This season may bring no more important event than the American premiere of Louis Andriessen’s Trilogy of the Last Day, which was at the center of last night’s concert by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. This terrifying hourlong work gathers texts from an almost impossibly wide variety of cultures and eras to ask a daringly simple question: How do we represent death to ourselves?
If that sounds like the question of an aloof, distant academic, it was strangely fitting to the piece. There is a calculated bluntness to Andriessen’s music, which thrives on repeated cycles of chords hammered out in the same sonority, a bright, aggressive sound based in the winds and percussion. Especially in the first movement, The Last Day, the music had an icy, impersonal sense to it, as if you were listening to a fascinating but disturbing lecture on the end of life.
Andriessen uses a sizable ensemble: besides the standard orchestra there were keyboards, electric guitars and bass, a huge battery of percussion and a variety of singers, including a boy soprano and children’s choir.
In the second of the three pieces, Tao, featured a brief, lonely song accompanied by the koto, a Japanese string instrument. The final piece, Dancing on the bones, was a kind of twisted tarantella that featured a children’s choir telling you in explicit (and sometimes hilarious) detail what happens to your body when you die.
This was no requiem, no sanctification of the soul on its way to eternity. Instead, Andriessen’s Trilogy approaches the topic of death with an almost violent bluntness, without comfort or consolation. To hear it is an overwhelming and unsettling experience. It took eight years to be heard in America, and it’s not clear that anyone who heard last night’s concert will be ready for it again in another eight.
The evening needed no openers, but there were two on the bill. Julia Wolfe’s The Vermeer Room was an exercise in dark, slowly shifting chords, and Evan Ziporyn’s The Ornate Zither and The Nomad Flute, a lush, haunting setting of poems by Li Shangyin and W.S. Merwin.
The many soloists were excellent, and BMOP’s playing was, for the most part, outstanding. But it was the sheer scale and ambition of the program that was most worth saluting, and the enthusiastic audience did just that.
- David Weininger
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