Carnegie Hall

New Amsterdam

Photo of Louis Andriessen by Francesca Patella

Louis Andriessen is back in Holland, presumably, after a concentrated exploration of his work and legacy, under the auspices of Carnegie Hall where he was this year’s Richard and Barbara Debs composer in residence (a substantial epilogue later this month, when John Adams leads the Ensemble ACJW at Zankel in music by himself, Stravinsky and Andriessen’s most famous work, De Staat). The de facto festival presented him as composer, teacher and even curator of the music of others. It was also one of the musical events that suffered due to the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, with an entire program, featuring a premiere, cancelled.

His work as a composer is something I struggle with. He is not only well regarded among composers of mine and following generations, but has been a benevolent influence as well as a teacher clearly beloved by his students. The festival treated audiences to this both indirectly, in a fine concert by the American Composers Orchestra that featured a work of his and three of his former students, and indirectly, in a charming and amiably uninformative conversation with Nonesuch Records president Bob Hurwitz that preceding the final program of the series of concerts. As a composer, though, I find his work generally limited both in methods and aesthetics. Hearing his music so frequently over the course of several days demonstrated strengths I had not heard before, but also familiar weaknesses.

The big event of the week was the New York debut of his opera after Dante, La Commedia, in a concert performance at Carnegie Hall. But first, I must return to De Staat and the idea of limitations. Andriessen’s stated purpose for the piece is to engage with political ideas musically, the two ideas being that composers are bound, whether they admit it or not, to political and social order via the circumstances they work with in their lives, and that Plato’s call to ban the mixolydian mode was absurd. I agree with Andriessen in every way, but I also think that these notions are so obvious and so deserving nothing more than implicit mention, that I cannot apprehend in each and every listen I’ve had of the piece just how this long, energetic, hectoring music can possibly be conveying the arguments. The music demolishes these straw men in the first moments, and then goes on. The point is barely relevant, and so is not made.

There are musical problems as well. Andriessen is a Minimalist, stringing together series of repetitive phrases and working with audible pulse and beat. His Minimalism is not much like Reich, Glass or early Adams though, the flavor is more European, along the lines of Michael Nyman, and I feel that there are problems with the technique. Reich and Glass use repetitive phrases with a strong, often swinging pulse, their scores may show up and down movement of arpeggios or syncopated, additive phrases, but their music works those elements into forceful horizontal movement through time. De Staat has a determined horizontal shape to it, and generally confines its pitch material to a tight range, but the effect is strangely stiff and vertical. I think the problem is, to use a cliché, too many notes. Andriessen writes syncopated rhythms, but these are buried under a constant flurry of eighth note that end up homogenizing everything into an unpleasantly flat, brittle surface. There is so little breath in the music, so little variation or space between the notes that there’s nothing to kick it constructively awry, not even a bit of silence. There’s no funk, not effective beat, and for a composer who professes a love of Count Basie, there’s no swing. It’s like a toccata for a loud, brassy ensemble; it shows off the ability of the group to play together fast and exhausts the ear long before it ends.

He also loves Stan Kenton and Bob Graettinger too, and that may be the cause. Their work together was pioneering, important and occasionally successful in melding jazz with techniques and concepts of Modernism in classical music, but one of the results was that the music was no longer jazz. It could often be beautiful and evocative, but it was frequently stiff, opaque, limited in form and, with Kenton, overly brassy. It makes sense that this is Andriessen’s idea of jazz, because I hear him returning it to us in his music, but the problem is that that music was never jazz, it was Americans returning Modernism to Europe in shark skin suits. And it’s with jazz that La Commedia falls apart.

I can’t judge the work as an opera without seeing it staged, but the drama seems obscure, if not missing. It’s a generalized journey through the afterlife, but it’s not clear by whom; the protagonist goes missing about halfway through and we end up being treated to a long discourse from Lucifer, then Cacciaguida. Perhaps the audience is the protagonist, and we are being given a tour. The music stays in hell for a good long while, and gets relentless, but it’s also very fine; expressive, varied, fluid, full of power and also real invention, with Andriessen working with his materials in organic and interesting ways. The quote from De Staat comes off as witty in this context. He works very well with the text and vocal lines, with harmonies moving underneath the singers and effective melodies and cadences. The music clearly tells us what the composer thinks of the words. And although the ear does eventually want a respite, and a few dozen people fled the hall, the real problems arise when La Commedia arrives at ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights,” where the piece goes off the rails, falls over a cliff and implodes.

