Mavericks Report #7: Reich's Hindenburg A Deflating Experience

Composer's Music for 18 Musicians, also on the program, proves to be a Mavericks high point.

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Contributing Editor Stacey Kors reports:

SAN FRANCISCO — It would be tempting to say that

color="#003163">Steve Reich's Hindenburg crashed and

burned when it was given its West Coast premiere Saturday at Davies Symphony Hall. But frankly, it wasn't interesting enough to warrant such a strong statement.

The multimedia work was performed by the minimalist composer and his

ensemble as part of the San Francisco Symphony's American Mavericks Festival — it was the second half of a program that also featured Reich and his ensemble performing his groundbreaking Music for 18 Musicians.

While the latter proved to be one of the festival's high points to date, Hindenburg was one of its lows. At the end of the piece, the audience merely mustered polite applause, which was followed by a dumbfounded and disappointed silence.

Hindenburg is the first section of Three Tales, a video

docu-opera that Reich is currently working on with wife and video artist Beryl Korot. The opera chronicles three historic events that reflect on the growth and implications of technology over the course of the 20th century: the crash of the Hindenburg airship, the atomic testing on Bikini Atoll and

the first successfully cloned adult sheep, Dolly.

Hindenburg begins with the New York Times headline about the crash of the giant German zeppelin crawling across the screen, as two snare drummers tap out the words as if typing them on a typewriter.

In the scenes that follow, archival film footage and photographs are

interspersed with text, interviews and sampled voices, the words from which are picked up and repeated by three tenors singing in canonic form.

Reich's score, which was performed by an ensemble of less than a dozen

musicians and singers, was far too bland and spare in scale and detached to suit such larger-than-life subject matter.

The accompanying visuals were painfully literal. Many of Korot's formal

choices, such as presenting figures in silhouette cutouts and displaying footage in a series of small boxes, seemed unrelated to the concept, a weak attempt at dressing up images that are strong enough to stand on their own.

In striking contrast was the performance of Reich's minimalist masterpiece Music for 18 Musicians, the composer's first large-scale ensemble piece and the crossover work that won him popular recognition in the mid-1970s.

Unlike Reich's earlier "phase" pieces, which were constructed around a

single fixed chord, Music for 18 Musicians comprises 11

separate-but-linked pieces that are built out of an opening cycle of 11

pulsating chords.

Scored for pianos, strings, clarinets, marimbas, vibraphone and wordless singers, the piece is filled with lush timbres, beautifully blended textures, rich instrumental colors and intense harmonic motion that keep this musically demanding work — an uninterrupted hour long — compelling to its conclusion.

While a great piece to listen to on CD, seeing Music for 18 Musicians performed live by Reich and his ensemble, as they move around the stage from one instrument to the next, is a truly extraordinary experience, like watching a carefully constructed, intricately choreographed dance.

Ironically, one of the lines that pops up in the middle of Hindenburg is a piece of Nazi propaganda that reads: "Never will the Reich be destroyed if you are united and faithful." Fans of the musical Reich may have been united and faithful in their admiration for the composer when they first came to this concert — but they seemed more than a bit skeptical when they left.