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.

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