Gaudeamus at 75: younger than ever

Seventy-five years ago Walter Maas opened the doors of his Villa Gaudeamus in Bilthoven for living composers. – A thank you to the Netherlands for having survived the war in hiding as a German Jew. In 2020 the Gaudeamus Music Week has developed into an internationally renowned festival, attracting composers from all over the world. The jubilee was to be celebrated grandly, but Corona threw a spanner in the works.

Or did it…?

The opening concert on 9 September was a feast of surprises, culminating in Hans van Koolwijk’s balloon symphony. On his instructions, musicians sent deflating balloons with whistles attached flying off into the hall of TivoliVredenburg. This not only created enchanting images, but also produced a shrill cacophony of sounds, which nevertheless – or precisely because of that – created a festive atmosphere. Until Sunday, September 13th, there is still a lot to be heard and seen, both online and offline.

At the request of Gaudeamus I looked back on my own experiences with the festival, for the programme book of 9 September.

Poor relation

For a long time contemporary music was a poor relation in the Netherlands. Although international greats such as Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Arnold Schönberg conducted the Concertgebouw Orchestra in their own works, the audience was generally served up classical and romantic music. Even during my studies in musicology at the University of Amsterdam (1992-1996) the emphasis was still on the well-known ‘masters’.

The cause of new music was – and is – often advocated by idiosyncratic types boasting a strong dose of idealism. For example, only one of my university teachers discussed living composers, and years earlier Daniel Ruyneman (1886-1963) was a lone voice in the wilderness. Starting out as a sailor and only later becoming a composer, he shocked the audience with radical pieces in 1918. Such as Hieroglyphs, written for the exceptional line-up of three flutes, celesta, harp, piano, cup bells, two mandolins and two guitars. Whoever said that ensemble culture started in the 1960s?

Compelling personality

Ruyneman initiated one progressive concert series after another and brought composers like Bartók, Messiaen and Stravinsky to our country even before World War II. He found a kindred spirit in the violinist and conductor Elie Poslavsky (1922-2002), who presented countless Dutch and world premieres with his The Hague Ensemble for New Music from the mid-fifties onward. Most appealing to the imagination is Walter Maas (1909-1992), however, who starte from 1945 organized concerts in Villa Gaudeamus.

I have never known Maas personally, but what I gather from lore he was someone with a compelling personality and an iron perseverance. Initially his programming was rather conservative, but thanks to advocates such as Poslavsky, Ton de Leeuw and Henk Stam he took a more progressive course. Already in 1951 Else Kraus performed Schoenberg’s complete piano repertoire, and soon electronic music followed track. Stockhausen made a deep impression in 1956 with a presentation of his Gesang der Jünglinge. Thanks to the young composers’ competition and Maas’s generous invitation policy, Gaudeamus gained international fame.


Gradually the organization grew into an inescapable factor in the world of new music. When towards the end of the 80’s I developed a craving for new sounds from my background in pop music, Gaudeamus inevitably crossed my path. Soon the annual Music Week became a permanent fixture in my concert schedule.

To be honest, I must admit that this gradually began to feel a bit like a chore. Instead of a cross-section of the multifaceted range of contemporary composing, Gaudeamus mainly offered an overwhelming selection of atonal, mostly serial compositions. The elaborate, but drab pieces did not appeal to my imagination. The average concertgoer also felt but moderately addressed and more and more the concerts attracted only a select group of insiders.

New Mozart

Luckily there was Henk Heuvelmans (1954). Already when he became a staff member in 1981 he concluded that Gaudeamus was ‘not really a flashy event’. When, ten years later, he became director, he speeded up the refurbishment of the organization. He installed a shadow jury and introduced music installations in the hope of making the festival broader and more diverse. The programme books became more colourful and accessible as well. Yet it took until the beginning of the 21st century before there really was a new élan.

This was partly due to the move to the brand new Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in Amsterdam in 2005. The ultramodern building with its wide views over the IJ turned out to be the ideal setting to present the latest notes of younger generations. Participants in the competition were housed in surrounding hotels and escorted by Heuvelmans with fatherly enthusiasm. In charming English with a Brabantian lilt he welcomed composers, musicians and audience: ‘Perhaps you will hear the new Mozart this year! His disarming presentation was diametrically opposed to the heavy seriousness Gaudeamus had adopted before, and gradually the hall filled up again.

Pre concert talk with Ivan Vukosavljevic, Aart Strootman, Chaz Underriner, Ethan Braun & Sky Macklay 6 September 2017 (c) Herre Vermeer


I myself enjoyed my introductions on Foyerdeck 1, interviewing such diverse up-and-coming talents as Huang Ruo, Lu Wang and Reza Namavar. This all gained momentum when Gaudeamus moved to Utrecht in 2011. Together with programmer Martijn Buser (1980), Heuvelmans rapidly developed new formulas, involving just about all the concert halls and churches in Utrecht.

Gaudeamus now offers a sample of music installations, open air productions, symposia, mini-concerts, courses, composer portraits, presentations and introductions, some of which I was happy to take care of. A real find was the idea to link participants in the competition to an ensemble for which – and with whom – they write a new composition in just one week’s time.

In the year 2020, the Gaudeamus Music Week is buzzing like never before. Even corona has not had a disastrous impact. I would like to leave aside how many ‘Mozarts’ have risen in the meantime, but the rich and varied in off- and online programming creates acute choice stress. At 75, the organization is younger than ever: Gaudeamus is the place to be!

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Unsuk Chin: ‘Without an inner conflict I’ll come to nothing’

Unsuk Chin: composer with an independent mind

The music of Unsuk Chin was often performed in the Netherlands by the Nieuw Ensemble and in the radio series NTRZaterdagMatinee. On 24 and 25 September she debuts with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with Subito con sforza, a commission.

Born in Seoul in 1961, Unsuk Chin grew up as the daughter of a minister. Contrary to what one might expect in an Asian country, not Buddhism is the main religion in South Korea, but Protestantism. The family wasn’t rich: ‘We had a piano at home but no records; the people of Korea were very poor at the time.’ There was no money for piano lessons either, so she taught herself to play the instrument; from the age of eight she even contributed to the family income by performing at wedding ceremonies.

She got to know classical music thanks to friends: ‘I knew a few people who owned a gramophone and some records of the great masters, which I listened to when I visited them. The most modern piece I heard was Stravinsky’s Petrushka, but I also loved Brahms and especially Tchaikovsky. I even copied the score of his Sixth Symphony because I could not afford to buy the sheet music.’ To her taste this piece is often performed too clichédly: ‘The exaggerated pathos doesn’t do justice to the music. The Pathétique has an incredibly logical structure. When you simply perform it without exaggeration it works perfectly, as in the recordings of Haitink with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.’

Volcanic eruptions, extreme serenity

Beethoven was also one of her favourite composers, because ‘he was constantly looking for new directions. He was the first consciously modern composer, in the sense that every piece asked for original solutions, even if this meant breaking through existing forms. I wrote my new piece on the occasion of Beethoven’s 250th birthday. Subito con sforza contains some hidden references to his music. – What particularly appeals to me are the enormous contrasts: from volcanic eruptions to extreme serenity.’

Just like Tchaikovsky, Beethoven at times found inspiration in folk music. Chin herself sometimes speaks of ‘imaginary folk music’ in relation to her own work. ‘But that remark mainly concerned my ensemble piece Gougalōn’, she retorts. ‘In any case, the organic connection between classical concert music and folk music was broken a long time ago. You only still find it in the Viennese Classics, Mahler, Stravinsky’s Russian ballets and with Eastern European composers such as Bartók, Janáček and Ligeti.’

Nevertheless, she does entertain a musical connection with various kinds of music: ‘As an antidote to avant-garde dogmas and clichés from New Music, it is important and fascinating to relate to very diverse forms of music. However, I consciously make no distinction between classical and folk music. My work cannot be geographically localized, and I don’t consider this desirable either.’

Writer’s block

Subito con sforza was inspired by Beethoven’s conversation books. Especially his remark: ‘Dur und Moll. Ich bin ein Gewinner. [Major and minor. I’m a winner.] Is composing a struggle for her? ‘Definitely! Without an inner conflict I come to nothing. Once I have accepted a commission I always think I have an idea that I only have to develop further. But the moment I start, I at once get the feeling that I have no idea whatsoever. Every day I experience dozens of writer’s blocks, but somehow it progresses, millimetre by millimetre. When the piece is finished I realize that I had it in me from the beginning. I have to pay that price over and over again. The advantage of having more experience is that you know that at some point a door will open and the piece will be finished.’

How does she deal with commissions in general? ‘First I have to think whether I’ll accept them at all. That may take quite a while, for I carry ideas with me for a very long time. When I first heard the cellist Alban Gerhardt play, I immediately decided to write a cello concerto, but it took me eight years to realize it. I do make sketches, but very sparingly. At a certain point the bomb bursts, as it were, and a more intense compositional process begins.’


On 24 and 25 September her music will be performed together with Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. ‘I have always been fascinated by his exuberant inventiveness. By the way, I have a difference of opinion with many of my fellow composers. In comparison with Stravinsky, for instance, Prokofiev may seem a bit coarse, a bit less “sophisticated”, but I have always loved his directness. That incredible, never-ending stream of ideas, the many masks of his music, the element of surprise! Of his piano concertos the radical Second is my favourite, but the classicist Third is a fireworks of pianistic virtuosity and ensemble playing.’

Prokofiev is often considered a radical modernist. Chin called Beethoven ‘modern’, too. Is it important to be modern and what does this actually mean? ‘No idea! Composers have always considered themselves contemporary. Bach would have been shocked at his music being labelled “baroque”. Personally I have the feeling that I don’t belong to any school or movement, but I do try to write music that is “modern”. In the sense of: starting from our time, making reflective and critical use of the compositional possibilities available today.’

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God en Duivel spelen een spelletje met de mens – Vliegende Hollander van Holland Opera: een lust voor oog en oor

Vliegende Hollander: Marcel van Dieren + Erik Slik, matrozen; Martijn Cornet, Schipper (c) Ben van Duin

De tribune van de Veerensmederij in Amersfoort beslaat de hele zijwand van deze thuisbasis van Holland Opera. Bij elk van de ver uit elkaar geplaatste zitjes staat een flesje champagne met twee glazen. Een man (bij navraag blijkt hij de burgemeester van Amersfoort te zijn) begint een vlot betoog over de impact van de coronamaatregelen. Na de afgelasting van The Divorce of Figaro herpakte het team zich snel en realiseerde in korte tijd De Vliegende Hollander. Feestelijk nieuws is er bovendien, want ‘we zijn opgenomen in de Basis Infra Structuur. Dat biedt meer zekerheid voor de toekomst’. Vandaar die champagne. Gezamenlijk laten we de kurken knallen, waarop de voorstelling kan beginnen.

Opbeurend is de boodschap van De Vliegende Hollander niet. Kort gezegd: de mens is een speelbal van God en Duivel. Volgens de Duivel is de mens in wezen slecht, God is overtuigd van het tegendeel. Zij gaan een weddenschap aan. Om hun stelling te bewijzen willen zij de mensheid  beproeven. De Duivel stelt vreselijke plagen voor – ziekte, oorlog, zondvloed – die God allemaal afwijst. Uiteindelijk valt hun oog op de Schipper, een godslasteraar die de manschappen van zijn Vliegende Hollander stijfvloekt. Als straf moet hij eeuwig over de zeeën zwerven zonder ooit te kunnen sterven. – Tenzij een vrouw zijn ziel verlost door hem trouw te zijn tot in de dood. Om haar te vinden mag hij om de zeven jaar één dag aan land. Ga er maar aan staan.

God is een vrouw

Het toneelbeeld van Douwe Hibma benut inventief alle denkbare mogelijkheden. Op een plateau ter linkerzijde zetelt God in een glazen controlekamer. In haar stijlvolle witte robe met wijdvallende rok ‘bestuurt’ zij twee computerschermen. De beelden verschijnen op drie van elkaar gescheiden zuilen in het midden van de zaal. – En ja, God is een vrouw in de opvatting van regisseur en librettist Joke Hoolboom. De Duivel draagt een lange, zilvergemarmerde zwarte jas. Hij heeft felrode handschoenen aan. – Net als God, er kleeft tenslotte bloed aan beider handen.

Rechts van de tribune staan vier musici op een balkon, de drie dames eveneens in witte japon, de contrabassist in stemmig zwart pak. Op het podium links van de beeldzuilen zien we een eenzame slagwerker in wijdvallende witte bloes, zwarte broek en gebreide muts. ­- Dezelfde als die de twee matrozen dragen. Rechts staat een piano zonder front.

Liefde of avontuur?

Senta (de sopraan Elisabeth Hetherington) komt op in sexy wit pak en witte gympen. Zij is gefascineerd door het verhaal van de Vliegende Hollander. Terwijl ze hem verliefd toezingt in barokstijl maakt ze selfies met de videoschermen als achtergrond. Zijn ogen volgen haar vanaf zijn machtige zeilschip, deinend op imposante golven.

Wanneer ze elkaar lijfelijk treffen wantrouwt hij haar liefde. Is zij niet enkel uit op een belevenis? Haar onafscheidelijke mobieltje en de beelden van jongeren die zichzelf op YouTube aanprijzen lijken hem gelijk te geven. Maar Senta houdt koppig vol. Uiteindelijk zwicht hij en kan ze hem verlossen. Hier klinkt het slotakkoord van Bachs Matthäus-Passion.

Diabolus in musica

De muziek van Niek Idelenburg is afwisselend en staat volkomen in dienst van het verhaal. Melodieuze barokklanken van Senta en God (de fraaie sopraan Stephanie Desjardins) staan tegenover de gruizige klankwereld van de Duivel (de imposante Arnout Lems) en de Schipper (de geweldige bariton Marijn Cornet). Diens twee matrozen zingen volkse melodieën, eenstemmig of in subtiel duet. Het is een glansrol van de tenor Erik Slik en de bariton Marcel van Dieren, die in onlosmakelijke eendracht opereren. De vele herhalende patronen herinneren aan de minimal music van componisten als Philip Glass en Steve Reich.

Rode draad vormen de buisklokken, die vaak een tritonus produceren. Dit schrijnende interval kondigt onheil aan en klinkt ook in politiesirenes. In de middeleeuwen gold het als ‘diabolus in musica’ (duivel in muziek). Een tweede leidmotief vormt de opengewerkte piano. Na Senta’s openingsaria speelt de Schipper er enkele duistere akkoorden op, als opmaat voor een vlammend citaat uit de storm-muziek van Wagners Der fliegende Holländer. Geschrokken deinst hij achteruit als het instrument plotseling woest zelf gaat spelen. Knap hoe zangers en musici de rest van de voorstelling perfect synchroon met deze pianola zullen performen.

Audiovisuele intermezzi

Muzikale intermezzi verbeelden telkens de zeven dolende jaren van de Schipper. Dan zien we beelden van technische, culturele en politieke ontwikkelingen vanaf pakweg eind 19e eeuw. Van trein tot zeppelin, vliegtuig, maanlanding en computer; van Madame Curie, Martin Luther King en Nelson Mandela tot de Val van de Muur en de Chinees-met-plastic-tasje tegenover een tank in Peking. Ook Greta Thunberg komt voorbij, net als een gemondkapte Angela Merkel en Emmanuel Macron die elkaar een elleboog geven. Tot slot zien we de beelden in omgekeerde volgorde.

Niet geheel duidelijk is waarom God en Senta in het Engels zingen en de rest in het Nederlands. Jammer ook dat niet alle zangers even verstaanbaar zijn. De musici spelen uitmuntend, waarbij hoboïste Inge Ariesen de show steelt. Zij daalt af naar het podium om Senta in enkele aria’s te begeleiden. Ze heeft een volle warme toon, een vanzelfsprekende podiumprésense en speelt uit het hoofd. Met zijn sprekende muziek, stijlvolle kostuums, wervelende videobeelden en fraaie belichting is De Vliegende Hollander een lust voor oog en oor.

De Vliegende Hollander is nog te zien t/m 13 september. Meer info en speellijst hier

Steun onafhankelijke muziekjournalistiek met een zelfgekozen bijdrage. Dank!

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Three power girls found the Iranian Female Composers Association: ‘We want to provide a home worldwide’

In 1979 Iran changed from a modern, pro-Western secular state to a spiritual dictatorship when Islamic leaders grabbed the power and enforced the sharia. From then on women had to be veiled, and music was forbidden as extremely sinful. Four decades later three women establish the Iranian Female Composers Association. – In America.

‘Music is like a drug, whoever engages in it can no longer devote themselves to important activities. […] We must eliminate music because it means betraying our country and our youth.’ Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced this condemnation straight after his take-over in 1979.

He promptly rewrote the constitution, banning all concerts and radio or television broadcasts of any kind of music, be it Persian or foreign. The Revolutionary Guard is even said to have organized raids to detect and destroy instruments, as Sara Soltani writes in The Power Within Music: Human Rights in the Context of Music. ‘It went even so far that Revolutionary Guards were reported to have organized raids to gather and destroy musical instruments.’

Forbidden Fruit

At the same time, Soltani observes that things turned out less bad than they seemed, simply because music has always been an important part of Persian culture. ‘Despite all the measures designed to combat it, there was no chance of an entire elimination’, she argues.

The Iranian approach displays surprising similarities with our Dutch ‘gedoogcultuur’ (tolerance culture). ‘Even if the State has control of the media, there is a great difference in Iran between what is theoretically allowed and what people actually do in private’, writes Soltani. Moreover, ‘the very intention of abolishing music in public life unexpectedly led to increasing practice of music within the family circle by the younger generation of all social classes.’ – In Iran, too, forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest.

After Khomeini’s demise in 1989 a more liberal wind struck up, even though there are still considerable restrictions, and musical expression is subject to censorship. Although it is possible to study Western or Persian classical and folk music at various universities, those who really want to achieve something leave to go abroad. This also applies to the three founders of the Iranian Female Composers Association (IFCA) Niloufar Nourbakhsh (1992), Anahita Abbasi (1985) and Aida Shirazi (1987), who now live in the United States.

Dreamland America

Even though she is the youngest, Niloufar Nourbakhsh is the linchpin. She grew up in Karaj, a town west of Tehran, in a family where she was surrounded by Persian classical music. ‘But I also listened to Western music, ranging from rock, pop and hip-hop to classical music, from evanescence to Beethoven sonatas’, she says. During her piano studies she decided to switch to composition, which was not stimulated by her surroundings, to say the least: ‘When I was sixteen, I composed my first piece, which I notated note by note without any outside help. When I played it to the most important person in my life, he said kindly but decided that composing was something for geniuses like Mozart and Beethoven. I didn’t write a single note for a year.’

Niloufar Nourbakhsh (c) Nosrat Tarighi

Niloufar Nourbakhsh (c) Nosrat Tarighi

Nourbakhsh misses, in short, role models and leaves for the United States at the age of 18: ‘America was a dreamland for me and a relative of mine studied at Goucher College in Baltimore.’ With the help of a scholarship she enrols to study piano and composition there herself. America means a ‘culture shock’ she doesn’t want to go into any further, but she can make use of social media freely: ‘In Iran these are censored, with the exception of Instagram.’


Through Facebook she comes into contact with Anahita Abbasi and Aida Shirazi in 2016. It is an eye-opener that she is not the only female composer from Iran and she decides to organize a joint concert. ‘Thanks to the contacts of Anahita and Aida, our network grew to some twenty women, about one fifth of whom live in Iran. I put together an ensemble made up of befriended musicians and asked the composers to submit pieces; six of which turned out to fit the chosen line-up.’

Because of the profusion of entries, Nourbakhsh realizes that not all composers can be featured in one single concert. ‘During the planning I had experienced an enormous mutual solidarity, and so the idea grew that it should become more of an association, with the aim of creating a network of mutual support and solidarity. Because such an organization would be too encompassing for me alone, I asked Anahita and Aida for help. We consulted via Skype and in November 2017 we launched our Facebook page.’

Iranian Female Composers Association launched on April Fool’s Day 2018 – no joke

From here things start to snowball. National Sawdust, a renowned concert hall in New York, gives a considerable discount on the hiring fee. Through crowdfunding the other costs are covered, and on April 1, 2018 IFCA is launched officially. At this inaugural concert the three founders meet in person for the first time. Three composers from Iran are not allowed to enter the country because of the entry ban issued by President Trump, two ladies living in Germany can’t attend for other reasons.

Another shadow is cast by the reactions from the Iranian music world. Nourbakhsh: ‘We were accused of trying to attract attention by abusing our femininity and claiming the role of victim. Well, we all know where that kind of criticism is rooted. Moreover, this is never expressed straight in our faces, but always behind our backs.’

The concert is sold out and gets a positive response. Aida Shirazi: ‘We presented different composition styles, with a good balance between experimental and more traditional pieces, something for everyone. After the concert the Hypercube Quartet came up to us and proposed to organize a concert together.’

This coincided nicely with the invitation of the Kennedy Center to present IFCA during its Direct Current Festival in March 2019. ‘That timing was great, because it would allow us to celebrate our first anniversary. Thanks to the support of the Kennedy Center, we were even able to commission a piece from three of our members for this occasion and offer them a second performance in Roulette.’


The concert is appropriately christened ‘Another Birth’, after Abbasi’s piece of the same name. It is inspired by a poem of Forough Farrokhzad, a famous Iranian poet who lived from 1934-1967. Abbasi: ‘I wrote it in 2015 and the structure is based on fragments from the poem. We chose this title for our concerts with Hypercube because they meant a kind of rebirth, but above all because Forough was an iconoclast. In her poetry she pushed back frontiers and acted against the prevailing view of women. She was a role model for us.’

