The gentle sound of a kettle coming to the boil was the intriguing start to the UK premiere of Louis Andriessen’s work for singer, ensemble and film, Anaïs Nin. The peeling and eating of a banana gave rather more of a clue as to what was to come, in a concert that carried the warning “This concert contains explicit content and language and is recommended for ages 16 and over”. The daughter of the French composer and pianist, Joaquin Nin and a French/Danish classical singer, Anaïs Nin became famous for her erotic writing and the racy lifestyle revealed in her intimate diaries (and in the 1990 film ‘Henry and June’). Andriessen’s work is based on her diaries from the early 1930s when, with a shadowy husband in the background, she managed to carry on simultaneous and highly charged affairs with Henry Miller, the playwright Antonin Artaud and her psychiatrist, René Allendy – and her own father. The three non-incestuous partners appear in the work through film clips (prepared by Andriessen himself) and spoken text on tape. Anaïs Nin’s own description (and partial re-enactment) of the first sexual encounter with her father forms the emotional and musical climax of the 25 minute monodrama - "He was lying on his back and could not move. We kissed, and that kiss unleashed a wave of desire. And when his hand caressed me – oh, the knowingness of those caresses – I melted. With a strange violence, I lifted my negligee and I lay over him … my yielding was immense, with my whole being". The musical complexity at this point appeared to represent the reality of the intense passion of the pair, rather than any perceived comment on the morality of the occasion, not least in the sensitively reflective and tender interlude that followed the familial coupling. The Italian soprano Cristina Zavalloni was a compelling (and negligee-clad) presence in the role of Nin as she reflected on her complicated life with the aid of a chaise longue, a video screen, a remote control and an 8-part band, orchestrated in the style of a 1930’s jazz combo, with shades of Kurt Weill and Brecht. At times, the declamatory style of the sung text (and the varying hue of the instrumental interjections) reminded me of Monteverdi’s operas as it slipped from recitative to semi aria - and, course, the erotic nature of the texts would not have shocked Monteverdi. The combination of film, music and acting worked well, with no single art-form taking precedence. Nin’s father had the last word, with the distant sound of a 1930s’ recording of his arrangement of a Basque carol.

Switching the musical clock back about 40 years, Andriessen’s extraordinarily punchy 1976 work De Staat (the Republic) completed the programme. Andriessen responded to Plato’s curious reflections on the effect of music on the state (which included the banning of dulcimas and the Mixolydian mode), by letting rip with his own savagely subversive landmark musical-political manifesto. This is a work that should ideally be heard, and seen, live. The orchestral staging has two opposing brass sextets confronting each other from the extreme sides of the stage, with a closer group of opposing woodwind and violas. To the rear stand three electric guitars, and pairs of harps and pianos, with four female singers behind them proclaiming Plato’s text in ancient Greek. These forces blast away at each other for about 35 minutes with enormously energetic music based on a complex succession of varyingly constructed and interlinked tetrachords.

The ever adventurous London Sinfonietta were directed in De Staat by their co-founder David Atherton and were joined by the four singers of Synergy Vocals. Louis Andriessen was present, and joined with Cristina Zavalloni for a post concert discussion.

Passing through the Royal Festival Hall foyer on my way to the Queen Elizabeth Hall, it was lovely to come across an orchestra of primary aged youngsters from In Harmony Lambeth, run by the Lambeth Music Service, and one of three Government-funded projects inspired by the El Sistema project in Venezuala and focussed on investigating “the potential for music to improve the social circumstances and life chances for children living in low-income/socially disadvantaged areas in England”.

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