Fighting the Power and Sounding Good Doing It

by Daniel Felsenfeld

Louis Andriessen: De Staat
Ensemble ACJW, Carnegie Hall, May 10, 2010

Louis Andriessen Is there an uglier or more vulgar piece of music than Louis Andriessen’s De Staat? Is there a piece of musical agitprop more relentlessly aestheto-political, more astutely tuned to all that is “wrong” in Plato? Is there a work that says more about itself—and, about music qua music—with such turgid grit, occupying such a relentlessly untamed space. Is there another work written in the last five decades that makes an audience member question their relationship to music? Is there another work in the canon written in the recent past that so clearly says, to all listening: ladies and gentlemen of the Western World, take up your instruments and fight!

It seems strange that Carnegie Hall asked Louis Andreissen to occupy the Eugene V. Debs Composer Chair. After all, didn’t this composer make his way being deeply anti-establishment, that placing him in an endowed chair at one of the most “establishment” institutions might seem a little like making Che Guevara the chairman of the Ways and Means committee? Maybe not: rebels can age gracefully, and sometimes even win their battles; the props from Carnegie Hall certainly proves that what was once pie-in-the-sky cultural dreaming is now, impressively, an “established” part of our musical landscape, a school of thought. Andriessen and his way of thinking is no longer relegated to the fringe. The backward-looking snobbery against which this composer railed is now, if not vanished, at least not the only strand of concert music taken seriously.

As the closing salvo of Andreissen’s several-months-long residence, composer and conductor John Adams led the youthful Ensemble ACJW—a crack student “training” group jointly sponsored by Juilliard and Carnegie—in Andriessen’s 1976 De Staat. This ensemble is the perfect group for it because they’re young—it takes a combination of technique, ferocity, stamina and grit to get through Andriessen’s score. For one, the score is fiendishly difficult, with Stravinskian meter changes and Mahlerian on-a-dime mood shifts, dense counterpoint (including hockets where stark, driving melodies are a mere fraction of a second off from one another) rolled into one jazz-soaked roar—though with musical material as organized and clearly presented as The Rite of Spring, a similarly scoped (if by comparison quiet and tame) work of ordered chaos. Those players whose instruments allowed them to stood the whole time, giving the appearance less of a young orchestra than a charivari—and everyone was amplified and it was loud. This is a piece about screaming in unison (and into microphones, and in ancient Greek), a work originally composed for a group that played communist party meetings—by a composer who’d taken an ensemble outside the main concert hall in Amsterdam and protested the playing of yet another Mozart symphony by playing music so loud it could be heard inside. In the New York Times review of this concert, Anthony Tommasini says of this piece: “For whatever reasons, it does not turn up often in concert,” but those reasons—right or wrong—seemed perfectly clear: it is hard to imagine the “average subscription concert audience” cottoning, which is Andriessen’s point.

Ensemble ACJW played brilliantly (joined by four singers, all of whom were simply incredible), and while John Adams’ performance might have run on the tame side for some enthusiasts (or rather, the slightly less raw side) it was to an outstanding curatorial end—he was not trying to shock this crowd (who were there not to hear Haydn and therefore were not in need of the strong medicine this piece affords) but to put Andriessen into his deserved context. Adams’ own Son of Chamber Symphony (a work co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall) is admittedly a slightly tongue-in-cheek riff on his own prior Chamber Symphony (which was inspired by Schoenberg by way of Looney Tunes) is groove-based and dashing, a kaleidoscopic wheel of a work that details—and even seems to mock—it’s own propulsive-ness. Adams is clearly no stranger to the work of Andriessen, and the link is palpable, especially when the two scions of minimalism are placed side by side. But Adams is younger, and his struggles—or rather the struggles of his generation—are not Andriessen’s, and so by needing to accomplish less (on the back of battles won by the Dutchman’s generation) his work is freer to roam. Adams, lacking an axe to grind, revels in the joy of being a composer. Where so much avant-garde work is full of understandable rage, Son of Chamber Symphony is by-comparison sleight—good, even brilliant, but with a smaller hill to climb— and plays beautifully.

The quiet highlight of the evening (which is saying a lot, because both Mr. Adams’ piece and De Staat are tough acts to “follow”) was Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, a piece that, though lacking the open-throttle style of De Staat or the relentless sleekness of Son of Chamber Symphony, is as intentionally subversive as either work, if not more so, and relishes equally in it. From the opening chorale—which, after three chords has a “wrong note” as telling as the plangent, dissonant oboes that kick off De Staat, to the wild fugato ride of the closing movement—this is a piece that not only aims to look at the tradition and turn it sideways, but also takes a similar kind of shot at the audience who made the tradition so stilted. Stravinsky lures you in not with a lush melody or lilting harmonic turn, but rather by promising them, making your ears want them, and then not delivering, sometimes retreating into dissonance, other times threatening to break into musics wholly different: a rag, a fugue spinning rapidly out of control or, in the gorgeously cloying second movement, a jazz standard. This is a kind of music that keeps you guessing and pokes fun at you for doing it, the product of a complex mind with a wicked sense of humor.

Mr. Adams, joined by pianist Jeremy Denk (who gave a polished, effortless reading of this daunting piece) brought out the “minimalism” in the work (again, with curatorial design), allowing the repetitive passages to be just that. In lieu of the work’s built in caustic wit, Adams and Denk paid homage to a wholly other tradition: the need for musical rebellion. It could not have been a more apt choice to make this point: Andriessen is an avowed Stravinskyphile, and Mr. Adams an avowed Andriessenophile, so the Great Russian Composer’s presence on this program was illustrative of the unbroken line. Three visionaries who sought to take on the establishment who were then, to the advantage of posterity, subsequently embraced and canonized. Three composers who began as collosal pains in the ass and found their way to profundity, acceptance, and and influence,. One could easily imagine, out on Seventh Avenue before the evening’s, a young composer plotting his or her own takeover, finding in the music of these three composers (not to mention those of us listening and enjoying) the things against which they could themselves rebel, disappearing into the New York night with a head full of music and plans. And somewhere in Holland, somewhere in San Francisco, somewhere in the Great Beyond, three composers no doubt smile at the thought.

Is there, consequently, a piece more beautiful than De Staat?

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