A collaboration also arises with the International Contemporary Ensemble. Anahita Abbasi: ‘I had already written an orchestral work for them, a joint assignment with the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. It went so well that we developed a relationship of trust. I told Ross Kare, one of their artistic leaders, about IFCA. He was very interested and came to our inaugural concert in National Sawdust’.


‘Afterwards we brainstormed over long-term plans over a drink. These ranged from simply promoting IFCA at various festivals and performing music by our members, to making documentaries and setting up an online library of works by female Iranian composers. That same evening, I introduced him to Nilou and Aida and since then, ICE has become one of our most important advocates and friends.’

Anahita Abbasi (c) Niloufar Shiri

Anahita Abbasi (c) Niloufar Shiri

In August 2019, ICE stages a portrait concert during the famous ‘Mostly Mozart Festival’ at the Lincoln Center. Abbasi: ‘The auditorium was packed, there were even people sitting on the floor. Apart from the music the first three documentaries were screened, others are still in the making.’ Since then, they have organized several concerts in The States and in Europe, while The New York Times dedicated an elaborate article to them.

Abbasi: ‘But the most memorable thing for us was the Meet-up via a video connection with our members last May. For the first time we were all together in the same “space” and were able to see each other. Until then, many of us had only had email contact. It was great to finally meet each other “in person”.’

It has not yet been possible to arrange concerts in Iran itself. ‘There are still too many obstacles’, says Abbasi. We are talking to music teachers and the Tehran Contemporary Music Festival, founded in 2016, to create a platform for female composers. We want to act as a mentor for up-and-coming talents and will organize master classes and meetings to explore and discuss each other’s music. We also want to make the online library more accessible. For internet may be much better and faster now than it was when I was young, but still not everyone has access to it.’

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Scant information

Abbasi remembers how she hungered for information as a student: ‘There were no concerts with modern music at all. Occasionally, the German or Austrian Cultural Institute invited an ensemble, and a teacher of mine started a small concert series with a pianist. He composed in the style of Schoenberg. Occasionally I heard names such as John Cage and Morton Feldman, but I couldn’t find any information about them. The internet was so slow! Moreover, there was only one shop throughout Tehran where you could buy CDs and scores. Furthermore, you had to rely on acquaintances who had a copy of a copy of the score, which you were then allowed to borrow.’

Nourbakhsh: ‘I very rarely visited concerts, because it would mean travelling to the capital and that was not allowed without accompaniment. What I remember most are a few performances of Persian classical music and a solo flute recital with jazz-fusion.’ Shirazi heard a lot of music at home. ‘Both my parents had played an instrument but had stopped when they got children. There was a piano in the house, however, and my grandfather was a passionate amateur musician. He played the tar, a Persian long-necked lute, and often improvised on our piano. There was always music, Western classical, Persian classical and folk, but also Western pop music.’

Aida Shirazi (c) Qmars Kalami

Aida Shirazi (c) Qmars Kalami

Composing is a craft

Shirazi feels strongly attracted to the piano, but during her studies at the University of the Arts in Tehran, her composer-vein starts to tickle: ‘I often played chamber music with my friends and that was fantastic, but something was missing. Just being a performer wasn’t satisfactory to me, but it didn’t occur to me that I could become a composer. I had the romanticised idea that you had to showcase an exceptional talent at a very young age and that didn’t apply to me.’

‘Moreover, I did not know a single living composer and the subject of composition did not exist. Fortunately, after my sophomore year I got a new teacher, who was both a pianist and a composer. He stimulated me to work out my improvisations and to think outside the box. Thanks to him I realized that composing is a process, rather than a miracle that befalls you. One might need some talent, but it’s a craft that needs sensitivity, hard work, and patience to cultivate and improve.’

Away from Iran

All three composers left their homeland to study abroad. Nourbakhsh moved to the United States. ‘It was there that I first heard music by Missy Mazzolli, a revelation. She simply uses chords, while during the lessons in music theory I had learned that these were taboo in the 20th century avant-garde. In the States I was able to study composition seriously for the first time. For that matter, the position for women is much better there, but unfortunately it’s still not ideal yet, either.’

Shirazi chose Ankara, where she studied at Bilkent University, a private institute. ‘I felt I needed a fresh start in a new environment. Bilkent’s programme is very strong and the tuition is in English. All my teachers were active as composers, they were in close contact with big names from the world of new music and had studied in America. Because I had always planned to go to the US, this was an ideal intermediate step.’

Old men

Abbasi went to Graz, Austria: ‘The level of education in Iran is very low. I grew up in Shiraz, but the only university you could go to as a woman was in Tehran. After high school I went there to get a taste of the atmosphere and the composition teachers were all old men. They were impressed by my work, but I didn’t feel at ease. That I chose Graz is because from a Persian perspective, Austria (or Germany) is the place to study music. The evening before I started my studies I visited a concert in Graz. In Iran I had never got beyond Schoenberg and now I heard sounds that I simply couldn’t understand. My ears were ringing!’

At the time, she could not have imagined that one day she would establish a union for female Iranian composers along with Nourbakhsh and Shirazi. But together they form a close-knit team, eager to face the future. Abbasi: ‘We really want to provide a home for Iranian female composers worldwide, we feel a strong underlying solidarity.’

IFCA on Facebook: Website: Twitter: @MUSIFCA

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I played Intertwined Distances by Anahita Abbasi in my programme ‘An Ox on the Roof’ on Concertzender on 6 September 2020. Listen back here

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The Lamp – Huba de Graaff writes compelling opera on Srebrenica genocide

Arnout Lems & Helmert Woudenberg (c) Bowie Verschuuren

How to make theatre out of the genocide that took place 25 years ago in Srebrenica, librettist Erik-Ward Geerlings and composer Huba de Graaff wondered. They soon realised that the murder of some 8000 Bosnian Muslims was too wide-ranging. They decided to catch the epic in the personal by zooming in on one single aspect: the homecoming of Colonel Thom Karremans after the fall of the enclave in July 1995.

They centred on the lamp that Serbian general Ratko Mladić presented to the Dutchbat commander just before commencing his mass murder of the Muslim men. The images of the skittish Karremans (‘For my wife?’), who then laughingly toasts with the ruthless murderer, were aired all over the world. They are also shown in The Lamp, a striking title that underlines the everyday banality of this ‘domestic drama’.

Silent prosecutor and witness

For the entire duration of the opera, the table-lamp stands pat in the middle of the stage, in a checkered plastic shopping bag, as a silent prosecutor and witness. Pianist Charlie Bo Meijering, dressed in camouflage pants and wearing a soldier’s cap, carries it onstage at the beginning of the performance and carefully deposits it. Initially, Ratko Mladić (Helmert Woudenberg) also has a silent role. Standing in a corner or leaning on a chair, he watches the awkward conversation between ‘K.’ (the excellent baritone Arnout Lems) and his wife (the no less wonderful mezzo-soprano Esther Kuiper).

Mrs. K. responds to his homecoming with little enthusiasm. What does that lamp mean she wants to know, and where did he get it? I bought it for you, he claims. But she’s seen the television footage and refuses to sleep with him. She bitterly accuses him of lying to Mladić when he said he missed his two children. Isn’t he aware how traumatic it’s been for her that they never had children? – As if I were only thinking of you, he snarls, I was responsible for 300 men. Meijering pounds rattling chords on his piano.

Truncated sentences, rigid melodies

With short, truncated sentences the libretto makes the unbridgeable gap between the couple palpable. K. is completely trapped in the world of his own propriety and rejects any attempt at rapprochement. No, it wasn’t really difficult there and he has not been afraid, it wasn’t all that bad. Neither does he acknowledge that Mladić humiliated him for all the world to see: the general only did his duty, he is a pro.

The music is perfectly tailored to the distressing action. K. and his wife sing rigid, monosyllabic melodies in a slow, drawn-out, tempo. The piano accompaniment is equally ossified and unresponsive, the direction provides a minimum of interaction. The characters mostly sing head-on, with straight faces that do not betray emotion. K. stands legs spread apart, like the tough soldier he imagines himself to be, she messes around with cups and saucers. K.’s voice however jumps uncontrolled to the highest register on the word ‘genocide’.

Bullied like a patsy

Roaring electronic doublings and dissenting voices that regularly pop up under K. create an ominous atmosphere. Sleeping on the couch he has nightmares. Then we see the well-known television footage in which Karremans allows himself to be bullied like a patsy by Mladić, who marches through Srebrenica as a victor, jovially shakes hands with his soldiers. When K. wakes his wife with a scream of fear, he dismisses her concern: he hasn’t heard anyone scream, let alone himself. At such moments Meijering plays sweetly innocent tunes on his piano, nailing us to our seats.

When Mrs. K. disgustedly accuses her husband of cowardice and announces to leave him, Mladić steps forward and fires off a long diatribe against K. He is not a man: he cannot even conceive children and relies on the air support that will never come. K. explodes for an instant. He drags the pianist from behind his instrument, furiously bangs the keys with both his hands and shouts that the Serbs will be ‘blown out of their boots’. Then he collapses, powerless.

Food for thought

Mladić carries on and on, relentlessly summing up all K.’s failures and shortcomings, as if he were now the voice of his conscience. This is somewhat unconvincing, the more so since his text is too long and one-dimensional to hold attention. A male choir, gradually joined by female voices sing an ever louder and dramatic Bosnian lament, while Mladić imperiously walks from the stage and climbs the steps leading into the audience. Just when you think: now it’s finished, he roars: ‘Pull the plug!’ – A dire anti-climax.

After this Mrs. K. comfortingly seats herself next to her husband on the couch: he is safe, nobody blames him for anything, ‘every human being has a right to a weak moment’. Behind them appears footage of idyllic natural beauty and intact houses, accompanied by romantic piano sounds. Then we see a mass execution and the curtain falls.

Apart from Mladić’s endless rant and the maudlin ending, The Lamp is a compelling production that provides much food for thought.

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3e druk #Reinbertbio is te koop! Naast Slotakkoord: Reinbert de Leeuw 2014-2020

Eindelijk is hij er dan: de derde druk van mijn #Reinbertbio. Op 30 juni ontving ik dit heuglijke bericht van mijn uitgever. Meteen diezelfde dag verschenen er op Twitter foto’s van mensen die het boek al in huis hadden via hun eigen boekhandel. Henk Matthezing nam Reinbert op schoot:

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#Corona-classics 3: Hannes Minnaar plays Bach & Manneke

Hannes Minnaar (c) Simon van Boxtel

Hannes Minnaar is in luck. His #corona tour with Bach’s Goldberg Variations starts on July 1, the exact day when the maximum of a hundred visitors per concert is released. – Provided the concertgoers keep a distance of 1.5 meters et cetera. So the Grote Kerk in Zwolle can admit considerably more people than expected, but even so the concert is already completely sold out. The lucky ones who have obtained a ticket will also be treated to the world premiere of Gedanken zu Bach by Daan Manneke.

Manneke composed this by way of a prelude to the Goldberg Variations, at the special request of Hannes Minnaar, whose name does not immediately trigger associations with contemporary music. ‘But I’ve always been interested in it’, says the young pianist. ‘As a teenager I played music by composers such as György Ligeti, Simeon ten Holt and JacobTV, on my own initiative!’ – This changed when he enrolled at the Amsterdam Conservatory: ‘During my studies the emphasis was on the classical-romantic repertoire.’

Piano virtuoso

In 2010 his career gained momentum when he won third prize in the Queen Elisabeth Competition. ‘As a result, I was naturally cast into the role of classical piano virtuoso and invited to play concertos by Beethoven, Chopin and Rachmaninov. Fantastic repertoire, but with an impressive performance history that weighs heavily on one’s shoulders. Paradoxically however, the interpretations of all those phenomenal predecessors had an inspiring effect on me. Through all the doubts I discovered more and more my own voice. Meanwhile my love for contemporary music never stopped.’

As part of his debut in the series Master Pianists in 2019, he performed three movements from Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus by Messiaen. ‘It fitted in perfectly with my programme, in which I also played music by César Franck. Moreover, I had wanted to play something by the early Messiaen for a long time. Like “Le Baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus” in which we are totally immersed in a beautiful, (almost?) kitschy soundworld, without a trace of irony or guilty pleasure. It simply is loving fascination for a number of melodious chords with a paradisiacal effect. This piece made me wonder what music actually is. It only works if you completely surrender to it.’

Tombeau pour Ton de Leeuw

In the repertoire of his Van Baerle Trio we also find Tombeau pour Ton de Leeuw by Daan Manneke, who studied shortly with Messiaen. Yet Minnaar emphasizes he hears no references to the music of the French grandmaster. ‘In Tombeau pour Ton de Leeuw, Daan Manneke’s love of Renaissance and early Baroque music shines through. The gesticulation is gamba-like, graceful, with modal rather than tonal harmonies. That goes for much of his music, by the way.’

Thanks to this piece, Minnaar met the composer in person. ‘Coincidentally, we are strongly connected through our roots in Zeeland. My father was born and raised in the same village as Daan, Kruiningen – near Yerseke where I grew up myself. Before my father was born, Daan came to my grandparents’ house, where he taught my older uncles and aunts how to play the piano. My own first piano teacher was a sister of Daan’s wife. Despite all this common ground, it took until the performances of Tombeau pour Ton de Leeuw before we finally came into contact with each other.’

Bach chorale

In 2018, on the occasion of Manneke’s eightieth birthday, Minnaar played the premiere of his piano cycle Grand Archipelago. The 50-minute piece was written for six different pianists. ‘The six of us sat on stage, listening to each other. In turn we played the movement that was dedicated to us, a wonderful and unique experience. The piece he’d written for Jelena Bazova contained literal quotations from a Bach chorale, to which Daan gave a special, personal twist.’

Minnaar was impressed and asked Manneke to write a solo piece with Bach references for him. ‘Fortunately he reacted positively, and gradually my idea took shape. I was planning a tour with the Goldberg Variations in 2021 and thought it might be interesting to programme the new composition as an introduction to the Goldberg Variations. Daan agreed.’

‘But then this “corona tour” suddenly popped up. Fortunately Daan had already started composing during the crisis, and he succeeded in completing his piece just in time. It takes only about ten minutes, but consists of six movements that together form a whole, a kind of mini Archipelago. In the heart (movement 3) is an intensely sad Aria/Ayre, in which the harmonies of the Bach chorale ‘Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig’ are played by the left hand, while the right hand quotes fragments from ‘Flow my tears’ by John Dowland.’

‘The music around this is totally different, including a berceuse and two toccatas. The composition ends with a powerful dominant chord that acts as a colon for G major, the key of the Goldberg Variations. I am very happy with it. Gedanken zu Bach really reflects our times and fits into the programme wonderfully.’

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The concert in Waalse Kerk of 6 August was streamed live, and is now on YouTube. At the request of Daan Manneke, Hannes place his Gedanken zu Bach not before the Goldberg Variations, but after Variation 15. It works beautifully. (Manneke starts at 39:24).

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Piano Quintet Amy Beach streamed with a view of Scheveningen beach

Amy Beach (c) George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)

Hooray, since the beginning of this month we can finally visit the theatre, the movies or a concert again! – Oops, I cheered too early. No hall can make a living from a maximum of 30 visitors, so a lot of events are still only offered online.

The young Dutch Ensemble de Formule will give a concert in Zuiderstrandtheater in The Hague on 10 June. Since they’re playing in the Harbour foyer, the live stream will offer a view of Scheveningen beach.

According to their website, the five musicians will dive ‘into the magic of surrealism’. To this end they play piano quintets by César Franck and Amy Beach. – And here they’ve got me: Beach is a great composer, whose work is far too rarely performed. However I would contest that her music is ‘surrealistic’ and expresses both ‘raw beauty and madness’. But since the quintet are young and eager, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt: I’m tuning in on June 10th!

Child prodigy

Amy Beach (1867-1944) was born on September 5, 1876 as Amy Cheney in the state of New Hampshire. Her father was a manufacturer and importer of paper, her mother had a modest concert career as a singer and pianist. Amy turned out to be the proverbial child prodigy. Already as a one year old she sang forty songs by heart, at two she made up counter-melodies to her mother’s singing, at three she taught herself to read and at four she could play any piece of music by ear.

She took piano lessons from her mother and gave her first recital at the age of seven. Here she played some of her own works along compositions by Handel, Chopin and Beethoven. Contrary to what was customary at the time, her parents did not send her to a European conservatory but to a private school in Boston. Her talent did not go unnoticed and at the age of sixteen she made her debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with an acclaimed performance of the Piano Concerto in F by Frederic Chopin.

This boosted her career enormously and that same year she published the song The Rainy Day, her first composition to appear in print. She knew very well how to promote her music and managed to publicize all her consecutive pieces as well. This eventually led to an oeuvre comprising over 300 works. It was performed by renowned singers such as Emma Eames and ensembles such as the Boston Handel & Haydn Society. Her progress was closely monitored by a group of passionate fans. – Among them the surgeon Henry Beach, whom Amy married in 1885.

Concert practice curbed

Amy was only 18 years old at the time, Beach was twenty-four years her senior. And, it sounds familiar: he immediately curbed the stormy career of his brand-new wife. Luckily he was somewhat less rigorous than Gustav Mahler, who forbade Alma to continue composing once they would have entered in wedlock. Henry ‘merely’ demanded Amy to drastically restrict her concert practice and donate her income to charity. Nor was she allowed to take on piano students, for it was considered uncouth for a woman to earn an independent income.

However, Henry did encourage her to continue composing. After all, his infatuation originated in his admiration for her talent. When he came home from work in the evening he asked what she had composed that day. If this was a song, he would sing it out loud while she accompanied him at the piano, and then voice his opinion.

Giving public performances only once or twice a year, Amy was able to dedicate most of her time to her creative work. Her husband helped her publish her scores and collect royalties. – Since this didn’t involve public appearances this was apparently ok.

Moreover, Henry stimulated his wife to broaden her horizon and venture beyond chamber music into large-scale compositions. In 1892 she broke through with her Mass in E flat for choir, soloists and orchestra. Four years later she composed her Symphony in e minor opus 32, which is still occasionally performed today.

Classical and Irish inspiration

With her symphony Amy Beach responded to Antonín Dvorák, who had been director of the New York Conservatory from 1892-1895. Dvorák had encouraged American composers to seek inspiration in the music of the black community and the Indians, the original inhabitants of their country.

Beach, however, disagreed with him. ‘It is much more likely that we of the North are influenced by old English, Scottish and Irish melodies’, she declared self-assured. She put her money where her mouth is and based her Symphony on themes from a collection of Irish folk music. The subtitle ‘Gaelic’ refers to this Irish inspiration.

Gradually she became one of America’s leading composers, and thus functioned as a role model for budding female composers. Together with renowned masters such as Arthur Foote and Horatio Parker, she belonged to the so-called ‘New England School of Composers’. They pursued a classical sound ideal and in her early music we can hear echoes of Brahms.

In the last movement of her 1908 Piano Quintet, Beach even quotes a theme from Brahms’s Piano Quintet. On 10 June, Ensemble de Formule will play the second movement of her own quintet. This is a gripping lament full of languorous lines of the strings, supported by dreamy runs of the piano. As the argument becomes more intense and poignant, the dynamics increase and the piano plays stronger and brighter counterparts. Shame that De Formule will only perform this one movement.

I look forward to hearing Amy Beach performed against the backdrop of Scheveningen beach. Furthermore I am really curious as to how ‘surrealistic’, ‘raw’ and ‘crazy’ the five young musicians will make her wonderful music sound!

Watch teh livestream of Ensemble de Formule from Zuiderstrandtheater on Vimeo.

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#Corona-classics 2: Maxim Shalygin: growling & screeching saxophones on CD ‘Todos los fuegos el fuego’

A rainy day in #corona quarantine seems the ideal moment to listen to a CD about fire. So I slide Todos los fuegos el fuego by the Ukrainian-Dutch composer Maxim Shalygin into my laptop.

‘All fires the fire’ is named after the collection of eight short stories by Julio Cortázar. The CD also  contains eight pieces, which together form a suite for the exceptional line-up of saxophone octet.

Maxim Shalygin composed it in 2019 for the Amstel Quartet and the Keuris Quartet, who also recorded it.

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Shalygin (Kamianske 1985) studied composition at the conservatories of St. Petersburg, Kiev and The Hague. Since 2011 he has lived in the Netherlands, and four years later I met him personally. He helped me out when I went to interview his compatriot Valentin Silvestrov for Radio 4 and learnt that the reclusive composer only speaks Russian. Shalygin gratefully seized the opportunity to meet his idol. We had a very animated conversation, in which Silvestrov’s loquaciousness was matched by Shalygin’s enthusiastic interpretation.

Exploring boundaries

As a matter of course I hereafter immersed myself in Shalygin’s own music. This is characterized by a great intensity and a zest for exploring boundaries. He challenges musicians to conjure sounds from their instruments that they never suspected existed. Shalygin’s work often has a spiritual slant, making him a kindred spirit of Silvestrov.

In 2017, during the Gaudeamus Music Week, I was captivated by his Lacrimosa, composed for seven violins. A year later he composed the impressive cycle Canti d’inizio e fine for the intrepid cellist Maya Fridman. In this cycle he not only asks her to fiercely flog her instrument, but to simultaneously sing.

Todos los fuegos el fuego also presents a wide range of playing techniques. Thus Shalygin tries to create a musical equivalent of the storytelling techniques with which Cortázar shapes his magical-realistic world. The Argentine author himself described his prose as incantatoria, that has the double meaning of ‘enchantment’ (in the sense of a magic spell) and ‘chant’ (as in song, singing). This concept refers both to the hypnotic atmosphere in Cortázar’s work, and to the care he dedicated to constructing his sentences. His syntax arose partly intuitively, from delays and accelerations that express the underlying emotion or atmosphere rather than the message itself.

