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Andriessen: The Story from Hell comes to LA

(April 2006)

Andriessen: The Story from Hell is told in Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Minimalist Jukebox” festival in March was unquestionably one of the most important events of the past season. Curated by John Adams, it comprised nearly two weeks of concerts celebrating a movement, broadly defined, that decisively affected the course of 20th-century music. Louis Andriessen, Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, and Adams himself were among the composers represented in the first such retrospective ever mounted by an American orchestra; choral, ensemble, and chamber programs were part of the mix as well.

One of the key events of the festival was the North American premiere of Louis Andriessen’s Il Racconto dall’Inferno, presented along with his pioneering score De Staat in powerful performances by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Reinbert de Leeuw. In Il Racconto dall’Inferno (The Story from Hell), Andriessen has set a passage from Dante’s Divine Comedy in which Malacoda, one of the devils leading the tour through Hell, calls ten devils to escort Dante and Virgil through a particularly perilous circle: the one designed for politicians. Says Andriessen, “I’ve tried to capture the amusing and human aspects of the text.  Perhaps the best description is closer to something by Fellini, part-nightmare and part-dream.” 

Among other things, Il Racconto is a showpiece for the remarkable singer Cristina Zavalloni, who has inspired comparisons to Cathy Berberian for her seamless melding of jazz and concert vocal techniques. Said Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times, “There were, to begin things on exactly the right foot, Dutch composer Louis Andriessen and his two secret weapons: the Dutch conductor Reinbert de Leeuw and the Italian vocalist Cristina Zavalloni. Andriessen is Holland’s most important composer and a major international influence on a spirited younger generation…

“Composed for Zavalloni and given its U.S. premiere Friday night, Racconto is very strange, dark, disturbing music for gloomy winds, intentionally annoying brass, cackling percussion, caterwauling electric guitars and a few struggling-to-be-heard strings. This is all striking stuff, but even more striking was Zavalloni… Sounds came from so deep within her that at times one might believe she was channeling Dante… It was as if Andriessen’s music had entered her body and taken over.” 

Alan Rich of LA Weekly called Il Racconto “a glistening, infernal travelogue made all the more infernal in the gyrations of a captivating, diabolical mezzo-soprano with, or so it seemed, a seven-inch waist, a certain Cristina Zavalloni. Wow.”

Not all of Andriessen’s music is quite so sinister. Writing to Vermeer, the composer’s most recent stage work in collaboration with film director Peter Greenaway, is an often tender and affectionate look at the Dutch painter’s domestic life. It has just been issued on Nonesuch in a two-disc set (7559 79887-2), and has been chosen as Opera Disc of the Month by BBC Music Magazine, which called it “touching and memorable music theater.” Reinbert de Leeuw conducts Netherlands Opera, the Schoenberg Ensemble, and the Asko Ensemble. Susan Narucki,  Barbara Hannigan, and Susan Bickley portray his wife, a model (a character invented by Greenaway), and his mother-in-law respectively. Writes David Patrick Stearns in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Though more refined and thoughtful than many Andriessen scores, this is a rambunctiously eventful piece, and as fine and substantial as any opera score of the last decade.  The text is mostly letters written to the 17th-century painter Johannes Vermeer by the various women in his life, set against the backdrop of tumultuous events in Dutch history. The blessedly mundane details of living related in the letters suggest a longing for the real or imagined tranquility of Vermeer's paintings in a time when that quality was in short supply.”

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