Intensely Innovative

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 28, 2008

RICHMOND -- Six musicians are playing a duet with recorded versions of themselves. It is like looking into an electronic mirror. The mirror refracts the rapid, driving beat of piano and marimba; it adds a reflected gleam to long-held chords of strings and winds. The players, live and recorded, create layer upon layer of sound, a rich mille-feuille of music, while pinwheeling light-images create visual parallels on the wall behind them.

The event was the world premiere here Wednesday evening of "Double Sextet" by Steve Reich. A new work by Reich really is an event. At 71, the composer has attained an elusive blend of reverence and popularity: Each new work is eagerly awaited, immediately recorded (Nonesuch is releasing "Daniel Variations" on April 8) and repeatedly performed.

And "Double Sextet" was only part of the picture. The program at the University of Richmond, called "The Only Moving Thing," consisted of two world premieres commissioned by eighth blackbird, the contemporary music ensemble whose CD "strange imaginary animals" won this year's chamber-music Grammy. The program, which will arrive at the Kennedy Center on May 13, juxtaposes the Reich with the latest piece by Bang on a Can, the three-member composers' collective (David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe) who have become the cornerstone of what one might oxymoronically term New York's maverick musical establishment.

If the group honored two generations of maverick masters -- Reich is an important influence on Bang on a Can's catchy, rock-tinged work -- it was presented by an ensemble that, for all its spirit of innovation (and, on Wednesday, amplification), comes off as the straight-A students of the contemporary scene. It's new music you could bring home to your mother. In performance, eighth blackbird embodies a slightly geeky spirit of earnestness.

The implicit dramatic line of Reich's piece emphasized the apparent quirks of the cast of characters onstage: Lisa Kaplan, the pianist, and Matthew Duvall, the percussionist, set the pace and provided the funk, while the four other musicians, more staid, held on to the neat sounds they were making, with an unspoken sense of "Golly!"

It was actually the Bang on a Can piece, "singing in the dead of night" (capital letters are an endangered species in eighth blackbird's ecosystem), that sought to make the dramatic line explicit. Consisting of three gentle movements by Lang, framing longer contributions by Gordon and Wolfe, the piece involved a fourth collaborator, the choreographer Susan Marshall. Often, her stage movement involved no more than the kind of walking around stage that attracts little notice at a rock concert.

But in Lang's wistful, elegiac second movement, one of the players, standing like a sad clown, had an armful of metal objects that he let fall loudly onto the stage -- drawing titters not entirely in keeping with the music. And in Wolfe's piece, which seesawed between intense quiet and complexity, sand became a sound-maker, poured on a table and wallowed in, with amplified gentle crunching noises, by the musicians. This was a nice effect, but grew old by the third iteration, though it reasserted itself at the close, when Kaplan extended her whole body across the sonorous sandy surface.

One risk of collaboration is that the piece becomes a little long. Gordon's contribution was a jam session built atop a heavy-handed, sliding cello line, with a Celtic-fiddle touch from the violin, culminating in a controlled chaos involving glissandi on accordion and harmonica above the fray. But it, like Wolfe's, grew unwieldy. Lang's had a tonic delicacy in comparison. His first movement, as if in homage to Reich's signature not-quite-repeating patterns, involved repetitions that were slightly, but not evenly, off-kilter, creating a limping sense that everything was fragmenting rather than coming together.

Reich, by contrast, seems to continue in a warm late period that verges on the downright romantic. Reich is a rare composer who moves in a clear, straight line, developing his thoughts from one piece to the next; "Double Sextet" is obviously in the tradition of his other live/taped pieces, such as "New York Counterpoint." But in this piece, his rhythmic patterns became a background against which he held up chords as if examining them under the light, replacing his characteristic spareness with something verging on melodic richness (the slow movement opened with a tune in the strings that was practically a pop song).

Reich has said he does not want to write again for orchestra -- that it is not a sound that interests him -- but this strong sextet touched on timbres and harmonies and depths that nodded, at least, in that direction.

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