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:

[audio:de_staat_excerpt.mp3]

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:

[audio:sweet_air_excerpt.mp3]

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.

We Heard Him Here in Vancouver, First

Pam’s dis­cov­ery, the Roby Lakatos Ensem­ble, who we heard with Matt and Mak­taaq at the Chan Cen­tre last year, is per­form­ing in Carnegie Hall in New York City this com­ing week.

From This Week on 96.3 FM WQXR:

The Roby Lakatos Ensemble

The Roby Lakatos Ensemble

The Roby Lakatos Ensem­ble — Pho­to by Lakatos vzw

Gyp­sy vio­lin­ist Roby Lakatos is not only a scorch­ing vir­tu­oso, but a musi­cian of extra­or­di­nary styl­is­tic ver­sa­til­i­ty. He’s a gyp­sy vio­lin­ist, a clas­si­cal vir­tu­oso, a jazz impro­vis­er, a com­pos­er and arranger, and a 19th-cen­tu­ry throw­back all at once. Click here to see how he per­forms Brahm­s’s Hun­gar­i­an Dance No. 5. Carnegie Hall presents Roby Lakatos and Friends as part of three fes­ti­val series in Stern Audi­to­ri­um this Tues­day, and the Roby Lakatos Ensem­ble is in con­cert at the State The­ater in New Jer­sey this Thurs­day. But before you see him there, hear him on WQXR. Roby and his ensem­ble join Elliott For­rest for live per­for­mances in our stu­dio on Mon­day, Jan­u­ary 26th at 4:30 P.M.

Those con­cert­go­ers in New York and New Jer­sey are in for a treat. Lakatos real­ly is a stun­ning per­former, and his ensem­ble’s Cim­balom play­er may have been the clos­est thing I’ve ever seen to a human mov­ing at super­hu­man speed. He was lit­er­al­ly a blur. It was also a rev­e­la­tion to hear the music that Brahms and Liszt based their Hun­gar­i­an Rhap­sodies on, real, alive and per­formed with the same pas­sion and agili­ty that those com­posers who heard were so thrilled by. Not only did the music that Lakatos plays have a huge influ­ence on the devel­op­ment of music in the Roman­tic era, but it’s just plain fun and nev­er bor­ing.

My par­ents heard some Gyspy ensem­bles when they were vaca­tion­ing in Hun­gary years ago and were also blown away. It’s remark­able how this music has sur­vived all of these cen­turies intact.

Happy Birthday, Ludwig Van!

Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto

Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Con­cer­to, Op. 73 (excerpt)
[audio:Emperor_Beginning.mp3]

Today would have been Lud­wig van Beethoven’s 238th birth­day. Even though he only lived to the age of 56,  a life­time of 238 years would have been fine with me, if he could have kept writ­ing music.

The piece and excerpt above are from his Fifth Piano Con­cer­to, some­times called the ‘Emper­or’ Con­cer­to, which he wrote between 1808 and 1809 for the Arch­duke Rudolph of Aus­tria. This open­ing, no mat­ter how many times I hear it, is always fas­ci­nat­ing. To begin the piece with these big, loud chords, with the strands of what sounds like a free impro­vi­sa­tion strung from col­umn to col­umn until it final­ly takes off, like a car shift­ing into dri­ve, is such a fan­tas­tic idea, and so arrest­ing, that I’d be hard-pressed to come up with many oth­er pieces of music that are both as star­tling and ulti­mate­ly satisfying…and not writ­ten by the same guy.

Here’s to one of the great­est, 238 years lat­er, still shout­ing beau­ty.

Dr Atomic in Vancouver

A cou­ple of week­ends ago, Pam and I, as part of an ear­ly hol­i­day gift from my par­ents, went to a per­for­mance with them at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera in New York.  Well, not exact­ly. What we did do, was see a pro­duc­tion, by the Met live, in down­town Van­cou­ver, just as they were view­ing the same pro­duc­tion in Bal­ti­more. This is actu­al­ly a bit of tech­no­log­i­cal mag­ic that I nev­er expect­ed to see work so well, and cer­tain­ly not so close to home.