The problem is that the music gets ‘jazzy.’ Andriessen tries to write jazz here, and frankly it’s something he cannot do competently. Jazz, in spite of what I myself used to think, can be written, can be written well, and can be written well by European composers; Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto proves this, although that composer at first thought he had learned jazz from sheet music only to really learn it from records. But La Commedia does not have such music. If the model for the music in hell is, wonderfully, Berlioz, then the model for the music in paradise seems to be Bernstein but ends up being John Barry. The music is awkward, fussy, there’s a bass line that seems intended to be funky but is weak and embarrassing. There’s not only no swing, there’s no pulse, the old stiff Andriessen is back again. After the organic and satisfying development in the first thee parts of the piece, the choices in the last two parts seems arbitrary. There’s still a lot of fine vocal writing, but I no longer believe what the composer thinks of the words because the music has lost me. Cacciaguida’s long, seemingly drunken rant about the families of Florence comes off as some weird, quasi-beatnik parody of the work. A dreary end to an initially exciting, promising work.

Andriessen opened the entire series with another New York premiere, as his Symphony for Open Strings was the first piece of a program from the American Composers Orchestra, “Louis & the Young Americans,” a concert organized around the composer as teacher. The technique behind the symphony is as the title describes; the string players, with the instruments tuned to different pitches, play only the open strings. Without any use of the left hand to change pitch, which also slightly dampens the string, the instrumental sound can be as open and full-bodied as possible. This also means that to play changing chords or notes, Andriessen has to chop up the horizontal and vertical lines and hand them out to different players, and so his already stiff style incurs an enhanced starchiness. Imagine a hand bell choir, except the instruments are violins, cellos, etc., and the players do not have the same kind of idiomatic experience in the style.

The piece does have an intriguing sound, a combination of the dryness of Early Music practice with an organ-like resonance, especially when the ensemble plays dominant seventh chords. But the music played is displeasing. Andriessen develops his idea so little that it’s hard to discern just what is there, other than the expected repetition repetition repetition repetition. It’s as if he can’t decide whether to choose stasis, which is a worthy goal, or direction. In the middle there is a bass solo that amounts to nothing but a short line played over and over again. An extended quote from “Blue Moon” is puzzling; is it purposeful, accidental, is it just to demonstrate what can be done with this experimental technique? As the latter, the piece is an interesting exploration but, with its stiffness, dullness and lack of musical content, it should probably have been left in the rehearsal studio.

The “Young Americans” of the title are former students of the composer, John Korsrud, Missy Mazzoli and Michael Fiday, and their varied voices demonstrated that Andriessen has the fundamentally important quality as a teacher of helping students find their own ways, their own strengths. Korsrud has written a nice, compact trumpet concerto for himself in Come To The Dark Side. It very effectively combines a nervous pulse, tapped out like Morse code in the winds and strings, with an ominous pedal tone and a lyrical solo trumpet line. Given good material, slow melody over propulsive beat is a winner every time. Korsrud has a rich, tough, dark trumpet sound and clearly does a lot of improvising in the piece. His playing is an interesting comment on and expansion of Miles Davis’ internalized ideas in “Sketches of Spain,” and he develops a lot of focused intensity. At times, the atmospheric sound is reminiscent of the wonderful theme from “Chinatown,” which is a complement to the craft of this music. In concert, the balances were a little bass-heavy, the music has a big bottom, but there’s plenty of life and force, and it’s a pleasure to hear. It seems a bit naked on its own, coming to an end while leaving some open possibilities, and might be even more worthwhile as one movement in a larger concerto.

Fiday’s Gonzo Variations is interesting and odd. He takes on the seemingly impossible task of offering a musical homage to the late and extraordinarily great Hunter S. Thompson. He does so by writing a set of variations based on a combination of Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” and the bass line from “White Rabbit.” This seemingly impossible contrivance actually works while Fiday treats it musically, the combination of the homespun and the dissonant sounds good and is perhaps a fitting way to respond to Thompson’s work. The piece goes through destructive and constructive variations, taking away, augmenting and transforming the material. The technical variations lessen and the stylistically ones increase, which makes the results a little more mundane but energetic; at one point a big rock band breaks out and the music sounds like the theme from “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” At this point, though, the music stops, replaced by a recording of Thompson speaking in his unique lightening fast mumble. It’s a huge mistake. The audio, as unintelligible as much of it is, is riveting in a way the music is not, and the contrast eviscerates what had come before.

