REVIEW: Music for 18 Musicians

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March 19, 2017
by Karalyn Schubring

Last night, Hill Auditorium throbbed with the pulsing patterns, reverberating rhythms, and crunchy chords of the one and only Steve Reich. The seats were packed with fans (and critics) of the Pulitzer-Prize winning composer for the UMS premieres of Reich’s music by Chicago-based ensembles Eighth Blackbird and Third Coast Percussion, in celebration of the composer’s eightieth birth year.

As a special, pre-concert treat, three student ensembles from U of M’s School of Music performed in the lobbies of Hill Auditorium prior to the concert. The University of Michigan Western African Drumming Ensemble brought Reich’s polyrhythmic roots to life, while a student jazz quartet covered John Coltrane’s Africa, a work that influenced the composer’s perception of rhythmic and harmonic possibilities. A student violin quartet performed Reich’s Violin Phase, a difficult piece that involves one of Reich’s trademark techniques, phasing, in which players purposefully fall gradually out of sync with one another in order to bring rhythmic and polyphonic complexity to the texture. All three performances were extremely impressive and drew sizable crowds. I only wish that they hadn’t overlapped so that I could have fully enjoyed all three.

The concert itself began with Steve Reich’s Sextet,performed by all four members of Third Coast Percussion with guest percussionist Matthew Duvall and pianist Lisa Kaplan. Although these were the performers’ “official” titles, that did not restrict Reich from calling on the percussionists to play piano parts, or the pianists to play synthesizers. The players moved around the labyrinth of a setup and traded around instruments with ease, while the music flowed so naturally that these transitions were hardly noticeable. The structure of the piece was as regular and predictable as it was surprising, which made for a very satisfying auditory experience. This performance was certainly deserving of the ovation it received.

The second half of the concert held what everyone had come to see: Music for 18 Musicians. The piece is notoriously demanding due to its significant length and the sheer man- (and woman-)power it requires, which explains why it is not performed often. The fact that 18 players (or in this case, 19––the ensemble chose to have four full-time female vocalists, rather than having one double on piano), were able to stay so in sync with one another without a conductor was astounding.

The piece is about an hour long, which allows plenty of time for the audience to engage in deep focus and/or distracted contemplation: there are moments when you consider checking how much time has passed, but there’s something too special and soothing about letting yourself remain suspended in oblivion; you’re tempted to doze off on the shore of this ocean of sound, but you also want to hold on tightly to every musical moment before it disappears from right under your nose; you wonder when the piece will be over, but you’re terrified of this sweet, unadulterated regularity coming to an end. The dynamic swells that run throughout the entire piece are like a breeze passing through a dense forest, making the leaves shimmer and the sweat on your brow sparkle. All 19 musicians achieved such a deep level of focus, intentional musicality, and personal connection with the music, themselves, and the audience that it was hard to walk out of that auditorium feeling nothing.

Ann Arbor was extremely fortunate to have Eighth Blackbird, Third Coast Percussion, and their guest co-performers come together for this special evening of sound from an undeniably significant composer. Whether or not I finally get Music for 18 Musicians out of my head, I won’t be forgetting this concert for a long time.

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