A Composer Arguing With Plato

05.11.10
Jeremy Denk
The New York Times

By Anthony Tommasini

The composer Louis Andriessen’s pugnacious and exhilarating piece “De Staat” has a reputation as a milestone of avant-garde music in the later decades of the 20th century. Yet you hear about the work, composed in 1976, more than you actually hear it. For whatever reasons, it does not turn up often in concert.

So it was a thrill to hear the adventurous players of Ensemble ACJW perform “De Staat,” scored for a large ensemble thick with brass and four amplified female voices, at Zankel Hall on Monday night. The performance concluded a bracing concert, deftly conducted by the composer John Adams, that also offered Mr. Adams’s vibrant, impish “Son of Chamber Symphony” and Stravinsky’s tart, arresting Concerto for Piano and Winds, with the dynamic pianist Jeremy Denk in a fluid, articulate and utterly dazzling account of the intricate piano part.

Born in 1939, Mr. Andriessen was an anti-establishment agitator in the Dutch musical scene of the 1960s and ’70s. With “De Staat,” commissioned by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble, Mr. Andriessen took his campaign into the concert hall.

For his texts Mr. Andriessen chose passages from Plato’s “Republic” (performed in Greek) that warn against the dangers musical innovation bring to the state and advocate the banning of certain scales and instruments. What especially provoked Mr. Andriessen was the idea in Plato’s philosophical tract that any alteration in the modes of music “is always followed by alteration in the most fundamental laws of the state,” to quote a translation of the last line of “De Staat.”

Mr. Andriessen alternately evokes and combats Plato’s text. “De Staat” is also an unabashed attempt to do what Plato deems dangerous: use music to alter the state, in a sense, by shaking up the emotions of listeners.

The overall sound of “De Staat” is bright and steely. Yet there is something weirdly celestial about the instrumental colors. There are four violas, instead of violins, and no cellos or basses. Low tones are mostly supplied by a bass guitar, a bass trombone and two pianos.

Elements of jazz, rock and Minimalism permeate the score, although the musical subtleties that grab you are the product of Mr. Andriessen’s acute and distinctive ear. The work begins with a nasal, almost medieval burst of intertwining lines and pleading chords from the oboes, to set the mood for the first excerpt from the text, which extols the virtues of unchanging rhythms and harmonies. This, naturally, leads to a span of repetitive melodic riffs and rhythmic patterns.

As the piece evolves, there are brassy blasts, pummeling pianos, every-which-way counterpoint, entangled bits of text among the four hard-working singers, overall craziness and, at times, a relentless din. The musicians seemed swept away yet fully in control throughout the mesmerizing performance. Unfortunately, Mr. Andriessen, who had been in residence at Carnegie Hall as the holder of a composer’s chair, had commitments in the Netherlands. Mr. Adams, who spoke of his enormous regard for Mr. Andriessen, was an inspired advocate.

During comments to the audience, one player, the oboist James Austin Smith, referred to this concert, which began at 6 p.m., as a “musical happy hour,” courtesy of Ensemble ACJW. The large ensemble here included current and former participants in the academy, the training program for select musicians run jointly by Carnegie Hall, the Weill Music Institute and the Juilliard School.

Soon about 20 of the players who were onstage on Monday will graduate from the program. This was the last major collective performance of the Ensemble ACJW season. What a way to end it.