Best Contemporary Opera Recording 2017: Andriessen’s “Theatre of the World”

Louis Andriessen

Theatre of the World

Leigh Melrose, Lindsey Kesselman, Marcel Beekman, Steven van Watermeulen, Mattijs van de Woerd, Cristina Zavalloni, vocal soloists

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Reinbert de Leeuw, conductor

Nonesuch 2xCD

 

Dutch composer Louis Andriessen’s 2016 opera, Theatre of the World, subtitled “A Grotesque in Nine Scenes,” is a fantastical portrait of Seventeenth century polymath Athanasius Kircher. Commissioned and premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a recording of the live performance of this production was released in 2017 on Nonesuch.

 

In a nonlinear narrative propelled by effusively polystylistic music, played with assuredness and flexibility by LA Phil under the direction of Reinbert de Leeuw, Kircher’s thwarted late life ambition to find a theory for essentially everything is vividly but quixotically depicted. Among the variety of formal and stylistic devices are Renaissance style counterpoint and dances, post-minimal figurations, neoclassicism in the mold of Stravinsky, and oodles of pop ranging from Latin dances to doo wop to Krautrock. Amplified voices alongside acoustic instruments (apart from an electric guitar and synthesizer) allowing for even the most muscular sections of the orchestration never to overwhelm the singing. The vocalists are uniformly up for the significant demands placed upon them by the score. Particularly fine performances are given by Leigh Melrose in the title role, Lindsey Kesselman playing the boy/Devil, and Cristina Zavalloni as a nun who corresponds with Kircher, serving as intellectual foil, inspiration, and even at times confessor.

 

On a quest for knowledge, Kircher and his companions are misled by the Devil and periodically waylaid by witches and an ominous executioner: hence the grotesqueries. The production’s visuals apparently evoke nightmarish vistas, like an entropic funhouse full of circus mirrors. While a video recording of the opera would be a fascinating document, particularly if the production team were able to further enhance already significant onstage use of multimedia, one still gets a strong sense of the its atmosphere from the audio recording alone. That said, even with libretto and booklet notes in hand, the quick shifts between characters and of plot, demeanor, sung language (I counted seven), and musical tropes makes Theatre of the World a formidable piece to ascertain. Those willing to provide an attentive ear will find themselves richly rewarded by Andriessen’s compelling use of the aforementioned plethora of material to stymy stale operatic conventions and, in their place, embrace a richly hued, multimedia theatrical environment. Theatre of the World is the most imaginative and ambitious piece that LA Philharmonic has commissioned and presented to date. Nonesuch’s excellent CD of it is my pick for Best Contemporary Opera Recording 2017.

LA Percussion Quartet – Beyond (CD Review)

Los Angeles Percussion Quartet

Beyond

Works by Daniel Bjarnason, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Christopher Cerrone, Ellen Reid, and Andrew McIntosh

Sono Luminus 2XCD

Los Angeles Percussion Quartet performs on one of the most compelling releases of early 2017. Beyond (Sono Luminus, June 16, 2017) is a double-disc helping of new works for percussion ensemble by Daniel Bjarnason, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Christopher Cerrone, Ellen Reid, and Andrew McIntosh. All of these composers are up and coming stars in the new music world. Both Reid and Cerrone are New Yorkers (Reid is now based in NY and LA) who have taken Los Angeles by storm in recent seasons with opera and orchestra projects. Bjarnason and Thorvaldsdottir are Icelandic composers who both have a strong connection to the West Coast. McIntosh is very strongly identified with the LA scene, as a composer, string performer, and the guiding force behind Populist Recordsone of the most interesting experimental labels out there (here is my recent review of a Populist release by Daniel Corral).

One of the fascinating things to hear on Beyond is the way in which each composer translates their musical approach to the percussive idiom. Thus, Bjarnason’s penchant for dynamic and scoring contrasts is demonstrated in Qui Tollis, a composition equally compelling in both its pianissimo and fortissimo passages. Thorvaldsdottir’s Aura maintains its creator’s fascination with pitched timbres and colorful clouds of harmony; these are deployed with a deft sense of ensemble interplay. Cerrone imports acoustic guitar and electronics in the five-movement suite Memory Palace. The places he references are familiar to New Yorkers, from the pastoral hues of “Harriman” to the tense ostinatos of “L.I.E.” (Long Island Expressway, for those of you who have the blissful fortune to be unaware of this stress-filled commuter highway), and his depictions ring true. Fear-Release by Reid presents a dramatic use of unfurling cells of rhythmic activity alongside pensive pitched percussion. Its coda for metallophones is particularly fetching; after all of the built up tension of the piece’s main body, it serves as a kind of exhalation.

The culminating, and most substantial, work on the recording is McIntosh’s I Hold the Lion’s Paw, a nine-movement long piece some three quarters of an hour in duration. Much of its composer’s music concerns itself with microtones and alternate tunings – he is experienced in playing both Early music’s temperaments as well as contemporary explorations of tuning. Thus it is no surprise that McIntosh’s pitch template for I Hold the Lion’s Paw is an extended one. However, this is just one aspect of a multi-faceted piece, which also makes extensive use of low drums and cymbals for a ritualistic colloquy. Still more ritualized, taking on an almost sacramental guise, is the pouring of water and striking of ceramics filled with water. Every percussionist I know loves an instrument-making assignment and McIntosh doesn’t disappoint: DIY elements include aluminum pipes, cut to fit. None of the elements of this significant battery of instruments seems out of place: despite the use of water, I Hold the Lion’s Paw is no “kitchen sink” piece. On the contrary, it is a thoughtfully constructed and sonically beguiling composition. Several excellent percussion ensembles are currently active: Los Angeles Percussion Quartet is certainly an estimable member of this elite cohort.