Steve Reich’s 75th marked in youthfully energetic style

Tue Aug 23, 2011 at 12:55 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

eighth blackbird and Third Coast Percussion presented a concert of Steve Reich’s music Monday night at Millennium Park.

The occasion may have been a 75th birthday celebration for American composer Steve Reich, but the atmosphere Monday night at the Pritzker Pavilion was remarkably youthful.

With its relentless pulse and short, obsessively repeated melodies, Reich’s music bristles with energy, and two young Chicago-based groups — eighth blackbird and Third Coast Percussion —  along with some talented friends, plunged into its flow with high-octane drive.

The large audience was eager to be swept away, cheering every work on the program that opened with Reich’s Mallet Quartet and Double Sextet and closed with the luminous Music for 18 Musicians. Buoyed by their immersion in that hour-long piece, some of audience literally danced out of the park, echoes of Reich’s infectious rhythms and spiky melodies lingering in their ears.

The program was an exhilarating close to Millennium Park’s third annual Dusk Variations, a weekly series of free concerts that mix classical music with pop and alternative forms. Balancing classical music’s need for high polish and pop music’s emphasis on spontaneous exuberance can be tricky. But everybody involved with Monday’s concert got it just right.

Fred Child, a radio program host with American Public Media, offered unpretentious but informed commentary. The raw, rasping sound of Reich’s early, spoken-word tape loops, including the ground-breaking Gonna Rain, ricocheted through the park as a kind of prelude and postlude to the musical selections. They reminded us that Reich was one of the first composers to exploit sample and scratch, techniques later employed by rap and hip-hop musicians.

Music for 18 Musicians is one of Reich’s best-known pieces, and its sound is often ethereal, washing over us in glowing, sonic waves that seem to be wafting in from some distant, mysterious universe. On Monday night, the players from eighth blackbird, Third Coast and a few fearsomely intense friends offered a different take. From the first, brisk clangs of Clay Condon’s vibraphone, this was something more urgent. With a metallic edge and minimal resonance, Reich’s syncopated rhythms and jagged melodic fragments came at us with full force.

All of Reich’s magical effects were still there. The gentle roar of the bass clarinets repeatedly swelled and faded, re-emerging again and again like the revolving beam of a lighthouse. The four pianists pounded out their chords and octaves with relentless power, providing a steady, unceasing pulse that drove the music forward.

But, as was the case in Mallet Quartet and Double Sextet, Reich’s densely layered phrases were sharp edged and full of sinew. Sometimes his music resembles a warm bath. On Monday night, it was more of a bracing shower.

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