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Louis Andriessen's 'De Stijl' rocks Los Angeles Philharmonic

January 21, 2009 |  2:30 pm

Bringuier An unselfconscious generation of young composers who see no distinction between high art and low has come upon the scene.  All the old controversies are over.  But so too, as the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group demonstrated Tuesday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, is some of the fun.

The earliest of the three works on this Green Umbrella Concert was Louis Andriessen’s “De Stijl” (The Style).  It was written in 1985, and the Philharmonic’s consulting composer for new music, Steven Stucky, described it in a talk before the concert as Stravinsky meets James Brown in Amsterdam and they smoke a joint.  The knockout score comes from a time when that kind of statement could still make someone angry.

It also comes from a time when maybe drugs weren’t quite so potent.  For all his in-your-face discoing and boogie-woogieing in “De Stijl,” Andriessen still managed to keep a clear head, weaving in a pair of atonal fugues and quoting at length a technical 1916 Dutch text on the principles of visual mathematics, sung by four women who must remain undistracted by blaring saxophones and brass, funky electric guitars, rocking pianos and synthesizer, and thumping drums.

“De Stijl,” in fact, is one of the scenes of Dutch history in Andriessen’s first opera, “De Materie” (Matter), and revolves around the early 20th century Dutch movement of abstract painting made famous by Piet Mondrian.

The Philharmonic programmed “De Stijl” as a companion to the 69-year-old Dutch composer’s new two-piano concerto, “The Hague Hacking,” given its world premiere by the orchestra Friday night.  But the orchestra also had an old debt to pay, having presented “De Stijl” in 2001 on a Green Umbrella program in a performance by a student ensemble.

Narucki Tuesday was a night of pros, but with a young whippersnapper on the podium.  Lionel Bringuier, the Philharmonic’s assistant conductor, was born in 1986, a year after “De Stijl” was written.  But the young conductor’s French cool and rhythmic alacrity are exactly what Andriessen’s music calls for.  The raucousness of this score takes care of itself, but the balances and the exacting rhythms do not.

In the middle of “De Stijl” is a short declaimed recitation in English of a letter by a Dutch writer remembering Mondrian on the dance floor.  Soprano Susan Narucki (right), who is on the classic recording of “Materie,” recited the text from memory to the accompaniment of an upright piano and was riveting.  The chorus of two sopranos and two mezzo-sopranos was drawn from the Los Angeles Master Chorale.  They were as bright as blinding sunlight, and that too is just what Andriessen needs.

The program began with Erkki-Sven Tüür’s “Architectonics II (postmetaminimal dream)."  The title is a mouthful, and so is the short score.  Tüür is Estonia’s second-most famous composer, second to Arvo Pärt, whose “Los Angeles” Symphony the Philharmonic premiered earlier this month.  Born in 1959, Tüür is a generation and a world apart from the mystical Pärt.  The younger composer grew up under the spell of forbidden rock in his Soviet-controlled country.

“Architectonics II” is a rebellious piece for small ensemble that was commissioned by the California EAR Unit and premiered in L.A. in 1990.  Clarinet, flute, violin and cello mimic early music.  Two pianos are up to date with rippling Minimalism.  A synthesizer brings in the pop world.  The three levels do not entirely keep to themselves and seem to get along fine.  Bringuier conducted a strong, exciting performance.

Steven Mackey’s string quartet, “Ars Moriendi,” followed the Tüür.  The title is Latin for “The Art of Dying,” and the piece was written in 2000 in response to the death of Mackey’s father.  The composer, who is an electric guitarist and on the Princeton faculty, has made a name for himself bringing rock sounds into the classical tradition.

The quartet doesn’t quite do that, although its sonorities are raw.  It begins with the labored breath of a dying man. Laments from early music are layered into the mix.  Breath eventually leaves the body half an hour later.   “Danny Boy,” Mackey’s father’s favorite tune, floats into the ether.

The performance by violinists Mark Kashper and Robert Vijay Gupta, violist Dale Hikawa Silverman and cellist Barry Gold was deeply committed, forcing a listener to take the work seriously.  Technically the score is impressive, but I found it hard to stomach -- not for its pop sound or mannerisms, but for its low-art sentimentality.  Others, I’m told, were moved.

-- Mark Swed

Photos: From top, Lionel Bringuier conducting "De Stijl"; Susan Narucki in the work. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

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