Steve Reich at 75: London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, London

It is incredible to think that minimalism – be it the aesthetic, compositional technique or style – has existed for over fifty years. Steve Reich has remained at the forefront of its developments and perhaps even its success and it was a fitting tribute to his output and position as composer of significance that the London Symphony Orchestra celebrated some of his key works in a concert on Saturday at the Barbican Centre in London.

Steve Reich – Photograph by Jeffrey Herman

There was a real buzz in the auditorium, particularly as Steve Reich joined percussionist Neil Percy on stage to perform ‘Clapping Music’ (1972). The dimmed lights and spot light on the performers added to the magic of this performance of a work that never ceases to impress that there is much to be heard in such a small amount of material. Reich and Percy performed with precision and created the ideal start to the concert. ‘The Four Sections’ (19867-87) demonstrated the clarity of Reich’s use of orchestral forces and was conducted with immense care and utterly appropriate gestures from Kristjan Järvi. The balance of the timbres throughout the work was superb and dynamic control was graded with finesse. ‘Three Movements’ (1985-86) followed. For both the spatial arrangement of the orchestra was such – with the strings separated – that one could hear the interplay of the various lines with clarity. The distinctive Reich sound of piano and percussion  opened the work and the strings extended the sound of the oscillatory material in the piano and mallet percussion. There was a vibrant sound throughout and Järvi cued the entrance of lines with aplomb; all his gestures capturing the dance and rhythmic energy of the music. There were clear connections here with New York Counterpoint’ particularly in the use of the double bass.

The second half was filled by the stunning ‘Desert Music’ (1982-83) with Synergy Vocals providing the choral sound. The five movements of this work – just as the previous multi movement works in the first half of the concert – flowed continuously and throughout the vocal sound was blended and balanced with real skill. The large team of percussionists were very much deserving of the rapturous applause that was to come for this performance as the demands on their stamina were great and they were virtuosic in their delivery of this work. This one work – and particularly this performance by Järvi and the LSO – demonstrate not only Reich’s compositional powers at structuring a large scale work that makes use of repetitive material but there were clearly echoes of other composers of the past such as Ravel. Repetition here never felt like repetition; the subtle changes were paced and controlled with such skill that the performance remained engaging throughout. Fifty minutes of music felt like considerably less here. I can see why the audience were so thrilled by the close of this concert with so many on their feet, particularly as Reich took the stage to receive his applause and show that he clearly was very pleased indeed.

Steven Berryman is a composer and teacher working and living in London. He is currently completing his PhD in Composition at Cardiff University (2011). Follow him on Twitter: @Steven_Berryman