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Steve Reich At The Miller Theatre: A Journey Through Music

Steve Reich looking chic

Steve Reich looking chic

Bwog is a fan of music, as you may tell from our frequent playlists. We don’t often include classical music on those playlists but, maybe we should? Last night, new bwogger Tamara Barriot headed to the Miller Theater to check out renowned American composer Steve Reich (soon-to-turn 80!) with the group Ensemble Signals. What she heard was good.

The New York Times and The New Yorker both have referred to Steve Reich as one of the greatest composers alive, and Thursday’s season opening at the Miller Theatre further demonstrated this genius in his compositions.

To honor Reich’s upcoming birthday on October 3rd, the executive director Melissa Smey came and spoke to the audience before the beginning of the piece. In her words, this piece was “a shout-out for [Reich],” one that could only be accomplished with “two violins, four pianos, a viola, a cello, some clarinets, flutes, a couple marimbas, six singers, and four extra feet of stage.”

As I entered  the theater, with its backdrop lit in a bluish shade of purple, I could see that the seats were quickly being filled. A full-house vibrated subtly in semi-quiet anticipation as Ensemble Signal took its place on stage, “one of the most vital groups of its kind,” according to the New York Times.

Brad Lubman, the renowned conductor and co-founder of Ensemble Signal, took his place on stage a few minutes later, showered by the public’s applause. And then, as if someone had cast a spell upon the crowd, the theater fell silent. Lubman raised his hand and music poured out from the stage.

“Daniel Variations” – a tribute to the American Jewish reporter Daniel Pearl, who was murdered in 2002 by Islamic extremists in Pakistan – begins in a rather somber tone. Like an omen of evil, the words “I saw a dream” (taken from the Biblical book of Daniel) are repeated by both sopranos and tenors at different intervals and with different intonations. The combination of voices, piano chords, and marimba in the background of the piece made the listener wary and almost certain that trouble is coming.

With only a quarter second of silence, the piece transitions to the second movement in which the strings take the lead, turning the piece into a vivacious melody with a much faster pace. The phrase “my name is Daniel Pearl” is sang in a clear voice, the instruments seem to quiet down so the audience could listen clearly to the words before resuming their lively pace.

Just as suddenly, however, Reich immerses the audience into a third movement, again bathed in surprising darkness. A bass drum marks the tempo, and just like a warning the tenors and sopranos sing “let the dream fall back on the dreaded” (again from the book of Daniel). Swelling into an aggressive shout, the voices rise over the instruments, conveying to the audience a rather unheard desperation.

Again, the strings take the lead as the marimba lightens the grim words “I sure hope Daniel likes my music, when the day is done.” In a cascade of sound and octave shifts, the instruments join together to produce a joyous final uplift in the piece. The voices and the instruments hang on that last note, stretching it as far as it goes. Then, complete silence overtakes the theater, resulting in a moment as powerful as the music itself, bringing the piece to a sudden end.

The second piece of the concert was “You Are (Variations),” which is also divided into four movements. Reich begins with a fast-paced, marimba dominated tone. The words take over the music, reciting “you are wherever your thoughts are,” and a certain pleasant buzz emanates from all the instruments. However, within the same movement, the tone changes. The words are broken into syllables, making it sound like a new instrument, as mechanical little string movements begin and the marimba resumes its dominating role. It is almost a statement through music: if you allow your thoughts to be transported by the music, you can truly exist “wherever your thoughts are.”

The last word blends into the first words of the next movement, “Shiviti Hashem l’negdi (I place the eternal before me),” almost as if it were the same sentence. Here, the violins take over, and the foreign voices merge indistinguishably with the strings in what seems to be an angelical composition.

Then, all sound ceased, leaving a sudden and complete silence. The audience breathed, unsure if it was the end, and before an imprudent clap could ruin the music, the piano picks back up a melody. Like a cautionary tale, the notes are stretched out, and the English words “explanations come to an end somewhere” seem almost foreign. Through this, a viola seems to sing.

And just as the words start clearing, the marimba takes precedence and the new Hebrew words are loud and quickly spoken: “Ehmor m’aht, v’ahsay harbay (say little do much).” There was not a sound in the theater, and all eyes were glued on stage, as if the music, the ensemble, the composer, and the audience had found their conclusion, and abrupt silence, a sudden finale.

Truly, composer Steve Reich’s work lives up to expectations, and he is, at least in my opinion, one of the greatest living composers. The sudden shifts, changes, drops, and rises in his music evoke a sense of progress and travel in the audience, as if Reich is leading us collectively on a journey within the theater. While the Miller Theatre planned this as a shout-out for Reich’s birthday, the result was a night of wonder for the audience; hopefully, Reich will share many more of his birthdays with the Miller Theatre for Columbia to enjoy.

Reich photo via Miller Theatre website

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