Music Review: FOCUS ON ANDRIESSEN (LA Phil)

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by Lyle Zimskind on April 15, 2022

in Concerts / Events,Music,Theater-Los Angeles

A TRIUMPHANT ANDRIESSEN

Dutch-born composer Louis Andriessen worked in numerous styles of musical modernism over the course of a prolific career that began in the 1950s and continued until shortly before his death last summer. In recent years the Los Angeles Philharmonic commissioned and premiered several Andriessen pieces and even issued recordings conducted by orchestra leading lights Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gustavo Dudamel. The LA Phil’s legendary Creative Chair John Adams was originally scheduled to conduct Andriessen’s 1976 oratorio De Staat at Disney Hall in March 2021, a performance finally—and triumphantly—realized this past Saturday night.

Described in a tweet by Adams the following day as “one of the most treacherous vocal ensemble pieces of all time,” the 35-minute De Staat is a richly intricate musical rendering of Plato’s Republic. Four female vocalists sing passages from the original Greek text positioned behind a mini-orchestra of 29 instrumentalists paired off in a near-mirror-image configuration (the odd man out being a lone bass guitarist). Andriessen’s published notes acknowledge the influence of Javanese gamelan music as well as early bop and cool jazz, but the obvious dominant genre here is American Minimalism.

Addressing the audience while the stage was being set for De Staat, Adams declared Andriessen “a great composer whose music is still to be discovered” and emphasized his particular influence on two generations of composers whose work has been integral to Disney Hall’s programming. Even as Andriessen developed “his own unique form of minimalism,” Adams averred, he was never “a slave to it.”

Riffing on Plato’s fraught discussion of the harm that music purportedly imposes on civic welfare, Andriessen incorporates passages from the Republic that specify the deleterious effects of different modes of harmony. While the impact of the work is not to convince us to take these arguments seriously on their merits, the work does wrestle with the seriousness of their implications. As Andriessen has written about the piece: “If only it were true that musical innovation could change the law of the state!”

Preceding De Staat in Saturday’s program was a shorter Andriessen piece, Life, originally written in 2010 for the Bang on a Can music organization, which also, the New York Times once suggested, embraced the composer as a long-time “spiritual godfather.” Life was conceived to accompany the projection of an impressionistic wordless film directed by Marijke van Warmerdam and so it was presented at this LA Phil performance. In our first encounter with this tandem work, the film struck us as flat and uninteresting enough to dampen our engagement with this Andriessen composition.

One of these seasons, the Phil really has to program an extensive series of concerts devoted to its own institutional history of introducing, promoting, and influencing contemporary art music, hearkening back to years of Minimalist Jukebox, Green Umbrella, and other performances at Disney Hall and its antecedent venues. It’ll give us the opportunity to continue discovering the work of Louis Andriessen that Adams affirmed the music world is waiting for.

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