Shifting layers

This is exactly how Shalygin goes about in Todos los fuegos el fuego. All eight pieces consist of different layers that slide over, under and through each other in ever changing formations and tempi. The pace is usually low, with elongated lines meandering through the space without any recognisable metre – there is no such thing as thumping along with the beat. Nor loudly singing along for that matter. Shalygin does not write Ohrwurms, but concentrates on contrasts between slow movements in one register versus faster motifs in the other. Like a shaman he draws attention to the sound itself and invites us to listen to our inner self.

International Combustion Engine opens with sustained tones that are slowly layered on top of each other, cautiously ornamented with languid trills. A melody built from small steps in the upper voices is interspersed with fierce growls in the lower registers. Death of a Mosasaur has a more narrative nature. A wistful motif of one step up, one step down followed by a jump up wanders desolately through the various registers. Gradually an unwieldy pulse develops, as if a waddling Mosasaur is approaching. A soprano sax blasts out piercing, staccato cries like morse-signs. This apparent cry for help is smothered in low roars and ends in abrupt silence.


The other movements also abound in overlapping and repetitive patterns, sudden interruptions, decelerations and accelerations. Tones mysteriously swell up out of nowhere, are played with audible breath or with tongue-slaps that create ear-splitting attacks. At other times, the saxophonists make their lips vibrate while playing, like a softly snorting horse. Spring, Breaking creates an intoxicating atmosphere with subtly pulsating sounds, Endless Mordent is a study in eruptive grace notes.

In Ashes in Birth screeching and rhythmically teeming lines gradually advance towards rattling valves that die away into nothingness. But the most beautiful movement is Stairway to Decay, a melancholic lament that is roughly disturbed by ‘out of tune’ sounds, as if decay sets in. The texture gradually becomes more dissonant, while from afar a mumbled prayer develops, like an incantation. When the saxophonists start articulating more clearly, we finally discern the text: ‘Todos los fuegos el fuego’. – Mesmerizing and haunting.

The eight saxophonists effortlessly master the extended techniques in Shalygin’s score. Moreover they are completely attuned to each other: breathing and playing as one living entity they sound like a majestic organ.

– Thanks to Todos los fuegos el fuego the drizzly day was over before I knew it.

The cd was released by TRPTK

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#Corona-classics I: Le Dernier sorcier Pauline Viardot

When the Corona-measures were proclaimed on Thursday 12 March, it felt unreal at first. The next day the world premiere of Willem Jeths’ opera Ritratto at Dutch National Opera was cancelled. I had looked forward to this very much, as to the other productions in the Opera Forward Festival of which this was the opening. Meanwhile I was busily preparing countless pre-concert talks in the coming months. In one fell swoop everything was cancelled until 1 June. Somewhat disbelievingly, I left for my ‘dacha’ in the country: it wouldn’t really be that bad, would it?

The rest is history as they say. For it was as bad, and even worse. From working in tenth gear I suddenly had to shift down to one. I decided at once to finally start reviewing the huge pile of CDs on my desk, under the title #Corona-classics. Yet instead, I made long biking and hiking trips; the sudden absence of deadlines and obligations made my initiative melt away: it felt like a holiday.

Disturbing press releases

Upon returning home I found increasingly disturbing press releases in my mailbox. One festival after another after the date of doom was scrapped. – Even the Gaudeamus Music Week, that had planned a grand celebration of its 75th anniversary in September. Many organizations do come up with online alternatives, but these are a mere surrogate for a live experience. What’s more, they don’t programme pre-concert talks. After the press conference of Prime Minister Rutte on 6 May, it is even doubtful whether my already booked gigs for the next season will continue. Which concert hall can survive on a maximum of 100 visitors?

Therefore I have decided to flip the switch. Looking anxiously to the future and having a mandatory holiday is no life. Today I will start my series #Corona-classics after all. Starting on a cheerful note in these frightened days: the chamber opera Le dernier sorcier (The Last Magician) by Pauline Viardot. In her days (1821-1910) she was a world famous mezzo-soprano, teacher and composer. She wrote her delightful opera in 1867 on a libretto of her bosom friend/lover Ivan Turgenev.

Bullying fairies

This tells the story of Krakamiche, ‘the last magician’ from the title. He has lost his magical powers and lives with his daughter Stella in a miserable hut. It stands in the forest that Krakamiche once took away from the elves, when he was still a powerful man. They constantly bully him and laugh at his powerless rage. When Stella, to his annoyance, falls in love with Prince Lelio, the Fairy Queen comes to the rescue of the couple: she gives Lelio a flower that makes him invisible.

As is want in fairy tales, everything eventually turns out fine. Stella and Lelio are allowed to marry and Krakamiche expresses his regret about his former misdeeds. The forest returns into possession of its rightful owners, the natural order is restored.

In 1863 Viardot had said goodbye to the opera stage and moved to Baden-Baden, Turgenev taking suit soon after. Four years later she composed Le dernier sorcier. Viardot made a setting for piano, six singers and a choir, that is as effective as it is appealing. It aptly exemplifies why she was widely admired for her large vocal range and dramatic eloquence. Viardot inspired composers such as Hector Berlioz, Charles Gounoud and Camille Saint-Saëns. Moreover she was a gifted pianist, often playing duets with Chopin. With his consent she even made song arrangements of several of his mazurkas.

Pompousness versus light-footedness

Le dernier sorcier premiered on 20 September 1867 in Turgenev’s villa in Baden-Baden. Viardot herself played the piano, her four children and two students sang the roles. Among the guests were Liszt, Brahms, Clara Schumann and even Kaiser Wilhelm I, who called the opera ‘a treasure’. Two years later Liszt helped realise a professional premiere at the Court Theatre in Weimar. This was received less positively however. Reviewers criticised the translation of the libretto into ‘cumbersome German’, and the unwieldy arrangement for symphony orchestra.

The CD recording presents the original version for piano, but the connecting texts have been translated into English. The British actress Trudie Styler recites these in a neat Oxbridge accent, but it is somewhat estranging to continuously switch between spoken English and sung French. Yet one quickly gets used to this, all the more so because the vocal lines are so florid and the musical accompaniment so compelling.

Catchy flourishes

The short overture tells the story in a nutshell. Signal motifs and rumbling chords in the low registers symbolise the pompous Krakamiche and his servant Perlimpinpin, who keep grumbling about their lost powers. This stands in sharp contrast with the light-footed strings of notes in the high registers, that musically capture the frolicking elves and the young lovers.

In just over an hour Viardot leads us irresistibly through the fairytale-world of the troubled Krakamiche and his tormentors. Catchy piano flourishes accompany the elves who spin him around and throw water down his chimney. Their rhythmic laughter contrasts with his angry sputterings, performed with gusto by the bass Eric Owens.

In gracefully whirling lines his daughter Stella (the soprano Camille Zamorra) sings the praise of the raindrops that make her plants grow. The mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala is a wonderfully infatuated Lelio and Jamie Barton is a majestic Fairy Queen. With her pure and agile soprano Sarah Brailey (Verveine) places all actions in a context, like a Greek choir.

Feminist eco-fable

Le dernier sorcier has a lot of momentum and abounds in pointed rhythms and sing-along melodies. The piano part has symphonic allure at times and is very varied. Myra Huang expertly brings out all its nuances. From playful appoggiaturas to low-pitched sounds of doom, from sensual sweetness to boisterous pounding rhythms. The Manhattan Girls Chorus flawlessly follows her each and every beat – without the help of a conductor. In the Finale they pay exalted homage to their beloved forest, accompanied by triumphant poundings of the piano that employ the entire range of the keyboard.

The CD booklet describes Le dernier sorcier as a ‘feminist eco-fable’ avant la lettre. After all, the women have outsmarted Krakamiche and from now on the forest can be the forest again: they have driven out the invaders, the former order has returned.

This notion seems a bit too far-fetched to me, but a parallel with our times can certainly be drawn. We are now threatened by the invisible powers of the Corona virus, that we try to drive out of our empire at all costs. – Whether we will be as successful as the elves, only time will tell.

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Liza Lim: unsettling soundworld on cd Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus

LIza Lim (c) Klaus Rudolph

Listening to the cd dedicated to the Australian composer Liza Lim (1966) that was recently released by Kairos, one can’t help but evaluate it in the context of the corona-pandemic that is currently keeping the world hostage. Are we headed towards utter downfall one wonders. The ominous title Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus originates in Lim’s concern about the huge amounts of plastic waste that are clotting the oceans. Its slow but inevitable disintegration into ever smaller particles threatens to kill the fish that eat them, and eventually life on earth itself.

This is but one of the many plagues we are facing: the devastating forest fires in Australia are still only barely under control; immense swarms of locusts eat away the crops in East Africa; large parts of the world will be flooded because of melting icebergs, while at the same time sweet water is becoming more and more scarce because of consecutive draughts.

In her programme note for Extincton Events and Dawn Chorus for 12 musicians Lim refers to the philosopher Timothy Morton. Our insatiable materialism and consumerism go at the expense of a habitable planet and we need to revalue our concept of nature. Morton coined the term ‘hyperobjects’ for phenomena that are so large we can only know them through their effects, such as climate change and mass extinction. We must reconsider ‘what is and what counts as knowledge’, writes Lim.

Plastic waste

Her forty-minute long Extincton Events and Dawn Chorus has five movements, being one of her most substantial instrumental works to date. Lim presents an effective musical equivalent of the debris swirling around in our oceans. Its circulatory currents are translated into loops and rotating motifs, underpinned by the spooky sound of Waldteufels. This is an earthenware vessel covered with a skin pierced through with a stick; when the player turns it around the friction produces a groaning sound.

Glissandi, microtones, slaps, sudden plunges from high to low registers, breathy sounds and multiphonics abound. In the first movement ‘Anthropogenic Debris’ the recorded shrieks of the extinct Kauaua’i bird evoke an atmosphere of both nostalgia and doom. In contrast the fourth movement ‘Transmission’ is almost jolly. In a duet between violinist and percussionist, the latter tries to ‘imitate’ the musical material of the first on a rudimentary string drum.

In the concluding ‘Dawn Chorus’ Lim creates a mysterious world filled with sonorous whirrings of bullroarers to which the wind players place tentative, kazoo-like tones. The percussionists produce rattling and clicking sounds as if wooden sticks are falling. The trombone interjects short low tones, the other brass joining in with sustained chords that develop into a chorale of sorts. The piece ends with the unearthly sound of a contrabassoon extended with a long plastic tube. When the sound dives below the range of our hearing the music dies away into nothingness. Thus Lim audibly depicts the impending extinction of the coral reef fish who sing a ‘dawn chorus’ in the morning.

Indigenous traditions

Lim composed Axis Mundi in close cooperation with bassoonist Alban Wesly of the German ensemble Musikfabrik. The title alludes both to Yggdrasil, the cosmic tree of Norse mythology that connects heaven and earth, and the ‘world tree’ in Siberian shamanism that acts as a ladder between lower, middle and upper worlds. The musical material indefatigably traverses all registers in a plethora of extended techniques, from Flatterzunge to multiphonics, glissandi and split tones. Lorelei Dowling of Klangforum Wien handles her virtuoso part with admirable precision and confidence.

Songs found in dream was inspired by Aboriginal culture, in which ‘songlines’ play an important role. Lim specifically draws on the concept of ‘shimmer’, an aesthetic-spiritual principle in which patterns of painted dots symbolize the power of ancestral spirits. This manifests itself musically in the many short motifs that form intricate patterns full of turbulence. Sustained sonorities are contrasted by high shrieks, while the use of Waldteufels, rainsticks, rattles and log drums recall Aboriginal percussion instruments. The piece ends quite abruptly, perhaps as a reminder that also Aboriginal traditions are on the verge of disappearing forever.

On this cd Liza Lim addresses important issues and her flair for creating unheard sounds is admirable.; the resulting soundworld is quite unsettling. Klangforum Wien and the conductors Peter Rundel and Stefan Asbury are its ideal interpreters.


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Mathilde Wantenaar on her new opera A Song for the Moon: ‘With music you can achieve anything’

Wantenaar foto Karen van Gilst

Mahtilde Wantenaar (c) Karen van Gilst

In 2013 Mathilde Wantenaar (Amsterdam, 1993) participated in the project Boom|Amsterdam is an opera, two years later she wrote the mini-opera Personar for the first edition of the Opera Forward Festival. In March her family opera Een lied voor de maan (A Song for the Moon) was to have its world premiere in that very festival. Like all concerts in the Netherlands the performances were cancelled because of the outbreak of Covid-19. Let’s hope the planned performances in Madrid, Munich and Aix-en-Provence in May and June will proceed. Here’s the interview I conducted in February.

Mathilde Wantenaar’s love for music was instilled by her parents. Her mother teaches singing, her father plays the accordion, piano and bandoneon, and as long as she can remember she was surrounded by music at home. She played the guitar and cello herself, accompanied her mother’s students and sometimes sang along with them. She also composed her own pieces early on. – Something she initially considered to be her ‘own crazy little thing’; the idea of becoming a composer only arose when she took part in a composition project by Asko|Schönberg at secondary school.

Human voice

In 2011 she enrolled for the preparatory course at the Conservatory of Amsterdam, where she subsequently studied composition, with cello, piano and singing as secondary subjects. Already during her studies she won several prizes, among others in the Alba Rosa Viëtor Composition Competition and the Princess Christina Competition. After graduating in 2016 she applied for a follow-up study in singing at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague.

From early childhood Wantenaar has had a great affinity with the human voice. In recent years this has led to a series of successful vocal works for renowned Dutch musicians and ensembles such as the soprano Johannette Zomer, the quintet Wishful Singing, the Netherlands Chamber Choir and the Dutch Radio Choir. It was obvious that one day there would be a sequel to her 20-minute opera Personar with which she concluded her composition studies.


‘As a child I regularly went to operas with my parents’, says Wantenaar. ‘I secretly dreamed of composing one myself, even though I initially considered my children’s pieces and rumblings at the piano to be a private thing. In that respect I lived completely in my own fantasy world. – Until I started thinking about what I would become when I grew up. When I auditioned for the Conservatory of Amsterdam, I was asked where I saw myself in ten years’ time. I answered I hoped to write an opera for Dutch National Opera. – For the big stage.’ She smiles furtively, as if she were ashamed of her youthful hubris.

That’s why she immediately accepted when Dutch National Opera offered her to take part in the workshop ‘composing for a youthful audience’ of the European Network of Opera Academies. The idea of creating a fairy-tale opera originated in 2017, during a workshop conducted by dramaturge Willem Bruls at La Monnaie in Brussels. ‘We formed a team, in which this idea bubbled up. But the question was what kind of fairy-tale exactly? So we started reading a lot of books and someone from the team tipped A Song for the Moon by Toon Tellegen, which she had read to her children herself.’

Toon Tellegen

‘I’ve known Toon Tellegen’s work for a long time, my parents used to read his stories to me when I was little. I still enjoy them. – Occasionally I read them to my boyfriend before we go to sleep. During a period when I was out of my depth at the conservatory I read the collection Misschien wisten zij alles (Maybe they knew everything) in one go. The stories are at the same time comforting, uplifting, wonderful and above all very beautiful. They lifted me above my grief and made me calm.’

However, she did not yet know A Song for the Moon when it was proposed. ‘When I read it, I was immediately touched. It appealed to me that Tellegen broaches themes like loneliness, identity, disappointment and friendship. I especially like the fact that music plays a central role in it, ideal for an opera. The Mole, the main character, undergoes a true development. In the beginning he is a bit shy and insecure, but in the end he crawls out of his shell thanks to the music, makes friends and goes out into the wide world.’

Cheering up the Moon

Wantenaar wrote the libretto herself, together with Willem Bruls, keeping as close as possible to the original: ‘Toon Tellegen’s language is already very musical and imitable. There are five singers and six instrumentalists and the opera lasts about an hour.’

‘In the first act, the Mole is on stage alone. He is lonely and seeks contact with the Moon, but when he greets it he gets no response. He wonders why. Can’t the Moon talk, doesn’t he want to talk, or doesn’t he know what to say? All those things of course also concern the Mole himself, but he doesn’t want to face his own loneliness. He decides to write a song to cheer up the Moon. This proves not to be easy, but in the end he succeeds and shows it to the Grasshopper, who is a conductor.’

‘Together they form an orchestra in the second act, with singing mice and Frog, the diva-tenor. This act is a somewhat comical counterpart to the quiet and sad first movement. They rehearse the song and perform it for the Moon, but when they look up expectantly afterwards, it looks rather sad. Everyone is deeply disappointed and the Mole crawls back into his little hole defeated. He wonders if the Moon is angry now, and may come down to shine straight in his face.’

The power of music

‘In the third and final act the Mole receives composition lessons from the wise Cricket. He looks at the song and says: “I know! It’s a beautiful song, but gloomy.” He changes a lowered tone (a flat tone is calles “mol” in Dutch) into a sharp one (a raised tone), upon which the song suddenly becomes cheerful. Yet the Mole doesn’t quite dare to believe in it yet. He needs the courage of the Grasshopper to present the new version to the Moon.’

‘This time the Moon does looks happy afterwards, he even glows! For a moment the Mole still has doubts about himself, but then he realizes he is good as he is: “I am the Mole and I remain the Mole. Sometimes I’m gloomy, but sometimes I’m cheerful.” He finds the courage to step up to the Earthworm and make his first real friendship. So everything turns out all right at the end of the opera.’

‘The great thing is that the story is easy for children to follow, but at the same time has so much philosophical depth that it is also interesting for adults. The Cricket sings: “With music you can achieve anything”. To me, that’s the core of this opera.’

More info and playlist here

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Composer Daníel Bjarnason: ‘Surrounded by people you may still be utterly alone’

On 14 April the Irish Crash Ensemble was to play the Dutch premiere of Songs by the Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason. The cycle was commissioned by Muziekgebouw Eindhoven and Concertgebouw Amsterdam, where it would be repeated on April 15. Both concerts were cancelled because of Covid-19.

Bjarnason (1979) composed Songs for the Crash Ensemble and the Swedish performer Mariam Wallentin, and I interviewed him while he was still working on it. The cycle was premiered in incomplete form on 28 February at the New Music Dublin festival. The online Journal of music rated it ‘one of the standout concerts’.

Poetic background

Ireland and Iceland both have a long history, in which poetry plays an important role. No surprise then the Crash Ensemble asked Bjarnason to compose a new song cycle for them. On their website they announced it floridly: ‘We went to the land of the ice and snow to ask for music. Returning with the promise of songs with a Wildbird. Needing words for our songs, we asked one who broke waves, and he gave them with two hands.’

The ‘Wilbird’ refers to Mariam Wallentin, who has a reputation to lose as an experimental singer, percussionist, composer and voice actress. In 2007 she formed the duo Wildbirds & Peacedrums with her husband Andreas Werliin, with whom she released several successful cd’s. The epithet ‘one who broke waves’ refers to Royce Vavrek, whose poems Bjarnason set to music.

Off the beaten tracks

The Icelandic composer and conductor likes to step off the beaten tracks in classical music and previously worked with the band Sigur Rós and pop musicians/ producers like Brian Eno and Ben Frost. The Crash Ensemble has the same adventurous spirit, entering into partnerships with composers, universities, skateboarders and cinematographers. Bjarnason:  ‘When I said I wanted to write for Mariam Wallentin, they agreed without hesitation. Their only request was I write for their complete line-up of string quintet, flute, (bass) clarinet, trombone, electric guitar, piano and percussion.’

Bjarnason has known Mariam Wallentin for a long time: ‘I’ve been following her for about ten years, and we worked together once before, when she sang one of my Three Larkin Songs. I first got to know her through her band Wildbirds and Peacedrums and was immediately drawn to her voice and her singing. She has quite a dark timbre, which I find really beautiful, and I admire her sense of rhythm and articulation. Moreover she is very versatile.’

Mutual exploration

While composing the two worked closely together: ‘I sent her my music and she would answer with recordings of her singing, which was very useful and helpful. Also during rehearsals we constantly exchanged ideas. That’s exactly how I want it to be: a collaboration and a mutual exploration.’

The lyrics were written by the Canadian poet Royce Vavrek, much lauded for his libretti for the opera’s Breaking the Waves and Song from the Uproar by Missy Mazzoli. Though Bjarnason and Vavrek had already been discussing plans for an opera, the choice was not self-evident. ‘It was a long search, because I wanted to work with new lyrics. And only when Royce came in view my creative inspiration started flowing.’

However, since Bjarnason is becoming increasingly busy as a conductor, he was not quite able to meet the deadline for his new cycle. When I interviewed him a few days before the world premiere on 28 February in Dublin, he had only finished four of the intended six to seven songs. The premiere of the complete cycle was set for April in the Netherlands.

Cold and dark

Though Songs is very different from Three Larkin Songs, the subject matter is connected in some ways, says Bjarnason. ‘The overall theme is quite broad but I would say that it is about living in cold and dark atmospheres. In Northern latitudes, in isolation, loneliness and even depression. It’s about growing up in remote places where being different is not accepted. Where, surrounded by people you are still utterly alone.’

He hastens to add, though: ‘I must stress that the songs are not only gloomy, they also deal with connecting and finding warmth in that chilly environment.’ The main difference between the two cycles lies in their scale and scope. The Three Larkin Songs on texts by the British poet Philip Larkin are set for string quintet, piano and vocals and last only about fifteen minutes. The new cycle is three times as long and calls for a singer and an eleven-piece ensemble.

