Steve Reich Talks About His First Orchestral Work in 30 Years

LOS ANGELES — Until last week, Steve Reich hadn’t written for orchestra in over 30 years.

It took a Bollywood movie and an open-minded commission, but he’s back: “Music for Ensemble and Orchestra” recently had its premiere here with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and will travel to the New York Philharmonic next fall. A recording from Nonesuch is also on the way.

“I’m someone who writes for ensemble,” Mr. Reich, 82, said in an interview at his Los Angeles hotel over the weekend. He has been most acclaimed for intimate works like “Music for 18 Musicians” and “Double Sextet,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. His next premiere, a collaboration with the visual artist Gerhard Richter for the Shed in New York, is for 14 players.

Listen to the opening of ‘Music for Ensemble and Orchestra’

The last time he wrote for larger orchestral forces was in 1987, with “Four Sections.” In his return, “Music for Ensemble and Orchestra,” Mr. Reich has found a way to maintain his ensemble sensibility — the commission gave him the freedom to give the piece whatever form he wanted — while also paying homage to the Baroque concerto grosso and one of his favorite works, Bach’s Brandenberg Concerto No. 5.

The five-movement new work is a sequel of sorts to Mr. Reich’s 2016 chamber piece “Runner,” whose rhythm was inspired by the music of a Bollywood film he watched with his wife, the artist Beryl Korot. “Music for Ensemble and Orchestra” retains much of that piece’s structure and adds a slight harmonic backdrop from the orchestra.

A group of 20 soloists — including principal players and vibraphones, as well as two pianos that keep time throughout the piece — begin with propulsive 16th notes that recall the opening of “Runner.” At times, the cellos and basses have the texture of Baroque continuo accompaniment. But the most explicit tribute to Bach comes roughly five minutes in, when the first-violin soloist plays a scale reminiscent of the broken D major scale that opens the Fifth Brandenburg.

Mr. Reich’s homage to Bach

“It’s my little tip of the hat,” Mr. Reich said.

In the interview, he discussed his reservations about writing for orchestra and explained the relationship between “Runner” and his latest work. Here are edited excerpts.

Why have you resisted writing for orchestra?

I didn’t really have a desire. My experience with the orchestra goes back to the ’80s, with “The Desert Music.” And it was a disaster in Cologne. The musicians couldn’t play it, and Peter Eotvos, who was the conductor, at one point said, “What can I do?”

Eventually it was done with Michael Tilson Thomas and the Brooklyn Philharmonic, with 36 hours of rehearsal and my people thrown in as ringers. And it was great. But I realized this was a freak situation; this is not how orchestras work.

When I was thinking about this [new piece], I was at the L.A. Phil, and I started looking at the setup. They have the principal strings in a very tight horseshoe. And right behind, the principal winds. I thought: There’s my ensemble. Add some vibes, a couple of pianos, I’m home free. And I thought that if you give the orchestra a straightforward part, you can devote the rehearsal time to the principals.

Even if the orchestral part were more complicated, I feel like your music comes more naturally to players these days. What changed?

As a composer, time is on your side if you continue living. I’ve been fortunate in that the works have been performed frequently and recorded. A lot of people have heard a lot of my music, which makes it infinitely easier to deal with them. Eventually you’re not going to be around, so either the music is appreciated and will live, or it’s not. I think a lot of my ensemble pieces are.

How do you feel about orchestral music as a listener?

I don’t go to many orchestral concerts at all. There are those like Andrew Norman and John Adams — who is, in a sense, sui generis. I think John is the only person I can say confidently, “This man is writing music that will be in the orchestral literature in the future.” Whereas the ensemble, to me, is the center of musical life that I live in.

Can you describe how “Runner” relates to “Music for Ensemble and Orchestra”?

That’s a piece that I think I really, after “Double Sextet,” hit out of the park. And part of it was the structure. Five movements really worked for me. I do a lot of fast, slow, fast — me, Scarlatti and 500 other people! But five is more challenging, and I also thought, What if the tempo never changed, but the note values changed, and that’s how you set off movements?

I thought, Gosh, this is really nice. This is such a great structure, I’m going to try it again. It’s the same ensemble, plus the string section and four trumpets. I was a little worried. Is it really better the second time, or is a whole lot worse? I tend to be a worrywart, to see only the bad. But I’m leaving here in a much more positive frame of mind.

So will there be a “Runner 3”?

No, no, no. Don’t push your luck.

Follow Joshua Barone on Twitter: @joshbarone.

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