Tuesday 16 September 2014

Kings Place Festival: Different Trains

Steve Reich
Steve Reich
Steve Reich Different Trains; The Duke Quartet; Kings Place Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 14 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Mesmerising performance of Reich's 1988 work for quartet and tape

For our final visit to the Kings Place Festival on Sunday 14 September 2014 we experienced two very different approaches to chamber music. In the foyer, we caught the London Chamber Music Collective playing Beethoven's String Trio Opus 9 whilst in Hall Two the Duke Quartet played Steve Reich's Different Trains.

Reich's Different Trains was written in 1988 and the idea for the piece arose out of his childhood when, between 1939 and 1942, he spent a lot of time on trains between New York and Los Angeles. In adulthood he realised that, as a Jew, if he had lived in Europe at the time then he would have been travelling on different trains indeed. He recording reminiscences, from his governess, from a retired railway porter, from Holocaust survivors and of train sounds. He then took portions of these and notate them musically. The finished work consists of a tape which includes fragments of spoken text, the music for which is echoed by the performers. What makes the piece more intense is that the live performers are amplified, and the tape sound-track includes pre-recorded contributions from three separate string quartets.

I had never heard the work live before. It lasts 30 minutes in three movements, each of which covers a different time period, America - Before the war, Europe - During the war, After the war. I found the results utterly compelling and involving. The way that Reich programmed the spoken sections, repeating them like musical motifs, and had them echoed by the performers was technically complex and fascinating. This fascination was also in the skill with which the live performers meshed with the tape in a seamless manner. The piece could have been an exercise in simple technical wizardry, but instead it became rather greater than the sum of its parts and Reich's underlying message shone through.

Listening to the work, I had a curiosity about the pre-recorded quartet parts and did wonder whether a live performance with four string quartets (and conductor) might be achievable. But I also would love to hear it performed in a programme alongside Benjamin Britten's The Night Mail (which Samuel West, Nicholas Collon and the Aurora Orchestra recently did live with the film).

I have no idea how much leeway the live performers have, so I am not sure quite how much interpretation we heard. Whatever the case, the performance from the Duke Quartet (Louisa Fuller, Rick Koster, John Metcalfe, Sophie Harris) was mesmerising. Their feeling for the piece seemed to be naturally ingrained (presumably reflecting years of practice) and though technically challenging, the music had a naturalness and flow about it. The piece was performed alone, which worked well given the experience was so immersive and so intense.

Before the Reich, we caught members of the London Chamber Music Collective in a vibrant performance of Beethoven's String Trio Opus 9 on the free stage in the foyer. Whilst Beethoven's trio might not seem the most obvious choice for foyer music, in fact the musicians performance was so strongly engaging that it had won them quite a significant audience.

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