Shifting colours

The premiere of the complete Songs will (hopefully) take place in the coming season, so we can’t judge for ourselves, but the review in the Journal of music is quite promising: ‘Bjarnason’s musical language drifted seamlessly between jazz and trip rock without ever quite settling in any style definitively. His writing for each member of the ensemble was intricate and resulted in a backing texture of constantly shifting colours and complexity that perfectly intertwined with Wallentin’s sultry, soulful singing.’

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Composer Karin Rehnqvist: ‘I simply had to address global warming in Silent Earth’

Karin Rehnqvist (c) Ester Sorri

Saturday 18 April was to see the first performance of Karin Rehnqvist’s Silent Earth in NTR ZaterdagMatinee. Yet, as all concerts, this premiere fell prey to the measures taken to prevent the further spreading of the Corona-virus. Rehnqvist had written this large scale work for the Dutch Radio Choir and Philharmonic Orchestra, who would present it in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw.

I had written the programme notes and was to interview Rehnqvist (1957) previous to the concert. Since the new season has already been planned, it will probably last until 2021 or even 2022 before we can finally hear Silent Earth in the Netherlands.

Rehnqvist feels sad, too, but remains placid: ‘These are strange and scary times, we must simply accept the situation.’ She even cherishes some hope: ‘Silent Earth was co-commissioned by the Swedish Radio, who have scheduled it in August. Let’s hope that will work, though nothing can be taken for granted.’ – Fingers crossed! In February we talked about Silent Earth over Skype.

Human voice

Karin Rehnqvist has a great affinity with the human voice and for many years led the Swedish Stans Kör. She became famous with compositions such as Puksånger-lockrop for two singers and timpani (1989) and Solsången for female voice, two female speakers and orchestra (1994). In these she makes use of the so-called kulning from Swedish folk music, a shrill, vibration-free way of singing with which shepherdesses drove their cattle together. To this end she worked closely with the folk singer Lena Willemark. – There’s no kulning in her new piece though, says Rehnqvist: ‘I didn’t want to use solo voices.’

The self-evident way in which Rehnqvist combines the ghastly cries with modern compositional techniques and special timbres earned her many prizes. Exploring the intersections between art and folk music runs like a thread through her oeuvre, in which folkloristic elements are never used for a nostalgic effect. Thus she developed into ‘one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary music since Ligeti and Penderecki’, as one critic wrote.


Recently she made a big impression with the monodrama Blodhov (Blood-hoof) in which she once again collaborated with Lena Willemark. It is a bloodcurdling story from the Edda, about the God Freyr who rapes the female giant Gerður more and more brutally for nine consecutive nights. – However this time the tale is told from the perspective of the woman, who tries to exorcise her pain and powerlessness in fearful words and a primal scream that pierces through marrow and bone. Blodhov was awarded the 2019 Järnåker Prize.

‘The story gripped me so much that it took me years to complete the piece’, says Rehnqvist. ‘When the #MeToo affair broke out in 2017, I couldn’t even compose at all for a while, because so many authentic contemporary stories came up.’ At its premiere in 2019, Blodhov thus proved to be a perfect match for current events. As was Day is Here for eight voices and string orchestra composed a year earlier: ‘The last part is a prayer for rain from the Navajo Indians. I wrote it in spring, but then came that incredibly hot, dry summer. So we really needed that prayer!’

Asking the music

Were these two compositions more or less engaged by chance, in Silent Earth Rehnqvist deliberately reflects on the effects of global warming. ‘I am shocked that people still fly and eat meat carefree. The problem is life-size, this winter barely any snow has fallen in Sweden. We have to change our way of life. As a grandmother, I feel this responsibility all the more strongly.’

The piece was commissioned two years ago by NTR ZaterdagMatinee. ‘Before I started composing I asked myself: what needs to be said today? What do I need to express? Climate change is a big worry in our society, so I thought I had to address this in some way. My approach is always to ask the music questions: how will it be? What will happen? I trust the music to show the way. And in this case I also had a beautiful  text to go by.’

Kerstin Perski wrote the poems for Silent Earth. ‘We had collaborated before, on the children’s opera Beauty School in 1999, after which we made the opera Stranded. This is about a woman surviving a volcanic eruption, but it is still awaiting its first performance. The opera is in Swedish and the music is totally different, but the last poem “Burning Earth” is related to my new piece. So I had it translated into English and am reusing it in Silent Earth.

After the catastrophe

Rehnqvist recounts how ‘Burning Earth’ came into being: ‘One evening Kerstin and I were talking about climate change. In our fantasy we were sitting on another planet, looking down at Earth, that had been destroyed by a catastrophe. We asked ourselves: what is there? Is there still life? Are there any human beings? What is it we are seeing? In one way this was comforting: to sit there, on another planet and still be alive, looking at Earth. It’s a bit comparable to today’s situation: we have no idea how to handle it. We just have to wait, not knowing what will happen. After this talk I made some improvisations with my voice and the piano, which I gave to Kerstin.’

‘Then she came up with the first two poems. I think they are absolutely wonderful! They describe so precisely what’s happening at the moment. I threw all my improvisations away and started composing all over again. Though “Burning Earth” describes the catastrophe and comes last, in a sense it is also first: we find ourselves looking over the silent, devastated landscape and talk about who we once were. The text builds up towards a huge climax, describing the catastrophe when the world is swallowed up by fire and water.’

The piece opens with ‘Silent Earth’, from which the title is derived. ‘This describes an empty world, after the catastrophe, where the wind is blowing and the lakes have been fished empty.  Therefore I created an icy atmosphere.’ The hornists play with their hands in the bell, the trumpets use mutes, the harp ripples descending and ascending glissandi against a foundation of chilly sounds from cymbals. The choir softly sets in dissonant harmonies and only sings briefly, ending with the ultra-soft and repeatedly whispered word ‘fishless’.

Glimmer of hope

The following ‘We, Who Once Were’ is a confession of guilt: we praised the beauty of the Earth but destroyed it with our greed. The orchestral fabric condenses somewhat and the choir sings the opening line in unison, with an interval jump up on ‘once’ and an elated forte on ‘loved you’. Vibrations and dissonant harmonies dominate.

When the fabric thins out again, the choir loudly chants ‘Save yourself from us!’, repeated on the same tone, in changing variants and languages. ‘Each singer must choose another language alongside English. I want it to be really global, so you understand it concerns us all.’ Hereafter sopranos and tenors conclude on pitifully moaned ‘ah…’s in descending minor seconds, like seufzer.

In the concluding ‘Burning Earth’, Rehnqvist builds up a climax of frenetically churning strings, ominous percussion and fortissimo shouted phrases from the choir. ‘This is the most violent part, but at the same time I see it as a lamentation.’ In a long coda silence gradually returns and the female voices sing softly, and in unison, a single note on ‘ng’.

Rehnqvist: ‘We are still here: there’s a glimmer of hope…’.

On Sunday 5 April 12.00 am – 13.00 pm I will play Rehnqvist’s ‘Salve Regina’ in my programme ‘An Ox on the Roof’ Concertzender. You can listen back any time through this link. 

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‘Opa Nijlpaard’ is niet meer: modernemuziekliefhebber Frans Curvers sterft, 91 jaar oud

Thea Derks – Frans Curvers – Evert Bouws – Floor Vogelaar, Gaudeamus Muziekweek 8-9-2019 (c) Co Broerse

‘Thea, heb je dat nieuwe stuk van … al gehoord? Het is prachtig!’ En daar plopte weer een wetransfer binnen met een opname van Kate Moore, Pete Harden, Calliope Tsoupaki of willekeurig welke andere componist. Frans Curvers zat bij elke (wereld)première vooraan. Of die nu plaatsvond in Paradiso in Amsterdam, De Doelen in Rotterdam, TivoliVredenburg in Utrecht of een achteraf kerkje ergens in de provincie. Als hij niet persoonlijk aanwezig kon zijn zat hij aan de radio gekluisterd, zijn opnameapparaat in de aanslag.

Op 29 maart 2020 maart mailde zijn onafscheidelijke concertmaatje Floor Vogelaar dat Frans was overleden aan de gevolgen van een beroerte. In januari was hij 91 geworden. Zijn overlijden stemt mij intens verdrietig, want in de afgelopen decennia ben ik Frans gaan beschouwen als een persoonlijke vriend. Zoals hij met velen uit het Nederlandse muziekleven vriendschappen opbouwde. In Frans verliezen wij een onvermoeibaar liefhebben en promotor van nieuwe muziek.

Ik leerde hem kennen tijdens mijn inleidingen op concerten met moderne muziek voor de Proms in Paradiso en later Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ. Samen met Floor en zijn andere concertvrienden Evert en Johan zat hij altijd op de eerste rij. Hij luisterde aandachtig en na afloop verwoordde hij met een kwinkslag treffend de soms eigenaardige (on)hebbelijkheden van mijn gast. Als hij onverhoopt eens verstek moest laten gaan voelde ik me enigszins verweesd. Zonder Frans was de avond eigenlijk niet ‘af’.

In de loop van vele jaren had hij een indrukwekkend concertarchief opgebouwd, dat hij ruimhartig deelde met alle belangstellenden. Wanneer ik voor een radioprogramma of inleiding verlegen zat om een compositie, hielp hij me uit de brand. Ook van onbekende of vergeten stukken bleek hij unieke oude opnames en zelfs videoregistraties te hebben. Altijd voorzien van kundig en geestig commentaar. Toen hij me zijn FRACUUM (Frans Curvers Muziek)-collectie aanbood kon ik die enkel herbergen op een extra harde schijf.

Frans betoonde zijn liefde voor moderne muziek niet alleen in concertbezoek en stimulerend commentaar, maar ondersteunde haar ook financieel. Hij sponsorde concertinstellingen, was donateur van de inmiddels opgeheven website en gaf zelfs opdrachten voor nieuwe composities. In 2014 kocht hij als een van de eersten mijn #Reinbertbio. Vier jaar later schonk hij elk van zijn kleinkinderen een exemplaar van Een os op het dak.

Vorig jaar zomer zocht ik hem op in zijn woning in Utrecht, waar hij al ruim veertig jaar met zijn echtgenote Willy woonde. Ik zou hem portretteren voor de jubileumuitgave van 75 jaar Gaudeamus in 2020. Ook dit concours voor jonge componisten had hij van meet af aan bezocht en financieel ondersteund. Trots leidde hij me rond door zijn met moderne kunst volgehangen huis, dat verder volgestouwd bleek met antieke kasten.

‘Mijn vader was schoenmaker en maakte laarzen op maat, waarvoor hij het hele land afreisde. Als iemand niet kon betalen zei hij: geef me die kast maar mee’, vertelt hij met twinkelende oogjes. In de lommerrijke tuin staan moderne sculpturen, met als blikvanger een aandoenlijk nijlpaard op een sokkel. ‘Willy en ik werden jarenlang oma en opa nijlpaard genoemd’, zegt  hij op zijn smakelijke, altijd licht  ironische toon.

Ondanks zijn 90 jaar klimt hij moeiteloos de steile trap op naar zijn ruime werkkamer. Aan een klein aanrecht zet hij filterkoffie. Tijdens het opschenken plaatst hij de mokken in de gootsteen ‘om ongelukjes te voorkomen’. Zijn bureau is bezaaid met verlengsnoeren, volgepropt met stekkers. De computer is via een wirwar van draden verbonden aan talloze opnameapparaten, zodat hij verschillende zenders tegelijkertijd kan registreren. Aan de wanden stellingkasten vol cd’s, dvd’s, muziekboeken en archiefdozen met programmaboekjes vanaf grofweg de jaren 1960.

Zijn technisch vernuft komt niet uit de lucht vallen: jarenlang werkte hij bij het KNMI in De Bilt. Vol smaak vertelt hij hoe hij de telecommunicatie verbeterde met een door hemzelf ontwikkeld programma. ‘Kwibus noemde ik dat. KNMI Weerbedrijf Berichten Uitgifte Systeem. Het zorgde ervoor dat je niet eindeloos dezelfde tekst moest overtikken voor een telex. Daar ben ik nog steeds apetrots op!’

We komen te spreken over zijn afkomst. Net als ik komt Frans uit Limburg: hij werd in 1929 geboren in Roermond. ‘Weet je dat ik ter wereld ben gekomen dankzij een pianola’, vraagt hij met een grijns. ‘In 1928 klopte mijn vader op de deur van de overbuurvrouw. Hij wilde haar complimenteren omdat zij zo mooi Chopin op de piano speelde. Eenmaal binnen bleek het een pianola te zijn…. Van het een kwam het ander. Ze trouwden met elkaar en gaven hun liefde voor muziek aan mij door.’

Glunderend toont hij een aquarel van zijn vader, die verdienstelijk cello speelde. ‘Als dank voor een concert kreeg hij in 1905 het Riemer muzieklexicon, met handgeschreven opdracht!’ Het leren boek staat als een trofee in zijn kast. Zijn geheugen blijkt niet meer optimaal maar zijn enthousiasme is er niet minder om. Een maand voor ons gesprek is hij begonnen met het rondsturen van ‘Fracu-tips’.

Op de eerste lijst prijken composities van Frederic Rzewski en John Adams. ‘Ik neig in mijn voorkeuren een beetje naar het minimalisme’, bekent hij. Een blauwe maandag heeft Frans ook zelf gecomponeerd. ‘Maar daarmee ben ik gestopt omdat ik mezelf niet origineel genoeg vond.’ Hij ziet wel een grote toekomst voor zijn kleinzoon Thomas. ‘Die is zeer getalenteerd, hij studeert popgitaar en compositie aan het Conservatorium van Amsterdam.’

Een dag na mijn bezoek valt er een berichtje in mijn mailbox. ‘Ik was vergeten met mijn 90 jaar een middagdutje nodig te hebben. Daardoor was ik aan het eind van de middag te duf om eraan te denken dat ik mijn belangrijkste inbreng niet moest vergeten.’

‘Namelijk: Voor mij is muziek een onmisbaar geneesmiddel. Als ik in de put zit, en dat komt op mijn leeftijd wel vaker voor, dan kom ik die put zo snel mogelijk weer uit door naar geliefde muziek te luisteren. Ik zou het heel fijn vinden als je dit punt aan je verslag kon toevoegen, en ik ben heel benieuwd naar de rest!’

Bij deze, Frans. Bedankt dat je er was, ik zal je ontzettend missen!

Zondag 5 april draai ik tussen 12.-00-13.00 uur ter ere van Frans ‘Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues’ van Frederic Rzewski, een van de stukken op zijn eerste Fracu-lijstje. Terugluisteren kan direct na afloop van het programma via deze link

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Krysztof Penderecki dies at 86 – indefatigably he testified to the issues of our times

After a long and serious illness the Polish composer and conductor Krzysztof Penderecki died on Sunday 29 March 2020 in his home in Kraków. He was one of the most important composers of Poland, who was internationally renowned.

In 1961 Penderecki, born in the village of Dębica in 1933, was catapulted into fame with his work Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima. This avant-garde, expressionist piece for string orchestra scourges the ears with heavily dissonant harmonies full of microtones. With this relentless orgy of sound, the Pole voiced the spiritual and physical inferno caused by the atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city in 1945.

Unlike fellow innovators such as Stockhausen and Boulez, he knew how to connect with the general public from the start. In 2016 Penderecki was composer in residence in the ninth edition of the Storioni Festival, that was kicked off on 21 January in the Amsterdam Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ but is based in Eindhoven. During the festival a lot of Penderecki’s chamber music was performed, alongside his arrangement for string orchestra of his compelling choral work Agnus Dei. In the same period the Dutch Radio Choir sang his Stabat Mater in AVROTROSVRijdagconcert, and I interviewed him for the live broadcast.

Penderecki has been a testimony composer all his life. He grew up in the southeast of Poland, where he was surrounded by Jews as a native. In his youth he even spoke Yiddish and during the Second World War he saw many of his friends murdered or deported to Treblinka and Auschwitz. He expressed their fate in great choral works, such as the St. Luke Passion (on Auschwitz, 1966), the ‘Dies Irae’ from his Polish Requiem (on the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, 1981) and Kaddish (on Hebrew texts, dedicated to the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto, 2009).

But also the Russian domination and the Polish resistance against communism found their way to his music. In 1980, for instance, he dedicated his Te Deum for soloists, choir and orchestra to Karol Wojtila, who had just been anointed Pope, and in the same year he honoured the rebellious trade union Solidarnosc in the choral work Lacrimosa. His works are often religiously inspired, mostly borrowed from the Catholic rite, such as the Stabat Mater. However, he also composed a Mass on Russian Orthodox texts.

Although his music harboured a great deal of dissonance to the end, it gradually became more consonant. Penderecki started incorporating references to classical music – Flemish polyphony, Bach, Mahler – as a result of which he was at times vilified as a ‘neo-Romantic’. This didn’t bother him, he simply kept on writing the music that his feeling and intuition triggered and in doing so he succeeded in reaching a large audience.

In recent years Penderecki had been concentrating more and more on chamber music. When I interviewed him in 2016 for Radio 4 on occasion of a performance of his Stabat Mater by the Dutch Radio Choir, he told me chamber music ranked supreme for him at the time: ‘Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and don’t feel like writing big pieces with lots of staffs anymore. I find it especially attractive because in chamber music it’s all about the truth, you can’t hide. In an orchestral work you can hide from time to time if you can’t figure it out, in a piece for a solo instrument every note counts.’

Penderecki indefatigably testified to the issues of our times. His music was used in groundbreaking films such as The Exorcist and The Shining and he won innumerable awards. In 1979 a bronze bust was made by Marian Konieczny for The Gallery of Composers’ Portraits at the Pomeranian Philharmonic in Bydgoszcz. A copy is located on the Celebrity Alley in Kielce. In 1991 an asteroid was named in his honour: 21059 Penderecki.

On Sunday 5 April 12.00 am – 13.00 uur pm I will play ‘Threnody’ in my programme ‘An Ox on the Roof’ on Concertzender. You can listen back through this link

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Lera Auerbach: Lost Paradise Regained

lera-auerbachThe Russian Lera Auerbach (1973) does not shy away from major challenges. And that is an understatement. Recently she made a big impression with her cycle Goetia 72: in umbra lucis, a setting of the names of 72 demons for the Netherlands Chamber Choir and Quatuor Danel. At the same time a CD appeared with 72 Angels: in splendore lucis, in which she set 72 names of angels for the same choir and the Raschèr Saxophone Quartet.

Her music often has a spiritual element. In addition to the above-mentioned full-length choral cycles she composed impressive works such as Dialogues on Stabat Mater (2005); the large-scale Requiem: Ode to Peace (2012) and the forty-minute Violin Concerto De profundis (2015).

Auerbach regularly spices up her music with electronic instruments such as the theremin and the ondes martenot. Both were developed in the 1920s and produce an otherworldly sound midway between a human voice, a singing saw and a violin. Thus making it the ideal musical representative of her often esoteric subject matter.

In 2011 Auerbach made her debut in the Friday concert series with ‘ordinary’ instruments when the Radio Chamber Orchestra played her Serenade for a Melancholic Sea for violin, piano, cello and string orchestra. In 2019 she composed Evas Klage, a joint commission from RSO Wien, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and AVROTROS Vrijdagconcert. This will have its Dutch premiere on 28 February with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by their brand new chief Karina Canellakis. The previous night they will present a foretaste in the series Pieces of Tomorrow.

In Evas Klage, too, the ondes martenot play a major role. A thunderous orchestral introduction is succeeded by softly wailing sounds, like the weeping of a desperate ghost. The wistfully descending and ascending lines of the ondes martenot run like a thread through the piece. You automatically associate this with the voice of Eva, who is lamenting her fate. Regularly the orchestra tries to silence the fragile whimpering with ferocious outbursts of brass and percussion.

The sometimes violent atmosphere is explained by the subtitle: O Blumen, die niemals blühen werden. Auerbach quotes this verse from Paradise Lost by John Milton in German, because the first performance took place in Vienna. For the composer, this sentence symbolises the oppression of women throughout the centuries. Rarely, if ever, did they have the opportunity to develop their talents: their voices were stifled.

In Evas Klage, the ondes martenot – Eve’s voice – is continuously in danger of going under. But towards the end her singing ascends to heaven, leaving the orchestra behind on earth. Yet there is not only doom and gloom, for Auerbach weaves fragments of early music through her score. Both reference Henry Purcell.

Quite in the beginning we hear a quotation of his witty song What Can We Poor Females Do? To which an answer comes in the form of the well-known Music for a While. The message: the ladies may enjoy themselves with music. – Be it only as a momentary diversion.

The ethereal finale leaves no doubt that this Eve won’t be bullied into making ‘music for a while’. She brilliantly overcomes all obstacles, as is powerfully illustrated by a constantly rising melodic line at the end. ‘Perhaps the answer is to rise, to stay above, to remain above it all’ writes Auerbach. Thus we may keep a glimpse of the lost paradise, ‘as the inner light of childhood when the world was still undefined and everything was possible’.

Eve frees herself from her subordinate place ‘in umbra lucis’ – in the shadow of light, and self-confidently chooses a place ‘in splendore lucis’ – in bright light. In doing so she turns her lost paradise into a paradise regained.

The reviews of the world premiere in Vienna in October 2019 were unanimously laudatory. ‘The piece has a motivic richness that is both intellectually and sensually accessible’, opined the Wiener Zeitung. I wholeheartedly agree. – Hope to see you at the concert!

More info and tickets here.

