I heard the New York Philharmonic in a program of Beethoven and Reich on 12/5/19, conducted by their extraordinary music director, Jaap van Zweden. Here's the program:
Beethoven: 2nd symphony (1801)
Steve Reich: Music for Ensemble and Orchestra (2018)
Beethoven: 4th piano concerto (1806)
I was there to hear the Reich and thought it would be good for me to sit through the Beethoven. I was shocked at how much I loved the Beethoven symphony. I was reminded of something that happened in my first year of college, way back in 1986. Impressionism was having a big comeback, and it seemed that every girl I knew in the dorms (and yes, they were girls, they were teenagers and it was the 80s) had a Renoir or Monet calendar or poster in her dorm room. It all seemed rather pretty but bland. But then at some point that year I went to the Art Institute of Chicago for the first time and was blown away by the power of seeing those paintings in person - - the vivacity of the brushstrokes, the vibrant use of color, it was an entirely different thing from seeing a reproduction. I had a similar experience hearing the Beethoven symphony, it was so much more vigorous than I was expecting, it was full of warmth and wit, bristling with vitality. It helped that van Zweden was so energetic (but never show-boaty) in his conducting.
There was a flute moment at the end of the second movement that made me melt, it was so sweet and charming. And I love watching the behavior of performers in an orchestra - - there was a moment near the end of the last movement when the second chair cellist looked back at the other cellists, beaming with a big smile, as if to say, "Yeah, that was NICE!"
The Reich was a New York premiere, the piece was co-commissioned by the NY Phil, the Los Angeles Phil, the London Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and the Baltic Sea Philharmonic. It takes a village, apparently!
Pairing the Reich with the Beethoven was a masterpiece of programming. The Reich was shown to be part of the same tradition. It used the same elements as the Beethoven: melody, harmony, rhythm, counterpoint, structure, and orchestration. It was exciting, rewarding, stimulating, and surprisingly lyrical. Absolute clarity from the orchestra, with an overarching clarity of purpose, which is always a joy to hear.
Reich took a bow, of course, and received many bravos, a few WOO HOOs from me, and a few well-placed boos by one or more people in the audience. He was tickled, he's been hearing bravos and boos for over 50 years.
Here's a little video of Reich talking about the piece:
The Beethoven 4th piano concerto was played by Yefim Bronfman, who I'm told is a major pianist, but I was not impressed with him. He played well, he sounded good, but to my ear he was sorely lacking in elegance and/or expression. There wasn't a lot of juice, artistry, or impact, it sounded like he was kinda playing through it, and I require more than that! His cadenza in the first movement was wonderful, so maybe his artistry wasn't coming across when he was playing with the orchestra - - but then he shouldn't be playing concertos, should he? Am I too harsh?
I grew up listening to Vladimir Horowitz play Beethoven, and I kept thinking of what a dream it would be to hear him play this piece. Will make that request when I see him in heaven. But who should conduct, and what orchestra? I'm open to suggestions.