Proms 35/36, Karabits/Bournemouth SO/Reich/Synergy Vocals/Ensemble Modern, Royal Albert Hall (4/5, 5/5)

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

There could be no better way of celebrating Steve Reich’s 75th birthday than with a performance of his ‘Music for 18 Musicians’, and the packed hall for this late-night Prom testified to the size and devotion of his fan-club. This is a work for which ‘ground-breaking’ really is the mot juste, yet although it has earned Reich the title ‘founding father of minimalism’, he himself regards it as leaving minimalism far behind.

Its structure is at once pellucid and dizzily complex: Reich says he’s happy if people simply enjoy it, without knowing precisely what polyphonic patterns are being developed. Eleven chords from clarinets and singers announce the start, after which a short piece is built on each chord in turn.

One of the key influences behind this work was the twelfth-century polyphony of the Parisian composer Perotin, whose elaborate extensions of melody here got their twenty-first century answer as Synergy Vocals negotiated Reich’s intricate score. Another influence was Balinese gamelan, partly through its textures, and partly thanks to the way its drummers give the rest of the players their cue. Here the cues came from Rainer Romer’s vibraphone, heralding each harmonic change with bell-like chords: the mallet-instrument ensemble – marimbas, xylophones, and pianos (at one of which Reich officiated in his trademark baseball cap) – created brilliant effects and justified Paul Griffiths’ felicitous observation in the programme that the whole thing is essentially a joy machine. Meanwhile Reich and Romer had opened the concert with a performance of ‘Clapping Music’, a five-minute rhythmic cycle which they completed with the precision of a mathematical QED, and guitarist Mats Bergstrom had interacted with 14 recorded guitars in ‘Electric Counterpoint’.

The early-evening Prom was just as successful, with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Kirill Karabits delivering Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 2, Liszt’s symphonic poem ‘Mazeppa’, and – with Ailish Tynan as the soloist – Gliere’s extraordinary ‘Concerto in F minor for coloratura soprano’. Gliere was by no means the first composer to have created a wordless work for a singer – Rachmaninov’s ‘Vocalise’ for voice and piano is the most famous example – but to match a soprano with a symphony orchestra, as this Russian composer did in the darkest days of the Second World War, was unprecedented. Deploying stunning operatic skills, Ailish Tynan brought the house down.