Steve Reich won’t be turning 75 until October, but he was given an advance birthday celebration on the main stage of Carnegie Hall on Saturday night when four different celebrated new music ensembles—So Percussion, the Kronos Quartet, eighth blackbird, and the Bang on a Can All Stars—performed four of his recent works. It was an unprecedented event for Reich who mused during the post-concert reception that this was the first time there had ever been an evening of his music at Carnegie during which he wasn’t on stage.
Indeed, honoring any composer this way is all too rare an occurrence. When Elliott Carter turned 100, the Boston Symphony performed only one piece of his at Carnegie Hall—the all-Carter chamber program had to wait for the following night at Zankel. Even the mythified composers of centuries past rarely get the full-on treatment with the bizarre exception of all the ongoing Beethoven cycles done by groups ranging from solo pianists and string quartets to symphony orchestras. Even the Mostly Mozart festival doesn’t feature a whole lot of all-Wolfgang Amadeus programs. Yet so-called “portrait concerts,” like the pioneering series at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, are an ideal way to be exposed to an individual’s particular sound world.
While I was in Zagreb, one of the European delegates to the ISCM World New Music Days railed against concerts that featured more than one work by a composer on the program. In his opinion, it was really important for a concert of new music to always be a mix of a variety of voices in which no one dominated. But is it really optimal to present listeners with so much (sometimes contradictory) sonic information? Certainly after that week in which I attended 15 concerts, only one of which included two works by the same composer, my mind was teetering well beyond information overload.
Saturday’s Carnegie Hall audience certainly seemed appreciative of being able to focus exclusively on one compositional voice. And by having a concert devoted exclusively to a single composer, despite the personnel and timbre shifts from piece to piece, there was a clearly audible through line in the program—something that can rarely be discerned in hodge-podge concert programs of new or old music.
The idea of mix and match mostly doesn’t exist in other genres of music. Portrait concerts of individual artists are the way it’s done. And when there is an assemblage of multiple voices, think Woodstock or Live Aid, that is a big event.