Andriessen 75: A Retrospective at Strathmore Mansion

Strathmore-logo-250wThe retrospective, that staple of the visual arts world, ought to be more popular in new music circles. As was the case with this informal soirée, once again featuring Louis Andriessen’s two most sympathetic collaborators, mezzo-soprano Cristina Zavalloni and violinist Monica Germino, an intelligently programmed autobiographical portrait concert usually says more about a composer’s practice than any of the official PR boilerplate. It was all that at Strathmore Mansion, in North Bethesda, MD on April 8, 2014, in the third installment of the “Andriessen 75” festival. A peregrination through some of the lesser known byways of the Dutchman’s output – with a few choice cameos from “friends” – it penetrated to the core of the Andriessen ethos in a way that yet another rendition of Hoketus or De Staat never could have.

Composer Louis Andriessen (photo: © Francesca Patella)

Composer Louis Andriessen (photo: © Francesca Patella)

The program was bookended by the two most substantial pieces, Letter from Cathy and Passeggiata in tram in America e ritorno, both originally written for the Zavalloni-Germino team. Each lost much of their sparkle and wit in these trio reductions (Passeggiata, for example, was conceived for the accompaniment of De Volharding), but it was hard to complain in the face of Zavalloni’s irresistible musicianship. Especially important was Letter, a setting of a 1964 postcard from Cathy Berberian, wife of Andriessen’s teacher Luciano Berio. Andriessen was much enamored of Berberian’s pliant, genre-bending artistry, which became his “milestone” for “the performance and intelligence of a singer.” Only later did he learn that Berberian was very much the outlier. That is, until he chanced upon Zavalloni: “I waited 40 years to find that voice!”

Remarkably, all the other pieces were traceable to Letter. Berberian’s postcard chronicled her plans to record Stravinsky’s songs (“I will do the other Stravinsky pieces for Columbia records”), among which would be the piquant, gem-like Trois petites chansons. The Russian master characterized her voice as “peut être trop unique pour écrire la musique pour elle après tout, si vous n’y êtes pas, qui pourra le faire,” with Letter setting these words to the strains of a sleazy chanson. It foreshadowed Zavalloni’s haunting, self-penned canzone Bastava quel cielo, not to mention Andriessen’s bipolar Le voile du bonheur. Arguably the evening’s highlight, the latter saw Germino winding her way through a wordless Chausson-pastiche before picking up the mic to do her best impression of a Dutch Sondheim tune.

Cristina Zavalloni (photo: otherminds.org)

Cristina Zavalloni (photo: otherminds.org)

More correspondences: one of Letter’s idées fixes being a sinuous ostinato, pianist Andrea Rebaudengo performed the left hand-only Base, which is exactly as advertised, no more and no less than an unaccompanied jazz bassline. And who could forget Berberian’s Cage collaboration, Aria? So Germino and Rebaudengo read through selections from the Zen guru’s Six Melodies, the timbre of which absolutely pervades Writing to Vermeer. Germino rightly noted that the Melodies are the fountainhead for Andriessen’s string writing, which, with its “lack of pressure, super-legato, almost tries to escape the violin.” Still, the pair ran a bit roughshod over Cage’s style dépouillé. They were probably under-rehearsed, since Germino’s encore of XENIA (see the Andriessen 75 April 7 concert review), done from memory, was biting, pungent, and to the manner born, somehow reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Élégie.

Little surprise that Andriessen’s Beatles arrangements, commissioned by Berberian and only revived by Zavalloni after repeated appeals to the composer, were greeted with the most enthusiastic applause. (Andriessen has never been fond of the Fab Four, long expressing a preference for R&B vocalists like Chaka Khan and Janet Jackson. That these arrangements exist at all tells you just how much he admired Berberian.) Best of all were “Michelle”, retrofitted as an impressionist mélodie, and “Ticket to Ride”, reimagined as one of Handel’s da capo arias. It was hilarious and demented, just like everything else Louis Andriessen puts his mind to.

Louis Andriessen: Letter from Cathy (2003), Base (1994)
John Cage: Six Melodies (1950)
Igor Stravinsky: The Owl and the Pussy-Cat (1966), Trois petites chansons (Souvenir de mon enfance) (1913)
Louis Andriessen: XENIA (2005/2014)
Cristina Zavalloni: Bastava quel cielo (2005)
Louis AndriessenBeatles Songs (1966), Le voile du bonheur (1966/1971), Passeggiata in tram in America e ritorno (1998), Y después (1983)

Cristina Zavalloni (voice)
Monica Germino (violin)
Andrea Rebaudengo (piano)

[Ed. Matt Mendez is covering the Andreissen 75 festival, a week-long celebration of Dutch composer Louis Andriessen’s 75th birthday, presented by The Atlas Performing Arts Center, Great Noise Ensemble, National Gallery of Art, Strathmore, and Shenandoah Conservatory, April 6-13, 2014.]