Review: Great Noise Ensemble at the National Gallery of Art

READY: The Great Noise Ensemble shined in all four movements.
READY: The Great Noise Ensemble shined in all four movements. (Gene Carl Feldman)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Louis Andriessen's "De Materie" is called a "non-opera," also might be construed as a "non-symphony," and is probably one of the most important musical works of the late 20th century. On Sunday night in the soaring atrium of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, the Great Noise Ensemble gave it what you might term a "non-performance."

Let's pick this apart. "De Materie" (matter), by the Netherlands' leading composer, is an ambitious work that juxtaposes the history of Western progress with human love and the divine. Its four movements roughly mirror classical symphonic form: a large-scale opening; a lyrical, heart-wrenching second movement; a third movement that shimmies and dances; and a fourth movement that represents an emphatic and personal conclusion.

Hence, "non-symphony." As for "non-opera" (Andriessen's description), the work was premiered by the Netherlands Opera in 1989 but doesn't have a plot as such. Each movement is peopled with its own characters, starting on a global scale with the development of shipbuilding and the Netherlands' emancipation from Spain in the Renaissance, and ending on an intimate note with the heart-rending diary entries the Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie wrote to her deceased husband. The score is comparably ambitious and polymorphous, folding in a panoply of styles, from Bach to boogie-woogie, and finally fading away until, during the recitation of Curie's words, the instruments fall silent.

As for "non-performance": This was a huge piece for the Great Noise Ensemble to take on. This group was founded in Washington in 2005 when the composer-conductor Armando Bayolo placed an ad on Craigslist. It's held regular seasons of contemporary chamber works in the years since, but nothing approaching the requirements of "De Materie." On Sunday there were 50 instrumentalists, eight chorus members, four vocal soloists (speakers and singers), a conductor (Bayolo) and a sound man. The Great Noise regulars were supplemented by a number of students from the area, including some of the composition students Andriessen teaches at Peabody, who sang in the chorus.

All of these forces had to contend with a space that was never designed for music performance. There are a lot of reasons to give "De Materie" in a museum (including the fact that the third movement, called "De Stijl," is about Piet Mondrian), but acoustics are not among them.

"De Materie" opens with 144 searing chords, like hammer blows; in this space, they were less searing than smeared across the echoing air, their component parts tugging at the ear, slightly unanchored. Ensemble playing is a huge challenge in a space that carries every sound in unpredictable directions; on Sunday, you sometimes had to take the will for the deed. The raspy percussion that represented the carpenters in Part 1 came across fine, but the details of the shimmering music of the ecstatic visions of the mystic Hadewijch in Part 2 were blurred, and the angular boogie-woogie of the bass guitar and piano in Part 3 muted as if through cotton.

The two singers -- tenor M. Shane Hurst as Gorlaeus, an early Dutch scientist, in the first movement, and Tracy Cowart as Hadewijch in the second movement -- had to struggle to be heard; poor Hurst nearly lost his voice trying to master his difficult part. The two speakers -- Alexandra Phillips as a dancer who knew Mondrian, Pamela Witcher as Curie -- had a much easier time.

"De Materie" is a big statement of ambition, exuberance, intelligence: of man's reach exceeding his grasp. The young Great Noise Ensemble incorporated this aspect of the piece perfectly. It was a chance to hear an important work offered by musicians who really cared about putting it on, and Andriessen presided approvingly in the audience.

As a performance, it wasn't a complete success; as an endeavor, it was admirable, and worth doing.

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