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Slatkin steers a graceful course through daunting Reich work

Say what one will about so-called ``minimalist'' music, it certainly isn't easy to conduct. This posed no problem in the early days of the genre. Since respectable musicians wouldn't have anything to do with it, composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass wrote small-scale pieces and formed their own ensembles to play them. Conductors weren't needed for these chamber works, and when the instrumentalists lost their way in a thicket of repetitions or ``phase patterns,'' the composer was right there with them -- playing a keyboard or percussion part -- to steer things in the right direction.

Minimalism has now grown up though, and mainstream conductors are having to wrestle with the full-scale orchestral works that it's producing. Some baton-wielders have a knack for this, taking in stride the most daunting departures from orthodox rhythmic and melodic ideas.

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But for every grand interpretation by a Christopher Keene or Michael Tilson Thomas, there have been less-than-memorable readings by a Ransom Wilson or Zubin Mehta, whose unarguable skills haven't guaranteed easy traveling in this new and slippery terrain.

All of which lends a touch of suspense when a conductor takes up the challenge for the first time. Such a one is Leonard Slatkin, who recently led his Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra in the first performances of Reich's latest work, Three Movements for Orchestra -- which had its premi`ere in St. Louis earlier this month, just a few weeks after the composer finished it, and then came to Carnegie Hall, where I heard it.

To end the suspense, I can happily report that the piece is a thrilling one and that Slatkin's handling of it is nothing short of virtuosic.

The work makes good use of elements from earlier Reich compositions. The layout of the orchestra recalls ``The Desert Music,'' with a sort of rhythm section in front of the conductor and the strings divided into a pair of ensembles to the right and left. The arch-like structure and spiky sound of the piece also call ``The Desert Music'' to mind; a tune from ``Tehellim'' seems to hover in the background once or twice; and the opening series of slowly shifting chords is an echo of ``Music for Eighteen Musicians,'' one of Reich's most transfixing works. His program notes also draw valid connections between the new piece and his recent Sextet and ``New York Counterpoint.''

Each of the Three Movements is anchored by a Reich trademark: an insistent ``pulse'' here provided by marimbas, vibraphones, and pianos. Over this foundation the orchestral fabric is woven -- sometimes gently, as in the rippling chords at the beginning, and sometimes with a jaunty, jazzlike texture. Relying less on thematic development than on harmonic ambiguity and rhythms drawn partly from West African music, Reich builds the piece toward a canon in which the subject is played simultaneously at different speeds -- a device that replaces his once-favored ``phasing'' technique, a simpler version of the same idea.

It's apparent from even a brief description of Three Movements that the conductor faces plenty of unusual material therein. Slatkin handled them with ease and assurance every step of the way, making each section of the orchestra a dynamic partner in bringing to life his crisp conception of the piece's outgoing rhythms and insinuating repetitions.

It is now clear that Reich is a major symphonic composer, with a grasp of orchestration that none of his new-music colleagues has yet come close to. And it's equally clear that Slatkin is one of the finest new-music conductors -- although he's more than that, too, as he proved at Carnegie Hall with vivid interpretations of Schoenberg's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (with Emanuel Ax the expressive soloist) and Dvorak's Sixth Symphony.

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One hopes this composer and conductor will team up again soon and often.

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