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Robert Adlington on Reinbert de Leeuw: ‘His “canon” was quite unlike anyone else’s’

Grave of Reinbert de Leeuw on Zorgvliet, 21 February 2020

Reinbert de Leeuw died on 14 February 2020, and was buried in Amsterdam exactly a week later, after a worthy tribute in  Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. He had chosen the music for his farewell himself, with Asko|Schönberg performing Berceuse élégiaque by Ferruccio Busoni and the Netherlands Chamber Choir singing Entflieht auf leichten Kähnen by Anton Webern.

On film the packed hall witnessed an intense performance of the last movement of Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps by the violinist Vera Beths with Reinbert himself at the piano. The memorial ceremony ended with Reinbert conducting the finale of Schönberg’s Gurrelieder, the close-up of his ecstatic abandon triggering a heartfelt standing ovation. – Reinbert’s last.

His demise did not go unnoticed internationally either. The British site Slipped Disc commemorated Reinbert on the day of his passing and the New York Times published an obituary on 21 February, the day of his burial.

Photo of Robert Adlington

Robert Adlington

The British musicologist Robert Adlington studied Dutch musical life intensely, dedicating two books to it. Louis Andriessen: De Staat (Landmarks in Music Since 1950) appeared in 2004. Nine years later, in 2013, he zoomed in on the ‘roaring sixties’ in Composing Dissent: Avant-garde Music in 1960s Amsterdam. Robert was kind enough to share his thoughts on Reinbert in a personal obituary, which I feel honoured to publicize on my blog. Thanks Robert!


‘RdL’: this was my shorthand, peppering my note-taking as I immersed myself in the archives and literature on Dutch music of the ‘roerige jaren zestig’. These initials surfaced in a remarkable variety of contexts: RdL as pianist and conductor, for sure – playing keyboards in the ‘Politiek demonstratief experimenteel’ concert of May 1968; directing one of the ensembles in Reconstructie – but also RdL as critic (in De Gids and the crisply provocative Muzikale Anarchie), RdL as composer (his Hymns and Chorals perhaps the strongest of any of the works composed by the ‘Notenkrakers’ in 1970), and above all, RdL as lead strategist for the new ‘ensemblecultuur’.

Oddly, given the central role he played in my research, I never met RdL. We had arranged an interview, for which I made a special trip to Amsterdam, but his agent cancelled the same morning. I decided not to follow up; I knew already at this stage that my history would not be able to cast him in a uniformly positive light. And he undoubtedly had better things to do than to respond – yet again – to impertinent questions about an unhelpfully mythologised past.

But I vividly recall three landmark performances, landmarks for me anyway. My first RdL concert: Louis Andriessen’s De materie in London, 1994. Attending as a group with student friends, this performance symbolised the aching gap, as we then saw it, between new music performance culture in the Netherlands and the UK. The gap could be summed up in a single word – commitment – and it was underlined by RdL’s podium technique, utterly undemonstrative, yet eliciting playing (from the combined Asko and Schönberg forces) of quite fearsome power and accuracy. In the Netherlands, it seemed, new music was taken seriously.

Then: 2002 at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, and the most transcendently exquisite Ligeti I have ever heard. I had bought a ticket to hear De Staat, cancelled from 11 September the previous year. But marvellous though that was, it was Ligeti’s Double Concerto that sticks in the memory, each of the work’s gradated transitions and moments of quiet revelation realised with carefully weighted perfection. And another symbol of Dutch difference: refined Ligeti and rowdy Andriessen sitting side-by-side on a concert programme, disregarding perceptions of incongruity or ‘bad taste’. RdL certainly had blindspots of his own, but if he stood accused of exercising too much power over Dutch new music culture, his ‘canon’ was at least quite unlike anyone else’s.

And the last time I saw RdL, in Rotterdam in 2017, playing Liszt’s Via Crucis with the Nederlands Kamerkoor. I had never before heard the piece, though knew it had long been championed by RdL, and quickly came to realise that this was to be RdL’s Via Crucis as much as Liszt’s. Hunched low over the keys, as if exploring entirely new physical and psychological territory, this was less performance, more private confessional, to which the audience had unexpectedly been granted admission. It reminded me anew of how much RdL’s contribution – for good, and (it will be argued) for ill – arose from a complete devotion to the music in which he believed.

Nothing could ever be more important.


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Reinbert is dead, long live Reinbert!

Tribute to Reinbert de Leeuw on TivoliVredenburg 14 Feb 2020

‘I get up with you and go to bed with you’, I said jokingly. We were standing in his kitchen, where he was making coffee for himself and a cup of tea for me. Reinbert’s big frightened eyes told me that my ironic remark had landed in the barren earth of his deadly earnestness. – It was not the first and not the last misunderstanding between the biographer and her subject.

It must have been somewhere in 2008 or 2009, when the oppressive realization began to dawn on me that I had saddled myself with a monster job. After all, I had intended to place the pianist, composer and conductor in the context of his time, in order to separate man from myth. Had he really been the one who, in the sixties, tore open the windows that supposedly had closed off our country from modern music? Was Reinbert really the first to introduce composers such as Kurtág, Ligeti, Ustvolskaya and Gubaidulina?

Answering such questions required a thorough historiography of Dutch musical life from 1900 onwards. I spent many hours, days and months in our national archives and wandered through his own inexhaustible collection of newspaper clippings, which he willingly made available to me. The carefully cut out, but often undated articles and reviews drove me to despair, as did the countless loopholes in archived documents and the many damaged or disappeared microfiches.

It was only after more than seven years of research and countless conversations with Reinbert and about five hundred other, laboriously tracked down interlocutors that I was able to put an end to my manuscript. The seemingly endless and massive amount of work that came towards me kept me from sleep for nights on end. So, yes, there was a grain of truth in my remark.

And now Reinbert is dead.

He passed away on Friday, February 14, 2020. – On Valentine’s Day. Exactly six years and two weeks after the world premiere of his orchestral work Der nächtliche Wanderer in the NTRZaterdagMatinee. I had just managed to squeeze in the jubilant critiques in my biography, which appeared exactly one month later.

Although Reinbert became more and more brittle in recent years and was only a shadow of his already spindly self, the news of his death arrived like a blow with a sledgehammer.

And no, I had no obituary ready, because in my view that is tempting providence to make haste. Moreover, I was secretly convinced that Reinbert had eternal life. He was such a rock solid presence in our music life, he so ardently defended so many composers, it was just unthinkable that one day he would not be there anymore.

But now Reinbert is dead.

I still can’t quite grasp it.

And no, I’m not going to list his many merits again, for I’ve already done so exhaustively. His annoyance over the fact that I also described his darker sides has been widely reported in the press. His dismissive reaction once again caused me many a sleepless night.

Yet I have always kept appreciating his musicianship. Thanks to Reinbert I got to know the above-mentioned – and countless other – composers. And he may not have been the first to perform their music, his interpretation was so penetrating that I was chained to my seat, with chills on my back and goose bumps on my skin.

And just like everyone else, I hung on his lips when he spoke about whichever composer that occupied him at the time. Without exception, he or she turned out to be the most extraordinary, adventurous, ground-breaking composer he had ever conducted. – He invariably expressed his unrelenting enthusiasm in superlatives.

And now Reinbert is dead.

He was a great musician, who enthused many people for modern music. In recent years he has reached an even larger audience with his intensely romantic interpretations of Bach’s St Matthew and St John Passion.

That he could also be rigid and irreconcilable, as I experienced after the publication of my biography, was sometimes difficult to bear. But I have always kept distinguishing the man from the music under the motto: ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.’

Therefore: that’s water under the bridge. Reinbert is dead, long live Reinbert!



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Why I hope to meet the twenty-something members of a reading club at the Dutch premiere of Olga Neuwirth’s soundtrack to ‘Die Stadt ohne Juden’

Die Stadt ohne Juden, British premiere 15 November 2018 (c) Mark Allan

‘If it happens once, it can happen again.’ These admonishing words from the Italian-Jewish concentration camp survivor Primo Levi are more topical than ever. Neo-Nazis in Germany shout Hitler’s slogans with impunity, in the Netherlands the largest political party (Forum voor Democratie) is openly racist and anti-immigration.

Fortunately there are still strongly dissenting voices, as illustrated by the soundtrack Olga Neuwirth composed to the film Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City Without Jews), that will be performed by Ensemble Klang on 13 February in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, Amsterdam.

It’s frightening that (neo)fascism is becoming more and more socially acceptable. Especially among young people, as I recently discovered during a concert of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. A reading club of twenty-somethings said they had enjoyed Percussion Concerto Nr.2 by James MacMillan.

They agreed with me on the disastrous effects of the continuous cuts in funding of the arts. But then they declared, totally unabashed: ‘We all vote for Thierry’ (leader of the above mentioned party). When I exclaimed in dismay that he hates anything that smacks even remotely of being non-Western or modern, they quickly made themselves scarce.

Plea for ‘useless art’

Five years ago someone stumbled on the the supposedly lost film Die Stadt ohne Juden by H.K. Breslauer from 1924 on a flea market in Paris. The Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth (Graz, 1968) composed a new soundtrack to it, that was premiered in 2018 in Vienna. Christian Karlsen will conduct Ensemble Klang in its first run in Holland.

Olga Neuwirth has battled fascist tendencies in her homeland from the start. In 2000 she climbed the barricades to demonstrate against goverment participation of the right-wing extremist Jörg Haider. ‘Can I protest with art?’ she asked rhetorically. – Under the motto ‘Ich lass’ micht wegjodeln’ (I won’t be yodelled away) she made a fierce plea for the power of ‘useless’ art.

Those who are willing to acknowledge that the artist is ‘a seeker, who wants to understand the Ordinary, curb the Dominant and investigate the Unknown, will be more open and tolerant towards their surroundings’. Her music is never coquettish, for Neuwirth does not compose ‘to lull the masses to sleep’, but wishes to exhort the listener to self-reflection. Instead of pleasant melodies and harmonies, we hear an abrasive soundworld, permeated with distorted fragments of classical masterpieces, pop and jazz. Often she also employs electronics.

Concrete shafts as a symbol for deported Jews

Nor does she deny her Jewish roots. In 2004 she composed Torsion for bassoon and ensemble. This was inspired by Daniel Libeskind’s design for the new annex of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The angular shape, reminiscent of a Star of David, emphasizes how inseparable Berlin is from the history of the Jews. Libeskind cleaved through his building with five voids. These empty concrete shafts symbolise the gaps caused by the Nazis’ Endlösungspolitik. Neuwirth makes those disappeared voices almost tangible by weaving sound recordings made in these abandoned shafts through her composition.

In 2014 she wrote a soundtrack to Alfred Machin’s silent anti-war film Maudite soit la guerre. Four years later she composed music for the rediscovered film Die Stadt ohne Juden by H.K. Breslauer. In it, the newly elected Austrian chancellor notices that anti-Semitism is well received by ‘the people’. – And decides to deport all Jews from Vienna. The film was based on the book of the same name by Hugo Bettauer from 1922. This was intended as a satire on the prevailing anti-Semitism but turned out to be a horrifyingly accurate vision of the near future.

Latent aggression in the glorification of national character

The restored film with Neuwirth’s soundtrack premiered in Vienna in 2018, receiving rave reviews. ‘It’s not just a silent film with music. From the very first moment, sound and image merge into a breathing organism,’ wrote the Hamburger Abendblatt. ‘During a service in the Synagogue, screaming sounds like distant complaining voices point forward to the gruesome future.’ The Tiroler Tagesblatt describes how Neuwirth makes ‘the fragility of the family bourgeois idyll’ musically palpable. Just like the ‘latent aggression of a glorified national character that can turn into violence at any moment’.

The British premiere was a success as well. Neuwirth was briefly interviewed beforehand. ‘One of the most powerful scenes is when the Jews walk out of the city at dusk’, she said.  While composing, ‘I had to suppress my anger. Otherwise the music would merely have been an expression of my repugnance’. Neuwirth points to the unmistakable parallels with our own time: ‘Toxic language unleashes hatred.’ Approvingly she quotes Holocaust survivor Primo Levi: ‘If it happens once, it can happen again’.

– I really hope to meet the young people from the reading club at the concert in Muziekgebouw…

The concert will be repeated at Korzo Theatre The Hague on 20 February.

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Tuneful melodies and subdued tragedy in Fête Galante Ethel Smyth

Ethel Smyth – Wikipedia (c) By George Grantham Bain Collection; Restored by Adam Cuerden

‘If I hadn’t had three things that have nothing to do with music, I would have gone to waste from loneliness and disillusionment at an early age’, wrote Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) when she was sixty. Those three things were: ‘A cast iron constitution, an outspoken fighting mentality and a modest but independent income.’

Whereas in the nineteenth century women were often doomed to compose chamber music, she preferred to write large-scale works. ‘I want women to turn their minds to big and difficult jobs; not just to go on hugging the shore, afraid to put out to sea.’

In 1903 her opera Der Wald was performed at the Metropolitan Opera. It would take 103 years (!) before the renowned house staged a second opera by a woman in 2016, L’amour de loin by Kaija Saariaho.  The British label Retrospect Opera now presents a CD with Fête Galante, Smyth’s fifth opera.

Exciting sounds and rhythms

Smyth composed a total of six opera’s, of which The Wreckers (1906) and The Boatswain’s Mate (1914) are the best-known. These were previously (re)released by Retrospect Opera, and last November they issued a new recording of her ‘dance-dream’ Fête Galante (1923). No luxury, because although Smyth enjoyed a lot of prestige in her own time, she was largely forgotten after her death. – As I wrote before, I spent years trying in vain to convince conductors and concert programmers to perform or stage both above mentioned opera’s.

Nevertheless, in 1912 the famous German conductor Bruno Walter was convinced that her compositions would ‘reap much acclaim in the future. I consider Ethel Smyth to be a composer of great individuality and great importance. She knows how to express her stormy passion in exciting sounds and rhythms.’ In 1922 she was knighted, four years later she was awarded an honorary doctorate at Oxford. Around that time she became deaf, after which she concentrated on writing her – often hilarious – memoirs.

March of the Women

These reveal a character who did not allow herself to be distracted from her compositional path by anything or anyone. Neither did she hide her lesbian orientation, and she was an ardent suffragette into the bargain. After she threw a stone through the windows of the Ministry of the Interior, she ended up in prison for a month. With a toothbrush she conducted her fellow prisoners in her famous March of the Women. This grew into the hymn of the English women’s movement.

Ethel Smyth had her fighting spirit from no strangers: her father was an important general in the Royal Artillery. When as a 17-year-old she announced that she was going to study composition, he exclaimed that he ‘would rather see her dead and buried’. – There and then she decided to ‘make life at home into such hell that they just had to let me go.’

Musical intensity

In 1877 she left for Leipzig, where she teamed up with such greats as Anton Rubinstein, Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Because of her resolute demeanour and musical intensity Brahms jokingly called her ‘the oboe’. Her early works, such as the Mass in D (1891), were still influenced by him, but gradually she developed a personal style. This is rooted in romanticism and is permeated with splashes of Wagner, Debussy and English folklore.

For Fête Galante (1923) she sought inspiration in early music, in keeping with the neoclassicism of Ravel and Stravinsky. Edward Shanks’ libretto after a story by Maurice Baring draws on the tradition of the commedia del’arte. It is a play in a play, in which the love couple Pierrot and Columbina fall victim to a case of mistaken identity. The queen cheats on the king with a man wearing a Pierrot costume, but the real Pierrot refuses to betray his sovereign. – And is sentenced to the gallows.

Folk instruments

In the 45 minutes of this one-act opera, Smyth takes us into a fête full of beautiful music. She opens with a true to type sarabande, a light-footed baroque dance. This is followed by an infectious polyphonic musette, in which Smyth demonstrates her flair for writing appealing melodies and harmonies. Initially the atmosphere is playful, with cheerful rhythms and motifs of folk instruments such as concertina, banjo and tambourine. Gradually an increasingly tragic undertone creeps in, with dark sounds of (bass) clarinet and horns and arias in subdued minor.

As the music progresses, Smyth cleverly manages to make the inevitable tragic outcome become more and more inescapable. A swaying, folksong-like tune runs through the opera as a leitmotif. Cunningly enticing when the king asks Pierrot to reveal the identity of his wife’s lover. Triumphant and sad at the same time when Pierrot decides to give his life for the queen. – He thereby also gives up his own love for Columbina, leaving her under the delusion of being deceived herself.

Flamboyant soloists

The performance by ensemble Lontano under the baton of Odaline de Martinez is excellent. Significant rests are allowed all the space they need, and the individual musicians shine in Smyth’s flamboyant solos. The baritone Felix Kemp is a sensible Pierrot, the baritone Simon Wallfish navigates beautifully between barish king and humiliated husband.

The mezzo-soprano Carolyn Dobbin is a delightful adulterous queen and the soprano Charmian Bedford is a touching Columbina. The other singers are also excellent, and the six soloists smoothly merge in the swirling choral passages. An absolute highlight is the madrigal ‘Soul’s joy, now I’m gone’ on a text by John Donne halfway through the opera.

In her own days, Smyth was promoted by renowned conductors such as Bruno Walter, Sir Thomas Beecham and Arthur Nikisch. In Odaline de Martinez she has found a worthy contemporary advocate. As an encore the cd offers a flawless performance of Liza Lehmann’s poem The Happy Prince (after Oscar Wilde). With a penetrating recitation by Felicity Lott and subtle piano accompaniment by Valerie Langfield. – Buy that CD!



Available via this link

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‘I dragged along Ravel’s scores for a whole year’ – Bart Visman orchestrates ‘Ondine’

Bart Visman (c) Gerrit Schreurs

The Dutch composer Bart Visman (1962) wrote some highly successful works, such as the song cycle Sables, Oxygène for philharmonie zuid and the soprano Barbara Hannigan, and Ces concerts, riches the cuivre for the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. On 6 and 7 February he debuts with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra with an orchestration of ‘Ondine’, the first movement of Ravel’s three-part piano cycle Gaspard de la nuit. This commission forms the upbeat to an integral instrumentation, which will be premiered next season. “I’m made of the same stuff as Ravel.”

Ravel made acclaimed instrumentations of piano pieces by himself and others, but never ventured to ‘Ondine’. Is that intimidating or rather a fine challenge?

‘Intimidating! But also a challenge that I took up with enthusiasm. For a year I dragged along Ravel’s scores wherever I went, studying them thoroughly. I may have been intimidated, but I’m not afraid, his music is close to my heart. He speaks to my condition, as the Quakers say. I myself phrase it like this: I’m made of the same stuff that Ravel is made of.’

‘Thinking of Ravel’s music, what immediately springs to mind is its enormous richness of sound. The way he undresses and dresses a tone is so impressive that you automatically assume it to be very complex. That’s why you are inclined to do too much while orchestrating.’

‘But his approach turned out to be much simpler than I initially assumed. His music is so rich precisely because he works from the core, he only does what is necessary and in the end always chooses the simplest solution. While composing he heard the orchestral sound with his inner ear, and he knew perfectly well how to realise it.’

What made him such a brilliant orchestrator?

 ‘His orchestral treatment was totally new and definitely not German. In that case flutes, clarinets, horns and violins would all play the melody, but Ravel did exactly the opposite: there are few doublings. He orchestrated meticulously, starting from the balance and using the instruments to their full potential. How loud, how soft, in which register do they play? He found the ideal sound by thinking from colour. Those endless string flageolets, those mysterious murmurs, that low celesta… Unbelievable!’

How did you go about?

‘I generally start from a conception of the colour, too. While orchestrating “Ondine” I initially kept the score of Une Barque sur l’Océan to hand. This is also about water, but is less complex in every respect. Of course I tried to get as close to Ravel as possible, but he worked from the inside out, as it were, from a microscopic sound representation. I’m working from the outside in.’

‘There’s a good reason why he never orchestrated Gaspard de la nuit himself. To pianist Vlado Perlemuter, with whom he worked closely, he said: “The idea behind this piece is that it sounds like the piano score of an orchestral work.” And frankly, there are passages that simply sound best on the piano.’

‘Take the opening, for example. It is very soft and consists of a range of bubblings, foam, waves, tinklings… That was a whole new way of pianistic writing at the time. It has a fast internal movement, but the tempo is nevertheless low, I had to find an orchestral solution for this. – Which proved to be quite a challenge.’

How did you solve this?

‘For a moment I considered including a piano in the orchestra, but that didn’t turn out to be a good idea. In his own orchestrations Ravel uses a lot of natural flageolets, but that’s not possible in the key of C-sharp major. There is only one natural harmonic, which produces a flautando effect. Still, transposing was not an option because Ravel chose this particular key for a reason. In the end I opted for movement in the strings and sustained chords in some wind instruments.’

‘I see this hazy atmosphere as billions of water particles reflecting the whole world. And since the poem in the score is about a water nymph, it simply had to be a flute that blows the melody over all these mysterious rumblings. The funny thing is: concerning the impressionism of Ravel and Debussy we always think of fog, haze, mist, but it’s composed very precisely and in great detail. It’s anything but vague!’

How much Ravel and how much Visman are we going to hear in your orchestration?

‘I hope one hundred percent Ravel, zero percent Visman, but that’s impossible, of course. It’s not my piece, I borrowed it and hope to give it back intact, in new clothes.’

Concerts on 6+7 February, De Doelen, Rotterdam. Also on the programme: Piano Concerto Grieg; Pictures at an Exhibition Mussorgsky, orchestrated by Ravel.
Bart Visman is published by Deuss Music.


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An Orfeo that would make Wagner’s mouth water

L’Orfeo (c) Marco Borggreve

The new production of L’Orfeo by De Nederlandse Reisopera and Opera2Day is a Gesamtkunstwerk that would have made Wagner’s mouth water. Director Monique Wagemakers forges song, dance, music, costumes and décor together into one flowing, inseparable whole. The performance is compelling, poetic and enchanting and fits in seamlessly with the stylized language with which Monteverdi introduced the opera genre in 1607. At the premiere in Theater Wilmink Enschede we were captivated from beginning to end.

