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Minimalist Thinks Big With 'Desert'

May 19, 1985|MARC SHULGOLD

Known primarily as a minimalist, composer Steve Reich insists he has, at last, drawn the maximum out of an orchestra.

"I think it's the biggest and best thing I've done," he says proudly of "The Desert Music," which receives its West Coast premiere Saturday night and next Sunday afternoon in Royce Hall, UCLA, with Neal Stulberg conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

"My early pieces for orchestra didn't give the players that much to do," the 48-year-old New York composer confesses. "A goal of mine, then, was to write for the orchestra on my own terms, to grab it by the scruff of the neck and say, finally, 'I know what to do with you. You're just like my (chamber) ensemble, only larger.' "

Of equal importance to the large-scale orchestral writing is the vocal writing, scored for 27 amplified voices (members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale). The five-movement work utilizes a text by poet William Carlos Williams.

Reich was 17 when he first encountered Williams.

"I walked into a New York bookstore and noticed a collection of his works on the shelf," the composer recalls. "I liked the way his name read the same way forwards and backwards."

First impressions can often be lasting ones, so it's not surprising that "The Desert Music," which received its world premiere in Germany last year, is built in a similar arch form (ABCBA). Nonetheless, the composer refuses to make such a connection.

That form developed separately from the symmetry of the poet's name, Reich insists. "It was dictated by the text," composed of excerpts from a collection by Williams titled, naturally, "The Desert Music."

"I actually discovered the arch form much earlier, in some of Bartok's music. I've been using it for about 10 years."

The composer will be present to make sure the sound mix is correct. That's how strongly he feels about Williams' words. " 'Desert Music' would never have existed without the text," Reich says.

"I had heard Williams read his poetry at Cornell years ago, and I immediately thought of setting it to music. But it was like setting a fly in amber. His writing would not fit in a regular meter. It's like colloquial American speech."

Not until 1965, when Reich began experimenting with spoken texts (e.g., "Come out") did he begin to feel comfortable with speech in music.

Then, a breakthrough.

"When I was working on 'Tehillim' (1981), I hit upon a discovery that was forced on me by listening to the Hebrew text: I began hearing words in groups of twos and threes," Reich explains. The rhythmic pattern fit smoothly into the composer's musical style.

As Reich reads from "Desert Music," those rhythms suggest themselves: "Well? Shall we think . . . or listen?" (an excerpt from "The Orchestra," used in the second and fourth movements). Does the flow of words match the flow of music? "The music is similar--and it's different," Reich replies with a laugh.

Interestingly, "Desert Music" concludes a two-part program that opens with Bach's "Magnificat."

"Baroque music shares with my works the same regular pulse, the same clear tonal center," Reich says. "I do feel a little edgy about being on the same program with Bach--he's a very tough act to follow."

TOE SHOES AND TOFU: The Joffrey Ballet has come up with a tasty way to raise money--"The Night of the Joffrey Dinners." On or around June 27, no less than 52 separate dinner parties will be held, with balletomanes (and foodies) sharing a wide range of cuisine with such celebrities as President and Mrs. Gerald Ford, Rosemarie and Robert Stack, Victoria and Ed McMahon and Jo and Tommy Lasorda.

On sale are 1,058 tickets (priced at $150 each). There are some big decisions to be made here: Chinese, Mexican, Japanese or French food? A casual supper at Malibu beach, Dodger Dogs in Peter O'Malley's box at Dodger Stadium or an intimate dinner for four at l'Ermitage?

Information: (213) 972-7642.

CONDUCTING APPOINTMENTS: Heiichiro Ohyama, principal viola with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has been named music director and conductor of the Seattle-based Northwest Chamber Orchestra, effective in January, succeeding Welshman Alun Francis. Ohyama, who also serves as music director of the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra and the student orchestra at the Crossroads School in Santa Monica, will lead three concerts in Eugene.

In Chattanooga, Tenn., Vakhtang Jordania, the Russian conductor who defected from the East with his companion, violinist Viktoria Mullova, in 1983, has been named music director of the Chattanooga Symphony. Jordania, 42, makes his debut with the orchestra (recently merged with the local opera association) Sept. 28 in Puccini's "La Boheme."

Adrian Gnam succeeds William McGlaughlin as music director of the Eugene (Ore.) Symphony. Quoth Gnam, "My goal is to make the orchestra stand up and be noticed." One wonders about the reaction from the cello section.

AROUND TOWN: On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Mendelssohn Quartet will play the two concerts originally planned for January at the Schoenberg Institute, devoted to Schoenberg's string quartets. Those earlier events were postponed when violinist Laurie Smukler went on maternity leave (she delivered a baby girl on April 19). . . . Pianist Horacio Gutierrez is soloist with Gerard Schwarz and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra on Thursday at Royce Hall, UCLA, and next Sunday at Ambassador. The eclectic program lists the premiere of Frank Campo's Serenade, William Schuman's Piano Concerto, Rimsky-Korsakov's "Le Coq d'Or" Fantasia and Mozart's Symphony No. 28.

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