London Sinfonietta play Reich and Adès, Royal Festival Hall
Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre
February 18, 2011
In Seven Days
Thomas Adès, conductor
Synergy Vocals, singers
Nicolas Hodges, piano
This is the first of a series of London Sinfonietta concerts to be guest conducted by Adès over the next month, including touring performances outside London where his piano concerto In Seven Days is coupled with a different Reich piece, Music for 18 Musicians. It was less than 18 months ago that the Sinfonietta performed that work at the Southbank Centre with a live relay open to all in the foyer, which proved very popular; rather than have to match that performance, I think they have made a canny programming choice by enticing some of the potential new audience gained by that concert with a less famous piece by the same composer. The combination of two Biblically-inspired pieces in this concert is also arguably a more interesting and appropriate pairing.
I’ve been a big Steve Reich fan since university, but had never heard Tehillim, a setting of four Hebrew Psalms for women’s voices and a stripped-down ensemble of woodwinds, strings, no brass, a variety of percussion and — very Reich — two electric organs. Dating from 1981, in comparison to his early pieces it has the greater harmonic vocabulary that he’d recently begun to explore with 18 Musicians and Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards, but also for the first time less repetition and more extended melodies (presumably related to it also being his first setting of a text — Reich’s own notes on the piece speak of how the constantly changing metre is derived from the inherent rhythm of the words). Compared to the ambiguity of the Variations (a personal favourite), I think it’s less emotionally complex but very effective in its warmth and joyousness, well conveyed in this performance by the four women of Synergy Vocals, who have often worked with Reich. Apparently all instrumentation bar the percussion is supposed to be amplified in performance, but in this one only the voices were, which leads me to my one slight quibble — I thought that sometimes the sound balance was weighted just a little too heavily towards the voices, at the expense of the strings and woodwind. On the other hand, if I had understood the words being sung I doubt I would have had the same criticism.
This first half of the evening, consisting of a single 30-minute piece, was mirrored by the second with In Seven Days, which was premiered by the same team in the same location in April 2008. It’s actually a multimedia piece incorporating video by Adès’s partner Tal Rosner, and as the title suggests is a loose evocation of the story of creation, consisting of seven continuous movements, one for each day. Being completely unfamiliar with Adès except by reputation, I was a little surprised by the relatively consonant and repetitive score, including an early passage of string arpeggios quite reminiscent of Philip Glass. Overall it seemed to me like a more sophisticated and tasteful version of a Hollywood score by someone like James Horner, with some of that grandeur but not the bombast. The generally lightly-textured piano part was largely solo or with very sparse accompaniment, with none of the dialogue between soloist and orchestra of a traditional concerto; possibly this had a thematic relation to the concept of the piece that I couldn’t quite discern.
The video part of the piece was presented on a single screen, alternately whole or divided into six or three split-screens. Opening with waves representing the chaos before the ‘beginning’, it soon turns to successions of fairly abstract images in colour schemes of, in turn, predominantly white, blue, green and yellow/orange, before ending with a return to the waves. Individual sections with white spotlights and crescents, blue blocks reminding me of Constructivist art and green prismatic shapes were quite striking, but in all honesty I don’t feel like the video as a whole added that much to the work. My problem with completely abstract imagery is that for me it doesn’t usually create the narrative associations and connections between objects or ideas that I appreciate most in visual art. Nevertheless, video and multimedia art are disciplines that I’m getting increasingly interested in, and in particular I’m quite excited about the upcoming Southbank Centre UK premiere of Anaïs Nin by Louis Andriessen, another work with video, as part of this year’s Ether festival. This will also be performed by the London Sinfonietta, who, as with Tehillim and Adès, were a new discovery for me this evening; they may well prove to be not the least of the three.