Even four hundred years later, the key question in Alessandro Striggio’s libretto is still relevant: how do we deal with loss? Do we pine away forever or do we get over it and become a ‘sadder, wiser person’, to paraphrase Coleridge. Orpheus isn’t capable of the latter. When his brand-new wife Euridice dies of a snake bite, he – literally – moves heaven and earth to bring her back from the realm of the dead.

Looking back in resentment

But once he has convinced the gods to release her, he cannot control his emotions at the moment supreme. With one glance backwards he loses his lover again, this time forever. And once again he drowns in self-pity. His father Apollo calls him to order: ‘Why do you remain stuck in resentment and grief, do you still not know that earthly happiness never lasts forever?’ On which they rise to heaven together , where Orpheus can eternally gaze on Euridice, shining among the stars.

The stage is empty. The only attribute is the installation ‘Ego’ by Lonneke Gordijn of Studio Drift. This transparent three-dimensional canvas was hand-woven from 16 kilometres of fine threads of fluorocarbon. With the help of software controlled by the conductor, this rapidly takes on other forms that are directly related to Orfeo’s feelings. Thus the art object represents his inner world and becomes a silent but very active protagonist.

Usually the object has a cubic shape, to form a cell in which Orpheus is imprisoned, or the coffin in which Euridice is carried away. At the announcement of her death, the fabric is ‘horrified’ and swiftly converts into a diagonal shape, anxiously seeking refuge in the upper right hand corner of the stage.

The dynamic choreography of Nanine Linning and the lighting design of Thomas C. Hase are also wonderful, the costumes of Marlou Breuls are striking though somewhat uniform. When the curtain rises we discern a dimly lit intertwined tangle of people in flesh-coloured, ribbed body stockings. From this, La Musica rises up like a Venus of Milo to announce the story of Orpheus. This is a brilliant role of the mezzo-soprano Luciana Mancini, whose warm, full voice also gives shape to the Messenger and Proserpina.

‘Square’ world view

Orpheus is the only one wearing a dress, its flamboyant skirt also ribbed and flesh-coloured. He keeps this on throughout the performance, while the other characters exchange their costumes for dark blue long robes in the underworld. This beautifully symbolises Orfeo’s inability to adapt to the circumstances: he is trapped in his own ‘square’ world view. The tenor Samuel Boden has a neat diction and effortlessly masters his florid but sometimes awkward embellishments. Even when the choir lifts him up and carries him across the stage. Shame his voice is a little too small for the main hall.

The enchanting unity of the directing concept is further enhanced by the fact that there is no noticeable difference between dancers and singers. The flowing movements with graceful jumps, outstretched arms and curved bodies merge with flawlessly sung choral passages. This this is the stunning result of hard-won teamwork, you hardly dare believe your eyes and ears. The only downside is the end of the second act, when singers and dancers jump into each other’s arms while emitting piercing roars, as if we are witnessing a therapeutic session of how to deal with heartbreak.

Subtle chitarrones

The coordination between stage and orchestra is exemplary. Conductor Hernán Schvartzman leads the baroque ensemble La Sfera Armoniosa with great feeling through Monteverdi’s finely chiselled language. Passages with subtle plucking of chitarrones (long-necked lutes) and warm-blooded organ sounds alternate with lively sinfonias. Here strings and wind instruments take the lead and create a benevolent, full orchestral sound, at times enriched by beautiful choral parts.

Particularly moving is the shrill ‘regale’ organ whose sounds resembles that of a hurdy-gurdy. This underlines Caronte’s stubborn refusal to let Orpheus cross over to Hades. With his dark and resonant bass Alex Rosen is the ideal ferryman of the underworld. With her pure and delicate voice the soprano Kristen Witmer is a beautiful Euridice, doubling as Hope and Echo. The bass-baritone Yannis François is a somewhat modest Pluto, but impresses as a shepherd and spirit.

This magnificent production deserves an international audience. Be sure not to miss it!

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‘We know exactly what the right decision is, but often choose against our intuition’ – Lera Auerbach sets 72 demons to music

Lera Auerbach (photo F. Reinhold)

In 2016, the Russian-American Lera Auerbach (1973) stunned both audience and press with her full-length cycle 72 Angels for choir and saxophone quartet. Three years later she composed a sequel, Goetia 72, dedicated to as many demons. This time the choir is accompanied by a string quartet.

The piece was premiered in Berlin in May 2019, by RIAS Chamber Choir and Michelangelo String Quartet. On 30 January co-commissioner Netherlands Kamerkoor and Quatuor Danèl will perform Goetia 72 in the Amsterdam Muziekgebouw under the baton of Peter Dijkstra. The concert forms part of the second edition of the String Quartet Biennale Amsterdam, and will then tour through Holland.

Auerbach definitely has guts. You must both be ‘a little crazy and have a touch of genius’ to write an evening-long choral work on a text limited to a list of 72 names of angels’, as a reviewer wrote after the world premiere in 2016. Perhaps you have to be even crazier to devote a cycle to as many demons, but Auerbach has unprecedented determination.

No light without shadow

‘I made the first sketches for 72 Angels more than twenty years ago, but no conductor wanted to perform the cycle’, she says. ‘Therefore it seemed even more unrealistic to create a piece about 72 demons, but one cannot have light without shadow, shadows are caused by light.’ Auerbach here refers to the subtitles of her two compositions. The angels bathe ‘in splendore lucis’ (in bright light), the demons dwell ‘in umbra lucis’ (the shadow of light).

For her first cycle she picked the names of the angels from the Bible book of Exodus, this time she consulted the Ars u Goetia. This is the first part of The Key of Solomon, an anonymous collection of magical practices written in the 17th century. It mentions the names of the 72 demons that King Solomon is said to have locked in a sealed vessel. ‘That book was only the departure point for the sourcing of the names’, Auerbach stresses. ‘I have consulted countless other sources, for each name has multiple variants in different esoteric texts. I researched all that I found available.’

Pagan deities neither ‘evil’ nor ‘good’

She discovered that many names originated from pagan deities. ‘They weren’t just good or bad, they were passionate, jealous creatures not much different from humans. – Or angels. Initially, the two concepts were used interchangeably. It was only with the rise of Christianity and other monotheistic religions that the pagan gods were labelled ‘evil’. From then on, the word ‘angel’ was used for spiritual beings who served the god of Abraham; the name ‘demon’ became associated with the other spirits and the fallen angels.’

Auerbach leaves it open how Solomon himself viewed the demons: ‘No one can know that. He dominated them with the help of a magic ring he had received from the archangel Michael; thus they helped him to build the temple of Jerusalem. Personally, I think that Solomon considered angels and demons simply as energies, vibrations, wavelengths that he could connect. – Perhaps the djinns from Islamic folklore are a better analogy with our time, because they are not intrinsically good or bad either.’

In essence, the three monotheistic religions have the same roots, says Auerbach. ‘Judaism, Christianity and Islam are connected from within. That is why it is ironic that in the course of history so much blood has been shed “in the name of God”. And just as light cannot do without shadow and vice versa, angels and demons are two sides of the same coin. In essence, they are the same, just as in the Ancient Greeks’ view: they are not opposites but messengers, communicators, representations of energies.’

Demons disturb our moral compass

Nevertheless Auerbach does discern a difference: ‘Angels are more distant, demons are closer to us, tempting and seducing us. They toy with our idealism, our desires. They play on the strings of our human emotions, which is why I chose a string quartet in Goetia 72. The four strings act as a partner to the choir and as guide in this journey through 72 spirits. In modern terms you could say that demons are a human “creation”. They represent and nourish our fears, paranoia, lust for power, phobias, herd-mentality, possessiveness and greed.’

‘They love noise and loudspeakers, because in silence it is easier to hear the quiet inner voice of our moral compass – somewhere in our hearts the voice of an angel always sounds. We know exactly what the right decision is, but we often choose a different one, against our intuition. Demons play on our vanity and desires: they seduce us to long for more possessions, more fame, more power, more beauty, more righteousness.’

‘They are us, like a mirror: ‘A mirror that reflects and amplifies our passions the very moment they take possession of us. And angels? They are the names of God, the army of God, the warriors, the righteous ones. Precisely for this reason they may fall, for righteousness leads to arrogance and vanity, hence fallen angels – demons. “Vanity, absolutely my favourite sin”, says the Devil in The Devil’s Advocate.

Psalm as talisman

Unlike in 72 Angels, Goetia 72 does not consist exclusively of an enumeration of names, the composition is larded with verses from Psalm 90 (91). ‘This psalm has a history of being used as a talisman, it was traditionally recited when working with demons. I made a setting in ancient Greek and place those verses at three structural points, each after 24 names. This reinforces their protective intention. By the way, this arrangement was not even my intention, the piece itself asked for it, it has grown organically this way.’

In 2016 the composer described 72 Angels as ‘a long, intense prayer, full of passion and hope’. How does she see Goetia 72? ‘It is a kind of ritual, going back to pre-Christian times, before the rise of monotheism. A ritual in which we face ourselves.’ She plays with the fatal temptation that emanates from demons: ‘I give them what they want, not what they need. Then I show them the outcome of their desires. – And then I take everything away from them.’

Auerbach is not only a composer, conductor, pianist and writer, but also a visual artist and sculptor. Do these capacities help her shape her music? ‘Yes. For instance, I have an audio-visual installation called Trapped Angel that could be presented together with 72 Angels and Goetia.’

‘There is also a large immersive installation I would like to create with 72 Angels, and I am in the process of developing various visual art works related to both cycles. Being a conductor allows me to shape performances as close as possible to my vision for interpreting this diptych. Conducting also helps me to gain deeper understanding of the performers and audience perspectives.’

She doesn’t have a favourite demon: ‘I wouldn’t dare. Otherwise the other demons would get jealous.’

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Conductor Elim Chan: ‘I cannot run away from music’

Elim Chan (c) Willeke Machiels

‘When I was unexpectedly asked to conduct the “Dies Irae” from Verdi’s Requiem , I felt how raw and impactful music could be. I knew at once: this is what I have to do, I can no longer walk away from music.’ Elim Chan’s career is soaring; she will make her debut with the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra on 17 January.

In 2014 Elim Chan (Hong Kong, 1986) was the first female winner of the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition. The next season she worked as assistant conductor with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). After this she made successful debuts with Los Angeles Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Orchestre National de Lyon, among others. As of the current season she is head of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra.

The Dutch connection is working out fine as well. She earlier conducted the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and took masterclasses with Bernard Haitink. On 17 January she will debut with the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra in AVROTROSVrijdagconcert. On 18 and 20 January she will repeat the same programme in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. A blast is Percussion Concerto No.2 by James MacMillan, featuring Dutch Music Prize Winner 2019 Dominique Vleeshouwers as soloist.

Alongside MacMillan’s concerto Chan and the orchestra are playing Mendelssohn’s popular Hebrides and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Chan is now a much sought-after conductor, but she began her career as an amateur musician in Hong Kong. As a teenager she moved to America to study psychology. That raises questions, which she kindly answered by e-mail.

Why didn’t you choose a musical career from the start? Didn’t your parents – or you yourself – see this as a serious possibility?

I think it was a combination of reasons. In my heart I certainly wanted to pursue a musical career, but I didn’t have enough faith in myself. I simply wasn’t convinced I could make it. Moreover, as a young person I was also very interested in psychology and forensic research, and I was a big fan of television shows like Crime Scene Investigation and detective and crime stories such as Sherlock Holmes. What’s more, my father knew from personal experience how challenging it is to try to earn a good living as an artist. Before he retired, he was a teacher of art and design.

During your studies at Smith College you were asked to conduct the ‘Dies Irae’ from Verdi’s Requiem. How did this come about?

I played the cello in the student orchestra and also took some conducting classes with the conductor. At that moment we were studying Verdi’s Requiem for a concert. During the dress rehearsal he wanted to assess the balance in the hall himself, so he asked me to conduct the Dies Irae.

The experience really shook me – standing in the middle of the massive sounds, it was the first time I felt how raw and impactful the power of music could be. On the spot I knew: I really have to do this, I can’t run away from music anymore. So I switched – and the rest is history.

In 2014 you won the Donatella Flick conducting competition of the LSO, which brought you to England. What has this meant for you?

I’m still grateful for the time when I was assistant conductor of the LSO and was able to work with one of the best orchestras in the world on a daily basis. The musicians are impeccable and always give the best of themselves in concerts. They are also generous and friendly people. Thanks to their knowledge of the repertoire and their guidance I have learned and grown a lot as a conductor.

Every time I get to work with the LSO, it pushes me to my limits as an artist. The musicians are very fast and perform at a very high level, even though there is little rehearsal time. So I have to be efficient. But in the meantime I have to highlight all the details in the music and let my imagination run wild. It is incredibly nerve-racking and exciting but also very rewarding!

At the LSO you worked as an assistant to Valery Gergiev, what is the most important thing you learned from him?

Gergiev is really a wizard as a conductor, especially with Russian repertoire. I know that orchestras are sometimes frustrated and stressed because he is probably one of the busiest conductors on earth. But what he does great is keeping every musician literally on the edge of their seat whenever he’s on stage. Because there is always that element of surprise with Gergiev: every time he conducts a piece it sounds totally different from the last time. Also the way in which he can bring out colours, textures, drama and tension in the music is absolutely unparalleled.

At the invitation of Gergiev you conducted his own Mariinsky Orchestra. Was this a culture shock or was it ‘business as usual’?

In the beginning it was indeed a bit of a culture shock, because they weren’t used to seeing a petite Asian lady standing in front of them. – I think I was the first female conductor who Gergiev invited to conduct his orchestra in concerts and on an international tour. But once I had started the downbeat, it gradually became business as usual.

 You are now principal guest conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and chief of the Antwerp Philharmonic Orchestra. How do you combine all this?

It’s great how eager both orchestras are to grow, and to explore new paths. The musicians put their trust in me with remarkable openness and warmth. Yet, the two functions leave me enough time to return to orchestras close to me, such as the LSO, Philharmonia and LAPhilharmonic, but also to visit new orchestras. The challenge is to find enough time to study and rest in between. – “Be the conductor of your own life,” is my motto.

Where does your musical heart lie?

I’ve conducted a lot of Russian music and have a soft spot for Rachmaninov. His music somehow seems very natural to me, I find it very easy to embody. I love the Symphonic Dances, and his Second Symphony also has a special place in my heart. Another fascinating composer is Stravinsky, but also Bartók. I love rhythm, and they both write such remarkable and unique colours for orchestra. But I also love contemporary music, because I can play an active role in the creation of a new piece. The presence of the composer at rehearsals and concerts makes a huge difference and adds a lot of meaning and emotion to the process.

You will conduct the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra in standard works by Mendelsohn and Tchaikovsky and Percussion Concerto No.2 by James MacMillan. Did you already know his music?

Yes. I conducted Veni Veni Emmanuel, his first Percussion Concerto, a few times and gave the American premiere of his Fourth Symphony. His music is quite challenging, both physically and technically, since MacMillan writes really virtuoso parts for his performers. But it is always such a rewarding experience when you work through it. Listening to how everything fits together, the textures, the colours, the deeply religious undertones: it’s very emotional and has a powerful rhetoric in all passages.

What are the pitfalls for you as a conductor?

I find it a great and fun challenge to accompany a percussionist as a conductor. – We are both very physically engaged. At all times we have to be in absolute sync and communicate very precisely with each other to make the concerto work. Furthermore, it’s very tricky to get the right balance for all the complex and delicate parts MacMillan writes for the orchestra and the solo percussion.

What I like most about it is how MacMillan makes the “metallic” quality shine. Not only in the solo and orchestral percussion but also in the brass.

I’ll do the pre concert talks on 18+20 January in Concertgebouw, and interviewed MacMillan about his concerto before its world premiere in 2014.

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James MacMillan: ‘My Percussion Concerto No.2 is a musical and visual spectacle’

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor james macmillan"

James MacMillan (c) Boosey & Hawkes

‘When Colin Currie asked me to compose a new percussion concerto for him, I grabbed this chance immediately, for this idea had already been in my mind for a while. I was very curious to explore new grounds and intended to create a completely different piece from my first percussion concerto Veni, veni, Emmanuel.‘ Practicing what he preached, the Scottish composer James MacMillan (1959) finished his Percussion Concerto Nr.2 in 2014.

It was premiered that same year by Currie and the Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in AVROTROSVrijdagconcert and broadcast live on Radio 4. The concert drew mixed reviews, but has nevertheless nestled snugly in the canon of contemporary music. Since its inception it’s been performed some thirty times, not only by Currie, but also by other renowned percussionists, such as Claire Edwardes and Martin Grubinger.

From 17-20 January the young Dutch percussionist Dominique Vleeshouwers will be the soloist in a run of three concerts with the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, of which the first again forms part of the AVROTROSVrijdagconcert Utrecht, while the other two will take place in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. There, on Saturday 18 January, Vleeshouwers will receive the prestigious Dutch Music Prize 2019 from the hands of Ingrid van Engelshoven, Minister of Culture.

fkeu 19 dominique vleeshouwers 06-02.jpg

Dominique Vleeshouwers

In his music James MacMillan strives for a direct communication with the public, often inspired by his Catholic faith. He made a name for himself with works such as The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, a Scottisch woman who was burnt at the stake for alleged witchcraft; The World’s Ransoming for alto oboe and orchestra, two large-scale Passions and his first percussion concerto, Veni, Veni Emmanuel. This monumental but lively and varied concerto marked his international breakthrough and has since been performed over three hundred times.

On the occasion of the premiere of his second percussion concerto in 2014 I interviewed MacMillan for Radio 4 after its first run-through in the radio studios in Hilversum.

In 1991 he collaborated closely with the Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie, and over a decade later he also sought Currie’s advice for his second percussion concerto. MacMillan: ‘I’ve known Colin since he was a teenager and we’ve performed my first percussion concerto together many times. I am impressed by the conviction and dedication with which he plays my music, and know his interpretation inside out. We’ve become friends and when he asked me for a new piece, I seized the opportunity with both hands.’

The Scot did not want to repeat himself however: ‘I was looking for new ways, not only in terms of theme and structure, but also in terms of instrumentation. Colin played a lot of percussion instruments for me that I did not yet know. For example, he showed me the recently developed aluphone, an instrument that consists of a long rod on which aluminium pods are mounted in the arrangement of piano keys.’


Aluphone as played in Percussion Concerto No.2

‘Its sound balances somewhere between glockenspiel and vibraphone and can be clangorous, bright and metallic but also sweet. It moreover has a deep resonance that can create a sort of halo, a sheen. I use that to dramatic effect.’

Unlike Veni, Veni Emmanuel that was inspired by Advent, Percussion Concerto No. 2 has no religious background: ‘It is a completely abstract piece, based on the sound of metal percussion instruments. Besides the soloist there are two orchestral percussionists and together they sometimes form a trio, for instance in the beginning. There all three of them play marimba, but in different octaves and with different material, thus creating a kind of meta-marimba.’

Remarkable too, is the use of a steel drum, which often conjures up associations with Surinamese music. ‘I deliberately avoided that’, says MacMillan. ‘The steel-drum has an unprecedented richness of timbres and can sound very sensitive. I am particularly interested in that last quality, because the core of my piece is lyrical. But it remains a percussion concerto, so I also play around a lot rhythmically and the soloist has to work really hard. He often changes instruments quickly, so the audience sees him running back and forth across the stage.’

‘It was exciting to write this piece, because I could explore so many new timbres. The virtuosic aspect is appealing to both player and audience, especially when he succeeds in almost superhuman feats.’ With a satisfied grin: ‘My Percussion Concerto No.2 is a true spectacle, not only musically, but also visually, giving it an extra dimension.’

Before the world premiere in 2014, I made a reportage for Radio 4, that has unfortunately been taken offline. However I saved my short talk with MacMillan and Currie, which is now available as a podcast.

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Winnaar Kersjesprijs Lodewijk van der Ree: ‘Taal bepaalt sterk de klank van een koor’

Lodewijk van der Ree – Consensus Vocalis

‘Een bevlogen dirigent, met een intelligente benadering van de partituur, een heldere slag en het vermogen een koor mee te slepen in zijn visie. Aldus de jury van de Kersjesprijs over Lodewijk van der Ree (1986), die dit jaar de directieprijs in ontvangst mocht nemen. Ik werkte al vaker met hem samen en kan deze uitspraak van harte onderschrijven.

In 2018 modereerde ik een openbare repetitie en een inleiding in Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ, naar aanleiding van de wereldpremière van La porte de l’enfer van de Spaanse componist José Maria Sánchez-Verdú. Het stuk was gecomponeerd in opdracht van de Strijkkwartet Biënnale, voor Cappella Amsterdam en Quarteto Quiroga. Ondanks de beperkte repetitietijd voerde Lodewijk de zangers en musici met verve door de vooral uit fluisteringen, zuchten en mysterieuze klankerupties bestaande compositie.

Een jaar later gaf Cappella Amsterdam hem carte blanche voor een avondvullend concert, eveneens in Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ. Van der Ree stelde een bijzonder programma samen onder de titel Time and the Bell. Deze verwijst naar een versregel van T.S. Eliot die Sofia Goebaidoelina gebruikte voor haar gelijknamige compositie voor sopraan en strijkoctet, waaruit alleen het deel voor solosopraan werd uitgevoerd.

