Peabody faculty give rich account of Reich work

Chamber concert of little-heard pieces


October 28, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Back in the 1970s, when minimalism started shaking up the music world in a big way, a common complaint against the repetitive, reiterative style was that it settled for effect and mood over genuine substance.

That argument, weak to begin with, couldn't hold up as the three most prominent minimalists kept using the genre's persistent motor rhythms and supposedly confining melodic and harmonic ranges to propel very meaningful ideas in increasingly distinctive, provocative ways.

The haunting, Gandhi-inspired opera Satyagraha by Philip Glass in 1980 is just one example; the stunning orchestral waves of Harmonielehre by John Adams in 1985 is another. Different Trains, written for string quartet and tape by Steve Reich in 1988, became perhaps the most powerful testament of all to the minimalist movement - it's one of the most compelling pieces of aural art, period.

Reich's score, not commonly encountered in concert, was the centerpiece of Tuesday night's faculty chamber music program at the Peabody Conservatory.

In three linked movements, Reich addresses the Holocaust from an unexpected starting point - in America, riding "one of the fastest trains from New York to Los Angeles" in the late 1930s, early '40s. The focus then subtly shifts to trains in Europe carrying "cattle wagons ... loaded with people" through towns with "strange sounding names, Polish names."

All the words, drawn from first-person narratives, are heard on pre-recorded tape as the music (part of it also pre-recorded) unfolds.

The inflections in reminiscences by a retired Pullman porter, Reich's old governess and three Holocaust survivors are translated directly into pitches and metrical patterns that are played and dissected by the strings. (Sounds of locomotives, including whistles that chillingly suggest sirens, are also part of the instrumental fabric.)

This total integration of text and music generates a whole new language that needs only the smallest of phrases to communicate volumes, nowhere more starkly than in the finale of post-war reflections, when the porter's voice says, "But today, they're all gone."

With technical support from McGregor Boyle and the Peabody Computer Music Consort, faculty members Courtney Orlando (violin) and Michael Kannen (cello), graduate assistant Jesse Irons (violin) and Peabody senior Jason Fisher (viola) gave a tight, strongly etched account of this indelible work.

The concert opened with Leos Janacek's nostalgic Mladi (Youth) for wind sextet, which provided one more reminder of how absurdly under-programmed this extraordinary composer's music is in our area.

Flutist Lisa Jaklitsch, a Peabody grad student, joined faculty and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra members Steven Barta (clarinet), Edward Palanker (bass clarinet), Joseph Turner (oboe), Phillip Kolker (bassoon) and Mary Bisson (horn) in a spirited, mostly tidy performance.

To close, a faculty ensemble offered Gabriel Faure's rapturous fusion of German romanticism with French refinement, the Piano Quartet in C minor.

Violist Maria Lambros and cellist Amit Peled produced a particularly rich sound; Marian Hahn did sparkling work at the keyboard; violinist Herbert Greenberg's tone wasn't always firmly centered, but his phrasing easily matched the stylish sensitivity of his colleagues.

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