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PROM 58 - Steve Martland, Louis Andriessen and Cornelis de Bondt: Netherlands Wind Ensemble, Lucas Vis and Bart Schneemann, Royal Albert Hall, London, 28.8.2009 (BBr)

Steve Martland: Beat The Retreat (1995)

Louis Andriessen: De Staat (1972/1976)

Cornelis de Bondt: Doors Closed (1984)

There is nothing in the history of music which can be compared to Louis Andriessen’s De Staat. It’s an astonishing composition, scored for the unique ensemble of four female voices, 4 each of oboes (2 doubling on cor anglais), horns, trumpets, trombones and violas, 2 electric guitars, bass guitar, 2 harps and 2 pianos. The language is up–front, in–yer–face, urgent, forthright and aggressive but hugely compelling and, ultimately, very satisfying.

Andriessen says that he wrote De Staat (The Republic):

“…as a contribution to the debate about the relation of music to politics. Many composers view the act of composing as, somehow, above social conditioning. I contest that. How you arrange your musical material, the techniques you use and the instruments you score for, are largely determined by your own social circumstances and listening experience, and the availability of financial support. I do agree, though, that abstract musical material - pitch, duration and rhythm - are beyond social conditioning: it is found in nature. However, the moment the musical material is ordered it becomes culture and hence a social entity.

”I have used passages from Plato to illustrate these points. His text is politically controversial, if not downright negative: everyone can see the absurdity of Plato's statement that the mixolydian mode should be banned as it would have a damaging influence on the development of character.

”My second reason for writing De Staat is a direct contradiction of the first: I deplore the fact that Plato was wrong. If only it were true that musical innovation could change the laws of the State!”

De Staat certainly didn’t change the laws of the State but it did create a new music, and a new musical experience for an audience. This performance was magnificent. This music must be in the blood of these players for they respond so easily to it, they bring it vividly to life and understand every nuance and twist and turn.

I didn’t read the programme note for Cornelis de Bondt’s Doors Closed until after I had heard the piece, and thus, as I listened, I was wondering why there were quotations from The fiuneral march from the Eroica Symphony and When I am laid in earth from Dido and Aeneas. I discovered that Doors Closed is the second panel of a four part cycle The Broken Ear, which is concerned with the disintegration of tonality which occurred at the end of the 19th century. Because of this, de Bondt says, “something fundamental to the expressive power of music has disappeared.”

Whatever the composer was trying to do, I worry about a work when I have to read about it in order to understand what is going on. I don’t need to know what De Staat is “about” in order to have a fulfilling musical experience, and I think it is debatable that once knowing “the plot” of that work it will enhance my listening experience, so well written, and easily communicable is the music. De Bondt’s work, however, cannot fully make sense without foreknowledge of the impetus behind the notes. Requiring two conductors, Doors Closed started as an impressive wild procession, but it quickly got bogged down in its own complexity, the total lack of light and shade, not to mention its unrelenting, and unforgiving, venir, and its almost half hour playing time, became tiresome on the ear for there were no peaks, let alone troughs, for one to use as points of reference.

The show started with Steve Martland’s Beat The Retreat, written for the 400th anniversary of Purcell’s death, and, using a bass line from that composer, Martland builds a kind of dance fantasia. We are told that the work was created in response to the (then) ruling Conservative Government introducing the Criminal Justice Bill, the implications of which disturbed Martland. The composer writes that the bill “…effectively denied people the right to attend clubs and outdoor dance events. The offending music was described as that which used ‘repetitive beats’ although, to my knowledge, no–one on their way to, or from, the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden to hear a Mozart opera was ever arrested.”

Surely this is a rather naïve assessment of things, or am I missing something? This pleasant little chaconne type work made a good opener, and the repetition in the music didn’t get any of us arrested. Listening to the music without knowledge of the politics behind it makes Beat the Retreat a delightful experience for here is Martland in lighter mode, having fun, and entertaining us.

I came home wishing to hear some absolute music which exists only for its own sake, such as a Haydn String Quartet, without any extra musical connotations. Surely this is what music is all about – the sound, not the motivation.

Bob Briggs

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