Het concert vormde een mooie illustratie van de brede oriëntatie van Lodewijk van der Ree. Naast muziek van de Vlaamse polyfonist Johannes Ockeghem plaatste hij de wereldpremière van Kuma van de Estse Liisa Hirsch, geïnspireerd op een van de klokken van de Rostov Kathedraal in Rusland. Mooi ook dat hij de moderne klassieker Mortuos plango van de Britse componist Jonathan Harvey op de lessenaars zette en het concert besloot met het zelden uitgevoerde Nachklänge van de Nederlander Robert Heppener.

Na afloop van de prijsuitreiking op 3 december 2019 in het Concertgebouw vroeg ik Van der Ree naar zijn plannen. Hij blijft – in ieder geval voorlopig – koordirigent. Geen wonder, want hij heeft een grote affiniteit met de menselijke stem en begon zijn carrière als zanger. Vanwege zijn relatie met de Estse componiste Evelin Seppar woont hij tegenwoordig in Tallin, waar hij de veel geroemde koorpraktijk van binnenuit kan bestuderen.

Waar orkesten wereldwijd qua klank steeds meer op elkaar gaan lijken, behouden koren volgens Van der Ree hun eigenheid. ‘De taal bepaalt in sterke mate de klankkleur van een koor.’ Gevraagd naar de verschillen in zang tussen Esten en Nederlanders merkt hij op dat de eerste wat logger zijn. Met als nadeel dat ze muziek van polyfonisten als Monteverdi minder zwierig zingen dan Nederlanders, maar als voordeel dat zij perfect de zwaarmoedige, donkere klank van Russische muziek van bijvoorbeeld Rachmaninov over het voetlicht brengen.

Het prijzengeld van € 15.000 gaat hij besteden aan masterclasses bij bewonderde dirigenten als Grete Pedersen en Marcus Creed. Maar vooral van belang acht hij goeie persfoto’s en een eigen website: ‘Ik ben nu wat onzichtbaar.’

– Daar zal ongetwijfeld snel verandering in komen.

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La Cenerentola Rossini: coloraturas by linear metre



La Cenerentola (c) Matthias Baus

The first thing that catches the eye when entering the Dutch National Opera is the large number of young people who crowd into the cloakroom. The organisation has emphatically advertised its new production of La Cenerentola (Cinderella) as a ‘family performance’. A special information sheet provides insightful explanations of the voice types used and the story of Cinderella, as told in different cultures. The overwhelming cheering afterwards illustrates that Laurent Pelly has managed to strike the right chord with his witty and imaginative directing.

Unlike in Grimm’s fairy tales, Angelina/Cinderella in Rossini’s La Cenerentola does not suffer under a harsh stepmother, but under her surly stepfather Don Magnifico. He pampers daughters Tisbe and Clorinda from his second marriage, but squanders Angelina’s inheritance it and treats her like a doormat. Her two stepsisters constantly boss Angelina around and shower her with curses. Meanwhile, she dreams of a better life.

While she mops the floor in her apron, Angelina sings a folk song about a king who wants to get married. Three candidates compete for his crown, but he prefers ‘innocence and goodness’ to ‘pride and beauty’. Angelina tells and predicts her own story in a nutshell. No wonder her sisters are irritated and order her to stop singing.

But their disdain comes at a price, of course, as it goes in fairy tales. Before he chooses his wife, Prince Ramiro conducts some field research. Disguised as a beggar, his counsellor Alidoro knocks on Don Magnifico’s door. The sisters hone him away, but Angelina feeds him. Signalled by Alidoro, Ramiro changes roles with his chamberlain Dandini to take get a personal impression. As soon as he meets Angelina, the two immediately fall in love, and after a seemingly endless series of entanglements they get married.

In this opera Rossini commented on the enormous differences between rich and poor, a theme that is still topical today. But librettist Jacopo Feretti argues: whoever is born for a dime like Angelina can eventually become a quarter. Laurent Pelly has shaped this hopeful message with great humour. – Although he wisely leaves it open whether the happy end is real or imagined: at the end Angelina is alone again, mopping the floor in her filthy apron.

The daily life of Angelina and her family takes place in a 1950s setting, with rundown washing machines, frayed sofas and an old-fashioned TV. Prince Ramiro’s world is set in pink, in an 18th century atmosphere, right down to the costumes of his lackeys. Also in pink are the princely props, consisting of chandeliers, a royal banquet and lush ballroom that magically descend from the ceiling. – A striking depiction of Angelina’s dream world, even though the association girl-pink may be somewhat clichéd.

Laurent Pelly seamlessly interweaves parody with seriousness, which ties in nicely with Rossini’s own attitude towards ingrained opera conventions. His characters often sing head-on towards the audience, with grand gestures that mercilessly illustrate their vanity. Pelly accentuates the many accents in Rossini’s music with sudden head jerks, arm movements and rhythmically placed steps. Often to hilarious effect, especially in the ensembles and choral passages.

The cast is excellent. The mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard is a captivating Cinderella. With her somewhat small but warm and agile voice, she seemingly effortlessly interprets Rossini’s neck-breaking coloraturas. As Ramiro, the tenor Lawrence Brownlee also tackles Rossini’s super-fast word sequences with apparent ease. With his imposing stature and ditto baritone, Nicola Alaimo is a wonderfully self-righteous Don Magnifico.

The baritone Alessio Arduini shines as the chamberlain who is allowed to play the role of prince for a while and the stepsisters are venomously portrayed by soprano Julietta Aleksanyan and mezzo-soprano Polly Leech. Both are studying at the National Opera Studio and know how to convince on slippers as well as on towering pumps under ridiculous hoop skirts. But the most impressive is the Italian bass Roberto Tagliavini, who glorifies with his deep, sonorous voice and great stage presence.

The Netherlands Chamber Orchestra and the men’s choir of Dutch National Opera, conducted by the 36-year-old Italian conductor Daniele Rustioni, bravely plod their way through Rossini’s incredibly difficult score. If truth be told, La Cenerentola is not a masterpiece: it contains a lot of interchangeable passagework and Rossini delivers coloraturas per linear metre. The rhythmic complexity sometimes leads to unevenness in orchestra and choir, and at times the soloists are out of sync. If Rustioni would not gesticulate so wildly, he might better master the musical complexities.

Though judging from the frenzied support, this was of no concern at all to the audience.

The above is a slightly adapted translation o my review of the opening night on 3 December, as published in Theaterkrant
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Aspasia Nasopoulou: ‘If the doors for new music don’t open quickly enough, we have to knock harder!’

The Greek/Dutch composer Aspasia Nasopoulou (Athens, 1972) was appointed as the new artistic leader of orkest de ereprijs. Though she has lived in the Netherlands for a long time, she is not as well known to the general public as her compatriot Calliope Tsoupaki. But in new music circles she has made a name for herself as a composer of adventurous, interdisciplinary pieces.

Such as Lelia Doura in which she succeeded in translating the atmosphere of a troubadour song into a lively score for the Dutch recorder quintet Seldom Sene, released on cd in 2014. Another remarkable work is Nachtwerk in which Nasopoulou combines poems written and recited by Micha Hamel with music for the Doelen String Quartet. Reviewing these works in 2015 I wrote: ‘We’ll certainly hear more of Aspasia Nasopoulou.’

In 2016 she composed the ambitious Ten Dipoles, again for recorder quintet Seldom Sene. In ten sparkling miniatures Nasopoulou captures as many pairs of opposites (‘dipoles’) that in pre-Aristotelian theory form the basic principle of all elements. For instance, ‘good-bad’; ‘straight-bent’ and ‘left-right’.

Apart from using an impressive array of recorders – ranging from the highest baroque sopranino to the lowest possible modern sub-contrabass – she combines the instruments with ten free aerophones developed by Horst Rickels and Ernst Dullemond.

Aspasia Nasopoulou

These aerophones not only add a pleasant visual aspect to a performance, but also provide extra sound possibilities. They mainly act like a chorus, their sounds being triggered by pedals operated by the musicians. At other times though, they perform as individual ‘players’, engaging in conversation or vying for attention with their live counterparts. Hilarious are the sudden twittering birds or mooing cow that interrupt their argument.

In  somewhat less than half an hour Ten Dipoles creates a fascinating world full of unusual and intriguing sounds. Particularly striking is the opposite ‘male-female’ (nr. 4). This has a harrowing effect because the recorders use three different tunings (A=415 Hertz, A=440 Hertz and A=466 Hertz). No wonder Seldom Sene placed this beguiling piece first on their recent cd Not a Single Road.

Concert organizer

But Nasopoulou’s field of work expands beyond composition. From 2006-2009 she co-organized and moderated two series of workshops in Huize Gaudeamus, Bilthoven: ‘The Composer’ and ‘The Performer’. In 2016 she initiated ‘Composer’s treat’ in which composers are offered a working week at de Buitenplaats, Starnmeerdijk. This residency is concluded with a presentation open for the public.

This September she started the concert series Nieuwe Noten Amsterdam, together with clarinetist Fie Schouten. Taking on the artistic leadership of orkest de ereprijs thus seems a logical next step. I asked her about her relationship with this ensemble and about her plans for the future.

When and how did you first get to know orkest de ereprijs?

I met Wim Boerman and de ereprijs in 2007 when I was asked to join the committee of a composition competition for high school students. I admire the fervour and dedication with which they bring across the intentions of each new composition, and I very much like the potential of their sound.

I moreover appreciate their continuous curiosity, their engagement with the creation of new music, their support of different generations of composers of today, and their very active involvement in music education.

Internationally renowned is their yearly Young Composers’ Meeting, a competition for aspiring talents initiated in 1995. This gives a positive stimulance to the careers of the participants, creativity being stimulated by providing free space for budding composers. De ereprijs is an important motor in Dutch contemporary music life.

As artistic director you will tread in Wim Boermans’ footsteps. Will you take a different course? 

Wim Boerman will be the artistic director and conductor until the end of 2020 and I’m happy that during this period he will be close to the process of planning the next steps of the orchestra. I admire his curiosity and originality, bringing music of today closer to the audience without pretention, with dedication and persistence.

There are already many ideas that we will develop in the coming months. I strive for continuity and hope to further explore the connections between different artistic disciplines and different cultures. Here I see possibilities for international exchanges, but I can’t as yet predict how these will actually take shape.

The particular line-up of the ensemble with its focus on wind instruments has over the past 40 years lead to a wealth of surprising and powerful compositions. We will continue the open dialogue within the orchestra, and composers of today will keep playing an active role. Also it’s my intention to maintain and tighten the bond with educational institutes. Music is very important for young people, for it has connecting capacities and can bridge ideas, identities and cultures.

Will the ‘Orchestra of the 21st Century’ stay on? This was a joint venture with Gelders Orkest that recently merged with Orkest van het Oosten into Phion. 

The Orchestra of the 21st Century will definitely keep playing new exciting repertoire for extended instrumentations. Also we intend to expand the collaborations, for instance with the National Youth Orchestra and ArtEZ Conservatory.

What are the main challenges you expect to face?

As always it remains difficult to finance new music. If you can show that new music has a meaning for today probably new doors will open. If they don’t open quickly enough we’ll have to knock harder!

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Veertig jaar pionieren – orkest de ereprijs viert jubileum met vier premières

Bij wijze van intro speelt de slagwerker van orkest de ereprijs een cadens van luchtslagen. Wanneer hij onverwacht een snoeiharde mep op zijn snaredrum gaf, schrikt iedereen zich een ongeluk. Zo, met Bewegung ohne Bewegung voor cello en ensemble van Jan van de Putte, opende het slotconcert van de jubileumreeks rond het 40-jarig bestaan van dit avontuurlijke ensemble.

Orkest de ereprijs werd in 1979 in Arnhem opgericht door fluitist/dirigent Wim Boerman en enkele medemuzikanten. Zijn geesteskind viert zijn 40e verhaardag met vier premières, voor elk decennium één, gecomponeerd door Martijn Padding, Jan van de Putte, Kate Moore en Wilbert Bulsink. Vorig jaar kreeg Boerman de Theo Bruins Prijs voor zijn niet aflatende inzet voor talentontwikkeling en educatie betreffende moderne muziek.

De ereprijs was het eerste ensemble voor moderne muziek in het Oosten des lands, dat in 1992 naar Apeldoorn verhuisde en inmiddels zijn vleugels ook (inter)nationaal heeft uitgeslagen. Het orkest begon als collectief van 15 musici, die met zijn bezetting van 11 blazers, elektrische gitaar, basgitaar, piano en slagwerk qua klank enigszins aanhaakte bij Orkest de Volharding.

Net als zijn Amsterdamse evenknie verzorgde de ereprijs aanvankelijk vooral optredens op bijzondere (buiten)locaties, met speciaal voor deze bezetting gecomponeerde stukken. Toen de composities complexer werden, ging men werken met dirigenten en gaandeweg verruilde Wim Boerman steeds vaker zijn fluit voor de baton.

Uiteindelijk werd Boerman aangesteld als artistiek leider en dirigent. In 2005 kreeg hij van de Poolse en Russische Bond van Componisten een oeuvreprijs voor al zijn werk en inspanningen. Eind 2020 stopt hij als vaste dirigent, er wordt nog gezocht naar een opvolger.

In de afgelopen vier decennia bouwde het collectief een indrukwekkende collectie op van ruim 400 speciaal voor hen geschreven stukken. In 1995 werd de Young Composers Meeting in het leven geroepen, die componisten onder 30 jaar de kans geeft een week lang samen met de musici te werken aan een nieuwe compositie. Dit alles onder de hoede van zulke uiteenlopende ‘senior composers’ als Louis Andriessen, Hanna Kulenty, Alvin Curran en Julia Wolfe.

Onder de laureaten bevinden zich inmiddels bekende namen als Anna Meredith, Maja Ratke, Dmitri Kourliandski en Kate Moore, die De Reiger componeerde voor de driedelige jubileumserie. De concerten vonden plaats in het Orgelpark in Amsterdam (16 november) en Musis Sacrum Arnhem (20 november); het slotconcert was op zondag 1 december in theater De Gigant in standplaats Apeldoorn.

De openingscompositie Bewegung ohne Bewegung van Jan van de Putte, met die luchtslagen en snaredrum, vormde een passend begin. Grappig was hierna de opkomst van soliste Katarina Gross, die de gebaren van de slagwerker mimede met haar strijkstok, om vervolgens als een robot met staccatostapjes naar haar instrument te lopen.

Gross trekt haar stok in gedecideerde, korte halen over de snaren, tegelijkertijd amechtige zuchten slakend. Gaandeweg speelt ze uitgebreidere motieven, eindigend in een cadens van steeds hogere, loepzuiver gespeelde kleine intervallen, ingebed in aangehouden tonen van het ensemble. De titel is raak getroffen: er gebeurt van alles, maar toch ademt het geheel een bewegingloze sfeer.

Dirk + Wim

Dirk Luijmes, Wim Boerman en orkest de ereprijs, 1-12-2019 De Gigant, Apeldoorn

Padding – jarenlang als ‘senior composer’ betrokken bij de Young Composers Meeting – componeerde het tegendraadse concert This is a loud world voor clavichord en ensemble. Boerman vertelde het publiek smeuïg over de schiere onhoorbaarheid van dit lievelingsinstrument van Bach. Vanwege zijn zachte klank bleek het noodzakelijk de overige musici te hullen in plastic, om aldus hun geluidsniveau te dempen.

Het zag er sprookjesachtig uit en het stuk opende met aanstekelijke kraakgeluidjes en geblaas op met water gevulde flesjes. Toetstenist Dirk Luijmes toonde zich een droogkomische solist, die als een Jerry Lee Lewis van de eigentijdse muziek zijn vingers wild over de toetsen haalde en het instrument zelfs wist te ‘laten rocken’, zoals De Volkskrant naar aanleiding van de wereldpremière noteerde.

Kate Moore presenteert in De Reiger een klankveld van lang aangehouden, aan- en afzwellende tonen die weliswaar fraai zinderende boventonen genereerden maar de aandacht niet tot het einde toe wisten vast te houden. Wilbert Bulsink schreef het aansprekende Struikelgevaar, waarin draaiorgel the Busy Drone met schurende clusters het ensemble leek te willen ontregelen. Aangezien dit instrument in het Orgelpark in Amsterdam is gehuisvest, klonk het in De Gigant van band.

Na afloop van het concert was er een borrel met een fraai nawoord van bestuursvoorzitter Dingeman Kuilman. Hij merkte op dat ‘ereprijs’ in de plantenwereld geldt als  onkruid en besloot na een uitgebreide laudatio op Boerman en zijn musici gevat met de woorden: ‘Onkruid vergaat niet.’

Wim + Aspasia Nasopoulou

Wiim Boerman kondigt Aspasia Nasopoulou aan als nieuwe artistiek leider

Hierna kondigde de vertrekkend artistiek leider zelf zijn opvolger aan: de Grieks-Nederlandse componist Aspasia Nasopoulou. Zij gaat in de toekomst nog meer inzetten op samenwerkingsverbanden met musici uit andere culturen.

Op naar de volgende veertig jaar dus!

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‘Composing for today’: John Adams wins Erasmus Prize 2019

‘He has made contemporary classical music communicative again’, writes the jury of the Erasmus Prize about John Adams. This year’s theme was ‘Composing for today’, an area in which the American composer has more than earned his spurs. On Thursday 28 November King Willem-Alexander will personally hand him the prize money of €150,000 in Paleis op de Dam (Palace on Dam Square). – Including the accompanying adornments: a harmonica ribbon with memorable words by Erasmus about respect and appreciation for talent.

Various events have been organised around this award ceremony. In the evening, the laureate is central in Spot on John Adams of the Nieuw Ensemble in Muziekgebouw aan het IJ. Alongside music to music by Tan Dun and by Adams himself, the ensemble will play the world premiere of Pavane, corrodance, a tribute by Rick van Veldhuizen. In the following days Adams will work with students at the conservatories of The Hague, Amsterdam and Utrecht. Finally, the Italian feature film Io Sono l’Amore, for which Adams composed the soundtrack, will be screened in Utrecht on 1 December.

All well and good, but who is John Adams?

John Adams (1947) is one of the most performed living composers in the world. He has become a true public favourite, also in the Netherlands. The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and Leila Josefowicz only recently performed his First Violin Concerto. But despite his international fame, Adams has no starlike airs and is remarkably relaxed. When conducting, he turns out to be a pleasant talker, drawing laughs from the audience with short, ironic explanations.

Before conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the Dutch premiere of Scheherazade.2, he told the audience with a sardonic grin: ‘People thought I had invented a new computer program. Which suits the spirited lady I’m presenting in this violin concerto. – Indeed, the soloist (Scheherazade from A Thousand and One Nights) is besieged by an orchestra of fanatical ‘true believers’, but gloriously overcomes her attackers.

Current themes

Adams composed Scheherazade.2 out of dismay at the way women worldwide are maltreated and even killed. Adams often addresses current themes in his music. In 1987 he composed his opera Nixon in China, about the historical visit  from this American president to Mao and his wife fifteen years earlier. The intimate dance of Mao and his wife became a world hit as the orchestral work The Chairman Dances.

The heavy earthquake that shattered Los Angeles in 1994 led to the ‘Singspiel’ I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky. After the attack on the Twin Towers on 9 September 2001 he composed the oratorio On the Transmigration of Souls, an impressive requiem for the thousands of victims. The development of the atomic bomb in New Mexico during the Second World War led to the opera Dr. Atomic, which had its premiere in 2005.


Perhaps his most famous work is The Death of Klinghoffer, which is now part of the standard repertoire of every opera house. Yet its premiere in 1991 caused controversy. The libretto is based on the Palestinian freedom fighters who killed a handicapped Judeo-American cruise passenger in 1985. Although Adams emphatically does not take a stand, Jewish organisations condemned his opera as anti-Semitic. – Several American opera houses cancelled the production.

During a series of performances at the Metropolitan Opera New York in 2014, Jewish demonstrators again took to the streets. That’s how I myself ended up in a fierce discussion with a demonstrator who condemned the opera for being heavily anti-Semitic. Though she had to admit not having seen or heard the production, she remained fiercely convinced that she was right. – It’s amazing that the opera doesn’t seem to arouse any resentment in Islamic circles.

The Bach of jazz

Adams clearly feels a strong bond with his homeland. He was born in Massachusetts in 1946 and grew up in a village in New Hampshire. His grandfather ran a dance hall on Lake Winnipesaukee, where his parents had met. His father played clarinet in brass bands and jazzy swing bands, in which his mother sang.

During summers the family would holiday with grandpa, in whose establishment Duke Ellington and his orchestra regularly performed. Little John was deeply impressed by his music. Especially on the day he was allowed to sit next to his jazz hero on the piano stool. ‘Ellington is the Bach of jazz’, he would say about this later.

At home, not only jazz records were played on the rickety pickup, but also recordings of Mozart and other classical composers. As a boy John Adams learned to play his father’s instrument and soon became a member of the same orchestras. From the age of ten he started composing himself and four years later already a piece of his was performed by the local orchestra.

John Adams (c) Vern Evans)

Culture shock

Adams got a small culture shock when he started studying composition at Harvard in 1965. His teachers Leon Kirchner and Earl Kim were ardent advocates of Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal music, which was unknown to him. For a short time he also used arithmetical composition techniques, but soon he felt trapped by this. He missed beauty of sound and emotion. At night he listened to records by The Beatles, wondering how he could bring these totally different worlds together.

The answer came when he discovered the minimal music of composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. He developed his own style by linking repetitive motifs to the sound world of romantic composers such as Mahler and Sibelius, seasoning all this with a dash of jazz and American popular music. In 1985 he made his breakthrough with his compelling orchestral work Harmonielehre.

