Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Secret of NIN

Composer Louis Andriessen has amassed quite a following in Los Angeles over the last decade. Just about any ensemble with even a passing interest in contemporary music has programmed his work here and both the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have lured him out to the west coast before most memorably for performances of his Dante-inspired opera La Commedia in 2010. Tuesday’s “Green Umbrella” program with the Los Angeles Philharmonic new music group brought Andriessen back with long-time collaborator, conductor Reinbert de Leeuw. The evening featured three of his most recent works, all multi-media collaborations with other artists. Andriessen made it clear in pre-concert remarks that he dislikes the “bourgeois” term muse, but these pieces all revolved around other artists who heavily influenced the content and shape of the final product.

Life, the first piece on the bill from 2010, was scored for a small group of six players and according to the composer's own notes was intended as a sort of “Pictures at an Exhibition”. Accompanied by four short films from Marijke van Warmerdam, each of these brief movements represented a collision of what Andriessen described as classical Romantic string playing with American minimalism. Perhaps this is so, but the music was unmistakably his own resulting in a mini-symphony constructed of slowly pulsating rhythms and shifting harmonies. The readily identifiable thematic material that recurs throughout parallels the non-narrative but figurative and natural elements of the film. This was followed by the more expansive, La Girò, a concerto for violin and chamber orchestra from 2011. The piece is named after the moniker of 18th Century contralto and favorite of Vivaldi, Anna Maddalena Teseire. However, in Andriessen’s world, musical references are almost always oblique and there is relatively little that is recognizable in these four movements as growing out of the Italian Baroque. What does come out is a fascinating solo part for violinist Monica Germino who not only plays the violin solo, but sings and narrates the piece at the same time. At first the work sounds somewhat like a traditional concerto, but by the time it reaches the second movement, Germino begins to sing and then pauses the orchestra to narrate a story concerning a young woman increasingly plagued by doubts about her own skills as a violinist. The material grows increasingly dark until it is punctuated with repeated high tones and some stirringly visual dream imagery. Germino oscillates between doubt and fury clearly grabbing the audience by the throat by the work's conclusion.

Both Life and La Girò build on the kind of multi-disciplinary music drama Andriessen has favored in recent years filled with striking dramatic images and abstract narrative elements. The culmination of this work may be his 2010 project, Anaïs Nin which closed the evening with its U.S. Premiere. The performance has been filmed and a sample of an earlier version is featured above. Here material form Nin’s “Incest” volume of her diaries is set as a monodrama for long-time Andriessen favorite, soprano Cristina Zavalloni and a small ensemble. Zavalloni, always a fascinating artist to watch, plunged whole-heartedly into the character of Nin vamping about the stage in her period 1930s loungewear. She starts the piece by pretending to cue up the video that depicts her character speaking into the camera and following around the lovers she sings about later on including Antonin Arthaud, Rene Allendy, Henry Miller, and ultimately, her own father. She is obsessed with herself, often rewinding the tape to locate her face taking in the camera as her paramours look on. The text, which is largely taken from Nin’s diaries, is embroiled in the wide ranging emotional extremes that make up her character. They relate some of the details of her relationships of the period. And some of the material about the relationship with her father is fairly bracing.

But ultimately, it’s also rather humorless, morbid and unsexy in just about every way which seemed to bleed into the music. Andriessen makes direct reference to 1930s musical genres here but not in an arch or paradoxical way. In fact the tone of the piece is unwaveringly serious throughout making the work seem longer than it actually is. Anaïs Nin lacks some of the roguish energy and unpredictability of a work like La Commedia and often bogged down despite itself under the weight of its own internal psycho-sexual drama. And while Zavalloni was thoroughly entertaining and committed to the work giving each line plenty of punch, the whole thing came off rather empty. Of course Andriessen’s missteps are more interesting than other composer’s successes so it is equally fair to say that the evening was never dull. But I could have done with a more fleshed out version of La Girò or even a reprise of La Commedia over some of the drama on offer this particular night.

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