Steve Reich, an American in Paris

Concerts 14.02.2024

With the Roomful of Teeth lending their voices to Tehillim, the final day of Présences at Radio France (February 5 to 11) features the music of New Yorker Steve Reich, headlining the 2024 edition.

Alternating between the Auditorium de la Maison ronde and Studio 104, the last three concerts of the Présences festival move between the small ensemble and the symphony orchestra, via the string quartet formation.

It's 3 p.m. when the I Giardini collective, co-founded by Pauline Buet (cello) and David Violi (piano), takes to the stage on a colorful stage, a pink-mauve cameo surrounding the Steinway, whose variations can be appreciated throughout the concert. We return to the heart of the matter with Philippe Hersant's Trio pour violon, violoncelle et piano - variations sur la " sonnerie de Sainte-Geneviève-du-Mont " by Marin Marais , an early work by the composer commissioned in 1998 by Radio France. Although far removed from the aesthetics of Steve Reich, the piece nonetheless plays on the repetition/variation of three notes, those of the three bells of the carillon (which had seduced the violinist and composer Marin Marais in his day), whose resonant potential Hersant exploits through the springs of highly refined writing. Violinist Hugo Meder joins David Violi and Pauline Buet in this meticulously crafted interpretation of a work that is clearly part of their repertoire. 

Nominated for the 2021 Victoires de la musique classique, I Giardini has recorded a monographic CD for Alaph Classics by Caroline Shaw, the 39-year-old American composer, violinist and singer featured on this final day of Présences. After Franco-British Joséphine Stephenson's elegiac and melancholy Rest(e ), music of disappearance that allows us to appreciate Fiona McGown's velvety mezzo, we enter Caroline Shaw's universe with The Wheel for cello and piano: The composer's voice is pretty but uncontrolled in And So, mixing her own words with those of other poets; she is more convincing in Cant voi l'aube, borrowing the "canso" of the trouvère Gace Brulé, which the eclectic Shaw has accompanied by the string quartet. She flies elegantly over the model of Bach's keyboard concertos (arpeggios, bariolages and insolent glissandi) in her Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings given its world premiere in the version for piano quintet, in which she herself plays second violin.

We were soon on our way to 104, where the Quatuor Tana concert had been delayed by ten minutes to give us time to walk along the Maison ronde corridor to the Studio.

On the program is an eagerly awaited piece, Carrot Revolution (2015), by the young American Gabriella Smith, programmed three times during Présences. The title, which is a little intriguing, is linked to the context of the exhibition The Order of Things, for which the work was created. Energetic and playful, the American's high-voltage music feeds on quotations that she reshapes as she pleases in a journey that juxtaposes contrasting sequences. The Tana's four bows defend the music with great vitality. 

Quatuor à cordes n°1, simply entitled Othman Louati, a composer whose first opera, Les ailes du désir, was performed last October. Commissioned by Radio France and Les Tana, the work is a world premiere. Of the quartet's six movements, one of the most striking is the frank rupture in the middle of the piece, putting an end to the essentially rhythmic work of a very tense first part. The second, with all rhythm ceasing, raises questions, even if the melodic-rhythmic pattern mentioned by Antoine Maisonhaute in his introduction resurfaces in a temporality that the composer stretches beyond reason: liminal music that frays and plays with our nerves, before disappearing. 

Written in 1988, for the Kronos Quartet, Different Trains (1988) for amplified string quartet and fixed sounds is also Steve Reich's first quartet, followed by Triple Quartet and WTC 9/11. As in the latter, written as a tribute to the victims of the World Trade Center bombing, the musicians of Different Trains superimpose themselves on the string quartet parts pre-recorded in the tape. The work is built on a narrative framework, to which the electroacoustic support contributes, allowing snatches of voices, sirens, station whistles and rail noises to be heard through the loudspeakers. Steve Reich recalls traveling with his nanny as a child from New York (where his mother lived) to Los Angeles (where his father lived): " I realize now that if I had lived in Europe during that period, as a Jew I would have had to take a very different train..." he remarks. 

The interpreters' performance is enduring, subject to the scrolling of the tape with which they interact, anticipating or doubling the voice whose melodic-rhythmic profile recurs obsessively. Invention is at work in this minimalist quartet, with the flow of samples boosting the instrumental playing. It has to be said that the sonic balance, always fragile in mixed works, is not fully achieved to allow the two sound sources to merge, even if the concentration and quality of the bows remain exemplary throughout the twenty-seven minutes of relentless electric counterpoint. 

