Dutch composer tweaks tradition
John Pitcher - February 19, 2006
From the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
In 1969, a group of young Dutch composers led by Louis Andriessen became so frustrated with the conservative programming of Amsterdam's Concertgebouw Orchestra that they decided to protest. Armed with tiny toy frogs that chirped when squeezed, the composers arrived at the theater, and before long the place began to sound more like a water-lily pond at dusk than a concert hall.
"The sounds we made were actually quite serene and nice," recalls Andriessen, who will be at the Eastman School of Music starting Monday for a three-day residency that will include two concerts. "We didn't click the frogs during performance, though, because we were all musicians and never would have done anything that would harm the music. It was more of a playful protest between pieces."
Andriessen's protest had two major and immediate effects on European music. First, it made the Concertgebouw Orchestra, which is arguably one of the two or three finest ensembles in all of Europe, reconsider a culture of programming and performance that had become stuffy and hidebound.
"Instead of just playing traditional music using a large orchestra, the Concertgebouw became more flexible about playing as both a large and small ensemble," says Andriessen. "A smaller and more flexible group was a benefit both for Baroque music and contemporary Dutch music, which often had no use for a large traditional orchestra."
Perhaps more importantly, the protests led to Andriessen's decision to abandon the orchestra altogether. From that point on he would write only for ensembles of his own idiosyncratic design. Sometimes, these groups would feature electric guitars and synthesizers, which are generally considered alien to the classical world. In at least one work, Andriessen puts an ice-cream bell to good use.
Whatever the instrumental combination, Andriessen began writing in a style that was unique in European music. His works effectively married high culture with low in an unusual mix of classical, jazz, pop and American minimalism. It made him not only Holland's preeminent composer but also Europe's most important alternative to such high-brow modernists as Pierre Boulez.
"Andriessen's music is not as much in the European mold, which is more rooted in tradition," says Brad Lubman, who will conduct Andriessen's music at Eastman this week. "His approach is more American in that it combines serious music with pop. In fact, Andriessen has said that his most important influences have been Bach, Stravinsky and boogie-woogie."
This week's Eastman concerts will feature two notable Andriessen works. On Monday at Kilbourn Hall, Lubman will lead Musica Nova in a piece called Workers Union, a melodically indeterminate piece that's scored for any combination of loud instruments. "The idea is to have music that suggests people shouting at a political rally," Andriessen says. That piece will share the program with New York City's three Bang on a Can composers (Julia Wolfe, David Lang and Michael Gordon), who all count Andriessen as an influence.
Then on Wednesday the Eastman Philharmonia will play Andriessen's La Passione at the Eastman Theatre. The performance will feature the two soloists who premiered the work in London in 2002 — violinist Monica Germino and mezzo-soprano Cristina Zavalloni. Lubman will pair La Passione with Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps (Rite of Spring), and it promises to be the hottest and most adventurous orchestral concert performed in Rochester this season.