Premiere Orchestra play first non-premiere work
The MIT Premiere Orchestra.
Erin E. McCoy '96, Deborah J. Kreuze, Cheryl L. Morse, and Eileen West, sopranos.
Valerie Benezra G, Deborah Klee, Felicia L. Moss '95, Regina L. Schoonover, Natasha Shabat, and Van N. Van '97, dancers.
Composed by Steve Reich.
Conducted by Alan E. Pierson '96.
Vocalists coached by Pamela Ambush.
Choreographed by Regina Schoonover.
By John Jacobs
Steve Reich is popularly known as the most coherent and accessible of the minimalists. The minimalists feel that music should not be bound by any convention or culture, ignoring all previous musical styles which could be classified as Western, Eastern, or ethnic. Although Tehillim is Reich's most traditional (i.e. chromatic, engaging, and non-repetitive) work, it still reflects the simplicity and directness of minimalism.
The music, set to the text of four Hebrew psalms, was written for four singers and an orchestra. Reich had specific goals for each instrument group: as the percussionists maintain a constant eighth note pulse, the winds play melodic lines, and the strings complete the harmony with sustained chords. Part I opens to a lively melody introduced by one of the lyric sopranos. Part II is faster and introduces a new theme. Part III is less energetic, less complicated, and the theme is presented in call-and-response form. Part IV has a similar tempo and theme as Part I, and it develops the theme using a composite of the methods of the previous parts. Part IV is therefore a recapitulation of the entire piece. The percussion sounds as it might have sounded in biblical days, with its jingle-less tambourines, hand clapping, and rattles.
As Reich composed it, Tehillim has an intricate and enjoyable rhythm, but in Kresge, the six percussionists could barely be heard over the amplified string instruments. This lost rhythm was really the performance's only noteworthy shortcoming. The opportunity to demonstrate the strange appeal of polyrhythm, so deftly employed by Reich, was lost. Also, if the rhythm section had been louder, the four-part canon of Part II (notably difficult, especially given Tehillim's flexible meter) might not have faltered as much as it did. In any case, the singers and percussionists had completely recovered their confidence by the beginning of Part III.
Choreographed dancers accompanied the music of the MIT Premiere Orchestra. At some times, the dancers didn't match the mood or tempo, making the choreography seem irrelevant. The rest of the time, watching them dance felt much like watching MTV. The music should have been only a background to dancing that blended emotionally or thematically with the piece. At no time could the dance have been interpreted, even loosely, to say: "The heavens declare the glory of G-d / the sky tells of His handiwork" (Psalm 19).
When the dancers didn't detract from the piece, the precision of the performance reflected the hard work and talent of the musicians, and Reich's musical ideas were communicated clearly. Noteworthy here are Reich's indeterminate and ethnic-sounding harmonies, and the unpretentious beauty of minimalist music.
Tehillim is the first non-premiere work by the MIT Premiere Orchestra. Music and Theater Arts Lecturer Pamela Ambush, who coached the Premiere Orchestra singers, also sang high soprano as a member of Steve Reich and Musicians in the West Germany premiere and the studio recording of Tehillim. Steve Reich will be a composer-in-residence at MIT for two weeks sometime next semester.