The closing concert, thoughtfully organized by the festival teams (Pierre Charvet and Bruno Berenguer), brings together the Grenzing organ of Radio France, the eight voices of Roomful of Teeth (making their Radio France debut), the two microtonal accordions of the Xamp duo and the Orchestre Philharmonique conducted by Lucie Leguay.

To open the evening, the a cappella voices of Roomful of Teeth, an American collective open to world music, sing in the background Partita for 8 voices, a major work by Caroline Shaw (a member of the ensemble), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for Music at the age of 31. While the work balances between written material and oral tradition, the title Partita and its four dance movements (Allemande, Sarabande, Courante and Passacaille) clearly display their attachment to Baroque music. Borrowings from various types of traditional singing (Mongolian diphonic chant, Inuit throat singing, Georgian polyphony, etc.) renew the vocal configurations assumed with equal ease and virtuosity by the highly committed collective. The Sarabande is particularly delightful, with its "tour-de-gosier" (Baroque ornamentation) heard at the beginning of each phrase, underlining its elegance and metrical scansion.

The stage is set for the Philharmonic and the two accordionists, Fanny Vicens and Jean-Étienne Sotty (duo Xamp) placed on either side of conductor Lucie Leguay for the world premiere of the Xamp Concerto by Frenchman Théo Mérigeau .

The young composer is particularly interested in two dimensions: timbre and its rich components, and rhythm and its complexities. So he built his own instrument, the "trident", a PVC pipe connected to three harmonic flutes sounding somewhere between an ocarina and a barrel organ. Within the orchestra, he creates an alchemy of unheard-of timbres with the other instruments, especially the two transverse flutes. The soloists provide the initial impetus, extended by the sounds of the orchestra, which they irrigate from within and tend to merge with. The way in which the brass is launched in howling salvos is reminiscent of the samples in Different Trains heard in the previous concert. The orchestral upheaval triggered abruptly after the two soloists' short cadenza in the glittering register of their tessitura is particularly muscular and colorful, enhanced by metallic percussion far out in front. It's the accordions again, with the kinetic energy of their looped motifs, that hold the tutti together in the beautiful final flight. The end is without appeal, well negotiated by our two soloists and a Philharmonic Orchestra in perfect complicity.

Hoquetus animalis, five miniatures for organ by the same Théo Mérigeau, was cancelled last year due to technical problems with the Grenzing organ. The piece, in the format of Alla Breve / Création Mondiale byAnne Montaron, is heard in the second half of the concert under the fingers of Lucile Dollat. Designed for more intimate radio listening, the work struggles to convince in the open space of the Auditorium.

Tehillim by Steve Reich, for ensemble and four women's voices (those of Roomful of Teeth), closes in beauty this 34ᵉ edition of Présences, attended this year by a particularly fervent audience: "(...) I composed Tehillim (Psalms in ancient Hebrew) in 1981, because I wanted to use Hebrew text, as I had been returning to Judaism for some years ", explains Steve Reich in the interview he grants to Arnaud Merlin. Caroline Shaw intones the first psalm, her clear, agile voice doubled by the clarinet and accompanied by the small drum without bells. This is the first time Reich has set a text to music, and it is the rhythm of the text that governs the instrumental writing here, while the canon governs that of the four voices. Held firmly in place by Lucie Leguay, the orchestral ensemble punctuates the chanting of the psalms (Parts I and II) or provides counterpoint (Part III). The voices are galvanizing and the words lofty, accompanied by the clapping of hands and enriched by the maracas waved ceaselessly by one of the valiant percussionists. A turning point in Reich's oeuvre, Tehillim ranks among the New Yorker's masterpieces, preceding the writing of The Desert Music in 1984. 

Michèle Tosi

Maison de la Radio et de la Musique, Paris on 11-02-2024
3pm, Auditorium Works by Philippe Hersant, Joséphine Stephenson, Caroline Shaw. Caroline Shaw, violin and vocals ; Fiona McGown, mezzo-soprano ; I Giardini : Hugo Meder, violin ; Léa Hennino, viola ; Pauline Buet, cello ; David Violi, piano.
4:30 pm, Studio 104 Works by Gabriella Smith, Othman Louati and Steve Reich. Quatuor Tana: Antoine Maisonhaute, Ivan Lebrun, violins; Takumi Nozawa, viola; Jeanne Maisonhaute, cello.
6pm, Auditorium Works by Caroline Shaw, Théo Mérigeau and Steve Reich. Lucile Dollat, organ; Duo Xamp: Fanny Vicens, Jean-Étienne Sotty, microtonal accordions; Roomful of Teeth: Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France; conductor Lucie Leguay.

Photo portrait © © picture-alliance/dpa/J.Lizon


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