Reich likes to say that his musical inspirations are basically anything before 1750 and after Debussy, in the 20th century. In between are the Classical and Romantic periods; “Traveler’s Prayer,” however inadvertently, flirts with that territory in its treatment of the strings, as wisely beautiful and spare as anything in Beethoven’s late quartets.
The result is a mood befitting the world in which the piece premiered. Begun before the pandemic and finished during it, “Traveler’s Prayer” is, for now, inevitably heard in the shadow of crisis. “The virus shifted the gravity of the whole thing,” Reich said. “I was 84 when I started it, but now people who are 24 are even thinking this way,” confronting mortality in life and art.
Where in the past Reich has rendered politics and trauma in his signature voice — the looping of “Come Out” (1966) or the musical transcriptions of documentary material in “Different Trains” (1988) and “WTC 9/11” (2011) — here he has conjured a meditative space less specific and aestheticized, and more fundamentally, powerfully spiritual.
As a new generation of musicians has taken up Reich’s music, he said, it’s “very gratifying, to live long enough for that handover.”Credit…Philip Montgomery for The New York Times
At the very least, “Traveler’s Prayer” contrasted sharply with the other two works on Tuesday’s program, which opened with “Tehillim” (1981): celebratory music for a celebratory occasion.
The first music of Reich’s to reflect his Jewishness, which has been a preoccupation of his career since then, “Tehillim” received an exuberant reading at Carnegie by the Colin Currie Group, with Currie at the podium, and Synergy Vocals, led by Micaela Haslam. (Both Currie and Haslam appear in “Conversations,” discussing this piece and others with passionate fervor.)
“Tehillim” and “Traveler’s Prayer” contrasted how Reich has approached sacred text over the past four decades. Both live or die on precision, not only of instrumental rhythm and articulation, but also of the purity of sound among the vocalists. But “Tehillim” is also more strictly constructed, more about style than the text itself.
Which is not a bad thing. “Tehillim” is nevertheless intensely moving over its 30 minutes, building from excitement to euphoria with essentially the same material over time, transformed through canons, unexpected harmonic turns and other Baroque techniques that arrive at a radiant finale in D major — a reminder of how aware of tradition Reich has always been while forging a fresh sound.
And rarely was his inventiveness fresher than in “Music for 18 Musicians” (1976), which came after intermission on Tuesday, an always welcome revival of what may be Reich’s chief masterpiece among triumphs like “Different Trains,” “Drumming” (1971) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Double Sextet” (2008).