Classical Voice of New England
Thomas Healy
August 1, 2009

This new recording from Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project of music by Louis Andriessen carries a catalogue of disappointing turns and insipid organizational processes of otherwise promising musical events. The players themselves certainly deserve no rebuke. It is a sound, engaging, and artful execution that because of the clarity and precision of an accomplished performance, cannot help exposing some of the shortcomings in the writing itself. In works like the Passeggiata in Tram in America e Ritorno, one discovers the composer’s penchant for American minimalism that, under Andriessen’s spell, is unfortunately a stillborn stereotypical rendition that pales in comparison to the 1970’s heyday of the now processed and institutionalized style. Minimalism, as a valid and an undeniable profound enterprise, addresses seamlessly evolving intrinsic elements at the microscopic level over a period of great length (such as in Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians). The commitment is paramount.

I do not demand adherence to a style forfeiting its development and adaptation to new social and artistic contexts (Gyorgy Ligeti has shown that a man of creative genius can propel this style), but I object to momentary “tributes” to a “style” that do nobody any good. In Passeggiata in Tram in America e Ritorno, the provincial minimalistic “style” is abandoned a quarter of the way through the work, like a horse that won’t run. Often these musical events grow tired of themselves, and without very much care or tact shut down, initializing the next event. The result is a very refrained and indifferent passionate experience. One enjoys the novelty of the musical event, the momentary intoxication of hearing sounds, but the art of the total musical composition hardly has the gravitas to pierce through our thick chests and skulls.

As critically objective as I remind myself to be, the Letter from Cathy instills in me a renewed torrent of inflamed emotional prejudices. The text, surprisingly enough, is a letter from Cathy Berberian, an American composer and mezzo-soprano married to the 20th century titan Luciano Berio. The text being a mundane and prosaic account of a meeting with Stravinsky, it cannot avoid infringing on the absolute and introspective nature of the musical experience. Setting poetry to music is apt, as the two share a certain non-representational distinction that the other arts cannot claim. Surely, poetry is represented by the written word, but consider the nature of these words compared to the words one finds in an obituary. A man has died, there is no denying it. In poetry, there is nothing that cannot be denied nor accepted definitely. Now the letter carries no question to its meaning nor its accounts. It is a settled matter. But the music, as art music cannot help do, has no clear meaning nor clear conclusion outside the musical sphere. It is represented by little black dots on a page, and these dots have no symbolic attachments. It may be cute and neat, certainly avant-garde in the worst translation of the expression, to set a letter or a bit of tedious caption from a newspaper (I am reminded of my experience in my Contemporary Improvisation ensemble as an undergraduate), but it is a rewardless endeavor.

La Passione is the pivotal work in this collection, so some time should be spent on it in this rather unfriendly review. The vocal writing is bland and flat. Nothing separates, nothing juxtaposes, nothing changes, as Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisted philosophized is “the only real evidence of life.” Many of Mr. Andriessen’s introductions are captivating. Their lack of artistic sustenance as time goes by, however, forfeits an indescribable human quality in the work. As a result, it reminds us too quickly of the notes on the page instead of encompassing a living, organic entity that shares no relation to the stodgy manuscript. There are many moments that I do enjoy within this work. Introductions and conclusions for example seem to carry a more focused creative energy. But the bridge crumbles too easily and the two sturdier ends of the path become estranged. I am well rebuked in a lack of understanding of elements beyond my own preconditioned ideas of worthy, life-obsessive music. Notwithstanding my limitations, this is not a CD that I will be burning into my iTunes library.

© 2009 Thomas Healy