A composer as brilliantly inventive as Louis Andriessen is a standing rebuke to whole chunks of the new-music world. His work serves as a reminder that there's no excuse for music to be drab when it can be vital, to maunder when it could dance or mumble when it could sing out.
The Dutch composer's rousing, pugnacious 1991 score ``M Is for Man, Music, Mozart'' proved to be the high point of Monday night's concert by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players. Patrons who braved the deluge to get to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater were amply rewarded for their intrepidity.
Even in a less-than-flawless rendition under music director Stephen L. Mosko, Andriessen's brusque, witty melodies and angular rhythms cast their streamlined spell, and singer Pamela Z brought her customary theatrical savoir faire to the project.
This 30-minute score originated as the sound track for a short film by director Peter Greenaway, commissioned by the BBC for the Mozart bicentennial. To judge from the still slides projected during the performance, this seems to have been one of the film maker's characteristic exercises in bizarre formalism.
Andriessen's music boasts a similar blend of opacity and animated beauty. Scored for an ensemble of 13 instruments, mostly saxophones and brass, it chugs along like some 1930s vision of modernism in chrome, all gleaming surfaces and jazzy juxtapositions.
Mozart does come into the picture -- one of the piece's seven movements includes snippets of two piano sonatas -- but the dominant figure is Stravinsky, whose crisp, extra-dry strain of neo-classicism is Andriessen's most evident model.
This is music that requires an extraordinary level of ensemble precision (Andriessen's own performing group, the Orkest de Volharding, is legendary in that regard) and Monday's performance didn't quite measure up; perhaps only a longstanding ensemble could do the piece justice. But the score's essential points still came through clearly.
Pamela Z, miked to be heard over the brassy clangor, offered splendid renditions of the score's four vocal numbers (in between, she busied herself with such stage business as sticking knitting needles in her topknot or tying tiny dolls to her corset).
After the opening ``Alphabet Song,'' which traces its way from ``A is for Adam'' to the threshold of M, the piece offers imagistic -- and frankly impenetrable -- homages to the 16th-century anatomist Andreas Vesalius, the Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schultz and the Russian film maker Sergei Eisenstein.
Of these, perhaps the loveliest is the tiny finale, which concludes with an elegant four-note figure over shifting harmonies as the singer hymns Eisenstein's genius. The text, with its paean to ``melody and mathematics (brought) into perfect and enviable proportions'' applies equally to Andriessen's splendid score.
The rest of the evening ranged from the enjoyable to the inscrutable. Arthur Jarvinen's ``Chasing the Devil,'' which had its world premiere, caught some of Andriessen's puckish energy in an essay for percussion (the virtuosic Daniel Kennedy) and a woodwind-laden sextet.
While the percussionist maintains a stuttering tattoo on an oak board (inspired by a supposed Romanian technique for repelling vampires), the other instruments slowly find their way to a melody and begin to develop it. But the percussion writing, which also features an array of pitched metal plates, remains the score's most compelling feature.
``Solstice'' was a piece of extreme minimalism by Melissa Hui, consisting of two notes repeated on the piano, some tinkling of temple bells, and tiny melodic fragments from an oboe d'amore and then a piccolo. The piece's aims are profoundly modest, but the effect is lovely nonetheless.
Leading off the program was the world premiere of James Newton's ``Violet,'' a 15-minute instrumental septet whose purpose -- aside from a nicely turned cello solo and an exciting crescendo right at the end -- eluded me utterly.
updated 11/18/08 3:49 PM