After he graduated from the Royal Conservatory in The Hague – where he and Reinbert de Leeuw were fellow students –Andriessen headed to Milan in 1962 to study with Italian maverick Luciano Berio. His year of living in Italy left a lasting mark on Andriessen, whose all-encompassing appetite for musical styles was doubtlessly encouraged by the “omnivorous” sensibility Berio himself cultivated; similarly, something of Berio’s penchant for emphasizing the inherent theatricality of performance seems to have rubbed off. So it isn’t surprising that Andriessen eagerly accepted a commission to write a new piece for last year’s MITO Settembre Musica Festival in Milan and Turin, which celebrated the legacy of the Risorgimento and the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy.
Andriessen’s fascination with Dante – familiar to Green Umbrella audiences who encountered his remarkable “film opera” La Commedia two years ago – is just one example of the composer’s affinity for things Italian. With La Girò, the piece he produced for the recent commission, Andriessen likewise pays homage to the country that provided him with such a formative early experience. In this case the “Italian theme” relates to Antonio Vivaldi, a composer Andriessen says he admires “a lot.”
The title refers to the moniker by which the opera singer Anna Maddalena Teseire was known: born in Mantua c. 1710, she took the stage name Anna Girò and became a close collaborator with Vivaldi after appearing in 1727 in his opera La Farnace. In the same year, for example, La Girò created the role of the Enchantress Alcina in his Orlando furioso. A contralto who, along with her sister, actually lived for a time in Vivaldi’s home in Venice, La Girò certainly enchanted the composer artistically if not, as some speculate, physically as well. Andriessen describes the singer as a muse of Vivaldi and suggests that the soloist in his piece – which he in turn wrote for his frequent collaborator, Monica Germino, to whom the score is dedicated – might possibly represent La Girò.
But characteristically for Andriessen, this is no straightforward tribute and contains no cozily reaffirming quotations from “the Red Priest.” Instead, La Girò refracts the template of the Baroque concerto of which Vivaldi became a master – as minimally programmed classical radio stations have long delighted in reminding us – through an ironic lens. The work begins with the promise of a violin concerto, with a descending motif of minor thirds traced by the soloist. Andriessen’s unusual colorations from his chamber orchestra, with flecks of percussion and amplified cimbalom, evoke a ghostly atmosphere, but the stylistic tangents begin to shift rapidly: from a melancholic aria to baroque toccata and neo-romantic effusions.
Then, at the beginning of the second part, the soloist’s role expands into a kind of performance art: along with playing the violin, she uses her voice, which is enlisted to sing and narrate. At first we hear the charming naïveté of an anonymous Italian song, but this is only prelude to a scenario that grows increasingly troubled. The texts, which are by Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom (delivered in English), recount the rapport between the younger musician and a composer garbed in “outdated, sad clothes… and carefully dyed hair.” Into this context Andriessen imports such rhetorical figures from the Baroque as the plaintive semitone sigh connoting lamentation, while the ensemble reacts in expressive sympathy. The “thirds” motif meanwhile reappears in verbal form at the start of the third part, triggering the soloist’s recall of a terrifying dream. The quest for virtuosity generates nightmarish images: concerto has become music drama.
Andriessen calls the first three parts “a kind of concertino.” Following them, “the actual musical drama takes place in the fourth, slow part.” Mostly instrumental, this part begins with a sequence of sustained chords and knife-sharp glissando figures – a motif around which the violinist obsesses. The narrator’s voice reappears toward the end, while the score instructs her to play her instrument “like a shrieking seagull.” A chilling transformation of the descending-third motif from the opening, this sonic image makes for an unforgettable conclusion to La Girò.
- Thomas May is a contributor to the Los Angeles Philharmonic programs.