By Lawrence Budmen

Few composers write as imaginatively for percussive instruments as Steve Reich. For nearly four decades, this American maverick has created his own unique sound world. In 1970-71 Reich composed Drumming, one of the seminal works of the minimalist movement. Members of the New World Symphony Percussion Consort and the superb chamber choir Seraphic Fire set the Lincoln Theater musically ablaze Saturday with a rare performance of this Reich masterwork. 

Minimalism was a reaction to the influence of atonal composers in academia and concert life in the 1950’s and 60’s. A group of young composers sought to create a new musical aesthetic that stressed rhythm and tonality. Reich, along with Phillip Glass, stood at the apex of this movement. Long before the term World Music had been coined, Reich embraced such diverse influences as Balinese gamelans, Ghanian drumming, Caribbean rhythms, and the scat singing styles of American jazz. Drumming is a cornucopia of multicultural sounds and timbres.

Thirty-five years after its creation, Drumming remains an astoundingly revolutionary and exhilarating work of genius. 

The score’s opening section is scored for four tuned pairs of bongo drums. Part II spotlights three marimbas in an agitated rhythmic pattern. A multi-hued vocal overlay by three sopranos combines with the marimbas to produce shimmering aural images. The vocal writing is strongly influenced by scat and the type of jazzy harmonics that would become the mainstay of such groups as the Manhattan Transfer and the Swingle Singers. Bright sounds of glockenspiels abound in the third section with a high spirited piccolo obligatto. The work concludes with an organized jam session featuring all the participants. 

Artistic Coordinator Michael Linville deserves tremendous credit for preparing a terrific performance of this complex piece. The exquisite voices of sopranos Maria Luzzo, Karen Carlisle Neal, and Gabrielle Tinto (from Seraphic Fire) graced Reich’s difficult writing. Neal’s pealing high tones were a particular joy. Alice Dade was the effervescent piccolo player. Nine members of the New World percussion ensemble accomplished miraculous feats of rhythmic agility and coordination. Reich’s creative vision remains a potent force in contemporary music. 

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