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.

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)

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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):

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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.