Review: M is for Man, Music, Mozart

Monica Germino. Photo by Marco Borggreve.

Andriessen isn’t as well known as his American minimalist counterparts. John Adams is close to a household name even if he doesn’t fit squarely in the minimalist frame anymore. Steve Reich and Terry Rile, not as well known, are endlessly inventive. Philip Glass is the purest exponent of the style. To compare Andriessen to these three American minimalists, Andriessen seems closest to Steve Reich. Like Reich, Andriessen creates a new experience with each piece.  Andriessen isn’t content to let his music stand still, or ruminate over a musical idea or note just for the sake of it.  Yes he repeats ideas, but coupled with this repetition is a linear purpose that firmly establishes a beginning, middle, and end.

The six pieces performed Wednesday night spanned decades and differed in style, instrumentation, and emphasis. Each work cast Andriessen in a different light. Cragginess was balanced with sweetness. Elegance co-mingled with urban flair. The recital culminated a nearly week long residency for the composer at the Cornish College of Arts.

Le Voile du Bonheur (the Veil of Happiness) was the earliest piece, composed in 1972. Long, nostalgic passages repeated on piano and violin bracket an uncomplicated song about an encounter between two young people. Xenia, on the other hand, was composed in 2005. This short “sonata” for solo violin thrusts imposing, virtuosic demands on the violinist. As with the Veil of Happiness, the violinist must sing. Long, slow motion sweeps dominate the first movement while fleet, shorter phrases stand out in the second movement. Andriessen’s touching Letter from Cathy was also on the program. Andriessen takes an ordinary letter Cathy Berberian wrote to the composer and sets it to music. The letter describes Berberian’s encounters with Igor Stravinsky and his young assistant Robert Craft. Andriessen took Berberian’s mundane note and turned it into an inventive work.

One of Louis Andriessen’s frequent collaborators is British filmmaker Peter Greenaway. Greenaway worked with Andriessen on three different projects ROSA Death of a Composer, Writing to Vermeet and M is for Man, Music, Mozart.  Andriessen was asked by the BBC to compose music for one of six short films in a series called Not Mozart.  Because of their past projects, Andriessen suggested Greenaway to create a film to match his music. At the macro level Andriessen factors symmetry into the structure of the film’s music. A song is followed by an instrumental interlude. Once established, this pattern continues to the end. At the micro level, jazzy ostinatos, references to Mozart’s music, and the piece’s pulsing, forward motion create the essence of a structure which holds the piece together surprisingly well for thirty minutes. The work is charming, perplexing, and exhilarating. Charming because Andriessen’s style doesn’t abrade the senses with unnecessary dissonances. M is for Man, Music, Mozart inveigles our affection for it through lyricism and perfectly constructed harmonies. It’s striding momentum, propelled by bursting brass moves us physically. Paul Taub’s descending flute solo in the Schultz Song was especially enjoyable.

The recital introduced Andriessen’s varied and fetching oeuvre to Seattle, but it also introduced the talents and soulful precision of the American born, Amsterdam based violinist Monica Germino. Germino has created a fruitful creative partnership with Andriessen. Andriessen dedicated Xenia to her. She has recorded Andriessen’s music with the Boston Modern Orchestra.  The two (along with members of the Seattle Chamber Players) played at the Other Minds Festival in San Francisco before coming north to Seattle. Germino repeated most of the pieces she played in San Francisco in Seattle.

Seattle’s own abundance of skilled musicians filled the rest of the instrumental roles.  As the conductor for most of the larger ensemble works, Roger Nelson kept everything together and mostly transparent. Andriessen’s urbane, interesting layers in the pieces scored for larger chamber ensembles are a joy to behold. However, Poncho Recital Hall’s small space and steely acoustic conspired to conceal non-brass instruments in key parts.

For all of the good to be found in Wednesday’s concert, the recital gremlins seemed to be working overtime. Problems, some small, some large emerged during the course of the show. During Passeggiata in Tram in America ritorno a mute fell out of one of the trombones and crashed to the floor. The rest on Germino’s violin broke in the middle of the second movement of Xenia. This required a quick retreat to her dressing room and a repeat performance of the plucky second movement. It was great to hear the second movement in its entirety, but the flow of the piece had been disrupted.

But, the largest problem emerged for M is for Man, Music, Mozart. Just before the concert Kent Devereaux announced the wrong version of the film was sent meaning that the music and most importantly the vocals wouldn’t match precisely with the film. Early on, Nelson adjusted just enough that there was only a small delay between the film and Johnaye Kendrick’s singing. Lyrics flashed on the screen, shortly followed by Kendrick’s voice. Later in the piece the gap between visuals and vocals grew, becoming noticeable and frankly distracting. With the wrong version of the film the effect of a film badly dubbed was unavoidable even though the performance itself and Kendrick’s swaggering voice were excellent.  After the show I scoured YouTube for video of the film and a live performance.  I was hoping to find a point of reference that would help me better evaluate the Cornish performance.  Syncing live music and singing with a film is hard.  Nelson wasn’t the only conductor to struggle.  The difference between the YouTube performances and Nelson, of course, is Nelson’s trials with M is for Man, Music, Mozart were outside of his control. The performance, complete with imperfect visuals, had the blessing of the composer. Maybe it would have been better to ditch the film altogether and just play the music. Andriessen’s music can and often does stand on its own.

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