Music Review: Andriessen Times Two

Bijan Rezvani | April 19, 2010

by Bijan Rezvani

Dutch superstar composer Louis Andriessen currently holds the Carnegie Hall Composer’s Chair, and a celebration of his music is taking place at the Stern Auditorium through May 10. I had a chance to check out two of these events, the first of which was the New York premier of Andriessen’s new opera (in concert form), “La Commedia.”

“La Commedia” is a five-part, multilingual retelling of the Italian classic. The libretto pulls from Dante and adds splashes of Dutch poetry, the Bible, and other textual sources. More than half the story takes place in the Inferno, which allows the lighter musical passages through purgatory and heaven to contrast more strongly.

The work showcases eclecticism all around: the text sources, the sung languages, the backgrounds and on-stage manner of the vocalists, the musicians (Asko | Schoenberg ensemble, Brooklyn Children’s Choir, Synergy Vocals), the fact that singers play multiple parts and parts are played by multiple singers, and most importantly the music itself.

“La Commedia” incorporates recorded electronic sounds and some distinct instrumentation including sonically fantastic moments shared between a contrabass clarinet and contrabassoon. Also present are Andriessen’s well-known stylistic excursions, particularly during the fourth section, The Garden of Earthly Delights. The section starts up with electric bass riffs and later includes explicit jazz/rock moments with a seemingly typical drum kit, of course atypical on the orchestral stage.

In the pre-performance conversation, Andriessen spoke of his his appreciation for dialectic/ironic tendencies, and I suppose these genre flashes are meant to fall in with this disposition. Although they do stand out enough to carry an out-of-place quality, these moments play more like safe, mastered tourism than profanations.  Well before the postmodern dissolution of everything, Adorno wrote rather extremely that “after the Magic Flute it was never again possible to force serious and light music together,” the point being that by 2010 the advertisement folks and artists themselves have done enough circular colonization for me to question the seriousness of this challenge. Are these playful ironies multi-dimensional ruptures or more fluid postmodern mix?

The work even has “romantic” passages that are as beautiful and un-sentimental as the composer intends. The libretto alone exhibits a depth warranting further exploration and is probably itself a showcase of meaningful contradictions.  The wide variety does make for a fresh and fascinating 100 minutes.

A trailer for the full video production is below.

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Last night, Le Poisson Rouge brought out its tables and chairs to host another Andriessen event.

The evening began with Eric Huebner performing a selection of Andriessen’s piano compositions, like a lesson in 20th century compositional history with atonalities, silences, clusters, and of course minimalism. Before the concert, Andriessen spoke with Robert Hurwitz of Nonesuch about the influence of Cage and Feldman, which showed clearly in the more contemplative pieces.

The centerpiece of the night was a return to programmatic music with live accompaniment to Peter Greenaway’s fabulous “M is for Man, Music, Mozart,” (1991) which I had wanted to see ever since hearing him describe it in a seminar after showing his much earlier work “H is for House.”

The very cool group of New York voices known as the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) played Andriessen’s glorious score as the film was projected on two screens behind them. This production reveled in the disruptive irony that Andriessen discussed the day before, and his music was a perfect match to Greenaway’s gratuitous smelter of rich cinematography, dance, typography, graphic design, bodies, and absurdity.

It’s great that Carnegie Hall agreed to this downtown engagement, as Le Poisson Rouge proved a perfect setting for enjoying this work.

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