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.