Classical Music spring preview: Washington celebrates Louis Andriessen’s 75th birthday

“Musically, I don’t care much [anymore] about what you may do and may not do,” says the composer Louis Andriessen. “I feel more — not vulgar, because everyone is already vulgar, but I feel free.”

Andriessen was speaking from his home in Amsterdam, and he was taking stock before his 75th birthday. He is the leading composer in the Netherlands. He is a huge influence on several generations of younger composers, on both sides of the Atlantic, from Michel van der Aa, one of his more prominent young proteges, to the collaborative Bang on a Can, whose work partakes of Andriessen’s own anarchic exuberance and unusual instrumentation. And if you haven’t heard his music, you will, because it’s coming to Washington this spring.

From April 6 to 13, area audiences will get to hear a cross-section of Andriessen’s most important recent work in a festival celebrating his upcoming 75th birthday. At the Shenandoah Conservatory, you can hear the complete string quartets; at the Strathmore Mansion, you can hear a vocal recital with Andriessen’s vocal muse, the versatile Italian mezzo-soprano Cristina Zavalloni; and at the Atlas, you can hear the composer’s take on jazz, and a performance by the Bang on a Can All-Stars of a piece he wrote for them.

The violinist Monica Germino will perform her own Andriessen showcase, “La Girò,” a violin concerto-cum-performance piece that has the soloist talking, shouting, and even singing while playing a solo line of considerable difficulty. The piece is nominally about Vivaldi and his relationship with a younger female student, but it has autobiographical overtones; for a little more than a year, Andriessen and Germino have been husband and wife. (“I’m a happy guy,” said Andriessen, speaking with a hint of wryness, as if smiling at his own sincerity.)

And then there’s “La Commedia,” the 2008 opera that many have called Andriessen’s greatest work, based on Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” but with a spectrum of musical references that Alex Ross, in the “New Yorker,” described as “ranging from Gregorian chant to what might be called Satanic Broadway.” The work, in a concert performance (sadly without the accompanying film by the director Hal Hartley, another frequent Andriessen collaborator), will open the festival at the National Gallery of Art.


Composer Louis Andriessen. (Francesca Patella)

“La Commedia” will be conducted by Armando Bayolo, founder of the Great Noise Ensemble, who had the idea for the current festival when leading an ambitious if slightly scrappy rendition of “De Materie,” a towering Andriessen opus, in the gallery’s East Building atrium a little more than three years ago.

“What have I wrought?” Bayolo said about the festival. “This is getting huge.”

The festival is not a retrospective, but the equivalent of a gallery show: a collection of recent work rather than career highlights. Andriessen has had retrospectives aplenty, even in the States, including a festival at Lincoln Center (which showed “Rosa,” one of his collaborative operas with the film director Peter Greenaway) and performances at Carnegie Hall, where he was composer-in-residence in 2009-10.

“I like to give preference to the recent stuff,” Andriessen said. He added, speaking of the new compositions, “I have to help them. They’re like children. They need support. I don’t worry too much about performances of ‘De Staat’ any more,” he said, referring to his seminal work, based on Plato’s “Republic,” from the early 1970s, which helped land him on the international map. “He has found his way.”

Andriessen has been called a “post-minimalist,” or, in his own terms, a “maximalist.” His work, with its energetic rhythms and melodic excursions, has always included all the musical references he can fit into a single messy embrace. In the 1960s, he challenged the establishment both musically, with his offbeat compositions, and directly, leafleting concert performances to denounce orchestras as “a status symbol of the ruling elite.” Forty years later, he still says, “I am not particularly fond of classical orchestras,” and his own work happily draws in nonclassical instruments and techniques — synthesizer, percussion, amplification — but he has become an establishment figure in his own way, with regular commissions from large institutions such as the Netherlands Opera. “I am the kind of composer who likes to work with the people at least with money to pay them,” he says, and adds, “As long as your music doesn’t sound too established, you are safe.”

He’s safe, then, since even Andriessen fans have trouble finding anything “established” in what he does. These days, Bayolo observes, his work has even been embracing a romantic strain that he would never have considered in his more Stravinskian, ironic mode.

