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Michel van der Aa's Technological Gesamtkunstwerk

Dutch composer Michel van der Aa (b. 1970) is in town this week, the latest composer invited by the Phillips Collection for its Leading European Composers series. This evening (May 10, 6 pm), members of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) will perform selections of van der Aa's music, including the U.S. premieres of Quadrivial and Caprice for solo violin (also featured are Memo, Transit, Rekindle, and Oog). Last night van der Aa gave a small presentation on some of his recent stage works, in which he explained his creative process and how he brings together original video, performance art, and music. Not all of his compositions use video this way, but it has produced some fascinating ideas, judging by the filmed excerpts shown at this presentation. There is no way to know if these pieces are successful as theater without seeing them live, but the possibilities offered by the technological combination are intriguing.

Combining video with music performance is hardly new, but criticism of some such attempts, like the Bill viola video grafted onto a concert performance of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, has focused on the distraction caused by video extraneous to the work it is accompanying. The La Fura dels Baus production of the Ring cycle, seen live in Florence, did better at integrating spectacular video effects into the action. Robert LePage's break-the-bank multimedia Ring did not, showing again that expense does not equal greatness. The difference here is that van der Aa has studied recording engineering and video editing as well as composition, so that he and his creative team can plan the work, from the beginning, as an integrated work combining all of these aspects.

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M. van der Aa, Close-Up, S. Gabetta, Amsterdam Sinfonietta
In After Life, an opera premiered at the Holland Festival in 2006, the characters arrive in a place between life and death and are asked to choose the most defining moment of their lives to relive for eternity, a story adapted from Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda's film of the same name. They interact on stage with videos, interviews about that very question conducted with actual people, shown on two glass panes on the stage that could be transparent or project the videos. The excerpt shown at the lecture featured some gorgeous singing by soprano Claron McFadden. Van der Aa spoke briefly about his next project, a new opera called Sunken Garden, to be premiered at English National Opera next year. Also taking up the subject of the place between life and death, it will use three-dimensional video on screens literally surrounding the characters. Van der Aa followed up After Life with the music theater piece The Book of Disquiet, adapted from the book of that title by Fernando Pessoa, which had a singer and actor interact with video projected on rotating circles on the stage. As the main character's existential crisis, he is confronted more and more by his alter-ego personalities.

Van der Aa has also incorporated dramatic video into concert works, such as his cello concerto Up-Close, premiered in 2010, in which soloist Sol Gabetta interacted with an actor in a projected video, including some choreographed movement by Gabetta and the accompanying ensemble, the Amsterdam Sinfonietta. (See a clip in the video embedded below.) Some of the pieces on this evening's program will feature video and other technological effects, incorporated into chamber music performance. The Phillips Collection presents Michel van der Aa and the International Contemporary Ensemble tonight (May 10, 6 pm), as part of its Leading European Composers series. Tickets: $20.

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