"Premiere is a work of complexity," The Boston Globe says of Andriessen's latest piece

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The Boston Globe
Richard Dyer
November 4, 2005

The Dutch composer Louis Andriessen has won the respect of warring factions within the contemporary-music world. At 66, Andriessen has kept his footing at the cutting edge of the avant-garde for more than four decades; at the same time, the imagination and precision of his workmanship rival those of the most mandarin masters of modernism.

Andriessen has been in town this week to attend rehearsals for the US premiere of his piece The Trilogy of the Last Day in Jordan Hall tonight. Conductor Gil Rose leads the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in the work, whose three movements call for orchestra, singers, children's chorus, and a versatile soloist (Tomoko Mikaiyama) who can play the piano, recite and sing Japanese poetry, and play the koto, a Japanese lute. During a rehearsal Tuesday, Andriessen offered regular suggestions, but always in a spirit of support and good humor. "I'm the composer," he said, introducing himself to some of the singers, "so it's all my fault."

Each of the three pieces, which Andriessen wrote between 1993 and '97, deals with death, or rather with the responses that poets and other musicians have made to it. "Death is one of the great subjects of art," Andriessen says. "I've already written pieces about other great subjects, time and politics, so I wanted to write a large piece about death and transfiguration, using male voices in one movement, women in a second, and children in the third."

The first and longest piece, The Last Day, was inspired by a poem called The Last Supper by the late Dutch writer and painter who called himself Lucebert (1924-1994). The impetus to add to it came from a heart attack that resulted in an angioplasty for Andriessen. "My doctor told me, 'You have smoked your last cigarette,'" Andriessen says ruefully.

A principle of compression governs the last two movements, which grow progressively shorter. "I came to this," Andriessen says, "through an image on television a crash simulation, a car with a dummy in it, that hits the wall and folds up like an accordion. This is what I wanted in the piece; each movement is two-thirds the length of the one before."

The text for the second movement comes from the Chinese Tao Te Ching, a work Andriessen first encountered in the home of a girl friend more than 40 years ago. "We are still together," he says with a smile, "because I married her. And finally the moment came when I could use this text."

The third movement brings back memories of a piece Andriessen has enjoyed since childhood, Saint-Saens's Danse macabre. The movement, like its source, is a diabolical scherzo. "The text," he says, "is made by me, in the voice of an 8-year old boy explaining what happens to the body after death." Andriessen's words for bodily functions, known to every 3-year-old, caused some trouble when 10 different boys' choirs in Frankfurt refused to sing them; the boys' choir from the Cologne Cathedral finally agreed to step in.

Rose met Andriessen a number of years ago but until now has never conducted his music. He says he planned to open this BMOP season with three world premieres, but only one was finished by mid-July, so he went looking for "something big, flashy, and exciting for us to do" and thought of Andriessen.

"This is one of his major pieces, and no one has performed it in America yet," Rose says. "The mechanics of putting on Louis's piece are complicated, with all the requirements for amplification and so on, and they may do me in. But the music itself is very direct and powerful."

-Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe

© Copyright 2006 New York Times Company