Iconoclast Andriessen’s La Commedia at National Gallery of Art

national-gallery-of-art-logoPerformance spaces don’t get much more “official” than the National Gallery of Art’s palatial West Garden Court in Washington, D.C. Like much of this spectacular, taxpayer-subsidized receptacle for the world’s great artistic treasures, the Garden Court is a monument to democracy’s civilizing force. It’s also an alibi for political power, for an avaricious capital’s investment in the status quo. So it was impossibly ironic that the Garden Court would play host to Louis Andriessen, onetime founder of a “socialist orchestra,” the man who famously dreamed “that musical innovation” might “represent a danger to the State” – one, moreover, who hasn’t mellowed with old age. In 2011, he denounced the epoch’s fetish for “progress,” “economic growth as God,” as so much “bullshit.” Yet there was Andriessen on Sunday April 6, 2014, just before the Great Noise Ensemble’s performance of La Commedia, his summa of a six-decades-long compositional career, lost in thought in front of the Gallery’s most important recent acquisition, Gerrit van Honthorst’s Het concert, conveniently on display in the Garden Court foyer.

Composer Louis Andriessen (photo: Francesca Capatella)

Composer Louis Andriessen (photo: Francesca Capatella)

It’s an archetypal Andriessen contradiction: he abhors the museum’s retrograde ideology, but reveres its artistic heritage, its stalwart defense of “the best which has been thought and said” far too much to ever call, Boulez-style, for its walls to be razed. And like much of the Dutch master’s oeuvre, it’s also the fundamental “contradiction” animating La Commedia, whose whiplash jump-cuts – hideously ill-mannered one moment, immoderately pious the next – induce a major case of listener vertigo. Nothing here is what it seems, flat surfaces not being flat and profound depths not deep. Even the ironic bits aren’t always ironic. Sometimes they’re ironic², as if the scare quotes had in turn been enclosed within another set of quotes. One thinks of the philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch’s comment about Ravel, how his music only gave way to expressiveness precisely when he tried his darnedest to avoid expressing himself.

So I take issue with Great Noise Ensemble Artistic Director Armando Bayolo’s program note, which asserts that halfway through Part IV (De Tuin der lusten) “all irony falls from La Commedia.” (At this point in Hal Hartley’s accompanying video, omitted in this performance, Dante is unceremoniously killed in a car accident.) It’s quite the contrary: the very moment we’re primed to learn something Important and Profound About Human Nature, the irony takes some steroids, imbibing a hefty dose of Poulenc’s boulevardier sleaze. Part IV is the opera’s pivot point, casting the tenebrous, sulfurous “hell” sounds of the previous three sections in utterly stark relief. In this sense, Andriessen is absolutely right when he suggests that De Tuin, with its snatches of Charlie Parker’s “All the Things You Are”, Ravel’s Introduction et allegro, and mariachi band music, is a major compositional breakthrough. It unequivocally demonstrates that Andriessen no longer has anything in common with American (post-)minimalism; not that any reminder has been necessary post-Trilogie van de Laatste Dag. Much more important now – maybe they always were? – are the influence of Berio, Roussel, Milhaud, and Stan Kenton.

Great Noise Ensemble Artistic Director Armando Bayolo

Great Noise Ensemble Artistic Director Armando Bayolo

That interpretive oversight aside, it was a night to remember from Bayolo and Great Noise Ensemble. Barring one or two momentary wobbles, this was surely as good a performance of a major Andriessen score as you’re going to hear from an ensemble not named Asko|Schönberg (the composer’s longtime “house band”). Some credit must go to Andriessen’s muse Christina Zavalloni, whose inimitable stylings and close familiarity with the composer’s performance practice – La Commedia was written expressly for her – lent the proceedings the frisson of authenticity. Hardly less convincing, though, were the smarmy-persnickety Andrew Sauvageau and the marvelously pure-toned Lindsay Kesselman. One gripe: no surtitles nor printed libretti. Even seasoned multilinguists would have had trouble keeping up with the shifts from Italian to Dutch to (Zavalloni’s) heavily accented English. And yet even that wasn’t nearly enough to detract from this vivid account of the twenty-first century’s first must hear opera.

Louis Andriessen: La Commedia (2004-08)

Cristina Zavalloni (voice)

Lindsay Kesselman (soprano)

Andrew Sauvageau (voice)

Jacob Perry, Jr. (Tenor)

Children’s Chorus of Washington (chorus master: Joan Gregoryk)

Third Practice (chorus master: Brian Bartoldus)

Great Noise Ensemble, Armando Bayolo (conductor)

[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.]