Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Dis is the City

November 18, 2007

Grant Gershon with the LAMC and LACO
Photo: mine 2007

You have to hand it to the Los Angeles Master Chorale and their fearless leader Grant Gershon. As Esa-Pekka Salonen used his influence to mold this city into one that has a strong appreciation of new music, the LAMC has not missed a beat throwing itself headlong in the same fashion commissioning new works right and left from living composers and keeping their programs challenging and inventive despite their decidedly low brow PR. Tonight’s concert was no exception in that it featured a substantial and tantalizing world premiere from Louis Andriessen, The City of Dis or: The Ship of Fools. The piece stems from his longstanding interest in Dante’s Divine Comedy and hearkens to an earlier work, Racconto dall’Inferno for orchestra and soprano, which had its US Premiere with the LA Phlharmonic in 3/06 with the incomparable Cristina Zavalloni. The City of Dis is a teaser in that it is a preliminary version of the first act of Andriessen’s latest operatic work La Commedia, which will debut this summer at De Nederlandse Opera with Zavalloni in the role of Dante. (If you’re thinking about plans for next summer as I am, here is an idea, DNO is running Commedia against Messiaen’s Saint Francois d’Assise)

The City of Dis shares much in common with Andriessen’s recent works for the stage. Just as he has collaborated with Peter Greenaway in the past, Andriessen will work with American independent film legend Hal Hartley on cinematic elements to be incorporated into the work's final performance. He has also treated the piece as a sort of collaboration with another young composer as he did in Writing to Vermeer with Michel van der Aa. Dis features “soundscape” contributions from former student, Anke Brouwer, who has captured ambient sounds from city life that burst throughout the work, most notably at the very opening in an almost Ligeti-like fashion.

The work is surprisingly varied for a piece about hell, containing rather bright music intermingled with the more menacing threads one would expect. Andriessen has always had a sense of humor and it shows here. His notion of hell is based somewhat on the life of modern cities and he makes references to them throughout using sounds such as shattering glass and car horns. Of course how can you start a work about descending into the city of hell without mentioning Gershwin, which Andriessen does by sticking a reworked version of An American in Paris into the introduction of The City of Dis. However, make no mistake, this composition is no paean to country life. It barrels through a variety of texts besides Dante including Psalm 107 and a Medieval Dutch version of The Ship of Fools.

Musically the work is scored for a small orchestra, two pianos, cimbalom, and choir. This version of the first act has little in the way of solo vocal performance with only short arias for Beatrice, Virgil, and Dante. The chorale sounded great as usual as did Deborah Mayhan as Beatrice, though most of the fireworks are reserved for the chorus. The text shifts between several different languages both current and historical creating a sense of disorientation. The music is trademark Andriessen, which is not as dissonant as one might think, but can be plenty unsettling when it’s called for. Admittedly this 20-minute snippet is hard to fit into a larger context, but what was played here under Grant Gershon’s leadership was certainly enticing enough to make me want to hear more. The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra played admirably though not as cleanly and insightfully as one might have hoped.

The rest of the evening's program featured music concerning the desire for peace in a time of war - Haydn’s Misa in Tempore Belli and Tormis’ Varjele, Jumala, soasta. As effective as these were, the program seemed strangely distanced from such an obviously current theme. Not much was said about it during the course of the program and Haydn’s 18th century version of suffering and catharsis sounds very different from contemporary ones. Still, the performance from LACO and the LAMC under the leadership of Jeffrey Kahane in this half of the program was admirable as all of the Haydn masses LAMC has presented over the last few years. But then again maybe little more needed to be said than to let the music itself "speak" for itself.


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