Steve Reich’s Music for Ensemble and Orchestra (2018) is the 82-year-old American composer’s first orchestral work for 30 years, and was co-commissioned by the Baltic Sea Philharmonic along with some of the world’s top orchestras, among them the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. We asked Steve about Music for Ensemble and Orchestra, the connections between his music and Bach, and about his collaborations with Kristjan Järvi.
How important an influence has the music of Baroque masters such as Bach been on your own work as a composer?
One of the first pieces that I fell in love with as a young teen was Bach’s fifth Brandenburg Concerto. And with Bach there have been some particular influences. Around 1981, when I composed Tehillim [a setting of four Hebrew Psalm texts for women’s voices and mixed ensemble], I was listening a lot to Bach’s cantata ‘Christ lag in Todesbanden’ BWV 4, and two things impressed me there. One of them was the way Bach took the idea of call and response, with the voices answering one another, and this absolutely influenced an element of my writing in Tehillim. In addition, Bach almost always has a woodwind double for the voices, which gives them a different character, and it’s quite different when the doubling is done with a double-reed instrument of the Baroque period to when it’s done with a flute or even a stringed instrument. At the end of the first movement of Tehillim the voices are doubled entirely by clarinets, then right on the downbeat of the second movement the voices come in doubled by oboe and cor anglais. People think they are hearing new singers because the doubling completely changes the character. I owe that entirely to Bach.
Also there’s the general attitude in Baroque music of having just one dynamic marking at the beginning, so basically in a piece if more people are playing then the music gets louder, and if fewer people play it gets softer. One of the common markings in my music, and in Baroque music, is mf. I say ‘It’s not mezzo forte, it’s matter of fact’, meaning it’s very straight-faced in a way – the players will add whatever nuance they’re going to add, but they’ll generally keep to the tempo. There’s not a lot of accelerando or ritardando; this is music of steady tempo, whether it’s fast or slow. The dynamics are more a result of the numbers of players, which is different to the expressive dynamics that we see in 19th-century music. So yes, I owe a great deal to music of the Baroque period – and earlier, all the way back to the 12th century, and then from Debussy onward.
How did you decide on the instrumentation for ‘Music for Ensemble and Orchestra’?
The ensemble that I’ve been writing for over the last 15 to 20 years has been basically strings, woodwind, percussion and pianos – no brass. For this new piece, I looked at the ensemble that is already in every orchestra on the planet – the principal first violin, second violin, viola, cello and double bass. These players are normally set up so they can hear each other as a chamber ensemble, and they can interlock with each other. They are also very good musicians who are always given any solo passages in ordinary repertoire, so they’re used to having the hard parts. So the ensemble in Music for Ensemble and Orchestra is basically a grouping of principal winds and strings with two vibraphones and two pianos. The orchestra is a somewhat reduced string section (about a Mozart-sized string section), and they are sitting in their customary positions; they don’t have to move. Given the lighter nature of the scoring for the work, there was no brass that I thought appropriate apart from trumpets. And I wanted to include electric bass as it’s probably my favourite rock’n’roll instrument because it has a clarity, a very sharp attack, and doubling it with an acoustic bass is a great combination.
You’ve worked closely with Kristjan Järvi in the past, for example as composer-in-residence with the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra when he was chief conductor. What is he like as a collaborator and as an interpreter of your music?
Kristjan is part of a younger generation of conductors that grew up with my music. They don’t need to be instructed, they already bring their own ideas of how they should play it, which is great. Kristjan is very at ease with my music and has his own ideas about it, and one of his main ideas with this piece [Music for Ensemble and Orchestra] is that it should go fast. It’s great to work with him – we had a wonderful time just doing Clapping Music together, when we broke out laughing on stage. I’m delighted that he is continuing to perform my music.
‘Music for Ensemble and Orchestra’ was co-commissioned by some of the world’s most famous orchestras – all of which are over 100 years old – together with the Baltic Sea Philharmonic, which was only founded in 2008. How excited are you to have this young orchestra giving the work its German premiere?
I think younger musicians are very familiar with my music. I haven’t heard the Baltic Sea Philharmonic in person, but given that the orchestra is put together and led by Kristjan, I trust that the players will be on the same wavelength as him, and that immediately means we’re going to get good results.
Before Music for Ensemble and Orchestra had its world premiere, the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas gave it a read-through with his Miami-based training orchestra, the New World Symphony. The musicians in that orchestra are at the same kind of age and stage in their musical life as the players in the Baltic Sea Philharmonic. They’re open to new experiences and they’re excellent musicians. For me, one of the pleasures of getting older and staying alive is that you see that musicians of the present generation, the younger ones, have no problem approaching different kinds of music. They’re like, ‘Oh yeah, we know what you sound like’, and they really play it in that way. There’s a confidence that comes from knowing what you’re doing and loving what you’re doing, and that’s priceless. Unfortunately, I won’t be at the Usedom festival for the premiere, but I really look forward to getting to hear what the orchestra does there.