Richard Bratby

One of the great contemporary symphonies: The Hallé – Desert Music, at Bridgewater Hall, reviewed

Plus: the benefits and pitfalls of choosing programmes for reasons other than the purely musical

Steve Reich's Desert Music requires a colossal orchestra – there are Mahler symphonies scored for smaller forces. Image: Alex Burns

Steve Reich describes his Music for Pieces of Wood (1973) as an attempt ‘to make music with the simplest possible instruments’. At the Bridgewater Hall five performers stood in a pool of light, each holding a pair of claves: plain sticks of wood. At first, unsurprisingly, it’s all about rhythm. Patterns weave and dissolve, building into a clattering digital tapestry of sound. You start to hear new timbres – even harmonies – and the mind locks on, allowing Reich to play tricks on the ear. Players drop out unnoticed, then re-enter in a flash of colour before you realise they’ve gone. By the end, you’re so thoroughly inside the music that even the final abrupt silence feels like high theatre. The Manchester audience gave an astonished gasp. Then they laughed – and then they applauded at full force.

How stupid I feel for taking this long to recognise a masterpiece

Who’d have thought that something so basic would be such a hard act to follow? This was the opening item in a three-day Reich festival presented by the Hallé Orchestra under the direction of percussionist extraordinaire Colin Currie. If you’ve never really clicked with so-called minimalist music (my hand is in the air here), you might have looked at the set-up for the next piece – 2018’s Music for Ensemble and Orchestra – and smirked inwardly. Two pianos, electric bass, tuned percussion and the sections of the orchestra split up and redeployed about the stage. If this is the new simplicity, why not take the easy option and play Eine Alpensinfonie instead? The piece itself might yet turn out to be a manifestation of a newly transparent Reichian ‘late style’; but after those claves it felt like a big sunny slice of nothing much.

Perhaps Currie – who directed his scattered forces unflappably throughout – had chosen it as the greatest possible contrast to the main work in the programme, The Desert Music. Here, a colossal orchestra (there are Mahler symphonies scored for smaller forces) is augmented by a row of amplified singers – in this case, members of the RNCM Chamber Choir, sounding utterly on point. It’s a 50-minute arc of prime middle-period Reich, opening with the familiar interlocking rhythms in a startlingly different harmonic colour – dark minor chords, rich in chromatic angst, and crackling with nervous energy. That bright, hectic bustle with an undertone of fear: how familiar it feels to anyone who lived through the late Cold War (The Desert Music was completed in 1983).

And how stupid I feel for taking this long to recognise a masterpiece. I knew that The Desert Music was generally admired but I’d lazily assumed that its title referred to the usual US counterculture clichés – Kerouac or something – without registering that the New Mexico desert also contains Los Alamos and Alamogordo. Reich, in fairness, spells it out: the text utters apocalyptic warnings by William Carlos Williams. But the music makes it plainer still. Even while those jagged rhythms tick and jerk their way round the clock, long ominous drones and pedal notes rise and fade in the bass, while strings and woodwinds (plus those amplified voices) melt into siren wails.

Part of my allergy to minimalism stems from frustration with music that feels passive: that meditates, that circles, that simply jogs on the spot. Yet the processes at work in The Desert Music are as active and purposeful as anything in Sibelius or Bruckner. No tripped-out meditation here: we’re moving towards a shared destination at a pace that can feel alarming. For my money, it’s a symphony, one of the greatest of our time and I’m embarrassed – but also glad – that it took this electrifying live performance to put me straight about Reich in general and The Desert Music in particular.

At the Southbank, Chineke! demonstrated the benefits and pitfalls of choosing programmes for reasons other than the purely musical. We hear too little pre-Edwardian British music, so any performance of the youthful Symphony in A minor by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is going to be welcome. Coming after a scrappy account of Saint-Saëns’ Organ symphony, it sounded brisk and vivacious: think Mendelssohn filtered through Dvorak, with an urgency and lyrical glow that are clearly Coleridge-Taylor’s own. He completed only three movements, consigning several different finales to the wastepaper bin. The conductor Leslie Suganandarajah second-guessed the composer and reinstated one of them: a rambling effort with a gorgeous, rolling cello melody that never quite achieved escape velocity.

The concert began with the premiere of an overture, Majestique, by Tristen J. T. Watts, a 19-year old composer with a fondness for Tchaikovsky-ish idioms and orchestral colour (the piccolo/timpani duet was a nice touch). Its presence on a professional programme in a major London venue is probably best understood as an act of kindness to a (clearly ambitious) student composer, who was unable to be present in person.