Minimalism played to the max

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / July 27, 2009

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NORTH ADAMS - The greatest shock in seeing “Music for 18 Musicians’’ performed is discovering how warm this warhorse of cool, cerebral minimalism can actually be. On Saturday night at MassMoCA, as the culmination of both the annual Bang on a Can music festival and a heady day celebrating the places where new music and modern art overlap, Steve Reich’s towering 1976 epic rang out like a renewed statement of purpose: a postmodern hoedown of joyfully interlocking parts.

The musicians - 19 in all; did someone not get the memo? - provided an engaged and engaging definition of organic process. Players held down a steady pulse on marimbas, xylophones, and pianos while ornamenting it with evolving polyrhythms. Todd Reynolds on violin and Laura Radnofsky on cello sawed gently back and forth, like sea anemones in a tidal pool. Ken Thomson and Nathan Smith played their chugging bass clarinet riffs like a vaudeville team, one antic and bouncy, the other serene.

Every so often, metallophonist David Cossin would tap out the four shimmering notes that signaled the Bang on a Can players to move to the next section of “18 Musicians,’’ and the group would charge ahead with barely suppressed delight. Newcomers to this piece and to minimalism in general sometimes assume that nothing happens in the music. On the contrary: This performance had the drama and the drive of great theater.

The composer was there, dispensing measured blessings to the players afterward. Reich is an avuncular but particular presence, a gracious 70-something in a funky baseball cap, and musicians work harder when he’s around. Earlier in the day, on the same stage, he and Bang on a Can cofounder (and fellow Pulitzer Prize-winner) David Lang discussed the late Sol LeWitt, who was a friend and peer of Reich’s. The artist’s astonishingly vibrant wall paintings, on display at MassMoCA, are a visual correlative to what the composer is about: patterns and processes built upon each other until the mystic is achieved. Following the discussion, several Reich pieces were played in a large gallery next to the LeWitt exhibition.

The evening concert began with a fine conceptual revamp of 1967’s “Piano Phase’’ in which Cossin banged out repeated piano-sample phrases on a MIDI drum kit in both real time and as video projected onto himself. The two versions gradually shifted out of phase until the percussionist resembled a multi-armed Hindu god whaling through a drum solo; the piece brought the day’s confluence of sound and vision to a sharp point.

“Eight Lines’’ (1983), which followed, didn’t quite come together, its 14 musicians never achieving the ferociously concentrated group dynamics these pieces need. After the intermission, thankfully, “Music for 18 Musicians’’ arrived to realign the spheres back into their orbits.

BANG ON A CAN FESTIVAL At: MassMoCA, Saturday night

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