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Review: After Hovering, Steve Reich Brings Back the Pulse

Review: After Hovering, Steve Reich Brings Back the Pulse
  • PublishedOctober 6, 2023

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Like its predecessor, “Jacob’s Ladder” sets biblical text in the original Hebrew — in this case, the verse from Genesis in which Jacob dreams of a ladder to heaven, angels ascending and descending on it. But Reich means for the consonants to be smoothed, almost blurred, and on Thursday the four singers of Synergy Vocals managed the difficult task of sounding simultaneously precise and misty, with an antique nasal tang in the two male voices and cool freshness in the women.

Swaths of the piece are just instrumental, and the Philharmonic musicians approached the whole thing with forthright gusto. Presumably Reich observed rehearsals and sanctioned the performance style, but the string players used an amount of vibrato that sometimes jarred with the straighter tone of the singers and other instruments; this premiere wasn’t ideally clear.

The piece is not as plainly poignant as “Traveler’s Prayer”; the musical and emotional landscape of “Jacob’s Ladder” is more changeable, even flickering. Reich flashes — without lingering — on jeweled moments, and at one memorable point, briefly brightening harmonies in the strings are brought back to somber earth by just a few dark piano notes.

Yet nothing is overstated; even the dissonances in this subtle work are softly luminous. Energetic while meditative, “Jacob’s Ladder” doesn’t feel insubstantial, but it does feel light, graceful, refreshing. Twenty minutes passed like a song.

Programming the piece alongside Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto and Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony seemed less about drawing musical comparisons than about proving how easily Reich fits in with the classics. New works are sometimes doomed by juxtaposition with beloved standards, but “Jacob’s Ladder” plays serenely yet confidently with the big boys.

The pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, returning to the Philharmonic for the first time since 2018, did the first movement of the Beethoven concerto with lucid authority and some superb textures, like downward runs that truly sounded as if they were sliding. His slow movement had poetry without indulgence, and the witty, visionary transition from that Adagio to the lively Rondo finale had an exciting sense of improvisation.

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