Believe it or not, once a month or so, the New York Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera broad­casts live per­for­mances, via High Def­i­n­i­tion video and CD-qual­i­ty mul­ti­chan­nel sound, to a satel­lite, which then beams them down to movie the­atres all across North Amer­i­ca, includ­ing a cou­ple here in Van­cou­ver (the Sco­tia­bank Para­mount the­atre on Bur­rard, as well as one in North Van­cou­ver). I’ve since learned that the Toron­to Bal­let is doing much the same with some of their per­for­mances of the Nut­crack­er.

So on that Sat­ur­day morn­ing, at 10:00 AM (because it’s live, and in New York City it’s 1PM in the after­noon, the per­fect time for a mat­inée), we saw Doc­tor Atom­ic, the new opera about Robert Oppen­heimer and the Man­hat­tan Project by Amer­i­can com­pos­er John Adams.

Bear in mind that although it is pret­ty amaz­ing that you can do this sort of thing at all, the fact that it’s easy is even more impres­sive. Of course, I could buy tick­ets online and have them charged direct­ly to my Bank Account via Inter­ac (they were a lit­tle less than $25 apiece). There were no lines that morn­ing at the Sco­tia­Bank The­atre. The broad­cast was being shown in two the­atres, and one was near­ly full, so Pam and I opt­ed for the sec­ond, small­er the­atre, and got very, very good seats, the kind you could nev­er get in New York.  If you were going to actu­al­ly attend the same per­for­mance in New York, $25 would prob­a­bly not cov­er the park­ing, much less your actu­al the­atre tick­ets for even stand­ing room, not even count­ing the plane fare, hotel and meals…etc.

Before the pro­duc­tion start­ed, the movie screen showed the inside of the Met in Lin­coln Cen­ter. I’ve been there a cou­ple of times, so it was fas­ci­nat­ing to see it again, live, with audi­ence mem­bers either in their seats or arriv­ing, the famous chan­de­liers all in the down posi­tion (they get pulled up just before the show is about to start),  from the oth­er end of the con­ti­nent.

After a momen­t’s intro­duc­tion from back­stage by Susan Gra­ham, the host of the broad­cast, the cam­era cuts to the main tech­ni­cal direc­tor telling the con­duc­tor that it’s time for the per­for­mance to start.

The opera?  The first act was a lit­tle slow, dra­mat­i­cal­ly, but the music was superb. I think it’s one of the com­poser’s best scores. The aria on words of John Donne (his Holy Son­net XIV) at the end of the first act is bril­liant:

Bat­ter my heart, three per­son­’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to’an­oth­er due,
Labour to’ad­mit you, but Oh, to no end,
Rea­son yhour viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is cap­tiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet deare­ly’I love you, and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your ene­mie:
Divorce mee, untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’en­thrall mee, nev­er shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you rav­ish mee.

I also was struck by the beau­ty of Adams’ orches­tra­tion and his ear for bril­liant sonori­ties, which I’d come to know from his ear­li­er work (and one of my favourite orches­tral pieces) Har­monielehrer, a sort of three-move­ment sym­phon­ic salute to to roman­tic music of the late 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry. The end­ing of the opera is dra­mat­i­cal­ly shat­ter­ing, with an extreme­ly intense count­down to the bril­liant flash of the first atom­ic bomb test, the moment when Oppen­heimer and his cowork­ers saw that the human race now, for the first time in his­to­ry, had the pow­er to destroy them­selves and the plan­et, a bur­den that we all bear to this day.

As we lis­tened to the music and saw the singers on stage, we also saw sub­ti­tles, so we did­n’t have to won­der what they were singing. There was also an excel­lent bit of doc­u­men­tary and inter­view with the com­pos­er and some of the per­form­ers (and I kept feel­ing like they should be left alone to relax a bit after a half hour of straight singing rather than be bad­gered in their stage make­up by Ms. Gra­ham!)

After the per­for­mance, I talked to my par­ents by phone. After all, we had all just been to the same per­for­mance togeth­er, and I want­ed to see how they liked it. They told me that my cousin in Detroit had actu­al­ly also been to the same per­for­mance in her town, and talked to them by cell phone dur­ing inter­mis­sion. Score anoth­er one for telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­o­gy. I guess the next step will be to recre­ate the Met holo­graph­i­cal­ly for us in Van­cou­ver, and after that, it’s ‘beam me to Lin­coln Cen­ter, Scot­ty’.

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):

[audio:scarbo_excerpt.mp3]

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.