonna Rain

The Desert Music (chamber version)

Because this late-night Prom started at 1015 and ended at 11.30 I was unable to attend the whole of the concert and also catch the last train from Liverpool Street. Sadly, I had to leave at 11:10 and miss the last 20 minutes of The Desert Music although I have heard the whole of it online through Play It Again. With that declaration made we move on to the review.

The Royal Albert Hall was about 50% full for a 1015 start. The standing Prom area was almost as packed as it had been for the Vaughan Williams concert earlier that evening.

The BBC announcer introduced the first work. This was just as well because there were to be no players on the stage for It’s Gonna Rain. This involved a repeated tape loop of two sentences from a San Francisco revivalist street preacher’s rant. Reich recorded the words on-street then worked with two reel-to-reel tape recorders – repeating and dissecting the sentences and words. It fell into two segments, one for each sentence. There was some premature applause in the silence between the two segments. The work has a fascination as words and fragments of words are fired at you without remission. Words lose their identity and transform into other words and sounds, forming eddies and vortices. At one point the fragmentation and phase interruptions produced something sounding like the incessant ring of a struck anvil.  This was one of Reich’s earliest pieces alongside Clapping in which, as you might expect, there are at least performers. There is something of the rite about these works – even something of primitive peoples and man’s prehistory. There was one boo at the end of this 17 minute work but otherwise applause was forthcoming. The end of the piece was signalled by the hall lights coming up.

The Desert Music is big and is fashioned around a choral setting of five poems by William Carlos Williams with Man and the Atomic Bomb as its subject. At one point the ululation of the Chorus, the magnificent BBC Singers, recalls the string writing in Penderecki’s similarly themed Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima – surely a consciously engineered allusion. Although this is the chamber version of a 1982 work it is by no means diminutive in the forces it brings to the stage. The mixed voice choir runs to about 25 singers. The excellent orchestra (Endymion) comprises strings, a few woodwind, lots of percussion including maracas, keyboards, two xylophones and two vibraphones. The role and sound of the instruments is similar to that in the Reich work that first won me over to him in the early 1980s: Variations for orchestra. You would not be able to help noticing at one point the occasional similarity to Villa-Lobos in his chattering jungle and street carnival finery. The minimalism comes in the shape of note groups and cells, here sumptuously lyrical, repeated and slowly – ever so slowly – transformed. Rhythm is celebrated and voiced ecstatically through the xylophones and vibraphones. The music should appeal to anyone who warms to the repetitions encountered in Orff and to the ostinati in Sibelius’s Luonnotar and Nightride and Sunrise. This is not difficult music but neither is it vacuous. The conductor David Hill presided and was clearly enthusiastically and physically in touch with this intricate and running rhythmic canvas. His forces were called on to concentrate unwaveringly and that is exactly what they did.

Rob Barnett

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