Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Steve Reich / John Adams - 1984 - Variations For Winds, Strings And Keyboards / Shaker Loops

Steve Reich / John Adams 
Variations For Winds, Strings And Keyboards / Shaker Loops

01. Steve Reich Variations For Winds, Strings And Keyboards 21:38
02. John Adams Shaker Loops 26:14

Conductor – Edo De Waart
Orchestra – The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Recorded at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, October 1983.

During his tenure with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, conductor Edo de Waart supported the career of American minimalist composers, and this Philips disc (originally released on vinyl in the mid-1980s) gives us pieces by two of them.

In the 1970s Steve Reich reached the summit of his minimalist explorations with "Music for 18 Musicians". However, the next decade proved to be something of lost years for the composer. With his new popularity, he began receiving commissions for orchestral works, and "Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards" (1979) is one of these. The work proceeds as a chaconne. The keyboard instruments (two pianos and three electric organs) provide the foundation of the piece, performing throughout. On top of this basis the strings double the harmony of the organs, while flutes and oboes double more active keyboard music. The brass play an independent part, shimmering in and out in the first and third sections.

Reich's "Variations" are not bad, but anyone who has followed his career chronologically may feel that he is repeating himself to diminishing effect: there's nothing new here after "Music for 18 Musicians" and "Octet". Furthermore, even the composer was happy with the result. Of this piece specifically he has said, "I am not very fond of that piece; it's not something I have a great deal of affection for." And in general, Reich has expressed discontent with the overly fat scoring that orchestral commissions bring, preferring to work with smaller ensembles like his own band Steve Reich and Musicians.

While he has comfortably settled into the role of grand old man of American classical music for the establishment with his fairly conventional neo-Romantic works, John Adams began his career as a minimalist. Unlike the motoric, process-driven approach of Reich, however, Adams wanted his repetitive structures to overflow out of their constraints. "Shaker Loops" for string orchestra (1978/1983) has proven to be one of Adams' most-loved pieces, but I don't really get the appeal. It's gentle and unthreatening music, but over three decades since its composition, it now sounds like a forgettable film score.

The Reich 'Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards' from 1980 remains for this listener one of the more beautiful compositions Reich has created. It is lush harmonically and is the quintessential minimalist 'sound' - that of a pulsating, subtly changing ground of strings that supports the over statements by the keyboards and winds. It is nearly erotic in mood and De Waart knows exactly how to make it work.

John Adams 'Shaker Loops' was originally conceived as a string septet in 1977 and then adapted for string orchestra in 1982-83. The title refers to the spiritual reaction of the Shakers, a religious sect who fall into rapture and ecstatic shaking when the spirit enters their body. Adams does not mock this concept but rather honors it. The endlessly fascinating pulsations of the strings give way now and then to moments of contemplation. Again, as with the Reich piece, few listeners will be able to withhold emotional response to this very beautiful composition. Highly recommended

If you are mainly interested in Reich and not Adams, it's worth noting that this recording of "Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards" has been reissued with other Reich pieces.

Reich describes the piece as being in the form of a chaconne, variations on a repeated short harmonic progression. The piece has three variations of a complete cycle of harmonic progressions (C minor to C flat, and then gradually back through several keys to C minor), moving one note of a chord at a time, a process of suspension.

The three movements are approximately six, ten, and nine minutes. The winds and keyboards (three oboes doubled by electric organs, alternating with three flutes doubled by pianos and electric organs) play the melody throughout. Harmonies are played by the strings doubled by organs. The brass add to the harmonies in the first and last sections of the piece.

The chord form for the piece was taken from the opening of the second movement of Béla Bartók's Second Piano Concerto. Reich initially wrote the first movement for only strings, with a significant amount of dissonance. He discarded that effort but kept the basic idea of suspensions, inverting the chords within a middle register to reduce the dissonance.