Steve Reich's 70th birthday, on 3 October, is being celebrated at the Barbican's Phases festival in magnificent style. The London Symphony Orchestra's supplement to this was welcome recognition by a major orchestra of a major living composer. But it threw into relief one of the pressure points in Reich's rich, four-decade career.
Both works selected - The Desert Music of 1982-83, originally for chorus and orchestra, and Three Movements of 1985-86, for orchestra alone - seem natural results of the composer's move at this time towards the more mainstream concert hall. Yet for all the symphony orchestra offered him as his music became richer, Reich found its textures cumbersome for counterpoint, and the sheer weight of massed strings - and massed voices - too clotted and sluggish to allow his exuberant rhythms to dance.
This rare performance of Three Movements actually turned out rather well under Xian Zhang, who drove the music on with impressive energy. With a conductor and players of this calibre, Reich's orchestral music sounded sufficiently persuasive to make you regret that he gave up orchestral composition soon after this work was written.
With The Desert Music, however, we heard the latest revision for the reduced forces that Reich prefers, with just 10 amplified singers replacing the choir. Even with Alan Pierson's new brass parts, the instrumental arrangement here came closer to the size and line-up of the composer's own ensemble. And given the vibrancy of Synergy Vocals (who formed 10 years ago after coming together as an ad hoc group to sing Reich's Tehillim in this hall for his 60th birthday) and the skills of these front-rank LSO players, it was hard to deny that the results weren't stronger and closer to this music's heart than the original version. For me, though, the live visual creation by D-Fuse - part-abstract, part-urban desolation - added little and distracted much.
Zhang, a young female conductor from China, proved a real find. If her account of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring lacked the panache and technical perfection of the very best performances, she clearly has the technique and the musicality to put her own stamp on such a masterpiece, with Britain's best orchestral musicians seemingly fully behind her.