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The premiere of Louis Andriessen’s new work for choir and orchestra, May, written in 2019 as a tribute to Frans Brüggen, will be his last due to the composer’s illness.

The world premiere of Louis Andriessen’s May, for choir and orchestra, took the form of an NTR live broadcast from the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on 5 December, sadly with no audience present due to pandemic precautions. This ZaterdagMatinee concert combines the forces of the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century and Cappella Amsterdam under the baton of Daniel Reuss. The 19-minute work was commissioned by the musicians of the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century with support from the orchestra’s international circle of friends and the Performing Arts Fund NL.

> Listen to the NTR concert broadcast: scroll to 5 December concert 'Extra concert: de nieuwste Andriessen', Dutch commentary from 46'25", performance from 48'30".
> View the online score, including texts

The Amsterdam performance can be viewed as a swansong for Louis Andriessen, as May will be his last major work to be premiered due to the composer’s progressive illness. Dutch news interviews with Andriessen’s wife Monica Germino and composing colleague Martijn Padding, who assisted Andriessen with the final touches to the orchestration, discussed the genesis and completion of the score in 2019 and how his Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia progressed rapidly in early 2020.

> Read news articles in NRC Handelsblad, De Volkskrant and De Groene Amsterdammer (in Dutch)

Andriessen composed May in 2019 as a memorial work for his friend Frans Brüggen, the recorder player, baroque flautist and conductor who co-founded the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century with Sieuwert Verster in 1981, and who died in 2014. Andriessen and Brüggen were friends and artistic collaborators from the 1950s, with the composer writing two works for Brüggen as a recorder soloist: Sweet in 1964 and Ende in 1981. They shared a common cause to widen the repertoire beyond the core orchestral classics, both extending back to early music and forward to contemporary works, and manned the cultural barricades together in Amsterdam for protests culminating in 1969/70.

The fusion of contemporary and early music in May sees Andriessen eschewing his favoured ensemble with saxophones, guitars and pianos in favour of a period orchestra with an Erard fortepiano, albeit with the addition of tubular bells and a cameo appearance for recorder. It is also a rare piece in his output to feature full mixed choral forces, rather than a small vocal ensemble of solo voices.

Andriessen knew the type of text he was searching for - “It had to be a big and long poem, like nature, but surrounded by glass, with changing colours, peculiar and enigmatic” – and eventually found it in Herman Gorter’s classic epic poem Mei. Distilling the essence of the Impressionist poetry, he selected 80 lines from over 4000, in the English translation by Paul Vincent. The chosen sections focus on rebirth in spring and a serene celebration of sleep and death, with frequent allusions to musical imagery. With the final funeral procession for May, as the composer notes, “the music takes on something important, something stately”:

Light figures, like illuminated smoke
Around, above us in great number come.
Then first the gnomes play on their drum
And next come the elves upon their cymbals,
Then Tritons when we’re all there use symbols:
Long tales of song and sadness.

Nonesuch Records has announced the release next March of Andriessen’s The only one, with Nora Fischer and the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, with the recording now available for pre-order. The work for female jazz singer and large ensemble sets poetry by Delphine Lecompte, drawn from her first publication, The animals in me. Andriessen’s major works are available on Nonesuch recordings, including De Staat, De Tijd, De Materie and the stage works Rosa: The Death of a Composer, Writing to Vermeer, La Commedia and Theatre of the World.

>  Further information on Work: May

Photo: Marco Borggreve

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