BBC Proms: Steve Reich, Royal Albert Hall, London – review

Although nearly 20 years separate Steve Reich’s pioneering work It’s Gonna Rain from his later The Desert Music, these two pieces are linked by their preoccupation with poetic text. Furthermore, while repetitive rhythms provide structure, and spoken words acquire an almost abstract quality, both works are characterised by the power and subtlety of the human voice. This late-night Prom, presented by the BBC Singers and Endymion ensemble, conducted by David Hill, explored this theme with a performance that seemed at once humane and otherworldly.

A seemingly chance recording of a Pentecostal street preacher named Brother Walter, made in San Francisco in 1964, inspired Reich’s early tape work. In the first section two looped settings of the refrain “it’s gonna rain” slowly phase out of unison, creating jerking rhythms, a kind of manic dance track. In part two, his speech is stripped back further into an angry and disorientating rasping. The stage was empty but as the recordings clashed and syncopated, the audience maintained its directional focus, as if attending a stadium cult conversion.

Already, in the early 1960s, Reich was seeking inspiration in the work of the early 20th-century American poet William Carlos Williams, but in 1982 this connection was made explicit. If It’s Gonna Rain bristles with the tension felt in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, The Desert Music, a setting of texts taken from Williams’ poetry collection of the same name, seeks to evoke the period immediately after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Five movements, set across an A-B-C-B-A pattern, are performed by amplified choir and chamber orchestra to create what Reich himself has described as a “pulsing chorale”. From the rippling patterns of the opening bars and throughout the musicians maintained a delicate balancing act, combining high emotion and rich expression with a seemingly effortless, almost mechanical, momentum.

It is a phenomenally demanding piece. Not only do those involved need focus and stamina (some are even required to swap instruments), they also need an almost superhuman sensitivity to the collective effort. The musicianship of the BBC Singers and Endymion was dazzling but it is Hill who deserves the highest praise; his direction communicated the vitality and fragility at the heart of the piece – a thrilling sense of life on the edge.

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