wed 10/08/2022

London Sinfonietta, Atherton, Queen Elizabeth Hall | reviews, news & interviews

London Sinfonietta, Atherton, Queen Elizabeth Hall

London Sinfonietta, Atherton, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Dutch master Louis Andriessen takes on Anais Nin and Plato

Anaïs Nin has a cuppa: Her biscuit of choice was screwing her father

The most interesting thing about Louis Andriessen's musical snapshot of the famous eroticist Anaïs Nin - being given its UK premiere at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last night - was that the scene on the chaise longue in which Nin (Cristina Zavalloni) simulates riding her father was nowhere near the most unsettling episode.

As ever, De Staat, the Dutch composer's seminal 1970s orchestral work of superabundant rhetorical fury took first prize in knocking the stuffing out of us.

The orchestral palette alone was something to behold: three electric guitars and two fat brass bands at its core, uncushioned but for a beefy portion of violas by strings. Classic Andriessen. Even our first hello was from an extraordinarily disputatious gaggle of squawking oboes and cor anglais. Anaïs Nin couldn't quite compete with that, though we could delight in its four saxes. And we did start with the sound of a kettle on the boil. A curious bit of domesticity in a musical monodrama about a woman whose biscuit of choice was screwing her father.

Sexual transgression was actually kept to a surprisingly suggestive minimum. Instead we got a rather subtle depiction of mental fucked-upness, in which a chamber orchestra, carefully made tranches of film (both controlled by Zavalloni's Nin) and chunks of texts from her and her four lovers (including one from a breathless Henry Miller) are brought into and out of focus in a seamless bit of Gesamtkunstwerk. The fact that neither film, theatre, music or singing tried to dominate one another - that each strand was allowed to drift in and out of consciousness - was in one way very clever. A better depiction of an interior world on stage I have rarely seen. But with each art form holding back slightly, there was also a feeling of being shortchanged.

The music had many fragrant snatches: pungent Eislerisms at the start, a recorded Poulencian salon song at the end, and soulful solo lines in between that were intermittently flung onto Bergian pyres of hysteria. But these small orgasms of forward development were padded out by long stretches of frustrated beginnings. And though you couldn't have asked for more from the freestyling Zavalloni - who is at once conductor, singer, actor, film-maker, kettle-boiler, mad cow, singing of whips and ecstasy and fucking her father, a real messy Gesamtkunstwerk on her own - I'm not sure one learnt a great deal from this glimpse into the interior life of "the sickest of all the Surrealists", as Nin described herself.

Learning came in the second half, with Andriessen's furious political disquisition, De Staat, which turns orchestra into a public forum. Using 27 amplified instruments, the language of Stravinsky and bebop, Andriessen examines several ways of social organisation through orchestral means, from melodic oligarchies to polyphonic democracies. Four female singers (the ever excellent Synergy Vocals) offer up Plato's thoughts on music and morality from The Republic. The result is a raucous canonical discussion from opposing brass bands, who finally come together in a fire-breathing slapdown of Platonic authoritarianism that is in itself suggestive of a new oppressiveness. The virtuosic London Sinfonietta, under the cool mastery of conductor David Atherton, played the work hard and fast, and delivered a Paxman-esque final showdown.

The virtuosic London Sinfonietta delivered a Paxman-esque final showdown

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