By Joep Stapel
Lera Auerbach is one of the great composers of our time. Dutch concertgoers could see that with their own ears in recent years, at brilliant performances of Auerbach's choral works 72 Angels and Goetia by the Netherlands Chamber Choir, among others. Yet the Russian-American Auerbach is still relatively unknown here, which is a shame. All the more fortunate that she is coming to celebrate her 50th birthday in The Hague in October, including the world premiere of her latest choral work. The Lera Auerbach Festival will then put the spotlight on her intriguing, sparkling and multidisciplinary oeuvre for a week.
"Ever since I was little I've been told to focus on one thing. And still do! "
- Lera Auerbach
Because Auerbach is not just a great composer. She is also a pianist, conductor, writer and poet (in both Russian and English) and visual artist. All these facets of her artistry are featured in the festival. "Ever since I was little I've been told to concentrate on one thing. And still do! But it seems much more complicated to me when you have a job and a family in addition to composing. All the things I do are in the creative realm, apparently some people find that difficult. But I've always done it that way," says Auerbach (b. 1973) in a video interview from her New York apartment.
Auerbach grew up in a Jewish family in Chelyabinsk, a large city in the southern Urals, not far from the Kazakh border. Art and culture were instilled in her: her mother was a piano teacher, from a family of musicians; her father came from a lineage of literary scholars. As a two-year-old, Auerbach began playing the piano, immediately enjoying making things up herself rather than playing other people's pieces. She memorized her inventions by making up stories to go with them, but that didn't prove to be a foolproof method: "I remember wanting to show my mother something I had made, but when she came home it didn't sound the same. I was very disappointed about that. My mother said: why don't you write it down? Then I was four. I learned to write letters and notes at the same time, those two notebooks are mother tongue for me."
"I loved to stare at one painting for hours."
- Lera Auerbach
Still, it was mostly the visual arts that enchanted her as a child, Auerbach says. "We had a large collection of art books and I loved to stare at one painting for hours. I would go into a kind of hypnotic trance. That was my favorite thing to do as a child. Besides that, I was always drawing."
While she made a career as a musician, the visual arts took a back seat - until in 2009, a major fire reduced Auerbach's New York studio to ashes. She lost everything in one fell swoop: her grand piano, scores, archive. The loss had a crippling effect; she ceased all her work and, as a homeless person, shuttled for a while between artist colonies where she could get shelter. "I always dream a lot, and during that period I relived many dreams from my childhood. In many of those dreams, I was a visual artist. That was a dream I had never taken seriously."
Since she was staying among the artists anyway, Auerbach decided to ask them for advice, about techniques, their methods. She also showed them her own work: "I was surprised that they took my visual work so seriously. It was a very beneficial experience and it helped me deal with the trauma of the fire." Auerbach cites literature and music as the main two tracks in her life, but in addition, visual art has since regained a prominent role. These days she makes mostly bronze sculptures, which often have a direct link to her music: "It's nice to make something with your hands. And it saves me a visit to the psychiatrist. My visual work stems from a childlike, safe, pure place."
There is also a story of exceptional precociousness to Auerbach's poetry. Her mother was in the habit of memorizing a poem every day, and young Lera decided to do the same, in competition with her mother. Until, at age 11, she rebelled against poetry: "I found it very voyeuristic to connect with the souls of strangers like that. But that was a bit of a pose, because secretly I continued to read and write poetry. When I was thirteen some of my poems were published in the newspaper and I could no longer maintain that I was against poetry."
In 1991, at 18, Auerbach left for New York on a small scholarship. Nowadays such a thing is very common, but back then it was different: the Soviet Union still existed, it was difficult to get an exit permit. It was the first time she went anywhere without her parents - and she never came back: "When I was in New York I got the opportunity to study at the Juilliard School of Music. I called my parents to ask what I should do. They said: whatever you do, it's the right decision. My father did still go to the airport in Moscow to pick me up, a three-day trip, because they weren't sure if I would be on the plane. But I thought: if I go back home now, I may never get to New York again. So I stayed."
Auerbach studied piano and composition at the conservatory as well as literary studies at Columbia University. In 2002, she made her debut as a soloist in her own work at Carnegie Hall and has been making her mark as a pianist and composer ever since. Her musical oeuvre includes orchestral works, chamber music and operas. She now also conducts: for example, on Friday, Oct. 20, she will conduct the Dutch premiere of her Fifth Symphony herself at Amare , in a concert in which she will also perform as soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20.
She is greatly looking forward to the performance of her Fifth, Auerbach said. The work premiered last year in Nuremberg, Germany, and this will be only its second performance. The work has four parts: the central panels are called "Eve's lament" and "Adam's lament," and both of those lamentations are flanked by a prologue and an epilogue. The subtitle reads "Paradise lost," after English writer John Milton's 1667 epic poem about the fallen angel Lucifer and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise. Although the symphony is purely instrumental, the titles suggest a narrative - a bit like how Auerbach memorized her improvisations as a child by making up stories.
"What is this paradise we have lost? Is it a period of your youth? Or is it an inner light that everyone has?" According to Auerbach, paradise can mean different things at different stages of life: "But it is important for every person to have such a thread-of-Ariadne of magical memories."
"But it is important for every person to have such a thread-of-Ariadne of magical memories."
- Lera Auerbach
Another highlight of the festival promises to be the world premiere of Auerbach's Flight of the Angagok for the Nederlands Kamerkoor. As with her previous choral works, there is a striking instrumental part, in this case for solo piano, which is at times accompanying, at other times highly virtuosic and soloistic. For Flight of the Angakok, Auerbach did extensive research into the mythology of various Arctic cultures. She spent long periods in the Arctic, commissioned by National Geographic and others, and became deeply impressed by the people and their ways of life. "The Arctic is the heart of the earth, and that heart is suffering," Auerbach said.
An Angakok is a kind of shaman, both a poet and a musician, she explains - a combination not foreign to her. Human civilization is threatened by Sedna, the great mother god of the ocean. Sedna is one of the main gods in Arctic mythology, appearing under various names among the inhabitants of Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland and Siberia. The Angakok is tasked with persuading Sedna to spare the earth; he travels through time and space and meets the "spirits" of the moon, the sea and the sun, among others, in an attempt to restore balance to the cosmos. Deeper and deeper into the past he travels, trying to save the future.
"But no matter what he does, Sedna will not be swayed. The Angakok realizes that he cannot convince her and that his journey is in vain. He sings a Last song, to himself, about the beauty of life - and that touches her." At the last minute, it is art that triumphs - "at least this time," adds Auerbach, who is too worldly-wise to believe in fairy tales. She finds it a beautiful metaphor for our current concerns about nature and the climate: in the end, we are mainly trying to save ourselves. After all, it is our world that is disappearing. And what about nature? "Nature will be just fine.