Record reviews

Steve Reich has done it again. Natter on  all you want on the subject of
minimalism, its musical style on a treadmill, its major composers likewise. Yet here is Reich’s “Different Trains,” introduced last December at New Music America in Miami, out now on a new Nonesuch release, bearing the welcome news that Reich, at least, has retained his power to turn corners and face new horizons.
A description runs the risk of sounding simplistic. Given, after all, the easiest cliches about the minimalist musical language, the image of the train comes quickly to mind: chug, chug, chug, clickety-clack. Reich has written his piece for the Kronos Quartet, with an overlay of sirens, bells, train whistles both American and European, and an underlay of taped voices, both straight and electronically processed, talking about trains — about the great speedy trains of the past, the doom-laden trains of the wartime concentration camps, the dying-out of train travel in our own time.
The result is an exuberant latter-day tone-poem, lasting just under half an hour, overpowering in its sheer energy far beyond what my superficial description might suggest. The mix of voices and instruments is, for Reich, both old and new. The tape-loop processing in some of his first pieces — the boy’s repetitions in  “Come Out” for example — created a strange sense of subliminal melody; you came eventually to hear the cadence of the words rather than the words themselves. That happens again in “Different Trains” — in, for example, the words of an old train conductor remembering how things once were — and the music of the words forms a taut counterpoint with the playing of the quartet.
From the earlier pieces dominated primarily by the sense of repetition and slow, almost imperceptible change — “Come Out,” the first extended version of “Drumming,” up to the magnificent “Music for 18 Musicians” of 1976 — to his present tightly, almost classically structured scores, Reich has gone through a steady stylistic growth. The explosive energy of the large-scale ” Desert Music” of 1984, and the smaller, even more exuberant Sextet of a year later, were reined in by something new in Reich: a passion for clear, audible musical structuring. In place of the ongoing, open-ended expansiveness of the early works which seemed sometimes more to stop arbitrarily than actually reach a logical ending,  we got these new, tight pieces with tunes that kept coming back to round off the proceedings in an almost Mozartian way; the “Desert Music,” with its A-B-C-B-A over-all design, is as clear as any 18th-century Rondo.
But, like the classical masters, Reich has the artistic insights to make this kind of structuring seem both well-balanced and surprising. in “Different Trains” the verbal narrative determines much of the over-all shape of the work. Yet the musical changes superimposed on that dramatic structure, the marvelous sudden shifts of harmony, rhythm and tone-color, create the propulsiveness, that zooms past the mileposts and sweeps us along.
I don’t know if “Different Trains” is any kind of masterpiece in the cosmic sense — whatever that might be. Enough that it is a terrific, beautifully managed half-hour of musical exhilaration. So, on what is for me a somewhat lesser level of accomplishment, is the companion piece on the disk, Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint” for guitars, written for and played by Pat Metheny, another in the series — along with “Vermont” and “Manhattan” Counterpoints — in which one live performer plays one part live against a multi-track tape of his own playing of several (ten, in this case) other parts. The music is attractive, somewhat predictable if you know the other Counterpoints, and makes for some terrific cover art: guitar necks against railroad tracks.
I wrote effusively about Harold Shapero’s “Symphony for Classical Orchestra” when Andre Previn and the Los Angeles Philharmonic revived it in 1986 and, better yet, repeated it two seasons later. American music does have a past, some of it glorious, too much of it forgotten. Now Previn and the Philharmonic have recorded Shapero’s  work on New World Records (along with a lesser make-weight, the “Nine-Minute Overture”); hear it as a supremely beautiful large-scale work rescued from the dust; hear it, even, as a source of national pride, a commodity that gets a rather severe shaking these days.
Shapero composed the work in 1947; it was played and recorded not long afterwards by his Harvard schoolfellow Leonard Bernstein, with a pickup orchestra. Previn’s 1986 revival (part of the  ATT-financed program for rediscovering American orchestral music that also underwrote the return of  Roger Sessions’ marvelous Second Symphony) was the first performance in over 30 years. Why?
Shapero wrote the work at a time when American music was in the grip of a neoclassic passion. Stravinsky was the absolute god, and his major acolytes included the younger Elliott Carter, along with Irving Fine, Lester Trimble, Bernstein himself for a quick sideswipe, and Shapero. The passion was short-lived. Shapero’s marvelously inventive symphony, a strange but workable synthesis of Stravinsky and, of all unlikely bedmates, Beethoven, fell out of style before it had any real chance of making headway. The intense braininess of the work appealed little to the more illustrious proponents of new American music, Leopold Stokowski or, in his last years, Serge Koussevitzky. Aaron Copland’s and William Schuman’s  extroverted Americana was more to their taste.
Time has mellowed our historical perspectives, and it’s easier to see the overwhelming forces that motivated this marvelous Shapero symphony four decades ago. I demean nothing, I hope, when I state that this recording stands as Previn’s most distinguished, most valuable accomplishment to date. It’s fortunate that, unlike the way these things usually work, Shapero has lived to see his masterpiece exonerated. He turns 70 next year.
And Mel Powell (did you notice?) turned 65 last year. What a presence, this white-haired eminence, with the robust, eloquent boom-boom of his speaking voice and the quieter eloquence of his lapidary, exquisitely fashioned music. That long musical life of his, a “different train” with many way-stations, comes to focus in his great late scores: the days of playing jazz piano with Benny Goodman, the prismatic glints in his electronic tinkering, the ruddy wisdom of a lifetime.
Music Masters has given us a garland of recent Powell, six works most of them first heard at CalArts, where Powell now teaches. A song-cycle to the multi-hued, aphoristic poetry of Mark Strand shines kaleidoscopic lights on the wonderful words, and Judith Bettina sings enchantingly. The bygone (sob!) Sequoia Quartet moves lovingly through the thickets of the 1982 String Quartet; the Sequoia’s first violinist, Yoko Matsuda, participates in two other brief works. Rachel Rudich’s flute resounds in another short work like a light in a dark wilderness.
This is, then, a glorious record of small but strong delights; 45 minutes in the company of a warm-hearted tone-poet,  congenial and witty. Why is there so little wit in today’s music? Mel Powell makes us wonder.

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