CSO celebrates Steve Reich Review - MusicNOW Concert for the Great Composer's 80th Birthday

On Monday, November 21st, the second concert in the 2016-2017 Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s (CSO) MusicNOW series was presented at The Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph. The program, presented in collaboration with and supported by Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music joined musicians from the CSO and from Bienen, under the baton of Conductor Alan Pierson, co-director of the Contemporary Musical Ensemble at Bienen.

Conductor Alan Pierson, co-director of the Contemporary Music Ensemble at the Bienen School of Music, led Bienen students in Reich's "Proverb", 1995; photo by Noelle Ike

It celebrated American musical icon Steve Reich’s 80th birthday, paying tribute to “his unrivaled musical contribution” with a program of 3 of his pieces, which highlighted “the breadth and invention of his existing work”. Installations reflecting his earlier pieces were set up in the lobby before and after the performance for the audience/patrons to peruse. Reich is a leading composer whose work has been performed on a regular basis for half a century. He helped to pioneer “minimal music” in the 1960”s. He is credited with altering the course of musical history, and has also been called “America’s greatest living composer”. His work is known for it’s “steady pulse, repetition and a fascination with canons”.

The first 2 pieces were performed by students, the 3rd by members of the CSO. Behind the performers, and projected large on a screen, were “mod” black and white striped images faintly reminiscent of either a piano keyboard or an op-art flag; these were created by Thirst artist John Pobojewski. Also shown before each piece were fascinating recent films of Reich, in a baseball cap, discussing his ideas about each composition; happily, transcriptions of these were contained in the program handout. From a spot halfway down the first section of seating, technical artists controlled the projections as well as the spoken audio portions of the music.

Harris Theater lobby installation

The 3 selections performed this night were:

“Different Trains”, 1988, a 3- movement piece for string quartet and tape; the 3 segments were entitled “America-Before the War”, “Europe-During the War” and “After the War”. The piece, about World War 2, was an almost unbearably moving and often tension filled exposition of the fate of Holocaust Survivors, which was horrifically connected to the trains whose cattle cars bore them to their Final Solution. Reich describes the “basic idea” for the piece as “Carefully chosen speech recordings generate the musical materials for musical instruments”, and indeed the two violins, viola, and cello music seemed to flow right from the spoken word, rather than being performed over it or along with it. Uncanny and distinct voices- of Reich’s elderly governess, a retired Pullman porter, and of 3 actual Holocaust survivors, “reminiscing” about their experiences, along with recorded sounds of both American and European trains of the 30’s and 40’s are juxtaposed with anguished, repetitive and alarming music organized around a simple recurrent melody. The piece was stark, sobering and stunningly raw.

Reflections of lobby installation for "MusicNOW" concert celebrating the 80th birthday of composer Steve Reich

“Proverb”, 1995, a composition sung here by 3 sopranos and 2 tenors with vibraphone and electric organ, is a piece of polyphony strongly evocative of sacred choral music. Based on a line by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and influenced by the works of European composer, Perotin, who lived in the 12th century, the phrase they sing is, "How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life". The sopranos sing the original melody in progressively longer or augmented phrasing; the tenors sing shorter duets and the organ music doubles the singers, filling in the harmony. The meter changes constantly with vibraphone enunciating the shifts in beats. The young voices were reverent and strong- the whole group under the inspired and firm leadership of Maestro Pierson- an outstanding inspirational piece of music.

Video in Harris Theater lobby

The final performance of the program, brilliantly played by CSO musicians, was “Double Sextet”, 2008. Commissioned by “Eighth Blackbird” in 2007, it won for Reich the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Music. The intricate, multi-layered work in 3 movements is scored for 2 sextets of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, vibraphone and piano. It can be played with 12 musicians- as it was here- or by 6 playing against a recording of themselves. The three movements contain four harmonies, each built around a key and it’s relative minor key, and the modulations between them are sudden and clear. The piano rhythm themes interlock throughout the piece creating the effect of constant eighth-note chords. It’s a beautiful, orchestral, even hypnotizing work of art.

 The 3 installations planned for the lobby are intriguing examples of fascinating mixed-media work. “Pendulum Music”, 1968, is a cross between performance and audible sculpture, involving suspended microphones and speakers, an avante garde creation of “phrased feedback tones”. “Come Out”, 1966 is explained as a “tape-loop experiment”, a Civil Rights Era masterpiece presaging today’s “Black Lives Matter” campaign. “It’s Gonna Rain”, 1965, is a piece written “in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis” about the end of the world. Both tapes have been described as portentous, meaningful and moving.

Poster for MusicNOW concert celebrating Steve Reich


For information on MusicNOW and all the great programming from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and for tickets, go to the CSO website



All photos by Debra Davy unless otherwise noted

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