Monday, May 23, 2011

The Ricciotti Ensemble, PART TWO

On Sunday 15 May the combined Ricciotti Ensemble(s) from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, with the current Ricciotti interspersed, played in the Openbare Verlichting in the Westergasterrein. I have described the space in an earlier blog. In addition to Gijs Kramers and myself, there were four other conductors: Wim Witteman, Leonard Van Goudoever, Leon Berendse, and Bas Wiegers. The program was announced as follows:

Jurriaan Andriessen: De gepikte vogel (quadraphonic version)

Wim Van Binsbergen: Cordon bleu (Ricciotti ’70)

Willem Van Manen: Divertimento (R ’80)

Leonard Van Goudoever: Vers (R ’90, with Marga Grooff, soloist)

Konrad Koselleck: Daddy’s nightmare and the birthday of his son (R ’00)

Neely Bruce: Grand Polka de bataille (version for four orchestras)

PAUSE: all Ricciottis combine to make a gigantic 180-piece group

Willem Breuker: Onleesbaar III

Ricciotti/Van Wassenaer: Concertino II (the tune)

Wim Witteman: Just for you

Richard Wagner: Meistersinger overture

Chiel Meijering: No night no day

Chiel Meijering: Budhead (world premiere)

Van Dyke Parks: The Four Mills Brothers (with eight interpolated soloists)

In forty-one years certain traditions have established themselves in the Ricciotti, and this concert brought several of these to the fore. With this orchestra the first rule of programming is spontaneity, and the corollary to that is “Never trust the printed program.” The first half opened with their trademark composition, almost their theme song, De gepikte vogel of Jurriaan Andriessen (Louis’s less-famous older brother, alas deceased). “Gepikte” can be seen on YouTube in at least three versions by the Ricciotti. (I wonder if any other orchestra has played the piece.) There is a certain amount of flexibility in this composition, and it can be stretched in various ways. Sunday night it came to a resting point and Orchestra One (Ricciotti ’70) began to play Cordon bleu. Of course anyone who knew “Gepikte” (and many in the audience did, being die-hard Ricciotti fans) expected it to be completed, but when? Each of the orchestras did its thing, and I conducted the Grand Polka, which went off without a hitch (almost—there still was that strange silent measure that was not supposed to be there).

I should mention the singing of Marga Groff. Marga was the manager of the Ricciotti when I was most involved with them, in the late 1980s and through the American tour of 1991. She is a remarkable performer, over the top in some ways, but always captivating. The solo part in Vers was written for her. Leonard Van Goudoever is better known as a conductor than a composer I think, but the pieces of his I have heard are uniformly excellent. A violinist himself, he writes very well for strings, which are featured in this piece. The text ends with “In my heart a bizarre tango is playing,” which Dutch syntax allows to end with “a bizarre tango.” Marga has a remarkable dynamic range, and the piece ends with the orchestra singing to accompany her. A fragment of a violin solo and the piece is over. There are several pieces in the Ricciotti repertory that require the orchestra, or part of it, to sing. This is one of the best. I heard it many times twenty years ago, and I’m happy to report that it holds up very well.

So far this was a concert that followed standard expectations, more or less. Of course there are four orchestras in four different locations in the hall, and six conductors, and the first piece on the program wasn’t finished yet, but perhaps these are details. The pieces were performed in the order listed, and even if Orchestra Three, from the ‘90s, was singing a good deal of the time, they mostly played their instruments. (By the way, I attended a good chunk of the rehearsal of Vers, and a lot of attention was paid to the singing part of it. That paid off in spades. No hesitation, no bad intonation, just a Ricciotti singing a bizarre tango…)

The second half was a different matter. This is a blog, not a book, so I will just summarize the irregularities. First of all, as the evening progressed, more and more instrumentalists arrived, opened their cases, took out their instruments, went to the appropriate section and began to play. (This would have probably happened in the first half too, if the four orchestras had not been arranged quadraphonically.) Second, there was an extra piece by Ricciotti/Van Wassenaer (see my blog of 17 May for the lowdown on this composer and his music) performed by a handful of string players who were in the very first concert. This item does not appear on the program. Also, a video of rare, fuzzy footage of the Ricciotti in Moscow and lots of other places showed up unexpectedly. The overture to Meistersinger with over a hundred strings, at least a half-dozen saxophones, a tuba player (he only appeared in this one piece), extra drums but no timpani, and God knows what other irregularities, had to be heard to be believed. It was wonderful, but certainly not for purists.

Sidebar comment: I asked Gijs if this was the only Wagner the Ricciotti had played. He said it was not. He had arranged for them an eight-and-a-half minute Readers Digest version of The Ring, based on his earlier Ring reduction for the Amstel Quartet.

Continuing with the list of irregularities: the two Chiel Meijering pieces were not played back-to-back. Eight different soloists (singers, speaking actors, a hammered dulcimer player) strutted their stuff briefly, in between the characteristic opening of “The Four Mills Brothers” by Van Dyke Parks (another Ricciotti staple, for decades), used as a ritornello. Just when you ask yourself how many soloists there are, and if the piece will ever end, a quick and dirty transition gets us into the inevitable, but only dimly remembered, missing conclusion of De gipkte vogel.

There are theatrical aspects of this piece that have become ritualized. I don’t know if Jurriaan Andriessen put these elements in the score, but every performance of the piece I have witnessed contains them. At one point the violins and violas begin to move out of place and into the audience, playing by memory. At another point all available clarinets (in this performance six or seven, I couldn’t tell for sure) move to an unexpected place and begin to play a particularly aggressive solo line, in unison. (This was really effective in this performance, with all of the clarinets suddenly blaring forth from the gallery, spread out from one end to the other.) The piece doesn’t really end. It just dies. The members of the orchestra collapse on the floor. They jump up almost immediately, of course, to tumultuous applause, resounding bravos, cheers, etc.

Suffice it to say that this concert undermined virtually every convention of the symphonic concert. (I have not even mentioned the way they dress. Go to YouTube and see for yourself.) The 1960s were a time when composers devoted a great deal of attention to music as theatre. The Ricciotti Ensemble, child of the early 1970s, has taken this particular aesthetic concern and made it a way of life.

I must reluctantly close this series of ruminations about the world’s greatest orchestra, at least for the time being. Just one final note. The concert was brilliant, entertaining and altogether wonderful from beginning to end (even if the second half was a tad too long). But I have to say that the single most beautiful performance of the evening was the Concertino II by Ricciotti/Van Wassenauer, conducted by Leonard. It was expressive, in tune, and altogether satisfying. On top of all the theatre, all the dazzling imagination, the wonderful new and unusual pieces—these guys can really play.


  1. Hey Neely,
    Reading yr blog today after a long absence on my part, it sounds like FLORA is yr own (albeit "18th Century" creation)... but NPR has credited it to Bruce Scott. Pls enlighten me??
    Glad y're blogging, etc again. And I love this music, regardless of which "Bruce" composed it!
    --Jenifer (Cartwright)

  2. Oops...
    Bruce Scott wrote the article... and this excerpted bit explains the rest:
    "The version of Flora produced in Charleston was resurrected by American composer Neely Bruce, who took the original song tunes and music from two surviving scores, and wove it all together with music of his own — recreating a world of bawdy comedy, often riotous stage action and truly charming music. The production features Andriana Chuchman in the title role, with Tyler Duncan as Flora's lover Mr. Friendly and Timothy Nolen as her nemesis, Sir Thomas Testy."

    Anyhow, THANKS, Neely, well done!!