Review: After Hovering, Steve Reich Brings Back the Pulse

In “Jacob’s Ladder,” which premiered at the New York Philharmonic on Thursday, Reich’s signature chugging rhythms returned.

Jaap van Zweden, right, leading members of the New York Philharmonic and Synergy Vocals in the premiere of Steve Reich’s “Jacob’s Ladder” on Thursday. Credit…Chris Lee

By Zachary Woolfe

Oct. 6, 2023

NYT Critic’s Pick

Thursday evening was a major moment for musical Minimalism.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra brought Philip Glass’s new piece, “The Triumph of the Octagon,” to Carnegie Hall. And further uptown, at David Geffen Hall, the New York Philharmonic gave the premiere of Steve Reich’s “Jacob’s Ladder.”

It is no longer news that these composers, indelible faces of an era-defining movement, are eminences. Reich turned 87 on Tuesday, and Glass reaches the same age in January.

But don’t forget: They were once downtown rebels, writing for their own ensembles rather than major symphonic forces. (In 1973, Reich’s “Four Organs” was nearly heckled off the Carnegie stage.) Imagine predicting, back then, that they would have new work presented on the same night by two of the country’s great orchestras, in the two temples of New York’s musical establishment.

And that it would be cheered. At Geffen Hall, “Jacob’s Ladder” and Reich were warmly received at the center of an excellent concert that placed the premiere between a pair of repertory masterpieces, all conducted by the Philharmonic’s music director, Jaap van Zweden.

“Jacob’s Ladder” is something of a return to form for Reich after a quietly daring departure. Since his breakthrough experiments of the late 1960s, his music has been defined by its chugging pulse.

But in “Traveler’s Prayer” — begun before the pandemic, completed during lockdown and first performed in 2021 — the pulse was gone. That piece seems to float, with mellow vibraphone charting the calm, patient chant of four voices as a piano makes occasional, deep interjections — somehow questioning and affirming at once.

Reich’s work for voices has long suggested the combination of purity and complexity in medieval polyphony; he has cited Pérotin as an important influence. But “Traveler’s Prayer” really felt medieval in its rapt yet free stillness.

“When I began to write ‘Jacob’s Ladder,’ I had to ask myself, ‘To pulse or not to pulse?’” Reich says in an interview with his publisher. To pulse, he eventually decided. L’chaim!

And from the start, the 20-minute new piece burbles with a steady, propulsive rush of vibraphone. The rhythms are far more tart than in “Traveler’s Prayer,” the melodies more brightly etched and stepwise — more ladderlike. The intimate forces are similar to those Reich used in his last work, with the vocal quartet, small circle of string players, piano and pair of vibes now joined by a handful of flutes, oboes and clarinets that add more lilting vividness.

Like its predecessor, “Jacob’s Ladder” sets biblical text in the original Hebrew — in this case, the verse from Genesis in which Jacob dreams of a ladder to heaven, angels ascending and descending on it. But Reich means for the consonants to be smoothed, almost blurred, and on Thursday the four singers of Synergy Vocals managed the difficult task of sounding simultaneously precise and misty, with an antique nasal tang in the two male voices and cool freshness in the women.

Swaths of the piece are just instrumental, and the Philharmonic musicians approached the whole thing with forthright gusto. Presumably Reich observed rehearsals and sanctioned the performance style, but the string players used an amount of vibrato that sometimes jarred with the straighter tone of the singers and other instruments; this premiere wasn’t ideally clear.

The piece is not as plainly poignant as “Traveler’s Prayer”; the musical and emotional landscape of “Jacob’s Ladder” is more changeable, even flickering. Reich flashes — without lingering — on jeweled moments, and at one memorable point, briefly brightening harmonies in the strings are brought back to somber earth by just a few dark piano notes.

Yet nothing is overstated; even the dissonances in this subtle work are softly luminous. Energetic while meditative, “Jacob’s Ladder” doesn’t feel insubstantial, but it does feel light, graceful, refreshing. Twenty minutes passed like a song.

Programming the piece alongside Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto and Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony seemed less about drawing musical comparisons than about proving how easily Reich fits in with the classics. New works are sometimes doomed by juxtaposition with beloved standards, but “Jacob’s Ladder” plays serenely yet confidently with the big boys.

Zachary Woolfe became The Times’s classical music critic in 2022, after serving as classical music editor since 2015. Prior to joining The Times, he was the opera critic of the New York Observer. More about Zachary Woolfe