Jon Jacob attends the Steve Reich 80 concert at the Cafe Budapest Festival on Sunday, 16 October 2016.
Steve Reich’s music occupies a special place in the hearts of its devotees. Concerts attract earnest (in some cases obsessive) crowds, but the spirit of inclusivity borne out of the audience’s high expectations and infectious enthusiasm in undeniable.
To mark Reich’s 80th, the Amadinda Percussion Ensemble joined forces with the Kelemen Quartet and the UMZE Chamber Ensemble to perform a selection of music by the composer.
Mallet Quartet received its world premiere in Budapest in 2009, the culmination of a 25-year collaboration between the Amadinda Ensemble and Reich himself. It’s a thought-provoking work, taking us on a journey from textbook, upbeat, joyous Reich, through pensive reflection, onto a celebratory conclusion tinged with a hint of unease. What joy there is at the beginning of the work is tempered by an unshakable tension at the end.
The most musically satisfying of the composer’s larger ensemble works, City Life also happened to turn out to be the performance highlight of the evening.
The Kelemen Quartet accompanied by UMZE Chamber Ensemble played with heart and grit in equal measure, taking us through a range of aural cityscapes, some grim, others terrifying. In the fifth movement – Heartbeats – the distinction between live music and recorded ambience was indecipherable creating what at times appeared like a nightmare vision of urban life.
In some respects hearing Reich’s music in the opulent surroundings of the Lizst Academy in Budapest seemed incongruent with the images he conjures up in his writing. The acoustic, whilst generous, sometimes muddied the rich lines from the percussion instruments. The Quartet – a work for two vibes and two pianos for example, highlighted the acoustic challenge which in turn drew attention to the demands placed on the Ensemble placing chords and ensuring unison lines were uniformly played.
Radio Rewrite – a collaboration between Reich and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood – is different in character and, in some ways, musically less satisfying. The phrases Reich uses are longer meaning the driving rhythms we come to expect from his creation are lost in favour of complex seemingly ever-changing time changes. There was as a result a perceptible lack of punch to proceedings made the work feel a little long.