Andriessen: At seventy, a composer finds new muses

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Sequenza21
Christian Carey
November 5, 2009

Composer Louis Andriessen turns seventy this year. In a disc celebrating the composer's septuagenarian status with a quartet of recent works, the Boston Modern Orchestra project, conducted by Gil Rose, suggests that several through-lines between established tendencies and new collaborators have kept the Dutch composer's work fresh, vibrant, and engaging.

One of Andriessen's latter day champions is mezzo-soprano Cristina Zavalloni, an Italian vocalist equally at home in jazz and concert repertoire. This flexibility recalls the composer's collaborations during the 1960s with vocalist Cathy Berberian—Andriessen often served as her accompanist. Letter from Cathy makes this connection explicit. Andriessen sets a conversational, yet revealing, 1964 letter by Berberian for Zavalloni. The piece combines acerbic orchestral verticals and slinky jazz singing mixed with pensive Sprechstimme; a complicated palette reflective of the disparate array of emotions expressed in Berberian's brief missive.

Andriessen's vivid characterizations also encompass bells—and trains. A brief occasional work, the Bells of Haarlem, celebrates the reopening of a famous concert hall in the Netherlands. Its orchestration is a tintinnabular feast for pitched percussion.

Passeggiata in Tram in America e Ritorno is one of two settings from Canti Orphici by Italian poet Dino Campana (1885-1932). Andriessen captures the myriad noises of an old locomotive underway. At the same time, Zavalloni and violinist Monica Germino inhabit the inner malaise of the poem’s narrator. They prove an affecting pair, adopting Campana’s emotional disquiet with a poignant balance of passion and grace.

One can readily see why Andriessen was eager to create a larger work based on Campana for the duo. La Passione is a hybridization of double concerto and cantata with a Stravinskyian twist. Stravinsky is a frequent touchstone for Andriessen; he has said that he conceived of Passione as reflective in some ways of Stravinsky's Agon. One can certainly hear strains of this in the piece’s brass fanfares and its copious cross-accented ostinati.

Zavalloni and Germino echo the haunting emotional turmoil they adopted on Passegiata in dovetailing duets of supple melancholy. But here the emotional turmoil looms even larger; the poems depict Campana's descent into madness and subsequent institutionalization at a sanatorium. Correspondingly, Andriessen gives the accompanying orchestra swaths of stark verticals and powerful polytonal harmonies. The immediacy of La Passione suggests that Andriessen is thriving at seventy. Indeed, he is exploring some of the most fertile ideas of his compositional career.