So Percussion/Steve Reich, Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford, California

If percussionists are, as proclaimed elsewhere, the new princes of the realm of virtuosity, then these four young, steel-wristed, Brooklyn-based Yale graduates wear the crown with panache. Their presentation may be casual to the point of shapelessness, but the intensity of attack summons superlatives.

So Percussion has embraced minimalist pioneer Steve Reich with the kind of dedication one found with the composer’s vaunted and now-disbanded ensemble. The current programme serves as a four-decade retrospective of an artist whose contribution remains as controversial as it is significant. The US premiere of Mallet Quartet (a 2009 co-commission by Stanford Lively Arts), given here in the composer’s presence, represents Reich’s first deployment of the five-octave marimba, which has generated a lush tapestry of sounds at the lower end of the spectrum. The two marimbas, conjoined with a pair of vibraphones, yield startling cadences and sudden thematic shifts that fall on the ear like a forest of gossiping wind chimes.

In contrast, the static harmonies of Nagoya Marimbas of 1990 seem like a charming but evanescent study for the new piece. Often in this concert, one sensed Reich’s unspoken belief in the 1970s that a composer can make music with almost anything. Reich joined the ensemble here for a captivating traversal of Clapping Music, deft hands slipping in and out of phase. So disdained the prescribed claves for Music for Pieces of Wood, proposing the interlocking thematic manoeuvres from ordinary tuned blocks.

The first part of the 1970 Drumming, the most extended and iconic work of Reich’s early years, confirmed this ensemble’s concentration as their four tuned bongos moved in and out of phase. Less persuasive was the once-inflammatory Four Organs. Rendering the sampled score on a quartet of laptops (accompanied by the prescribed constant maracas pulse) rather than real organs deprived the performance of the sheer theatricality on which this and so many other first-generation minimalist essays depended. A sudden power breakdown suggested that technology may not be a musician’s best friend. ()

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