New World goes Dutch in modern style with conductor de Leeuw

By Lawrence A. Johnson


Reinbert de Leeuw’s annual appearances with the New World Symphony have proven to be among the most enlightening and enjoyable events of the Miami Beach orchestra’s past decade. The Dutch conductor’s bracing and generous program Saturday at the Lincoln Theatre was characteristically venturesome, offering a significant American premiere and more envelope-pushing music than some organizations present in an entire year.

Most striking was Vermeer Pictures by Louis Andriessen. A concert suite, arranged by Clark Rundell from Andriessen’s 1999 opera, Writing to Vermeer, the suite excerpts four sections from the opera.

Vermeer himself never appears in the opera, which concentrates on the three women in his life: his wife, Catharina, her mother, Maria, and Vermeer’s model Saskia. The action consists of letters written by the three women to the Dutch painter telling of the domestic activities and, more broadly, the social, political and religious unrest facing late 17th-century Holland.

Andriessen’s music has evolved from an anarchic avant-garde style reflective of his teacher Berio, to his own individual voice. There are still moments of bristling rhythmic velocity but the music is often serenely lyrical, and individual in its washes of pointillist percussion, with delicate hues and tart, timbral effects.

Andriessen’s music is consistently fascinating, and, though not intended as such, Vermeer Pictures makes a very effective four-movement symphony.  The opening scene of relaxed domestic contentment, works in several quotations amid the see-sawing lyricism, later segueing into an easy-going canter led by trumpets. In the other sections, there are elements of pulsing Minimalism, and a slightly antique old-music sound, ominous percussion and echoes of Stravinsky in the wind writing. The latter two sections, particularly the finale depicting the flooding of the city, are more turbulent and sharply rhythmic, with abrupt fanfare-like motifs.

Andriessen provided his own charming introduction from Holland via  Internet2.  His compatriot De Leeuw  is an inspired guide in challenging scores like this and the clarity, scrupulous balancing and rhythmic bite allowed all the offbeat instrumentation and idiosyncratic dynamism to register with power and refinement.  The New World Symphony is performing at peak level as this season nears its close, and this polished and intensely beautiful performance gave the greatest advocacy to Andriessen’s music.

Claude Vivier was one of the most promising of young Canadian composers before his brutal murder in Paris at the age of 34.  Siddhartha is Vivier’s largest work for orchestra and one of his most ambitious. The composer himself never heard the work performed since the demands were far beyond the capacities of the Canadian youth orchestra, which was to give the premiere.

Taking inspiration from Hermann Hesse’s spiritual novella, beloved of college undergraduates, Vivier’s work is scored for huge orchestra, divided into eight unorthodox smaller sections spread about the stage, each freely mixing strings, winds, brass, and percussion.  There are passages of astonishing fury and brilliance in this work, with several striking scoring effects, including a blues-tinged wah-wah trumpet, amplified solo cello, gong effects and piano interludes.

Yet I’m not sure Vivier’s churning, slowly mutating music is as sufficiently varied or compelling as its unorthodox presentation. With wind players scattered about the stage, a listener finds himself looking around to locate the musicians who are playing at various moments—and then questioning why one is searching for the players, instead of simply listening to the music. Perhaps the most striking aspect of Siddhartha is the way Vivier’s refurbished orchestra stage management forces one to reexamine the way one listens and experiences orchestral music aurally and visually.

The evening began with two remarkable works for winds and strings respectively.  Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments was written on the cusp of his Neo-Classical phase and while one can still hear echoes of Russian nationalism and bits of Petrushka in the angular music, the fragmented austerity of the wind writing is now, sharper and more enigmatic. De Leeuw led a well-balanced performance that also underlined the high winds’ elegiac expression, in a work originally conceived as a tribute to the recently deceased Claude Debussy. The New World winds and brass were at their finest Saturday,  some momentary loss of focus in the closing section forgivable considering the long and demanding program.

For many years Ruth Crawford was likely better known as the stepmother of folk singer Pete Seeger than as a composer in her own right. In the last two decades, however, Crawford’s own small but extraordinarily forward-looking body of music has received much overdue attention.

Raised in Tallahassee, Crawford came of musical age in Chicago as part of the leftist progressive arts community in the city, becoming friends with Jane Addams and Carl Sandburg. Her Andante for Strings is an arrangement of the slow movement from her concise but ground breaking String Quartet 1931.  The Andante builds clusters in a unique way with low strings pushed to the highest registers and changes in volume spread across instruments in what Crawford called “a study in dissonant dynamics.”  

Crawford’s brand of astringent lyricism was given an attentive, well-prepared reading. Conductor de Leeuw asked the audience’s indulgence to repeat the four-minute movement, and it received an even more finely layered and concentrated reading from the New World strings the second time around.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “New World goes Dutch in modern style with conductor de Leeuw”

  1. Posted Apr 20, 2009 at 10:23 am by Dan the Music Master

    Sounds like it was a great concert. Nice to see Ruth Crawford being recognized in the review for her unique style.

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Sun Apr 19, 2009
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