The finest piece on the program was Missy Mazzoli’s These Worlds In Us, a dedication to her father and his memories of the Vietnam War. There are two things that make this work so fine, one is that Mazzoli, unlike Fiday, eschews any representation of concrete ideas and events, the other is that she uses such skill in working with her materials. These Worlds is a kind of ballad, it features a lovely, simple tune that is treated without fuss, clear and colorful orchestration and an excellent sense of how long the music should go on. Mazzoli repeats her tune and gives us a few variations, like slowing it down and incorporating small shifts of direction, but she recognizes that the melody is so good it does most of her work for her – her taste is strong. There’s more than just repetition, though; there’s a good countermelody in the trumpet, notes on the vibraphone serve to sow a frisson of emotional doubt, and the development of a march section produces not kitsch but power. It’s elegiac without being sentimental, sympathetic without being pitying and is fully satisfying.

For me, the final Andriessen event was his conversation at Le Poisson Rouge, and the smaller ensemble pieces that ensued. After he and Hurwitz left the stage, Eric Huebner appeared to play three piano pieces by the composer, Image de Moreau – Toccata, Trepidus and the early Trois pieces. They all suffered from the same problem, overly vertical organization that cripples the possibility of horizontal pulse. Image is not unpleasant, with its use of a particular run from De Staat and a romantic, cinematic theme. Toccatas are the thing Andriessen does best and a focus on that is to his advantage. The other two pieces are curious in that they use the left hand essentially exclusively. Trois pieces has some unfamiliar elements, like dissonance and some dramatic use of diminished seventh chords that the composer later eschewed. Of the three sections, “Promenade” is slow and delicate, “Fracas” is a toccata and “Hymne (promenade II)” is song like, the overall results are unformed, like a student piece. Trepidus has good material in it, a series of chords that mix the romantic and the jazzy, and builds a rare successful pulse. Andriessen repeats some of the material as his structure, but it seems that he chooses the weakest material to repeat, which may say more about how his and my taste are mismatched than anything else.

The big piece on the program was M is for Man, Music and Mozart, which was the best work of Andriessen’s I heard across the concerts and enjoyable in its own right. La Commedia demonstrated the he can write good tunes for the voice, and this piece has more good vocal material in it, heard in fine voice from Mary Elizabeth Mackenzie, accompanied by the excellent ACME and Jeffrey Milarsky. The work is a soundtrack for a short companion movie from Peter Greenaway, and the only flaw in the performance is how much the movie, which is awful, distracts from the music, which is good. Greenaway makes movies that mostly display his own intellect, and since that is dull, smug, narrow and shallow, the films are mainly boring and irritating. This one is no exception. What is has to do with Mozart, other than using the name, is incomprehensible; it’s a ballet actually, with fussy, monochromatic production and immediately forgettable choreography. As usual, the only point of interest is the naked bodies. Occasionally there is a woman’s face on-screen, attempting to lip-synch with the live music, and it is meaningless and doesn’t work.

The music is bright, lively and punchy. It actually moves and swings a bit. Perhaps because he’s free to not worry about expressing a restrictive concept, Andriessen has here written music that sounds free and expressive. There is such energy and cheeky, simple pleasure in the sound that it leaves the question of where this part of his musical personality is kept hidden. As the film runs out and the credits roll, the music continues for a couple more minutes and is a pure pleasure to hear by itself. In a tribute to a composer’s work that was mainly full of fuss and distractions, M was finally for the music this man can make.

April Flowers

This April is going to be a great month to get out and about and into concert venues, with a mix of old and new that is probably more exciting than any other time this year. There’s also the unusual as well . . .

April 1Helmut Lachenmann; This last of this season’s excellent Composer Portraits series will feature the composer appearing and performing in celebration of his 75th birthday. Lachenmann makes some of the most involving contemporary music around, working with the basic sounds of instruments and amplification, and his music has a direct and powerful appeal especially to anyone who is moved by experimental rock and jazz. You can watch him perform Weigenmusik here and read the program notes here.

April 2 Opera on Tap, at Barbès; It’s opera in an intimate setting, with alcohol. What else do you need to know?

