in: Reviews

August 1, 2010

Steve Reich Comes to Woodstock

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Woodstock was just lucky. Garry Kvistad, who lives near Woodstock and runs Woodstock Wind Chimes, is an outstanding percussion player who has performed with Steve Reich and Musicians for three decades. He has also been associated with the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild for many years and is now its past president. Every year Kvistad organizes a “Woodstock Beat” concert at the Maverick Hall to raise money for the Guild. This year he outdid himself, bringing not only Steve Reich’s music to Maverick but also the composer himself.

Saturday night, July 31, the Maverick Concert Hall was the site of one of my personal favorite concerts ever. It was an all-Reich concert, performed by the ensembles NEXUS and So Percussion, with various guests and Reich participating. When I spoke to Reich for an interview a week ago, I asked him why he was playing, since he had previously told me he now prefers composing to performing. “I’m not a band leader anymore,” he told me. “But Garry Kvistad is running this reunion. I love to play Drumming and I love to see these people. All I have to do is show up and rehearse and play once and see people I like and go home.” He also told me that the program had been planned around Drumming, using works of his that involve the same performing forces.

Music for Pieces of Wood (1973), for five tuned claves, was performed by NEXUS with Jason Treuting from So Percussion as the fifth player. Having followed Reich’s music with fascination since I first heard it in the late 1960s, I’m used to the way it focuses the mind with its relentless intensity and increasing complexity, dropping momentarily into deep valleys before starting to climb the next mountain. Nagoya Marimbas (1994), played by two members of So Percussion, is amazing in the way it sounds so characteristic of Reich while using such different processes. The rhythmic life is the key to its recognizability.

Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ (1973) is not my favorite Reich, because of the way the repeated electronic organ chords seem to keep it earthbound. Still, in a vigorous performance like this one (by both ensembles, with singers Jay Clayton, Rebecca Armstrong, and Beth Meyers), it remains engrossing and involving.

After intermission, Reich came out on stage for his perennial tidbit Clapping Music, performed with Russell Hartenberger of NEXUS. It’s surprisingly effective despite the modest sound (just four hands clapping) and brevity. Then came the masterpiece of the evening, Drumming, in the first complete live performance I’ve been able to hear since 1976. I still have the program for that performance (in Syracuse), and four of the same musicians including the composer were on stage for this one. I now find the most exciting moments in this music the phasing, when unison figures go out of unison, turn into chaos, and then coalesce into new patterns. The music maintains its momentum, building and diminishing and finally building to a huge mass of sound that ends suddenly and very satisfyingly.

I was surprised that, partly because I was in the first row, I was actually able to detect some imperfections in the performance. They didn’t matter. After waiting 34 years to have this experience again, I have to say it was worth the wait.

Leslie Gerber lives in Woodstock, New York. He has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

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