Steve Reich: Music for Ensemble and Orchestra
BORN: October 3, 1936, in New York City, where he currently lives
WORLD PREMIERE: November 1, 2018. Susanna Mälkki led the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, CA. Music for Ensemble and Orchestra was co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and Baltic Sea Philharmonic
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—At these concerts
INSTRUMENTATION: For the ensemble—2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 vibraphones, 2 pianos, 2 first violins, 2 second violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, bass, and electric bass; For the orchestra—4 trumpets, strings (no basses)
DURATION: About 20 mins
THE BACKSTORY Steve Reich first became known to San Francisco Symphony audiences with performances of his works in the New and Unusual Music series throughout the 1980s. When Michael Tilson Thomas spearheaded the first SFS American Mavericks Festival in 2000, Reich played a central role as both composer and performer. In 2016, MTT and the SFS hosted a celebration of Reich’s life and works on the occasion of the composer’s 80th birthday.
When Reich published Music for 18 Musicians in 1976, it signified a sea change in his output. In its instrumental scale, performance length, and harmonic design, the work represented the greatest advancement in Reich’s exploration of minimalism to date. And at around an hour for a typical performance, it was also the largest and most complex work he had yet written, centered around the same phase‐shifting techniques that had anchored his earlier—smaller-scale—compositions. In the decade that followed he would concentrate on longer, more substantial works for larger ensembles, including The Desert Music (1983) and Three Movements (1986) but in 1987 his output for orchestra came to an abrupt halt. “I was starting to write for larger forces beyond the size that my ensemble could tour,” Reich explains, adding that the orchestras who were being asked to perform his music were “completely out of touch with my idiom and were unable to play it well at all.” Dissatisfied and disheartened, Reich ceased composing for orchestra altogether.
Today, however, the orchestral landscape is very different. “A lot of the orchestral musicians know my style,” Reich says, “particularly the percussionists, and there is a new generation of conductors that are well aware of my music and very skilled at performing it.” Thirty years since his last orchestral score, Music for Ensemble and Orchestra represents Reich’s return to a large‐scale canvas, its design combining the intricate detailing of the ensemble with the grandiose sound world afforded by the orchestra. Part concerto, part orchestral suite, the work pits these components against one another in two distinct structural layers, each with different functions. “I looked at the orchestral stage and saw that an ensemble very similar to what I usually write for was already sitting there in two horseshoes, with the front strings and the principal woodwinds,” Reich explains. “These players, together with two pianos and two vibes became my ensemble. For the orchestra I added four trumpets and a string section.”
THE MUSIC Conceived in five untitled movements, the work’s large‐scale design is—true to form— tethered to the detail of the small‐scale processes too. So, Reich creates a five‐part arch form (a reference to his admiration for Bartók) which is delineated by the rhythmic pulse of each individual movement. In Reich’s words: “The tempo is fixed but the speed varies from movement to movement via different note values: sixteenths, eighths, quarters, eighths and sixteenths.” This arch is reflected, too, in the work’s key scheme, which moves between tonal areas each a minor third apart: A–C–E-flat–F-sharp–A.
Reich’s orchestra takes something of a supporting role here, the intricacy of the melodic writing largely given over to the members of the ensemble who, in characteristic Reich fashion, echo, chase and overlap one another as they exchange fragments of the melodic material. Within the ensemble, Reich provides pairings too—first violin and first flute, then second violin and second flute, and so on—with these pairings swapping around as new ideas are introduced. While these pairings interlock with one another to form the familiar musical patchwork of Reich’s score, the exchange of instrumentation ensures that the colors of this fabric remain ever‐changing too, creating a rippling, iridescent effect that pulses and shimmers above the sustained orchestral backdrop.—Jo Kirkbride
Jo Kirkbride is a UK-based freelance classical music writer.