By design, every performance of Terry Riley’s classic “In C” is an event. No two performances are alike; the piece is written with no set instrumentation, only 53 fragments and a repeated C-octave “pulse.” Each musician must play the fragments in order but can choose what beat to enter, how many times to repeat each fragment, how many measures to rest and how loud or soft to play. Monday night’s enthralling perf opted for size, with 136 musicians bringing an almost romantic sweep to what’s best described as epic minimalism.
This was by no means a given. “In C” is an intimate piece of music that depends on the musicians listening to each other; with more than 100, it could easily have turned into a long, muddy slog. But in a change from usual practice, the piece was conducted by violinist David Rosenboom. Instead of an ensemble conversation, at Disney Hall you heard one man’s vision of “In C.” But Rosenbloom, one of the musicians on Riley’s original 1968 recording (Stuart Dempster, another veteran of that recording, joined the ensemble on trombone), remained true to the piece’s expansive nature. He shaped the music through a series of small signs and hand signals (which emphasized the connection between Riley and John Zorn’s later game pieces, such as “Cobra”), coaxing different sections of the orchestra through the figures, indicating the beats to enter and when he wanted each section to rest.
In most performances, the new figures enter the music subtly, like the ripples from pebbles tossed across a lake. Monday night, each one announced itself. But one of the unexpected joys was following the figures as they made their way through the orchestra, bobbing up and down through the mix like a buoy on rough seas.
This gave the piece a range of color and style not heard in smaller ensembles. There was the expected chattering of the vibes, keyboards and reeds, but the guitars, strings and brass choir brought a widescreen grandeur, at times roiling like something out of Wagner, a sharp-elbowed joyous dissonance that could have come from Charles Ives, ringing as grandly cinematic as Dimitri Tiomkin’s scores for classic Westerns or turning as atomized and blissed out as spacey rock such as Spiritualized or Sigur Ros. And when Rosenboom brought all the pieces together for a fortissimo finale, the effect was ecstatically life-affirming, as vertiginous and glorious as Beethoven.