The People United Shall Never be Defeated

12 Nov 2023

I've been to so damn many concerts recently that I can't keep them straight. But one stands out.

This past Monday I went to a harpsichord recital at a home in Orinda. Zach Weiner was there, and I asked him if he was going to hear Frederic Rzewski's 'The People United' variations at 405 Shrader on Friday. Zach didn't know about this and asked who was playing. I said: someone I hadn't heard of - Kevin Lee Sun. The guy next to Zach spoke up and said "that's me!". Small world. Turns out they know each other from Stanford undergrad. Kevin went on to med school but left to to pursue music, and is now a music prof at Duquesne.

So on Friday Maryse and I went to hear Kevin play the variations. It was, for me, a wonderful and powerfully inspiring experience.

Context

To understand the piece, one must know about the song it's based on, and about the history of repression of poor and working people in Latin America. This repression (often involving terror, torture, and murder) goes back to the Conquistadors, and more recently has been aided and abetted by the U.S., which since 1946 has operated a 'school' that teaches torture and terrorism methods to the thugs of right-wing regimes.

Resistance to this repression has taken many forms, some (like the Cuban revolution) based on Marxist ideology. In Chile a more diverse resistance developed in the 1950s, leading to the 1970 election of Salvador Allende, a socialist. On Sept 11 1973, a US-supported coup replaced Allende's government with a fascist dictatorship that lasted until 1990, during which time thousands of leftists were killed and many others were tortured.

The Chilean resistance had a musical component, "La Nueva Cancion Chilena", which included people like Violeta Parra, Victor Jara, and Rolando Alarcon. I was exposed to this music in 1969, when I was living in Ecuador. The music stuck in my head, and decades later I tracked down lots of it and collected it on this web site.

I also learned more about what had happened in Chile in 1973, and the role of the U.S. (and Kissinger and Nixon) in it. I developed a deep, simmering hatred of contemporary fascism, especially its American variants. I do unspeakable things to the Kissinger plaque when I visit the Rotary Peace Grove in Tilden Park.

The song

Leftist movements have often used chants and songs, at meetings and rallies, to promote feelings of solidarity and empowerment. The American labor union movement had a whole songbook. In the 60s we had 'Hell no, we won't go!', and 'On strike - shut it down!'.

'El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido' began as such a chant. In 1973 it was made into a song, with music by Sergio Ortega and additional words by the political/folk group Quilapay├║n. Here are

To me, the song is unintentionally and tragically ironic. The People have never actually been united: most leftist movements have been a hodge-podge of splinter groups that never manage to act together. Allende's government in Chile failed largely for this reason, not just because of U.S. intervention.

So the people were never united, and for the most part they've always been defeated.

The song expresses a beautiful and noble idealism, but one that is Quixotic and doomed. This also describes me and my life to a large extent. So the song resonates with me; when I hear it, I'm instantly filled with a complex swirl of emotions, like morphine entering an IV drip.

Rzewski's variations

In Kevin's introductory remarks, he said that Rzewski heard the song performed by Inti Illimani (who were in exile) in ~1974, and was inspired to write a set of variations, which he called 'The People United Shall Never be Defeated'. Ursula Oppens 'commissioned' it (whatever that means) and she premiered it in 1975.

Kevin also talked about the structure of the piece: it consists of 6 groups of 6 variations. The last variation of each group summarizes the first 5. In the last group, the first variation summarizes the first variations of the other 5 groups, and so on. A fascinating structure! There's a good explanation by Dave Hurwitz.

Like Goldberg and Beethoven's op. 109, the piece ends with a restatement of the theme (I think all variations should, BTW). Before the restatement, Rzewski indicates an 'optional improvised cadenza, up to 5 minutes or so'.

The piece is (justifiably IMO) widely viewed as one of the greatest solo piano works of the 20th century. And - along with Diabelli and Goldberg - one of the greatest theme and variations ever.

Some recordings on YouTube:

They're all great. The latter two include cadenzas, check out Hamelin's in particular.

Kevin's performance

Back to last Friday.

405 Shrader is a small room with a Grotrian 7' piano. The place was packed. I got a glass of wine and settled in.

Kevin's performance was absolutely great. He feels and expresses the volcanic power of the piece, and he has the chops to play it exactly as he conceives it. The proximity of the piano and its volume made it a visceral and almost overwhelming experience.

As described above, I have a strong emotional connection to this piece and everything behind it. When it began, I immediately started to tear up, and a dribble of tears and mucus continued throughout the whole thing. Fortunately I had a handkerchief in my jacket pocket, and I used it discreetly.

I tried to follow the structure of the piece but failed. I should have brought a score, and studied it in advance. Kevin, did you play a cadenza?

When the piece ended, there was stunned silence, then riotous applause that lasted a LONG time.

There was wonderful socializing afterward. I talked with Kevin's father, from Beijing and now living in Sacramento. He acknowledged having initial doubts about Kevin's career choice. I talked with Michael Milenski, the proprietor of 405 Shrader, an intense intellectual/radical who reminds me a lot of myself.

Wow! Great event. This is why I go to concerts.

Copyright 2023 © David P. Anderson