Louis Andriessen and Passover Seders

Louis Andriessen at 70

Years ago I dis­cov­ered a stun­ning and mon­u­men­tal work for Cho­rus and Orches­tra called De Staat (which trans­lates to The State or in this case, ‘The Repub­lic’ based on Plato’s Repub­lic).  If you haven’t heard it (and I strong­ly rec­om­mend check­ing out a record­ing), it’s kind of like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, but with the vol­ume, heart-pound­ing rep­e­ti­tions and unison­ic crag­gy lines of force tak­en to 11 (as Spinal Tap would put it). It made a big impres­sion on me, even though I only heard it on record­ings, and I even remem­ber using a bit of it in a lec­ture I gave about the tools and tech­niques that a com­pos­er can use to manip­u­late the sub­jec­tive per­cep­tion of time.  The Dutch com­pos­er Louis Andriessen wrote it, and in some ways it has become, like Stravinsky’s Rite,  one of those big, icon­ic pieces in music his­to­ry where audi­ences got to feel not so much a tide turn­ing as a tidal wave crash­ing upon them. To give you an idea of some of the pow­er of this work, lis­ten to this bit near the begin­ning where sec­tions of the orches­tra pound away until (in a style not unlike con­tem­po­rary cin­e­ma) they get spliced right on to a vista that opens up:

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Now imag­ine a piece for large orches­tra and cho­rus that does this kind of thing for over a half hour with no break. Sec­tions build, crash, and coa­lesce, like tec­ton­ic plates crunch­ing. It’s huge, exhaust­ing, and I would imag­ine, shat­ter­ing. As you’d expect, De Staat doesn’t get played very often, but I hope some day to hear it live.

Big orches­tra or not, I was thrilled that last week, Andriessen was here, in Van­cou­ver, as part of a world tour, cel­e­brat­ing his 70th Birth­day and as part of the Music on Main series. The Turn­ing Point Ensem­ble, one of Vancouver’s few New Music ensem­bles, played at Her­itage Hall, a dis­tinc­tive old build­ing on Main. Andriessen’s Zil­ver, which he wrote in 1994 was last on the pro­gram, set up by a series of works by oth­er com­posers, some of them present in the hall (and a piece by Andriessen’s father, Hen­drik, which was a charm­ing, if some­what out-of-place 19th cen­tu­ry-sound­ing Inter­mez­zo for flute and harp).  Of all the works lead­ing up to Zil­ver, I liked best David Lang’s Sweet Air, ded­i­cat­ed to Andriessen on his 60th Birth­day. Lang won a Pulitzer last year for his Lit­tle Match Girl Pas­sion, a set­ting of Hans Chris­t­ian Anderson’s sto­ry set as a work for singers and orches­tra (like Bach’s St. Matthew Pas­sion). It is indeed sweet, and floats along, spin­ning out end­less vari­a­tions on this open­ing set of repeat­ing pat­terns:

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While I don’t have a record­ing of Zil­ver (and have nev­er heard it), it was a lot of fun, and full of all sorts of inter­rup­tions and col­li­sions of one lay­er of instru­ments with anoth­er. We also had the treat of Andriessen telling a few fun­ny sto­ries before the per­for­mance, aliken­ing the organ’s ped­al parts in Bach’s Chorale Pre­ludes to lit­tle duets between birds being inter­rupt­ed by a cow moo­ing, and how he once per­formed in a ‘Left-Wing’ Ensem­ble called ‘Per­se­ver­ance’ that made the unfor­tu­nate choice of set­ting up their free out­door con­cert near the flight path of planes com­ing in for a land­ing at a near­by air­port, where the inter­rup­tions here were a lot big­ger than a moo­ing cow. He was wear­ing a fedo­ra and rain­coat, and seemed to be hav­ing as much fun as the rest of us were.  I hope we’ll get 30 more years, at least, of music and sto­ries from this mer­ry agi­ta­tor from the Nether­lands.

Seders in Vancouver, Detroit and Washington D.C.

The Obamas Host the First White House Seder

The Oba­mas Host the First White House Seder

Last night we host­ed a small (3-per­son) Seder for Pam, her friend Heather, and me, tech­ni­cal­ly on the sec­ond night of Passover. I cooked the some of the usu­al fare: the mor­tar-sym­bol­ic Charoset, which is sort of chut­ney of chopped apples, mixed nuts, a lit­tle hon­ey, cin­na­mon and red wine, and tzimmes (lots of vari­a­tion here, but basi­cal­ly it’s sweet car­rots with some prunes, and oth­er items — some­times even with meat). The cen­tre­piece of the meal was a small leg of lamb (or was it the leg of a small lamb?). I roast­ed it with some rose­mary and it came out OK, but I’m still not sat­is­fied with how I cook lamb and need to work on get­ting a fool­proof tech­nique that doesn’t pro­duce meat that’s either rub­bery or dried out and greasy.

I found out that the night before (in addi­tion to my par­ents and oth­er rel­a­tives hav­ing their Seder in Detroit), there was a Seder at the White House. I was frankly sur­prised and pleased that Oba­ma would do such a thing, espe­cial­ly as he is the first Pres­i­dent to ever host a Seder. The hol­i­day cel­e­brates the end of a peri­od of slav­ery in the Old Tes­ta­ment, so the par­al­lels between the the Eman­ci­pa­tion of Amer­i­can Slaves and the Exo­dus of Jew­ish Slaves from Egypt was some­thing that I hope was not lost on the peo­ple around the table. Hav­ing extend­ed the hand of friend­ship toward the Mus­lim world last week in Turkey and prepar­ing to par­tic­i­pate in the typ­i­cal Chris­t­ian activ­i­ties this week­end (Attend­ing Church Ser­vices on Sun­day, the East­er Egg hunt on the White House Lawn, etc.), the Oba­mas were a class act to include the Jew­ish hol­i­day as well.