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Ades and Reich at Royal Festival Hall, February 18th 2011

In one of the most refreshing,well balanced and pioneering concerts of 2011 so far, Steve Reich’s Tehillim displayed the raw joyfulness that makes it still sound contemporary twenty years after its composition. The ethereal ringings of chattering female voices and the tireless canons of the scaled-down London Sinfonietta made for a huge, rapturous conclusion to a work that somehow manages to feel complete and open-ended.

Its Old Testament text draws from The Book of Genesis but it is not, Reich claims, an overly religious piece despite using psalms as its text.
The eerily childlike dancing of the Synergy Vocals quartet gave the work a spiritual quality that intensified with a coda based entirely on ‘Hallelujah’. Their strength, precision and technical accomplishment shone through. The piece seemed to end on the dominant – was this a ‘harmonic conclusion’ as Reich’s own programme note claims, or deliberate, tantalising ambiguity pointing the way towards spiritual and musical eternity? Whatever stance one takes, the ending was true to the character of the whole work; suffused with a combination of consciousness of life’s precariousness and heartfelt thanks for living. The delivery of the performers and Thomas Ades conducting made it absorbing and eminently satisfying to listen to despite the fragmentary nature of the vocal score. This is among Reich’s best works and it was brought out by top-notch string playing and fantastically energetic percussion.

Commissioned jointly by the Southbank Centre and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, Thomas Ades and Tal Rosner’s In Seven Days was with no doubt the stand-out piece of the evening. Its driving minimalism, symphonic proportions and hypnotic metamorphosis give this an anxiety which reflects the eternity and precariousness of the life-force itself. The London Sinfonietta rose to the magnificent scale of the work brilliantly and held the audience’s rapt attention.

An interesting question posed by this work is whether the two outstanding feats of modern art presented can exist as one coherent interdisciplinary piece without detracting from the individuality and impact of each component. There are two outstanding works of two different genres here. Rosner’s accompanying filmic piece (rather like a visual narrator) was so absorbing that at times the music seemed to reflect its progress rather than the other way around. Fortunately Ades’ minimalism posesses a permeating rhythmic urgency and a spectrum of timbre colours which afford it dominating personality and quality. The London Sinfonietta, on form and bolstered by impressive percussion playing, were masterfully directed through In Seven Days’ sonic sequences by Ades himself at the helm, exact and all raw emotion at the same time. The fullness of emotion was there in ebullient string playing, as was the clarity and resonance required to make French Horns sing in their most poignant tones.

Mimicking the art of creation itself, Tal Rosner took water, life’s most fundamental compound, and made of it myriad beautiful things. As it morphed from juxtaposed blocks of film and block colour to
kaleidoscopic visions mimicking infinitesimal nature, this masterful exploration of the world through graphic art was hypnotic but never seemed repetitive. Drawn across six blocks, his was a vision of wonder
and which seemed to imply, yet not to exhaust, the infinite visual properties of life in its eternal cycles.

With this collaboration Ades seemed to have reimagined not only, as Tom Service succinctly put it, ‘the stuff of music’ but the stuff of the performance itself. This concert highlighted, yet again, the but it also highlighted the ever-greater thirst of the modern audience for work that stimulates every sense at once like never before. As the Antonioni Project – the multimedia piece the Barbican defined as a Stage Show – combined film with theatre, In Seven Days combined music with film. But unlike the dance-led Rite of Spring reimagining Rites, which will feature 3-D glasses (one wonders what Stravinsky would have made of it all) in the same venue on Saturday 23 April this year, its performance created not so much a musical show as an all-enveloping musical experience. Done properly by the best of them at the Royal Festival Hall, this experience was nothing short of mesmerising, pioneering brilliance.

Developing this interdisciplinary style without sacrificing the integrity and standard of composition presents a challenge that the generation of composers – who, fortunately, have Reich and Ades for inspiration –must live up to bearing in mind that today’s audience surely expect more innovation from artists and composers than ever before.

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