Music review: Kronos Quartet gives West Coast premiere of Steve Reich’s ‘WTC 9/11’


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The happy news, reported from the stage of the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall Wednesday night, is that Steve Reich, despite his dates being listed in the program book as 1864–1949, is alive. Meanwhile, the indisputable news, in the West Coast premiere by the Kronos Quartet of Reich’s “WTC 9/11,” is that a key and leading American Minimalist who turns 75 this year is also still, potently, kicking, not that “WTC 9/11” is, in any way, happy music.


The mistaken dates printed in the program, those of Richard Strauss, produced an obviously unintended irony. “WTC 9/11” was written at the request of Kronos to be a bookend to Reich’s first string quartet, “Different Trains,” one of the most profound works of Holocaust-themed art. Unlike a German composer who kept the nostalgic glow of German Romanticism miraculously lingering long past its expiration date (and who allowed himself to be used by the Nazis), Reich looks back with an unsentimental eye -- and, of course, ear.

“WTC 9/11” uses samples of voices of airplane controllers and firemen, the voices of survivors and of Jews who prayed over the remains of dead on the scene. The string quartet is tripled with parts for two more string quartets prerecorded. The first sounds heard are the warning beep the phone company torments us with when we leave an old-fashioned land line off the hook.

The beat of the beeping might have an unsurprising appeal to a Minimalist, but when Reich adds distorted sounds of the air controllers calling out “They came from Boston,” the juxtaposition is terrifying. The beeps come back at the end. Reich never lets his listener off the hook.

Rather than a bookend to “Different Trains,” which combines the string quartet with the voices of porters on American cross-country trains in the 1940s and those of Holocaust survivors who rode very different trains, “WTC 9/11” makes a more interesting juxtaposition with John Adams’ 9/11 piece, “Transmigration of Souls.” Adams also used recordings from the scene, but his work for chorus and orchestra is a meditative score meant to turn the concert hall into a cathedral. The audience communes. The sounds of the street are heard from afar, as if by souls no longer of this world. We, in the audience, send them on.

Reich, on the other hand, has said that one of his intentions as a composer is to open the door between the concert hall and the street. Even when we hear snippets of Psalms at the end, they are more documentary than healing.

That is not to say that “WTC 9/11” is documentary music. The Kronos Quartet performing live, and in its prerecorded selves, mimics speech as music and, doing so, turns it into commanding music. Reich’s amplification is in your face. His rhythmic complexity, the shifting beats and complex contrapuntal interlacing, creates tension. He makes you think and at the same time doesn’t give you the space in which to think. The piece, at 16 minutes, is terse. Tragedy comes quickly and then, afterward, we begin untangling meaning.


Kronos (violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Jeffrey Zeigler) premiered “WTC 9/11” earlier this month at Duke University in North Carolina. The Philharmonic Society of Orange County is one of the work’s many commissioners, and the Costa Mesa performance was its second. Unlike at the premiere, a unique Kronos all-Reich program, the Bay Area ensemble did its more usual thing Wednesday, which is to surround an old master with recent scores by young composers, all of whom were born between 1970 and 1980.

From hip Brooklyn came Bryce Dessner’s sinuous, Yiddish-inflected “Aheym (Homeward)” and Missy Mazzoli’s ode to the Brooklyn Bridge, “Harp and Altar,” which was highlighted by the folk-song sound of singer Gabriel Kahane, prerecorded. Nicole Lizée’s “Death to Kosmische” uses olden sci-fi sound effects to amusing if occasionally monotonous results. Jacob Garchik made a wonderfully contemplative string quartet arrangement of “Flow” from Laurie Anderson’s latest album, “Homeland.”

The concert ended with Aleksandra Vrebalov’s “… hold me, neighbor, in this storm …,” a 20-minute piece by a composer from Yugoslavia who moved to San Francisco in 1995. Here she asks for folk instruments as well as those of the standard string quartet in her intense evocation of fractured Serbian society and tradition. It is a gripping piece and was, as was every work all evening, given a gripping performance. For the record, 10:01 p.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Gabriel Kahane.


Steve Reich revists tragedy with ‘WTC 9/11’

-- Mark Swed