Steve Reich needs to get his act together. At least, that’s what he says (with a laugh) as he discusses his upcoming performances by the New York Philharmonic. Not only will Music for Ensemble and Orchestra be receiving its New York Premiere, it’s also the first work he’s written for orchestra in over 30 years. Oh, and it’s being bookended by two works by an obscure German composer—by the name of Beethoven.
Still, Reich has a home-court advantage as a native New Yorker whose latest work was co-commissioned by his hometown orchestra. His professional history with the Orchestra spans almost five decades; his personal history goes even deeper.
Reich started out as a drummer interested in jazz. As a teenager, he had a Damascus Road moment hearing Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and the music of Bach. Shortly after his introduction to Rite, Reich heard Stravinsky conduct his own works with the Philharmonic, including selections from The Firebird and The Fairy’s Kiss.
Less than two decades later, in October 1971, Reich would make his debut with the orchestra, in the dual role of composer and performer. Presented on the Orchestra’s Prospective Encounters series, Reich’s performances were part of the commitment to living works by living composers that typified Pierre Boulez’s tenure as music director. His Phase Patterns, performed that evening, is built around repeated loops of the same phrase played on four identical organs. The first two performers begin in unison, with one beginning to move slightly ahead of and out of phase with the second. The other two performers mirror this asynchronous synchrony.
“That was not your typical program down there,” Reich recalls. “But I was pleased that Boulez did what he did, and that he opened another venue and welcomed music which was certainly not the work he would have been writing.”
Reich was heard again under the baton of then Music Director Zubin Mehta, who conducted Tehillim in 1982 and Reich’s last orchestral work, The Four Sections, in 1988. Other works, like Desert Music, have also been performed by other orchestras (including one 2016 pairing with The Rite of Spring). But Reich has chiefly considered himself an ensemble composer. Even a work like Music for Ensemble and Orchestra comes from a similar process that drove early works like Phase Patterns, pairing and pitting like against like to create an intricate web of sound.
Reich’s early love for Bach comes through in his new piece as well, which blends an homage to the Brandenburg Concertos with the pulsating rhythms of Bollywood scores (an influence that formed the basis of an earlier Reich work, Runner, which can be seen as a prequel to Music for Ensemble and Orchestra). A three-decade hiatus from writing for orchestra has given Reich a fresh set of eyes in his approach to this work, treating the orchestra like an ensemble and bringing out the conversational aspects of the horseshoe shape it forms onstage.
“That basically was a way of having your cake and eating it,” he says. “I can still continue to write the kind of music that I’ve been writing for ensemble for many years, and have the additional resources enriching the sound with harmonic support.”
The theme of instruments playing against themselves will carry over into the Kravis Nightcap event following December 7’s orchestral performance, curated by Reich. His own Vermont Counterpoint will be heard, alongside works by younger composers like Nico Muhly, who have gravitated toward the Vermont Counterpoint innovation of one soloist playing against their own pre-recorded loops—a one-person contrapuntal spree.
The Philharmonic’s performances of Music for Ensemble and Orchestra mark Reich’s first time working with Music Director Jaap van Zweden, as well as a reunion with President and CEO Deborah Borda (who championed his works during her tenure at the Los Angeles Philharmonic). “I’m so very happy to be on this season, in proximity to this sort of realignment or rethinking of how to program an orchestra.” He notes that the success of new works needn’t come at the expense of abandoning the core repertoire. “Look,” he asks, “how can you complain about being on a program with Beethoven?”
He thinks about this for a moment and his New Yorker humor returns: “If I can stand up to The Rite of Spring, maybe I can make it through the Fourth Concerto and the Second Symphony. Wish me luck.”
Olivia Giovetti has written for The Washington Post, Lit Hub, NPR, and VAN Magazine, as well as Time Out New York (where she was classical and opera editor). The former host of The New Canon on Q2 Music, her writing has also been heard onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival.