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By the middle of the 20th Century, the world’s foremost classical composers, from Schoenberg to Boulez, were creating music that was increasingly complex, mathematical, and inaccessible. A group of American composers, differently inclined, saw this as an opportunity to rebuild classical music from the ground up. A key figure in the advent of a new school of musical thought – Minimalism – was the New York-born Steve Reich, who along with composers like Terry Riley, Philip Glass and John Adams, rejected the new complexity of classical harmony and tonality in favour of works made of minimal elements, whose repetition was such that even the smallest changes were of huge significance. The simplest ideas, they found, could produce the most beautiful outcomes.
The Hallé’s Steve Reich Festival will convince you of the same. Comprising three concerts, it includes over 10 major works, from Reich’s larger scale masterpieces to iconic smaller pieces. All will be conducted by Colin Currie – “The world’s finest and most daring percussionist” (The Spectator), with a guest appearance from Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, and the input of visual artist Gerhard Richter.
The centrepiece of the first concert, taking place on 1 February, is Desert Music, a major choral and orchestral work addressing “that constant flickering of attention between what words mean and how they sound.” It will see members of the RNCM Chamber Choir join the Hallé on The Bridgewater Hall stage, conducted by Colin Currie. It was for Currie that Reich wrote the Music for Pieces of Wood and Mallet Quartet, which uses the simplest possible instruments – just five pairs of pitched claves. Music for Ensemble and Orchestra, meanwhile, was envisaged as an “extension of the Baroque Concerto where there are 20 soloists – all regular members of the orchestra.” The San Francisco Chronicle declared it “a stunning masterpiece”.
The next concert on 2 February (now sold out) sees the action move to Hallé St Peter’s, where we’ll hear Reich’s wonderfully lambent Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ – a piece which, Reich recalls, “grew very spontaneously from one marimba pattern to many patterns played by other mallet instruments.” Mallets continue to take the limelight in Mallet Quartet, Currie’s recording of which was both the Editor’s and Critics’ Choice of Gramophone when released. Finally, making a neat connection with Jonny Greenwood’s appearance in the final concert, Radio Rewrite is a work inspired by two Radiohead songs (‘Jigsaw Falling into Place’ and ‘Everything in Its Right Place’). “It was not my intention to make anything like ‘variations’ on these songs”, says Reich, “but rather to draw on their harmonies and sometimes melodic fragments and work them into my own piece.”
The final concert, back at The Bridgewater Hall, will no doubt be a very popular one. Radiohead guitarist and composer Jonny Greenwood joins the Hallé to emulate his Glastonbury performance of Reich’s Electric Counterpoint. Before that, we’ll hear Reich’s iconic Clapping Music, its instrumentation just human hands, along with the calmly luminous Runner. The Four Sections refers to both the four orchestral families and its four varied movements, Reich creating a contrapuntal web filled with melodic patterns. Lastly the recent Reich/Richter was conceived as a concert work, as well as music for the film Moving Picture (946-3) by visual artist, Gerhard Richter. Reich found his inspiration in the pulsating, colour shifting, glowing stripes of the film’s opening sequence.
This really is a special festival for fans of minimalism or Steve Reich specifically. Each concert is ticketed separately, with concessions and discounts available.