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Past Forward: Steve Reich

Steve Reich holds the 2016–2017 Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair. One of the highlights this season includes American Composers Orchestra performing Steve Reich's Tehillim with sopranos Elizabeth Bates, Martha Cluver, Mellissa Hughes and mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway on Friday, March 24, 2017 at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall.

The American Composers Orchestra speaks with composer Steve Reich about his piece Tehillim and his relationship with American Composers Orchestra’s Music Director George Manahan, who conducted the premiere recording in 1981.

Read an excerpt of the interview below.

American Composers Orchestra: We wanted to start by talking about your relationship with ACO's Music Director George Manahan, who conducted the premiere recording for ECM Records in 1981. Can you talk about how you came to work with him and what it was like?

Steve Reich: My ensemble never had a conductor for anything until 1981 when I wrote Tehillim. We felt we might be able to do it without one but it sure would be better if we had one. James Preiss, one of the main percussionists in my ensemble, was teaching at Manhattan School of Music and knew George, who was at MSM also, and said to us, I think I have the ideal guy to be a conductor. George had the same kind of mind set so we decided to try it. George came down to my studio on Warren Street near City Hall and it was just like hand in glove. We said, this is the guy! George completely mastered the changing meters which are [laughs] well, I would never write anything with such large measures the way I did in Tehillim unless it wasn’t necessary—it accurately reflects the vocal line—but it’s a difficult piece to conduct. I think Michael Tilson Thomas said to me at some point afterwards, “Musicians like downbeats!” [laughs]

Michael Tilson Thomas said to me at some point afterwards, “Musicians like downbeats!”

Anyway, George did a great job during rehearsals. We then took the piece to Europe and he conducted on tour with us. We all lived together, worked together, performed together. It was just a delight. Back in the States we did the American premiere at the Rothko Chapel out in Houston and the NY premiere at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, near the 20th century galleries. George did all of that and then finally we went back to Europe to do the recording in Stuttgart. It was very intense. There were a lot of people and we recorded live. There were lots of re-dos. Everybody’s in the room. I think it’s a remarkable recording. George is absolutely first rate and a pleasure to work with, and to top it off we both have the same birthday! [laughs]


George Manahan conducting the premiere recording of Tehillim with Steve Reich and Musicians in Stuttgart, 1981.
Photos by Deborah Reingold courtesy of the Paul Sacher Foundation.


ACO: Thinking about this first recording of Tehillim vs. the many subsequent recordings that have been made, can you identify anything about George Manahan's approach to performing Tehillim that is different to other conductors?

SR: I think George was at home with this kind of musical language—the subdivisions of twos and threes—and he was familiar with a lot of 20th Century music. I would say for me, that recording and the Alarm Will Sound recording are the two outstanding recordings that come to mind. The Steve Reich and Musicians recording had [laughs] I don’t know 50 or 60 cuts. And Alan [Pierson, Music Director of Alarm Will Sound] sent me a lot of the in progress mixes. So as cohesive as it is musically, this is a testament to how correct Glenn Gould was when he recorded and re-recorded so many multiple takes.

ACO: Tehillim has been performed numerous times around the world since its premiere in 1981. Its initial reception was not as severe as say Four Organs at Carnegie Hall in 1973.

SR: No, no, no. [laughs] Tehillim was appreciated right away. It was pretty obvious that in general people were, and still are, attracted to Tehillim more than Four Organs. I enjoy it more. They are very different types of pieces.

Read the full interview on SoundAdvice›

American Composers Orchestra
David Hertzberg, Paola Prestini, Trevor Weston, Steve Reich
Friday, March 24 at 7:30 PM
American Composers Orchestra

Acclaimed for “consistently champion[ing] contemporary music with consistent excellence” (The New York Times), American Composers Orchestra showcases two premieres—one commissioned by Carnegie Hall—by two cutting-edge composers and a classic from Steve Reich, Tehillim (Hebrew for “psalms”). Inspired by cantillation he heard in Israel, Reich sets four psalms in an exotically scored and rhythmically invigorating work that pulses with life and is considered one of the modern master’s most thrilling compositions.