Astonishingly, this is Steve Reich’s first-ever orchestral residency. It is a coup for Kristjan Järvi, who may only be in his second term as chief conductor of Leipzig’s MDR Orchestra but is already making his influence felt. A young public on its feet in the hallowed Gewandhaus concert-hall is a rarity. With his innovative programming and penchant for catchy modernism, Järvi has struck a chord in Leipzig.
Reich is, of course, his own drawcard. One of the founding fathers of American minimalism, he has retained his own hard-core integrity without ever losing his penchant for exploration. Järvi’s lure for last weekend’s concert was the inclusion of two Reich world premieres – new orchestral settings of two of his major choral works.
For both Daniel Variations (2006), which juxtaposes texts from the Biblical book of Daniel with words by the murdered Jewish-American journalist Daniel Pearl, and You Are Variations (2004 settings of spiritual aphorisms), Reich’s new instrumentation is visually imposing. Four grand pianos form a muscular presence behind four tuned percussion instruments, strings to either side, lean woodwind section behind them, with the chamber choir bringing up the rear.
This brings the oscillating percussion rhythms and repetitive string patterns to the forefront, but puts the singers at a geographical disadvantage. Is it scoring, balance, positioning, diction or acoustic that makes them hard to hear? Or a mixture of all of these factors?
Järvi conducted with a dance-like spring in his beat. He was rewarded with both rhythmic accuracy and a hypnotic sense of forward drive. The volume remained at a constant throughout, dropping only by dint of numbers when fewer instruments were playing; again, it was hard to call where intention and outcome intersected. The dynamic monotony did have the effect of forcing the listener to hear the overtones and the subtle shimmer of slightly shifting patterns, like the sheen on shot silk.
After the interval, Duet (a short and sweet 1993 piece for two solo violins and strings) and The Four Sections (Reich’s 1987 answer to Britten’s Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra) gave an interesting insight into Reich’s past. The second piece, with its gradual build-up of instrumental sections, shows more flexible melodic lines, a mellower, more romantic Reich than today’s tightly wound “Godfather of Techno”.
Ironically, in the face of all this orchestral brawn, it was Reich’s oldest and smallest piece that left the deepest mark. The composer, a sober suit offset by his trademark baseball cap, opened the concert by performing his 1971 Clapping Music alongside Järvi. This five-minute slip of ebullience belies, in its lightness, a fiendish inner complexity. That two men and four hands can create such aural delight is a mark of the genius of Reich, and a feather in the cap of the MDR Orchestra’s chief.