Philadelphia Singers perform to a nearly full house at the Annenberg Center

March 8, 2010

Glass, Reich, Bryars concert at Annenberg

By David Patrick Stearns

Philadelphia Inquirer Classical Music Critic

A change of venue, some unlikely collaborators, and a forward-looking program conspired to give the Philadelphia Singers a near-full house at the 970-seat Zellerbach Theatre for Saturday's "Glass, Reich, Bryars" concert.

Artistically, it was nearly all it promised to be. The program's supposed big deal - the first live performance of the already-recorded 1994 Persephoneby Philip Glass - was pleasant enough, though Steve Reich's You Are (Variations) was the primary triumph for the combined Philadelphia Singers, Relache ensemble, and Orchestra 2001.

Persephone is lightweight Glass: Even if Saturday's performance revealed more instrumental details than its recording, the five movements are full of red herrings due to the music's conflicting impetus. Originally conceived as a T.S. Eliot tribute (not entirely sanctioned by the poet's estate), Persephone became an exploration of pagan mythology (hence the title). Thanks to the clean, clear performances by both instrumentalists and singers (who are relegated to repetitive phonating), the individual sound worlds of each movement came into focus, making the piece like a series of paintings depicting similar objects at different angles with shifting color palettes.

Reich's 2004 You Are (Variations) uses sonorities and dissonances of the composer's popular Different Trains, but with a philosophical, be-here-now message that rendered music that's purposefully intricate and thus particularly durable even by the composer's considerable standard.

The chorus was required to adjust to a thinner sound that blends and meshes with intense rhythmic repetition from four marimbas and three electric pianos. That indeed happened but with a more cultivated sound than one hears in Reich's own performances - and one that effectively counteracted the antiseptic aura of the piece's required amplification.

Chorus director David Hayes obviously has a keen ear for the sound balances and linear shaping of post-minimalist pieces, giving them a long-term arc of musical thought, whether in Glass' static sound portraits (which took on a solid beginning, middle, and end) or Reich's web of machine-tooled components. And when the Reich rhythm section threatened to cloud metrical details, Hayes kept order with conducting gestures similar to those of the ever-semaphoric Pierre Boulez.

The concert's only miscalculation was including Gavin Bryars' blessedly simple "Lauda 22 and 23" - perfectly welcome in a more conventional program and well sung by the unaccompanied chorus. But the occasional 20th-century harmony reminded you that the piece isn't 500 years old.