April 3Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Penelope and William Britelle’s Television Landscape; at the Bell House in Brooklyn, debuts and premieres from each; Snider has a hybrid classical/folk/post-rock song cycle, and Britelle is debuting his new concept album, an extravagant exploration of fragments of cultural memory. I’m eagerly anticipating this show.

April 5 – Dave Tompkins, How To Wreck a Nice Beach; he will be appearing at Book Court, 163 Court Street in Brooklyn, presenting a fairly good sized history of the Vocoder. This is for geeks of a certain kind . . . like me.

April 7 – World premieres from Robert Sirota, Louis Karchin, Laurie San Martin, New York premieres from Richard Festinger and Fabio Grasso; Merkin Concert Hall. Sirota’s Assimilations headlines this great variety of new music. The piece explores issues of ethnic heritage and assimilation in the United States. The all-star Washington Square Ensemble plays.

April 9-10 – The Freddie Redd Sextet, appearing at Smalls. A welcome appearance from one of the greatest hard-bop musicians, always cool, funky and lyrical.

April 11First public concert at the new site for the Issue Project Room, 110 Livingston Street, Brooklyn. This is a real event, not just that the new space is being inaugurated, but via Ne(x)tworks playing Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2, which has a duration of around six hours, and the performance is free! It all starts at 11:00am, so get to bed early the night before, and if you can’t stay for the whole performance (which isn’t expected), hear the live webcast on Q2.

April 13Bach Reformed at Barbès; I highly recommend this duo, their CD is marvelous and in a small setting it’s a wonderful experience to hear them express Bach as if it was bluegrass.

April 15-18Don Byron at Jazz Standard. Byron is bringing three groups into this residency, the New Gospel Quintet, the Ivey-Divey Trio, with Jason Moran, and a new group, Swiftboat, described as “a collective journey into ‘straight ahead’ jazz.” Expect it all to be great.

April 16 & 17CONTACT! The second concert this year in the New York Philharmonic’s new New Music series. Alan Gilbert will conduct, Thomas Hampson will sing, and the program includes a new works from Nico Muhly, Sean Shepherd and Matthias Pintscher. It’s a different venue each day, Symphony Space and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The first concert proved what an exciting series this is, and the international and cross-generations flavor is really welcome.

April 25Gil Morgenstern; the final concert in the Reflections series at the Rubin Museum, music presented with sympathetic ideas about literature and the arts. The program of great music – Biber’s Mystery Sonatas, Poulenc and a work by Bruce Saylor – is augmented by readings from Carl Sagan, Lorca and Dante.

April 29Joan La Barbara and Ne(x)tworks at Roulette; the great singer and experimental composer is going to be performing excerpts from her new work, Angels, Demons and other Muses, inspired by Joseph Cornell, Virginia Woolf and Poe. Expect something delicate and mysteriously powerful. The program also features a work by flutist Yael Acher-Modiano.

Update: April 30Krysztof Penderecki conducts his own works at Carnegie Hall, with the Philharmonia Orchestra of Yale and soloists Syoko Aki and William Purvis.  This is a special event, a major contemporary composer making a rare performing visit.  The program includes a new horn concerto, the compelling modern Romanticism of his Symphony No. 4 and the famous Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.

Those are individual events, but this month there are also three major festivals either running or beginning:

April 9, April 14-18Louis Andriessen is the composer in residence at Carnegie Hall this year and has been an important contemporary composer and an enormous influence on the current generation of young American composers. His work is being explored through a series of concerts and events. It opens April 9 a concert from the American Composers Orchestra, presenting his work and the effects of his legacy on artists like Missy Mazzoli. The following week is dense with music; performances Andriessen has curated, including the wonderful and unclassifiable Iva Bittová with tap dancer Morris Chestnut, the US premier performance of the composer’s opera La Commedia, Andriessen himself improvising with the great Evan Parker, a weekend of concerts and a chamber music performance/discussion with the composer at Le Poisson Rouge. It actually all wraps up on May 10, when John Adams leads the Ensemble ACJW in an exciting program of his own Son of Chamber Symphony, the Stravinsky Concerto for Piano and Winds and Andriessen’s best-known work, De Staat.

