Saturday night and Sunday afternoon the Detroit Symphony Orchestra brought to a close their 2019 midwinter festival, “American Panorama,” with a program of music by three American minimalist composers, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Luther Adams. Aptly titled “Maximum Minimal,” the program embraced one of the defining currents in American classical music of the last half century.
It’s an interesting theme, and one that is ripe with both possibilities and challenges. Minimalism, after all, is a term that emcompasses a wide swath of composers and aesthetics, and programing a single concert dedicated to it would necessarily require the omission of some of the most interesting and evocative music to fall under that category. To do true justice to the theme one would really need to dedicate an entire festival to minimalism itself, rather than one concert as part of a larger festival — but under the circumstances the DSO and Music Director Laurate Leonard Slatkin have done reasonably well with the programming, in the sense that the three pieces selected for the performance touch on some of the most prominent trends within minimalism.
The “American Panorama” festival itself, of course, was quite an undertaking.
“This is the sixth (midwinter festival) that I’ve done,” Slatkin told me when we spoke over the phone last week. Initially conceived as a way to draw in audiences during a traditionally-lean month for orchestra attendance, the DSO began with endeavors such as performing all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies over the course of a few weeks. Last year the orchestra undertook a French music themed festival. And this year, American music — a longtime interest of Slatkin’s — came to the fore.
“What we have learned is that this period of time, these three weeks in February, have proved to be both artistically satisfying and very lucrative in terms of being able to attract an audience,” Slatkin said.
This year’s festival will likely be the last midwinter festival with Slatkin at the helm, as he has been stepping away from his duties as music director.
“I’ll be 75 soon, and it’s a lot of work,” Slatkin said. “(But) I wanted (my last midwinter festival) to be dedicated to American music, which makes sense, because it’s been one of my passions for years.”
The opener of Saturday’s program was Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music,” a short 1972 composition performed entirely by clapping. Written for two people, “Clapping Music” serves as an excellent example of rhythmic minimalism, and also an early example of Reich’s technique of “phasing,” which he developed further in subsequent compositions. Throughout the duration of the piece, one performer claps a single rhythmic line over and over, while the other performer claps this same rhythmic line except offset by one eighth note every eight or 12 bars. This process continues until the performers are once again clapping in unison, as in the beginning of the piece.
For being such a far cry from what one generally expects to hear at an orchestral concert, the audience received the piece enthusiastically, many people leaping to their feet at the end of Joseph Becker and Andres Pichardo’s performance on Saturday night, which was tight and controlled.
The Reich was followed by a lessor-known work of Philip Glass’s, the “Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra” (which, as an aside, often bears striking similarities to music from “Mission Impossible”). The choice of a timpani concerto is somewhat odd, but also bold, given the relative historical lack of music in that genre. The playing on Saturday night’s performance was skillful and well-executed, but some of the inherent difficulties of performing a timpani concerto nevertheless shone through. The balance between the orchestra and soloists was a constant challenge, and often it was a strain to hear the orchestra over the sheer force of the timpani banging away at the front of the stage. Which isn’t to say the banging wasn’t exciting, and indeed the timpani cadenza in the third movement was probably the most compelling part of the piece, as the listener stopped being distracted by the fact that they couldn’t hear the orchestra and could focus on the thrilling technique and sensitive touch displayed by soloists Jeremy Epp and James Ritchie.
Far and away the most compelling performance of the night, however, fell to the last piece of the evening, John Luther Adams’s “Become Ocean,” a meditative and immersive 42-minute work for full orchestra which, when I spoke with him in 2015, Adams described as “the culmination of years of work … (where) the music has been leading (him) … for decades.” Kept at a single tempo for the entire duration of the work, the orchestra is divided physically into three groups on stage — the strings, the woodwinds and the brass. Throughout the course of the piece, each of these sections slowly fades in and out of prominence, each playing slow, repetitive patterns and swelling chords that imitate the movement of waves in the open ocean. Listening to it, one feels submerged in the texture, floating in its resonance, borne aloft by the slow-moving mass of its sound. The DSO augmented the meditative nature of this listening experience with the tasteful application of stage lighting, applying a separate soft-hued color to each orchestra section and intensifying or dimming the light in accordance with the section’s change in volume.
It was a satisfying end to the “American Panorama” festival, and all the more so because it was a concert featuring exclusively living composers. “American music,” it seemed to say, “is a thing that is alive and among us.” Let’s hope that programing like this continues to come to the fore.