Magazine article Gramophone

Clapping from the Same Pattern: Steve Reich and Kristjan Jarvi Make a Formidable Partnership as They Team Up for a Sony Recording, Part of Jarvi's Ongoing Sound Projects

Magazine article Gramophone

Clapping from the Same Pattern: Steve Reich and Kristjan Jarvi Make a Formidable Partnership as They Team Up for a Sony Recording, Part of Jarvi's Ongoing Sound Projects

Article excerpt

Sitting between one of the world's greatest living composers and one of its most dynamic, energetic and inspirational conductors is like being perched on the net of a musical tennis match. Composer Steve Reich is trading shots with conductor Kristjan Jarvi, and it's all becoming quite technical. Jarvi serves with a comment on spiccato --a technique involving bouncing the bow off the strings. Reich returns by explaining that it's a 'brushy' type of spiccato. Jarvi chips in to say that the 'brush technique' existed in the past but wasn't uniformly adopted by orchestras.

Reich adds that it may have started in America. Jarvi spins across another comment: 'You know, a lot of those old eastern European orchestras used to play Shostakovich like that too.' And so it goes on.

There's nothing fiercely competitive about this match, mind you. Actually, one suspects that Reich and Jarvi would make a good doubles team. There's a special synergy--a creative buzz in the air--when they talk to me in Paris ahead of a concert at the Salle Pleyel. This buzz is also communicated in their live performances of Clapping Music, of which there have been many. It's a clear indication that Reich and Jarvi are both singing from the same hymn sheet. Or perhaps, one might say, clapping from the same pattern.

None of this will come as a surprise to admirers of Reich's music or followers of Jarvi's recordings. After all, when a great composer teams up with a highly talented conductor, what could go wrong?

Well, quite a bit, in fact. Reich's relationship with orchestras over the years has hardly been smooth. When I say that it has been a 'love-hate' one, the composer jokes, 'I don't remember the love part!', but there's an underlying seriousness behind his comment. One of the lowest points in a successful career spanning 50 years was the world premiere of Reich's The Desert Music in Cologne in 1984. The composer reflects: 'Conductor Peter Eotvos knew what to do and wanted to do it ... but he was outnumbered.' For Reich, the performance was nothing short of a disaster, but the following year Eotvos conducted an inspired performance at the Proms with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers. A recording for Nonesuch followed, with Michael Tilson Thomas directing Reich's own ensemble alongside members of the Brooklyn Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra. It confirmed The Desert Music as one of the major choral compositions of the 20th century.

Yet orchestras remained unwilling to embrace Reich's music, and the composer, too, seemed reluctant to entrust orchestras to play his music. Maybe his music simply wasn't suited to the demands and prescriptions of a standard modern orchestra. In an interview with Paul Hillier in the late 1990s, Reich even went as far as to say that he had finished writing for symphony orchestras, declaring: 'The orchestra is not my orchestra.' He elaborates on this during our interview: 'Basically, I'm a Baroque-type of composer,' he insists. 'I don't write cantatas, of course, and I don't often write that much choral music, but I'm living in the world of small ensembles modelled after the Baroque period.' This is true also of Reich's style, which tends to utilise Baroque-like forms and features: a steady pulse, constant rhythmic flow, the 'spinning out' of musical ideas and an avoidance of dramatic effects, gestures or sudden changes of dynamic.

It's all a far cry from Romantic notions of musical expression. Conductors also had to adapt their approach in order to communicate Reich's music to audiences. Reich goes on: 'Late-19th-century orchestral literature was dominated by exaggerated dynamics, a very wide vibrato and a feeling that the conductor is not laying down time but making all the gestures. The conductor is the person to follow because there's no beat. It's a wonderful thing that I admire. But it has absolutely nothing to do with what I do.'

It has been a long and, at times, painful journey, but finally orchestras are waking up to the power and beauty of Reich's music. …

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