Steve Reich’s music is a kaleidoscope of moods. Each piece – similar in style, yet distinctive in expression – takes listeners on a winding journey through the human experience. His compositions are simultaneously uplifting and introspective – a rare balance that resonates to one’s core.
The Ensemble Signal’s October 18 concert at the Library of Congress, an all-Steve Reich program presented by Washington Performing Arts in celebration of his 80th birthday, gave audiences a taste for Reich’s musical prowess. Ensemble Signal presented a range of compositions, from the instrumentless Clapping Music to the expansive Double Sextet. Each piece was performed with passion and thoughtful attention, creating an environment that was both emotional and pensive.
“Steve Reich’s music is of the utmost craftsmanship, and reaches people on so many emotional levels,” says Brad Lubman, conductor of the Ensemble Signal. “There’s always a moment of joy and exultation in a piece, and a moment of pure poignancy.”
The Ensemble Signal, based out of New York City, is a new music ensemble that The New York Times describes as “practically guaranteeing quality performances.” The group performs contemporary music across the United States, with a particular focus on Reich’s compositions. Reich, who has a close relationship with Lubman and coartistic executive director Lauren Radnofsky, has collaborated regularly with the group since its founding in 2008.
“We’ve played 20 of Reich’s works, many of which we worked on with him directly,” Radnofsky says. “He’s been a huge part of what the ensemble has done over the past nine years.”
The program opened with Clapping Music, performed by Steve Reich himself, in tandem with Lubman. The short piece, timed at about three-and-a-half minutes, uses hands as instruments. The composition is a complex, rhythmic union, with one performer clapping a theme and the other gradually intermixing their own. Reich’s vibraphone and piano Quartet was next, followed by Runner, then Lubman’s personal favorite, Pulse. Lubman calls the piece “poetic” and “poignant,” noting that its wholly introspective mood is what sets it apart.
Pulse is indeed characterized by its quiet expression. Strings and woodwinds floated above a steadily strumming electric guitar – the music’s “pulse” – to create a constant feeling of movement. Different keys were explored, but always under the veil of a calm, gentle mood that invited listeners into the music. The performance supported Lubman’s goal of transformation. He hopes to profoundly affect audiences with every concert by offering a life-changing experience.
“I hope when people leave, they are transformed for the better,” he says.
And so does Steve Reich. His music stirs meaning and connection; compositions are written to move listeners – to invite them into a world that’s both welcoming and mysterious. This week’s performance struck this balance perfectly, inspiring feeling, thought and hunger for more.
“I liken Reich to Bach, Beethoven or Stravinsky,” Lubman says. “He’s absolutely on that level. Working with him over the years and seeing how his music affects audiences is an inspiration.”