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:

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:

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 Oba­ma’s Seder at the White House

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.

Happy New Year! What if 2008 was a Hoax?

I’m going to start the new year with some thoughts about 2009, which I like more than last year for one triv­ial rea­son already: it’s far eas­i­er to type. But before that, one final reflec­tion on 2008: On the evening news, a reporter asked some peo­ple on the street this ques­tion: If you had to describe 2008 in a word, what would that word be? Most (but not all) gave words with neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions. I remem­ber some respons­es, includ­ing ‘chal­leng­ing’, ‘dif­fi­cult’, and ‘unfor­tu­nate’. I’m not sure what my answer would have been. On the one hand, lots of bad stuff hap­pened last year, but on the oth­er, the US elect­ed the first African-Amer­i­can Pres­i­dent and it was not all bad for me, per­son­al­ly. Matt Hard­ing, the guy who was behind the Inter­net viral video Where in the Hell is Matt claims that his beau­ti­ful danc­ing trip and Inter­net video was actu­al­ly an elab­o­rate hoax. I’d like to join with him, and actu­al­ly sug­gest that all of last year was just a hoax, too.

All except for the bit about Oba­ma get­ting elect­ed and a bunch of oth­er things, that is.

Happy Solstice, and Wassail!

A Path in the Snow on the Winters Solstice

A Path in the Snow on the Win­ter’s Solstice

The snow is still com­ing down as I write this, at past mid­night. It has been snow­ing since mid-day and shows no sign of let­ting up. Pam and I decid­ed we would cel­e­brate both this unusu­al (for Van­cou­ver, any­way) weath­er, as well as the Win­ter Sol­stice (which I blogged about back on the 9th of this month) by going out into the weath­er, embrac­ing the white­ness that is envelop­ing our city.
We took a route that had been cit­ed in the Secret Lantern Soci­ety’s Win­ter Sol­stice Lantern Fes­ti­val web site, from the Lau­rel Street over­pass (that lets you go from 7th Avenue all the way down to the False Creek sea­wall). The scene was one of those mag­i­cal win­ter nights, when every­thing is trans­formed by the falling snow and Christ­mas lights:
David in the False Creek Snow

David in the False Creek Snow

Marina at False Creek With Seasonal Lighting

Mari­na at False Creek With Sea­son­al Lighting

At the end of our walk, we end­ed up join­ing some of the oth­er Sol­stice Cel­e­brants on Granville Island. Here’s a video that I took of some of our trip. The Flip cam­era did a fair job with the dim light. I export­ed the video, con­vert­ed it to DV for­mat and edit­ed it in iMovie:

We returned home to a feast of roast chick­en (I had roast­ed it just before we left), mashed yams and cab­bage cooked with dou­ble-smoked sausage. We were hun­gry, and tired, but the food and a lit­tle red wine hit the spot.
The only thing we did­n’t have was actu­al Was­sail, but I did find a recipe online at The Acci­den­tal Hedo­nist:

2 pints and 1/4 cup brown ale (win­ter ale and scot­tish ale will also suffice)
3–4 cin­na­mon sticks
4 cloves
Zest from 1/2 lemon
4 apples
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 cup port
1/2 tea­spoon ground cinnamon
1/4 tea­spoon ground all spice
1/4 tea­spoon ground cardamon
1/2 tea­spoon ground ginger

Pre­heat your oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large sauce pan, pour in 2 pints of ale. Add the cin­na­mon sticks, lemon zest and cloves and bring to a sim­mer over low heat.

Take an apple, and score it with a knife around the cir­cum­fer­ence of the apple. Place in a bak­ing dish. Repeat this step for all of the apples. Cov­er with one cup of brown sug­ar, 1/4 cup of ale, and all of the port. Cov­er bak­ing dish and place in oven, cook­ing for 30 minutes.

While apples are bak­ing, place remain­ing sug­ar and spices into the sauce pan, ensur­ing it’s well mixed.

When apples are done bak­ing, place entire con­tents of bak­ing dish into sauce pan. Allow to cook over a low heat for anoth­er 30–40 minutes.

Serve hot, one-two ladles into your favorite mug.

Serves 6–8

Here’s to the begin­ning of Win­ter, but at the same time, the start of the Earth­’s jour­ney back to longer days ahead of us.

What a Month!