April 19-22MATA Festival 2010; the important, annual showcase of new music by young composers, at Le Poisson Rouge. The Argento Ensemble, the Calder Quartet, Lisa Moore, L’Arsenale and others play works from Matthew Wright, Christopher McIntyre, Lisa Coons, Tristan Perich, Missy Mazzoli, Alexander Sigman and many others. Opening and closing events are free, and a surprising guest, an unnamed famous improviser who I think might have the initials EP will be appearing at the opening.

April 21-May 8 – Valery Gergiev leads the New York Philharmonic in The Russian Stravinsky. The Rite of Spring, of course, but not until the end. The last titan, one of the greatest artists, Stravinsky single-handedly ended one epoch of music and then created a new one. It’s hard to think of a work of his that isn’t a masterpiece in some way, and these great musicians are going to be playing his amazing, ritualistic Les Noces, the Symphony of Psalms, the incredible Violin Concerto, the Symphony in C, the great Symphony in Three Movements, a tremendous concert of the exquisitely beautiful ballet score Orpheus and the powerful opera Oedipus Rex, and the Firebird, Petrushka and the Rite. There’s even more music, but this is already hard to believe. Every concert will be dazzling and intense. See as many as you can.

In new recordings, April has CDs dropping from Nels Cline (review to come), Lee Konitz, Ben Goldberg, Brooklyn Rider, a new recording of Vision De L’Amen, and from Naxos intriguing recordings of Gesualdo Madrigals, George Rochberg Piano Music and the Mahler Symphonies.  Update:  And before you think I’m square, there’s a new Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings recording out April 6 which you are compelled to buy.


A recent rant by classical music gossip Norman Lebrecht makes me wonder just what all his fuss is about. A complaint that the Metropolitan Opera does not produce the most cutting edge work is both absolutely correct and absolutely meaningless. The Met is dedicated to the entire tradition of opera and is already demonstrating that under Peter Gelb’s direction they understand that tradition includes contemporary works as well (an article of mine in the upcoming issue of The Brooklyn Rail will discuss this). They are not an experimental house, they never have been and they never will be, and that’s perfectly fine. If they can, and should, be criticized it is for failing to understand the scope and meaning of the history of opera and again they are proving this awareness. Other houses may and do decide to question that tradition, the Met chooses to present it. Good for them.

In this, in New York City, they are like the New York Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall, which are each like the Metropolitan Museum. These are institutions that are about preserving and presenting a history and tradition to the public, and striving to widen that audience. Their roles are important, just as the roles of avant-garde ensembles and cutting edge art and performance spaces are important. Altogether, they are complimentary. And on a personal level, the Met Opera, the Phil and Carnegie Hall have shown their openness to the interested public. I am an independent writer in every way, hopefully in that my ideas and values are the product of thinking for myself, but especially in the sense that I am completely on my own, working for no one but myself. There are benefits in that I am my own Assignment Editor and the blog format allows me to go on at some length (hopefully not too great). The drawbacks are that I have no institutional resources or connections. I am sent music to review, and I am occasionally offered tickets, but a great deal of what I write about comes from my own decision to spend what is a very limited amount of money. That means there is some bias involved in that I’ve already made the decision that something is worthwhile, but I am confident that my criticism is completely honest.

Because I’m serious about this work, I have presented myself to a variety of New York City performing institutions, offering my work and requesting access to performances so I can write about them and share them with my readers.  Miller Theater has already been a welcome partner in the discussion of great music.  The institutions that at first thought would seem to be stuffy and thus dismissive of someone without an institutional domain in my email address have proven to be accessible, open and generous, putting effort into making it possible for me to see and review their performances, while the institutions that would seem to be cutting-edge, hip, looking for alternative audiences have been silent, rudely unresponsive. So in the coming months my readers will see my thoughts on the wide variety of musical art being presented at the Met Opera, at the NY Phil, at Carnegie Hall, while unfortunately there will be no news from the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Surprising and disappointing, perhaps, but there it is.

As a postscript, I would like to quietly announce a general fundraiser for my work here at The Big City. I do this work out of something more than love, something more like the idea that this is important for the world around me, but it is work. Any donations (via the PayPal button upper right) obviously would go directly to supporting my work generally and make it possible to do some additional things on the blog, such as add more media, including examples of my own work. The same is true for the items on this blog’s Amazon Wish List, which is a mix of things that I would write about specifically, things that would give me context for other reviews and projects, and things that would further my own music production for the long term. If you find value for yourself here, even the smallest donation would be helpful and deeply appreciated. Thank you all, and keep reading.