OPERA / Heart of the matter: Annette Morreau on Andriessen's De Materie at Meltdown

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The Independent Culture
A week in a music festival can seem like a very long time. And only on Sunday night did the true stature of Louis Andriessen, artistic director of this year's 'Meltdown', fully emerge to show how effortlessly his music dwarfs that of his students and friends already heard in this populist rag-bag of a series.

Generously, Andriessen had suggested that, for the price of a concert performance of his massive music- theatre work, De Materie, the rest of the week should include music by his students (most notably Steve Martland), like-thinking colleagues (Gavin Bryars and Philip Glass - Frederic Rzewski's Coming Together was inexplicably cancelled), and high-octane groups like the Bang on a Can All Stars and Icebreaker. But like the Trojan horse, this generosity proved treacherous: was it kind to expose such pale-coloured imitations?

De Materie (here, surprisingly, receiving its first performance outside Holland) is a kind of 'summing up' of two trends in Andriessen's work - his interest in the political and social function of music and the tackling of big philosophical issues. The latest in a series of works looking at abstract concepts and their relationship to music, it was commissioned by the new Amsterdam Opera House in 1989 as a collaboration with the American theatre director, Robert Wilson. The huge four-part work was staged, in Wilson's own designs, in static tableaux, for crucially nothing 'dramatic' happens. So the concert performance given by the elite new music groups, the Asko and Schonberg Ensembles, with members of the Netherlands Chamber Choir, served to demonstrate that this is a work in no need of a stage.

Andriessen turned his back on traditional symphony orchestras early on, realising that they would never like his work - one of his maxims is never to write music for people who will dislike playing it - but this doesn't mean that he dislikes symphonic form. De Materie is in fact a large-scale vocal symphony in four contrasting movements, each lasting about 25 minutes. The impact is Mahlerian.

The 50-strong orchestra includes only nine strings, the weight of sound coming from a heavy concentration of percussion - timps, marimbas, crotales, pianos - with horns, trumpets, bass clarinets and bass guitar. This is the Andriessen sound - raunchy, hard-edged, uncompromising and at times massively loud (everyone is amplified). The tenor James Doing rang out over the massive hammerings of the orchestra, while Susan Narucki's velvet soprano caressed the seductively erotic text of the 13th-century mystic, Hadewych. Reinbert de Leeuw held the performance together with almost casual authority. A night for the South Bank to remember. But, please, can we have a real Andriessen festival sometime?