Is it real­ly Hal­loween again? The month, like Scar­bo the ‘half gob­lin, half ghost’ char­ac­ter from Gas­pard de la Nuit, a poem and the third in a set of 3 extra­or­di­nary piano pieces by Mau­rice Rav­el, has twitched, jerked and reared up and dropped down, pirou­et­ting like a threat­en­ing demon (at least in terms of my nail-bit­ing regard­ing the Stock Mar­ket and the US Pres­i­den­tial Campaign)  and now is about to vanish:

Mais bientôt son corps bleuis­sait, diaphane comme la cire d’une bougie, son vis­age blémissait comme la cire d’un lumignon,—et soudain il s’éteignait.

But then, his body would change, became as blue and diaphanous as the wax of a can­dle, his face as pale as can­dle grease – and sud­den­ly he would be extinguished.

– The orig­i­nal poem by Louis Bertrand

(The first few mea­sures and an excerpt that goes on a lit­tle longer are below. It’s tru­ly some of the most men­ac­ing and spooky music that Rav­el ever wrote, I think, and appro­pri­ate for this dark evening):


He he he, creepy enough for you?

Earlier in the Month

I guess the piano music excerpt is part­ly because piano music is part­ly on my mind. Last week I got to a con­cert at the Chan Cen­tre by Piotr Ander­szews­ki, a very inter­est­ing pianist who was mak­ing his return engage­ment to the Van­cou­ver Recital Soci­ety. He played Bach, Mozart and Schu­mann, and I’d have to say that it was the Mozart that I real­ly liked best. Mozart Sonatas, like the Sonata in C minor, K 457 that he played are often played (bad­ly) by chil­dren. Teach­ers give them to their stu­dents fair­ly ear­ly in their devel­op­ment, part­ly because the music seems sim­ple and ‘easy’ to play. The fact is, when a real­ly good pianist plays them, the music reveals how com­plex and real­ly dif­fi­cult it is. I did­n’t always love what Ander­szews­ki did; some­times, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the Schu­mann Humoresques (op. 20), he would take long float­ing paus­es, and play some pas­sages so soft­ly and weak­ly that it was almost as if they were being whis­pered. Even if his read­ings seemed to lose the thread of con­ti­nu­ity at times, I have to admit that he made me think — a lot, and that’s some­thing that not every per­former can do for you. I think we’ll be hear­ing more of him in the future on the inter­na­tion­al con­cert cir­cuit. In some ways, he remind­ed me of Radu Lupu, a Roman­ian pianist who was par­tic­u­lar­ly active in the 70s and 80s, and who won an Edi­son award for his Schu­mann (includ­ing the Humoresques as well!).

Last Night

Pam and I got an invi­ta­tion to attend anoth­er live film­ing of a tele­vi­sion sit­com pilot, this time in the South Burn­a­by area in a stu­dio right by the River­way Golf Course. The pilot, called Mem­o­ry Lanes and was pro­duced and cre­at­ed for the CBC by one of the actors in it, Ryan Stiles, of The Drew Carey Show and Whose Line is it Any­way? fame. While it is fun to see, it is also a real edu­ca­tion, because near­ly every scene is filmed a few times, and it was a real plea­sure to see Janet Wright, who plays Brent But­t’s moth­er Emma Leroy on the series Cor­ner Gas prac­tice her craft in per­son. Ms. Wright was a per­fec­tion­ist, sculpt­ing her deliv­ery and ges­tures with each take, and always mak­ing it bet­ter (and fun­nier). For me, she stole every scene she was in. I found out from her bio that she’s direct­ed over 40 pro­duc­tions at the Van­cou­ver Arts Club the­atre (in addi­tion to work all over Cana­da, includ­ing the Strat­ford Fes­ti­val). It shows. I hope I’ll get to see more of her; I real­ly gained new respect for just how much a great actor can add to a sit­com character.

Oh right, the sit­com? Mem­o­ry Lanes may make it to the CBC line up next year. I’d say it was a bet­ter than aver­age script, and the char­ac­ters and sit­u­a­tion show some promise. In some ways, it remind­ed me of Wings, anoth­er sit­com that revolves around a pair of odd-cou­ple broth­ers who end up run­ning a fam­i­ly busi­ness. In the end, it will be the writ­ing that makes or breaks it. Lets hope it gets a chance, some­thing that nev­er hap­pened to the pilot of All the Com­forts that we saw near­ly a year ago.