Louis Andriessen is Europe’s leading post-minimalist composer, occupying a niche similar to John Adams in North America. His early process pieces Hoketus and Worker’s Union bear the influence of his friend and contemporary Frederic Rzewski, and established him as a lynchpin in the post-WW2 renaissance of Dutch classical music. He’s also an important father figure to the Bang on a Can cadre, as is evident from the constant rhythmic energy propelling his recently premiered opera (or “grotesque stagework” as he calls it) Theater of the World.
Conceived in collaboration with writer Helmut Krausser and director Pierre Audi, with video and décor from the Quay Brothers, Theater of the World is based on the books of Athanasius Kircher, a curious 17th century Jesuit scholar who endeavored to organize the knowledge of his time into a metaphorical theological framework, visualizing the world as a great play authored by God “with all of us as its actors.” The libretto cobbled from this corpus by Andriessen and Krausser is a jumble of texts in several languages—not the easiest thing to follow without staging. But that needn’t deter us from enjoying the music, which is available on a new double CD release from Nonesuch featuring the Los Angeles Philharmonic and soloists from the Dutch National Opera (the work’s co-commissioners) conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw.
Scene 5 offers a good introduction: it’s mostly set in English, and features “pop” instruments (synth, electric guitar and electric bass) alongside more conventional orchestral timbres. The following scene begins with some sharp chords that hearken back to the ending of Stravinsky’s last masterpiece, the Requiem Canticles. It’s quintessential Andriessen, combining “American” playfulness and “European” historical perspective into an idiom that’s accessible and contemporary but still committed to a humanist striving, however imperfect, toward higher knowledge.