The five Beethoven piano concertos, four concerts devoted to orchestral and choral works by Schumann, and a Steve Reich retrospective – the classical-music programming at this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival – won’t win any awards for freshness, imagination, or daring flights into the unknown. Few, I think, would question the actual worth of the music or how it was performed, but the Beethoven and Schumann are played year in and out – even the latter’s problematical choral setting of scenes from Goethe’s Faust is no longer the rarity it once was – and Reich is among our most often performed and recorded senior composers.
The melodramatically titled Schumann Revealed concerts led by John Eliot Gardiner are yet to come as I write, so perhaps that conductor does have something startlingly new to tell us about this composer. And it could be that I missed revelations at the Reich celebration and Emanuel Ax’s Beethoven Concerto cycle with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic, since scheduling conflicts permitted me to attend only two installments of each. In any case, I am not inclined to pick nits over Ax’s thoughtfully considered and musically satisfying interpretations of Concertos Nos. 3 and 4, two works I had not heard the pianist play since he recorded them with André Previn and the Royal Philharmonic more than a decade ago. That partnership failed to strike sparks, so it was salutary to hear how much architectural sinew and expressive content Ax now finds in the notes when working with more congenial colleagues.
It was my bad luck to draw two Steve Reich concerts that, for me at least, contained some of his least nourishing music: four early pieces constructed from phase repetition – Come Out (1966), Piano Phase (1967), Violin Phase (1967), and Clapping Music (1972) – and his first major experiment with music theater, The Cave (1993), a collaboration with his wife, video artist Beryl Korot.
How empty and arid it all seemed. One motivation for the minimalist revolution that spawned Reich’s style in the sixties was presumably a reaction to the dry abstractions of academic serialists who, we are continually told, terrorized new-music circles in those days. But are the mechanized patterns of classical minimalism any less coldly calculated and dehumanizing? Reich’s four phase pieces seem even more barren when heard as an accompaniment to Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s choreography, which so accurately and chillingly reflects the relentless geometric progress of the music. As for The Cave, an audio-visual meditation on the biblical Cave of Machpelah at Hebron, I fled in despair after Act I. Having endured this tedious contraption at bam six years ago, I found a second exposure to be needlessly masochistic. A meandering mix of Jewish-Islamic theology, video documentary, computer technology, and robotic music-making, The Cave remains a very empty place.