Music review: Two Louis Andriessen premieres at Green Umbrella
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When asked at a pre-concert talk Tuesday whether the two remarkable soloists in the evening’s U.S. premieres at Walt Disney Concert Hall of two fresh (in both senses of the term) works were his muses, Louis Andriessen dismissed the term as being a bit bourgeois. Of all the unconventional risks the Los Angeles Philharmonic has taken in recent years, embracing this profoundly significant anti-bourgeois 72-year-old Dutch composer –- who doesn’t have much truck with orchestras, nor they with him –- has been perhaps the most daring.
There is no question that violinist Monica Germino and the soprano Cristina Zavalloni were muses for a curious violin concerto, “La Girò,” and the theatrical “Anaïs Nin.” The dramatic as well as musical talents of these women clearly motivated Andriessen’s shockingly fanciful scores, which received riveting U.S. premieres Tuesday at a Green Umbrella concert by the L.A. Phil New Music Group. Each work, moreover, is about a muse.
But bourgeois the pieces are not. Instead, Andriessen reveals how meaningful musery, at least among artists who flout convention in search of insight, all but invites perversion. The violin concerto is a sad, funny and sharp chronicle of an older composer’s obsession with a young singer, Anna Girò. The inspiration for “Anaïs Nin” was a frank diarist’s erotically explicit delight in her incestuous relationship with her father, the Cuban-Catalan composer Joaquin Nin. Andriessen pulls no punches.
“Anaïs Nin” is the bigger, the more elaborate and the more provocative of the two scores. It was semi-staged in Disney Hall, with Zavalloni dressed as Nin in negligee and slinky gown, and she also appeared in the background on a film by Jeroen De Man. A 10-member ensemble -- dominated by hard-blown winds and brass and by hammered piano and percussion –- was conducted by Andriessen’s longtime colleague, Reinbert de Leeuw.
The flavor, at least at first, is that of Kurt Weill, but tougher. Zavalloni is also a kind of tougher, more versatile and more virtuosic latter-day Lotte Lenya. There is no sentimentality. Working up to papa, Nin goes through lovers in Paris. First comes the playwright and theater-of-cruelty theorist Antonin Artaud. Then Artaud’s psychiatrist and Freud disciple, who surprises but pleases her with a whip, a muse bemused. A needy Henry Miller, for whom Nin was a genuine muse, makes an inevitable appearance. But the great sex is with her father, for whom she wasn’t such a hot muse. He remained an agreeably lightweight composer.
The music is as tough as Nin. But Zavalloni’s brilliant portrayal, sung and spoken, makes Nin’s vivid sexual appetite as much about the search for meaning as pleasure. Nin’s loneliness hangs over the stage like a fog, the misery of musery. A piece by papa is heard in the distance, as over a radio, at the end. It is, in startling contrast to Andriessen’s powerful and inspired music, trite and sentimental.
“La Girò” begins more innocently, like a jazzy and minimalist take on a Baroque violin concerto. But Germino, who is a rapt soloist, is also wired with a mike. She speaks as she plays. She describes Vivaldi, with whom she may or may not have had an affair, as a sad figure with dowdy clothes and dyed hair.
The violinist reveals a terrible dream in which a family member is shot every time she makes a mistake. At the end, Vivaldi has her play “like a shrieking seagull.” The chamber ensemble, again conducted with sharp intensity by De Leeuw, had a punchy character of its own, enhanced by a Hungarian cimbalom.
The program began with yet another work that Andriessen wrote in the past two years, “Life,” for six players (it was commissioned by the Bang on a Can All-Stars) and a beatiful, solemn film by Marijke van Warmerdam. This is less troubled, but not entirely untroubled, Andriessen. Music does not accompany but coexists with the images on screen, which include somber pastoral scenes and an older couple. The score is strangely haunting and eventful, and the older couple comes to seem strange and eventful being in its presence. Anything less might appear a bit bourgeois.
-- Mark Swed