Colin Currie Group. Credit: Chris Gloag

What started for Steve Reich as a personal meditation on mortality took on a whole new resonance in the desolate spring of 2020. 

Working with traditional Hebrew melodies while setting Psalm 121, commonly known as the Traveler’s Prayer, the octogenarian composer had long been thinking about the loss of friends and family when he started writing a new piece before the advent of COVID-19. 

“My approach was personal,” said the octogenarian Reich in a recent phone conversation, sounding sharp and energetic. “A lot of people I know are gone. At my age it’s natural for someone to think about his time being limited. But when COVID hit, the focus changed. People in their 20s were thinking about death. That was the shift, away from personal concerns to thinking about how we’re all in this together.”

As part of a bi-coastal celebration of Reich’s 86th birthday (Oct. 3), Cal Performances presents the Colin Currie Group and Synergy Vocals at Zellerbach Hall Thursday performing the West Coast premiere of “Traveler’s Prayer.” The all-Reich program, which the two ensembles present Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall, also features two iconic Reich works, with a very different setting for Biblical text, 1981’s “Tehillim,” and the 1976 minimalist landmark “Music for 18 Musicians.”

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While “Tehillim” and “Traveler’s Prayer” both reflect Reich’s abiding search for meaning in his Jewish identity, the new work is unlike anything else he’s ever written. Co-commissioned by Cal Performances, Carnegie Hall and five other international presenters, “Traveler’s Prayer” is everything one doesn’t expect from Reich. Drawing on traditional Ashkenazi chants, ancient Judeo-Italian liturgical melodies, and the canon form, the music is rubato, without any of the driving, interlocking rhythmic patterns that have defined his music for more than half a century. 

British percussionist Colin Currie, whose ensemble evolved out of a BBC celebration of Reich’s 70th birthday, describes his first time seeing the new score as “a very humbling moment actually. One could tell immediately that this was something different. The poignancy of the piece was immediate. With the first phrase the mood is cast. It’s somber yet serene. Peaceful and thought provoking.”

Currie and Micaela Haslam of Synergy Vocals will engage in a post-concert Q&A with Jeremy Geffen, Cal Performances executive and artistic director, that’s free to all ticket holders. 

Reich isn’t traveling much these days, so he won’t make the trip out to Berkeley after the U.S. premiere at Carnegie Hall. But talking to him late last month he was still deeply engaged with getting the dynamics just right. When Colin Currie Group and Synergy Vocals premiered “Traveler’s Prayer” in Amsterdam in 2021 he felt the critical balance between the ensemble and the voices missed the mark. 

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“What I wanted to do was have the voices covered, or behind the strings,” he said. “In “Tehillim” the voices are up front, amplified, in the forefront in what you hear. In ‘Traveler’s Prayer’ they should be in the mid ground so the audience has to lean forward a bit. I want that blur between the voices and the strings.”

“It’s for four voices and ensemble so you could look at the score and think the voices lead,” Currie said. “But in actual fact Steve is looking for something more nebulous than that. He wants people to have to stretch their ears. There’s a very specific balance and mood where there’s not a very forthright projection of the text. It’s more hidden and mysterious. The words are there but they’re practically obscure. It’s a remarkable approach that rather strange and arresting.”

Reich’s interest in Psalm 121 flows directly from his long relationship to the text. Before the pandemic he logged many thousands of miles every year as ensembles around the world performed his music. It’s long been a ritual for him to recite the Psalm whenever he gets on a plane. “Traveler’s Prayer” includes lines from Genesis and Exodus that are often added to Psalm 121 in Hebrew prayer books. Those additional texts are set to traditional melodies, but there are no cantorial chants for Psalms “outside of Yemenite Jewry,” Reich noted. “And that’s microtonal, and I’m not going to start that. I’ve got enough problems.” 

Instead he created a harmonically intricate form that wends to a free-floating pulse, mostly in 2/4, “but it doesn’t elicit that,” he said. “It was a surprise to me.”

The fact that one of the most eminent and influential composers of the age can still surprise himself well into his ninth decade is one reason Thursday’s concert is a signature event of the fall season. Another is that the concert marks the California debut of the Colin Currie Group, which is led by “arguably one of the great percussionists alive,” Reich said, noting that many of musicians on the program are first chairs in the London Symphony Orchestra. 

“It’s having world-class musicians devoted to your music, and completely unexpected.  When I first heard them play ‘Drumming’ for my 70th birthday, I said, ‘They’re doing it better than we did!’ I wanted to give him a hug and strangle him. How dare you? Synergy Vocals is similar. I’ve been working with them for 25 years.”

If there’s a through line connecting the three works, it’s Reich’s belief that music should grapple with larger questions about God and the human race. “If music doesn’t have any spiritual context, it’s not that interesting,” he said. In the constantly shifting meters of “Tehillim,” another piece that draws on Psalms, he created a very different kind of communion. After hearing the first mix of the ECM recording the great Black soprano Pamela Wood “came up and said, ‘That’s a hallelujah piece, Steve Reich,’” he recalled. “Nobody has paid me a greater compliment.”

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....