When asked a year ago why his piece commissioned by the Los Angeles Master Chorale to celebrate the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall was being postponed, Steve Reich responded, “Because I’m slow.” Typically, he said it really fast. And he laughed -- staccato.
Maybe it was, in fact, all a joke, you might have thought for the first, say, half-minute of “You Are (Variations),” which finally received its premiere Sunday night. The punched-out percussive chords and the interlocking, repeated figures on marimbas and vibraphones have long been a Reichian sound. He could have written it in his sleep.
But relax. “You Are” is an exceptional score, and neither the listener nor the composer is to be rushed. It starts simple, uses four simple (but profound) aphorisms as its text, relies upon repetitive techniques Reich has developed for decades, and it takes its time.
“You Are” has something important to say, and it says it not only in a way a listener can hear it, but can absorb it with joy and wonder.
The title comes from the opening text -- “You are wherever your thoughts are” -- by an 18th century Hasidic rabbi. The other three aphorisms are taken from Psalm 16 (“I place the eternal before me”), philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (“Explanations come to an end somewhere”) and the Talmud (“Say little and do much”).
Written for a small chorus, four pianos, the four mallet instruments, winds and only a handful for strings, “You Are” has more the sonic flavor of a Reich ensemble than of a large orchestra and chorus work. Amplification adds to the brightness, but in Disney Hall, it also contributes a hint of harshness. But what is so impressive with “You Are” is the way Reich has written through that sharp, hard-hitting sound, written through the pithy texts, to achieve music that feels as if we are watching (hearing) music bloom to fill not just the room but the consciousness.
Part of this is Reich’s brilliant and original variation technique. The variations are of slow-moving chord sequences, and each variation is both elaboration and layering. The music gets richer and richer. At the same time, the text, which is always given in bits and pieces, to speech-like melodies, has the quality of an injection of wisdom. Gradually it infects awareness, words, tones, rhythms and meanings.
Then there is the sheer visceral sensation of compelling music, insistent in its rhythms, building complexities. People once complained that listening to Reich’s adamant repetitions was like watching grass grow. No more. “You Are” is closer to experiencing the pleasurable, blissful process of tuning into deep thoughts.
Reich does not compose often for ensembles not well-schooled in his techniques. And he took care, by highlighting percussion and pianos, to get many key players who were. It’s intricate, difficult music, but Grant Gershon conducted a fearless performance that, despite the attention to counting necessary to keep it on track, was full of elation.
Gershon built the rest of the program around Reich by focusing on works with Psalm texts. A Josquin Desprez motet, its clean sound and pungent harmonies, was a perfect complement to “You Are.” A Brahms motet, its thick sound and fussy harmonies, was not. But Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms,” with its avoidance of strings, its terse counterpoint and transparent textures, seemed a model for “You Are.”
Gershon’s performance of the Stravinsky was powerful, commanding. But so perfectly controlled was Reich’s use of text that, after “You Are,” Stravinsky’s Psalm setting almost seemed long-winded.
For its first Disney Hall commission, the Master Chorale got pretty much blown off by Bobby McFerrin, who got someone else to orchestrate trivial earlier work. With “You Are,” the Master Chorale got a masterpiece.