As much of a Kronos Quartet groupie I am, they are not the be all and end all of classical music ensembles. Yes, Kronos was the first quartet I heard play a vast number of works — many commissioned by the ensemble itself — but taste can be fickle.
The Fitzwilliam Quartet reading of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8 has a bit more bite, and the Emerson Quartet’s take on Charles Ives’ Scherzo: Holding Your Own is slightly more expressive.
Duke Quartet’s performances of Kevin Volans’ string quartets perhaps mark the first time I preferred another group’s version of works actually commissioned by Kronos. Hunting: Gathering includes two quartets also recorded by Kronos, plus the composer’s sixth quartet commissioned by the Duke itself.
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Reviewing popular music is easy, especially when the people who write the music also perform it. Classical music, on the other hand, is more about interpretation, since the repertoire in question has already been thoroughly vetted. So it can be somewhat problematic when reviewing a piece that’s relatively new and doesn’t have very many recordings.
The only recording of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians I’ve so far heard is the 1998 performance by Reich’s own ensemble on Nonesuch. The piece itself has been recorded only five times, twice by Reich. The Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble is the latest ensemble to give this landmark piece a shot.
The story of the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble is something a Cinderella tale. The ensemble’s director, Bill Ryan, programmed a performance of Music for 18 Musicians to commemorate Reich’s 70th birthday. Sensing the group of college musicians (and one volunteer) could successfully pull it off, he brought five of the group’s members to New York City, where the "Reich @ 70" festival was under way.
Subsequently inspired by the trip, the ensemble’s performance in November 2006 was impressive enough to garner an invitation to the Bang on a Can marathon in June 2007. Ryan also sent a demo of the rehearsals to Innova Recordings, which recorded the group in January 2007.
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