“He’s allowed the irony to fall out a little more,” Bayolo says. “My favorite moment in the whole piece [“La Commedia”] is the entrance of the chorus at the end of the Purgatorio movement. It’s a setting in Italian of the ‘Song of Songs,’ a waltz like . . . an Italian film score, very sensuous. The whole piece is dedicated to his first wife [the guitarist Jeanette Yanikian], who was dying at the time [he wrote it]. The whole text is, ‘You are as precious to me as the cedars of Lebanon.’ . . . [The text before it is] about serpents and angels, set in Stravinskian playful mode, and then he goes into this sensuous beautiful music, tonal, and just ravishing: where did this come from?”

“The irony is still there,” Bayolo notes. “That hasn’t gone away. But he’ll look out from time to time.”

Louis Andriessen’s 75th birthday

will be celebrated April 6-13 by five area organizations, the Atlas Performing Arts Center, the Great Noise Ensemble, the National Gallery of Art, Strathmore and the Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester.

Five others to watch

Moby-Dick.” Making an opera out of Herman Melville’s classic whaling novel seemed like the stuff of satire, until the composer Jake Heggie and the librettist Gene Scheer, with the help of the director Leonard Foglia, proved otherwise, finding a dramatically and musically viable way to bring this story to the stage. The 2010 premiere in Dallas was the start of a successful journey around the country; now, finally, the production lands at the Washington National Opera, with some notable singers from the premiere, including the tenor Stephen Costello as the protagonist and the soprano Talise Trevigne as Pip, the cabin boy and the sole female voice on this all-male ship. Feb. 22 through March 8 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic. All right, admit it, it’s not really the L.A. Phil you want to see but their mop-haired maestro, the 33-year-old Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel. He’s been hailed as a revivifier of classical music, castigated for being overhyped, and variously lionized and misunderstood as the most successful alumnus of the Venezuelan music training program “El Sistema.” Under him, the Philharmonic has continued charting its course toward becoming the most interesting orchestra in America through a range of new-music concerts, special projects and festivals drawing on the talents of many different artists, Dudamel among them. They come to the Kennedy Center with two symphonies: Tchaikovsky’s Fifth (they played the Sixth here four years ago) and Corigliano’s First, popularly known as the “AIDS symphony,” which won the composer a Grawemeyer Award and a couple of Grammys. Does Dudamel have any aptitude for contemporary American music? Here’s one way to find out. March 18, Kennedy Center Concert Hall. 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org.

Curlew River.” Music presenters and ensembles around the world commemorated Benjamin Britten’s centennial in 2013 with a range of performances, but the Cantate Chamber Singers in Washington, always ready with innovative programs, went one better than many by devoting their whole 2013-14 season to the composer. Sure to be a highlight is “Curlew River,” the first of Britten’s three “Church Parables,” in this region’s first-ever fully-staged performance of this 1964 work. “Curlew River” was heavily influenced by Noh theater, and this production — on a program with the world premiere of a piece called “Chidori” by Gary Davison — will be directed by the choreographer Shizumi Manale, well versed in Noh traditions. March 23, All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church, 2300 Cathedral Avenue, NW. 301-986-1799. www.cantate.org.

●One of the standout performances of my years in Washington was the fully choreographed “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” that Liz Lerman and the players of the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra pulled off in 2011. Now, they’re back, trying out the same improvisatory movement techniques on another work that was originally composed to be danced: Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” The program also includes Dutilleux’s “Métaboles” and the orchestral medley “Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture,” arranged after George Gershwin’s death by his friend Robert Russell Bennett along lines suggested by the conductor Fritz Reiner — an interesting enough juxtaposition without the choreography, and a not-to-be-missed event with it. May 4, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, the University of Maryland, College Park. 301-405-2787. claricesmithcenter.umd.edu.

●And speaking of choreography: the National Symphony Orchestra is jumping into it this spring with, as it were, both feet. The “New Moves” festival, extending over three programs, brings the orchestra together with three different choreographers and dance companies: Larry Keigwin, who will take on excerpts from Bernstein dance scores; the New Ballet Ensemble from Memphis, which will offer “jookin” artists (a Memphis phenomenon) moving to music by Duke Ellington; and the choreographer of the moment, Jessica Lang, whose work will appear, coincidentally, on another program with “Appalachian Spring.” The NSO is loading these concerts up with other, non-dance attractions as well, including the violinist Leila Josefowicz playing the John Adams violin concerto, and its own timpanist, Jauvon Gilliam, in a concerto by Oliverio. May 8-17, Kennedy Center Concert Hall, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org.

Best Bets: Anne Midgette picks for can’t-miss concerts.

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Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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