Reich's rhythms a musical treat

Composer Steve Reich and the London Sinfonietta mesmerised with innovative rhythmic patterns and virtuosity



London Sinfonietta, Steve Reich - conductor/performer, Mats Bergstrom - solo guitar, Synergy Vocals

Esplanade Concert Hall/Thursday

The Esplanade's Spectrum season for 2016/17 celebrates minimalism in music and started off with leading new music ensemble, the London Sinfonietta, performing the music of Steve Reich, a pioneer of the genre and considered one of America's greatest living composers.

Early in his career, he explored the effect of shifting a rhythmic pattern in time, relative to another. This "phase shift" technique resulted in unexpected, intricate rhythms that captivated audiences, so it was fitting that the concert opened with Clapping, his last work written using phase shift.

It was a special treat to see the sprightly composer, who will be 80 later this year, on stage clapping with his musical partner. Each time the second clapper seamlessly made a time shift, listeners would perceive a new rhythmic pattern, until they returned to unison, ending the delightful miniature.

Electric Counterpoint represented another phase, as it were, of Reich's output. In this work, first recorded by jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, the solo guitarist plays to the soundtrack of mixed guitars.

Some musicologists say that minimalist music existed in the East well before the explorations of Reich's generation of American composers in New York, and certainly this piece, with hints of gamelan influence, would not have sounded out of place in a village hall or jazz bar in Bali.

Through the three sections of the work, Swedish guitar virtuoso Mats Bergstrom built the intensity and emotional excitement any jazz exponent would have been proud of, while remaining a picture of serenity on stage. Tempos remained constant throughout each of the three movements, but a mere variation of pattern or syncopating a single plucked note from him would mesmerise the audience.

Reich's work has influenced the music of David Bowie, Bjork, Brian Eno, Mike Oldfield and many others. In turn, in the next piece, Radio Rewrite, he used two songs from rock band Radiohead to create a work of five sections, performed by 11 players from the London Sinfonietta and conductor Andrew Gourlay.

In Electric Counterpoint, Bergstrom was able to craft tension out of little. Sadly, with two vibraphones, piano and electric bass and more under his direction, and the support of an ever-diligent sound team at the back of the hall, Gourlay seemed content to do little more than beat time for the musicians and the playing lacked colour or excitement.

The performance of the showcase for the evening, Music For 18 Musicians, could not have been more contrasting. The unrelenting rhythm, pulsating dynamics and inspired use of four pianos, countless percussionists with mallets, two clarinets (alternating with bass clarinets) and female chorus made this a vibrant, brilliant work that captured the unflagging hustle- bustle and buzz of New York.

In an age where attention spans seem to be measured in seconds, this reviewer had some apprehension over how the audience would take to almost an hour of largely unwavering rhythms.

Reich's imaginative writing and the great musicianship of the London Sinfonietta quickly eased the anxiety. With each progression in the music, it was clear that the audience that packed the hall loved what it was hearing.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2016, with the headline 'Reich's rhythms a musical treat'. Print Edition | Subscribe