Schoenberg meets comics

The title refers to the book of the same name with which Schoenberg said goodbye to the romantic era at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1992 Adams composed Chamber Symphony, an infectious pastiche of musical styles. This came about when he studied Schoenberg’s groundbreaking Chamber Symphony opus 9 while his son was watching American comics on a television in the adjoining room.

As a composer Adams stopped playing the clarinet. But when he lost his father around the age of fifty, he dusted off his instrument and composed the three-part Gnarly Buttons. In it he forges all the above mentioned influences into a cheerful, musician-like and thoroughly American whole. He carelessly turns a Protestant hymn into jazzy clarinet runs and conjures up the Wild West with banjo music. This exciting piece will form part of the programme of the Nieuw Ensemble on 28 November.

Gradually Adams’ style became more eclectic. In his large-scale opera oratorio El Niño about the birth of Christ (2000) he combines minimalist driving rhythms with tranquil medieval singing, spicy close harmony, references to Bach and an overwhelmingly romantic lyricism. Critics sometimes complain that his later compositions border dangerously on kitsch, but with his euphonious style he manages to reach the heart of the common man.

– Precisely the reason why he was awarded the coveted Erasmus Prize.

John-Adams-Erasmusprijs-2019-uitreiking-Koning-Willem-Alexander klein

King Willem-Alexander congratulating John Adams, 28 November 2019

‘In accepting the honor I acknowledge that the world of artistic creation is as varied as there are artists who inhabit it, and there is no single ideal model of how an artist should or ought to behave.’

Adams spoke memorable words about the importance of the arts in his acceptance speech, showing himself to be a true kindred spirit of Erasmus. 

At the ceremony a short documentary about Adams’ recent opera ‘Girls of the Golden West’ (2019)  was played.

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‘Wikileaks has never been caught on a single error’ – Iris ter Schiphorst writes Assange: Fragmente einer Unzeit

IristerSchiphorst (c) Bettina Stoess

‘There is an information war going on at the moment, which shows how important data are. The Assange case is the most poignant example of this,’ says the Dutch-German composer Iris Ter Schiphorst.

She addresses this theme in Assange: Fragmente einer Unzeit (‘Assange: Fragments from a Bad Time’) that will be premiered by Ensemble Modern in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ on 7 November. The following day the piece will again be performed in the festival November Music.

Ter Schiphorst has a mission: ‘Although Wikileaks has never been caught on one single mistake, Assange is accused of espionage and treason, and is prosecuted as a criminal. In both England and America, politicians are trying to amend the laws on freedom of speech, so that unwelcome information can be regarded as subversive and dangerous to the state. This concerns us all.’

What characterises you as a composer?

‘I deal with subjects that make me angry, most of the time these are “extra-musical” at first sight. In my ensemble work Zerstören I (‘Destroying’) I react to the attack on the Twin Towers. This led to the emergence of a new form of irrationality, in which politicians revert to primitive violence. At the same time, various religions are establishing themselves as guardians of archaic norms and values. This is a fatal and frightening development, especially for women.’

‘In my documentary music theatre play Volk unter Verdacht (‘The people as suspects’) I discuss the methods of the State Security Service in the German Democratic Republic. – On a broader level there are scary parallells with the constant camera surveillance we are under nowadays.’

‘In Das Imaginäre nach Lacan I reflect on our ways of absorbing information. A singer recites excerpts from classical Arab poetry, now dressed in Arabic, then in Western attire. She often literally repeats her verses, only clad in a different outfit. Thus, I pose the question whether we are independent in our perception or whether we are guided by prejudice. In Meine kleine Lieder (‘My Little Songs’), I address the shift to alt-right in present-day Germany.’

Assange: Fragmente einer Unzeit is about the threat to our freedom as individuals. It’s about the attack on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and on a deeper level about the danger that threatens us all when the law suddenly ceases to apply. The case of Julian Assange illustrates most poignantly what happens when someone proclaims “unpleasant” truths.’

‘Assange is an award-winning Australian journalist who acts as spokesman for the Wikileaks platform, which was founded in 2006. This website offers investigative journalists the opportunity to denounce abuses anonymously. Since then, the platform has revealed many things. Such as the abuses in Guantánamo Bay, how Western states wage war on the basis of fake news, how they create tax havens, manipulate elections and silence whistle-blowers.’

Artists must speak out

‘Unfortunately, many people seem to be only moderately interested in this, but it concerns us all. To speak with Edward Snowden: “When revealing a crime is treated as a crime, we are ruled by criminals.” Now journalists are being prosecuted and even murdered, the importance of transparency is greater than ever. We must speak out as artists, because nothing less than the future of investigative journalism and press freedom is at stake.’

How did you set up your composition?

‘I use short excerpts from speeches and statements made by politicians on the Assange case. I have edited these recordings and and programmed them for a sampler, which is operated by one of the pianists. At the same time I try to express in the music itself how much this situation worries me. For instance, the music often drowns out the solo soprano, even though she sings amplified. The whole affair makes me so upset because it is clear that this form of disenfranchisement can affect us all.’

Ensemble Modern / Enno Poppe
Iris ter Schiphorst: Fragmente einer Unzeit; Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, 7 November 8.15 pm; Den Bosch Verkadefabriek 8 November 8.45: world premiere.
On 7 November Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ organizes a free public rehearsal from 4.30-5 pm, after which I will speak with Ter Schiphorst and conductor Enno Poppe.
I wrote a preview of the concerts for Cultuurpers.

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The soprano sighs, whispers, breathes in, breathes out, groans and squeeks – Helmut Lachenmann’s Got Lost in November Music

Helmut Lachenmann (c) Marion Kalter/Lebrecht Music

The German composer Helmut Lachenmann (1935) is the champion of evocative squeaks, grindings and splatters. Like John Cage, he hears music in unusual sources. Rarely an instrument is played as is prescribed in the books. ‘Making music with sounds is relatively simple and always somewhere modern’, he once said about this. Although he started his career as a choirboy, his catalogue contains surprisingly few vocal works.

On November 7th his only cycle for soprano and piano, Got Lost, will be performed in the newmusic festival November Music. This will be performed by the soprano Yuko Kakuta and the pianist Yukiko Sugawara, the composer’s wife. Lachenmann himself will come to Den Bosch especially for a meet and greet after the concert.

Lost laundry

He composed Got Lost in 2008 for the Biennale for New Music Theatre in Munich. It was a request from the British soprano Sarah Leonard, one of the singers in his opera The Little Match Girl. This explains the subtitle ‘Sarah’s Song’. The opera was based on the fairy tale of the same name by Andersen, this time he used texts by Nietzsche and Pessoa. From the first, he chose verses from The Wanderer about an abyss that inevitably leads to death. From Pessoa he quotes a reflection on how ridiculous it is to write love letters. – With the conclusion that it is even more ridiculous not to write any.

Finally there is an English text, from which the title of the cycle is derived. ‘Today my laundry basket got lost. It was last seen standing near the dryer. Since it is pretty difficult to carry the laundry without it I’d be most happy to get it back.’

At a previous performance in Muziekgebouw aan het IJ, Sugawara told me that these words originate from their neighbour. She had hung a note in the launderette where she had lost her laundry basket. Since then, the expression has become a running gag between the couple. ‘Helmut is always losing things, so then he sighs once more: oh, dear, my pyjamas got lost.’

Ridiculous situations

Unlike a song cycle by Schubert or Schumann, the words can seldom be understood literally. Got Lost’s score consists mainly of individual consonants, vowels and syllables. The soprano sighs, groans, whispers, breathes in, breathes out, blows, squeaks and only incidentally sings a fragment of arioso. The pianist sometimes mixes in with tongue clacking and sudden outbursts of guttural sounds, in the meantime banging out clusters interspersed with sparse but graceful cantilenas.

In his own commentary, Lachenmann describes how he has forged ‘three only seemingly incompatible texts’ into a unity. He has ‘stripped them of their emotional, poetic and profane diction’ and used them to shape the soprano part. This ‘sound source’ produces a ‘constantly changing field of sound, reverberation and movement. Sometimes shouting, sometimes playfully trembling or whimpering’.

Lachenmann constantly mixes the various texts, so that unexpected interactions, layers of meaning and a witty expressiveness arise. Thus Lachenmann emphasizes the ‘transcendent, ungodly message of the ridiculous situations’ connecting the three texts.

Like Anna Korsun, Helmut Lachenmann writes music that escapes analysis. He himself would like to ‘broaden the listener’s horizons’. He certainly created new horizons in Got Lost. – So off to Den Bosch it is!

Thursday 7 November, Willem Two Toonzaal, 12.30 hrs.
Helmut Lachenmann: Got Lost
Mark Andre: iv 1
Mark Andre: Job. 3.8
Yuko Kakuta - soprano; Yukiko Sugawara - piano

More info and tickets here.
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Music from anger and powerlessness – Georg Friedrich Haas in November Music

Georg Friedrich Haas is one of the central composers in the upcoming edition of the newmusic festival November Music. Last year the Austrian created a sensation in the Holland Festival by openly talking about his master-slave relationship with his wife Mollena. Possibly even more spectacular was their joint production Hyena.

Mollena Williams-Haas told a blood-curdling story about how she got rid of her addiction to alcohol; her husband provided the hypnotic music. For November Music he wrote the brand new Solstices; the Dutch premiere of his Ninth String Quartet can also be heard.

In modern music circles, Georg Friedrich Haas is regarded as one of the most important composers of our time. However, he is still largely unknown to the general public in the Netherlands, despite his frank outcry about his sex life. However, slowly more and more people gradually learn to appreciate his colourful, iridescent compositions. This is in part thanks to his often performed ensemble piece in vain, which is partly performed in complete darkness.


Haas composed it in 2000 out of a feeling of anger and powerlessness. A government coalition had just been formed between the right-wing extremist Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs and the Österreichische Volkspartei. In vain is inspired by the infinite steps in the lithograph Ascending and Descending of Maurits Escher. Just as the people walk aimlessly in circles, the music also circles around its own axis. A fine symbol of the futile resistance against right-wing extremism.

As clever is how Haas allows different sound worlds to collide with each other during the passages played in the dark. Harmonic, pleasant chords come up against terrifying structures of microtones. Because these notes differ from the twelve semitones of the common scale, they sound ‘false’ to our ears. The already threatening atmosphere becomes stronger when the light is extinguished. Together with the musicians, the audience descends, as it were, into the impenetrable darkness of right-wing populism.

No visual stimuli

An additional effect is that you experiences music more intensely if you are not distracted by visual stimuli. This may be diametrically opposed to the current trend of using images and creating installation art, but Haas uses it to good effect. Solstices and the Ninth String Quartet are even performed in pitch-black darkness from start to finish. Solstices premiered last February and received rave reviews.

A grand piano plays the leading role. It is in the so-called ‘just intonation’, which means that all intervals are microtonal. The ten musicians have to listen intensively to the piano and to each other, to be able to react without any visual support. The piece opens with turbulent, acerbic chords from the piano, intersected with shrill screams of trombone and other wind instruments. The exciting swirls at times evoke the atmosphere of in vain.

After about five minutes Haas shifts to a lower gear. The musicians build harmonies of elongated lines, the piano places loose tones in the space. This creates a process of in-depth listening, in which we are almost literally sucked into the wonderful microtonal sound world. This reminds us of the minimalist pieces La Monte Young composed in just intonation in the 1970s.

Unbearably delayed dawn

Haas divides Solstices into segments, which he himself considers to be games and which are introduced by the pianist. The other musicians play fragments learned by heart, but are also allowed to improvise. Together they work towards an immense climax. Building on this, they hold on to a chord for almost five minutes towards the end. Then the light gradually returns; the stronger the light, the softer the music, after which it dies out into thin air.

‘It was as if dawn was about to announce itself, but the music slowed it down in an unbearable way’, one critic wrote after the premiere. ‘The mind moves to strange, sometimes sinister places when it is placed so isolated in the dark.’ Another critic simply referred to an ‘unforgettable listening experience’. Solstices is in any case an experience you won’t easily forget.

The Ninth String Quartet that Haas composed for the Jack Quartet in 2016 is also microtonal.  In this quartet he combines the extraordinary tuning with sizzling arches of tension and a great sense of musical drama. The Italian Quarteto Maurice guarantees a glowing performance.

– So off to Den Bosch it is!

2 November Riot Ensembles Solstices
8 Novemer Quarteto Maurice String Quartet nr. 9


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‘Like a terrifying chorus of ghostly aliens’ – Why you must simply undergo Anna Korsun’s music

Anna Korsun (c) Konrad Fersterer

‘With her surprising and communicative music, Anna Korsun rose high above her colleagues.’ I wrote this in 2014, when she won the Gaudeamus Award. I concluded: ‘We’re definitely going to hear more from her’, and since then the Ukrainian composer has more than fulfilled that promise.

She made a name for herself as a composer, pianist, vocalist, conductor and (co-)organiser of concert series. Her work is performed at all major modern music festivals and earlier this year she was awarded the Open Ear Prize of Stichting Trillende Lucht. In November Music Modelo62 presents a cross-section of her oeuvre, which counts over 50 compositions to date.

With its cross-genre programming, The Hague Ensemble is the ideal interpreter of Korsun’s music. The musicians previously advocated such idiosyncratic composers as Sedje Hémon and Petra Strahovnik. Anna Korsun, too, likes to think outside the box and makes connections with the visual arts, dance, theatre and literature. In her work she involves professional and amateur musicians as well as non-musicians. She moreover directs musical projects and teaches composition at the Amsterdam Conservatory.

Poetic music

Korsun has a great love for the human voice and weaves enchanting musical textures out of unheard sounds, permeated with expectant silences. With her poetic music, she manages to touch the unsuspecting layman’s heart. ‘Her work is an unadulterated and highly original combination of archaic and enchanting musical arrangements’, opined the jury of the Open Ear Prize. Born in 1986 in Donetsk, she studied composition and music theory at the Music Academy in Kiev, after which she moved to Munich. There she continued her studies with Moritz Eggert at the Academy for Music and Theatre.

A stroke of luck, as it turned out. ‘I didn’t know Moritz when I was admitted to his class, but it was a happy coincidence, he was and is very important to me. He gave me lots of useful advice and was always open to questions on any subject. Moritz has great analytical skills, is a particularly talented musician and has good intuition. I have enjoyed each and every lesson and all our conversations on composition.

One’s own voice?

Yet she wouldn’t go as far as claiming that thanks to Eggert she has found her own voice. ‘Finding an “own voice” is a complex process that is determined by many circumstances. First and foremost it is very important to know that someone supports you in your search. But frankly, I wouldn’t even say that I’ve formed my own voice. After all, that would mean that I’m stuck with a certain style, while I’d rather develop myself further. Anyway, you never know exactly when and by whom or what you’re influenced, that happens unconsciously.’

She certainly hasn’t become a musical epigone of Eggert. ‘Our musical directions are very different and that’s how it should be. It’s terrible when the student becomes a copy of his or her teacher. I don’t like to compare art anyway and honestly wouldn’t know how to do this. An artistic expression is always unique. And whether you like something or not is purely a matter of personal taste.’

Chorus of ghostly aliens

The mere build-up of the concert on 5 November is in keeping with the adventurous spirit of Anna Korsun. Four of her pieces will be presented at two different locations. From seven o’clock to seven thirty Modelo62 plays in the Grote Kerk in Den Bosch. In this tightly designed, sunlit space, the first piece Pulsar for organ and soprano will be performed by Korsun herself.

With sustained, pulsating tones she creates a hypnotic sound web in which voice and organ merge seamlessly with each other. In the following Signals, fourteen musicians are equipped with a megaphone. A range of cries, screams, whistling, muffled fragments of text and stretched vocals surround the audience. It sounds like a chorus of ghostly aliens.


After this, the audience and musicians will move to the Willem Twee Toonzaal for the second part of the concert. The claustrophobic Tollers Zelle for guitar and vocals is inspired by the German poet and revolutionary Ernst Toller. He was one of the leaders of the communist Bavarian Soviet Republic, which was proclaimed immediately after WWII but only existed for a year; in 1919 Toller was imprisoned.

The guitar is tuned in scordatura and is moreover played with a wine glass. The thus formed glissandi find an echo in the voice, which has to sing ‘not classical’. In this way, Korsun creates an oppressive universe in which the boundaries between instrument and man are blurred once more. The portrait concert ends with Ucht for ensemble and tape, in which Korsun again treats our ears to unheard, mysterious sounds.

Anna Korsun’s music escapes analysis and cannot be pigeonholed. You simply have to undergo it, as an adventure of which you can’t foresee the outcome. But anyone who dares to immerse themselves in Korsun’s private universe will be richly rewarded.

November Music, 5 November 2019, Modelo62
19.00 – 19.30; Anna Korsun – Pulsar / Signals (Grote Kerk)
20.00 – 20.30: Anna Korsun – Tollers Zelle / Ucht (Willem Twee Toonzaal)
More info and tickets here.

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‘I decided to make an unembashed romantic gesture and blast people away’ – Mathilde Wantenaar composes new piece for Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra

Mathilde Wantenaar (c) Karen van Gilst

Be creative on demand? Impossible, one would think. Yet it is reality for composers and artists who work on commission. Mathilde Wantenaar (1993) suffered acute choice stress when the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra asked her for a new piece. She was just working on a commission from the National Opera. ‘I felt like a rabbit caught in the headlights, totally paralysed. But I just couldn’t turn down such an attractive offer.’ On 11 October Prélude à une nuit américaine will premiere in De Doelen Rotterdam. A day later it sounds in AVROTROSVrijdagconcert in Utrecht.

Both your parents are musicians. How has this determined your life?

‘It’s the reason I exist at all. My mother studied cabaret and worked with a theatre company for a long time. At a certain point she stopped because she wanted to make theatre herself, also on the street. Looking for an accordionist she found my father. Together they performed all over the country, also at the outdoor festival of Oerol. They fell in love and then they conceived me. My mother teaches singing nowadays, she doesn’t perform herself anymore, my father does.’

‘He comes from a farmer’s family, and grew up in Soest as the youngest of seven children. My grandfather had a small side-trade in accordions and my father eventually went to the conservatory with that instrument. At first he studied classical music, but after a year he switched to the jazz department at the Conservatory of Hilversum. As a second main subject he studied jazz piano and since then he has done many different things. For example, he played tango with the Malando Orchestra, in which he also learnt how to play the bandoneon.’

‘My father is still very active, and also accompanies my mother’s presentation concerts. Sometime I join in as well, on guitar or vocals. For as long as I can remember, people came over for singing lessons. It’s always very nice, because they don’t start practicing right away but have a cup of coffee first. There will be people of all ages, from young to old, the atmosphere in our house is very warm. Only the other day I sang a duet with one of my mother’s students.’

‘As soon as I got piano lessons I came up with my own pieces. My father wrote them down, for I didn’t know musical notation myself yet. He played what he had written down and I would tell him which notes were right or wrong, I have a good musical memory. So my father was my first performer, haha. Yet I saw composing more as my own crazy little thing, which had nothing to do with anyone else. At grammar school I initially thought about becoming a scientist.’

‘But when I was able to take part in a composition project as part of our music lessons, the fat was in the fire. Asko|Schönberg performed a selection of our pieces in the Concertgebouw. That was so great! So after my final exams I enrolled in the preparatory course at Amsterdam Conservatory. I thought: if I don’t like it, I can still study chemistry or industrial design after all.’

Since then you have graduated and the assignments are streaming in. How do you deal with that?

‘Sometimes this is difficult. At the moment I’m working on a family opera that will premiere next year at the Opera Forward Festival. Then, out of the blue came this request from the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. My first reaction was: oh no! I had just heard that the opera was definitely on, and was completely delighted. It’s been my dream to make opera for a long time, but this was exactly in the same period. I thought: now I get such a great opportunity to write for orchestra, when I actually want to concentrate on my opera. That’s going to be very stressful.’

‘I felt like the proverbial rabbit caught in the headlights, totally paralysed. Simply from a planning point of view I couldn’t accept the commission. I asked programmer Floris Don if it couldn’t be postponed, but he really wanted to present my piece in October. I was endlessly deliberating: should I do it? It was too good an opportunity to turn down. At one point Floris asked me if I didn’t have something I could reuse. A golden tip, that helped me break the deadlock.’

‘At once I thought of a piece of material that I had wanted to elaborate on for a long time. Only the possibility had never occurred before. This musical motif arose from a composition in which I experimented with a twelve-tone melody. In the end this turned into something else, but this particular fragment has a beautiful, somewhat wrenching harmony. It is euphonious and at the same time a bit jazzy.’

‘I like that harmonious world. I am an admirer of Ravel and Debussy, but also of Tchaikovsky, especially of his Fourth Symphony. My intention was to write equally beautiful, long-held string lines. I studied how to build up such an expansive arc of tension and what harmonic progressions would help me realize it. I love it when the engine rolls and you feel that you are on your way to something. When at a certain moment the brass is added, a climax is created and everything floats in the air for a while. I decided to make an unabashed grand romantic gesture and blow people away.’

‘My piece is programmed along with music by Steve Reich and John Adams. Because of its jazzy harmonies and dancing rhythms it also has a somewhat American touch. At the same time it exudes a more French, nocturnal sultriness, the atmosphere of a nocturne. I’ve been hesitating about the title for a long time, because as soon as you give a piece a name, you create expectations. I prefer to keep it abstract.’

‘Initially I had Nocturne for orchestra in mind, but my friends thought that was too boring.  Then I considered Dans la nuit, a pun on “dance”, that simultaneously captures the French, nocturnal atmosphere. ‘Finally I settled on Prélude à une nuit américaine.’

With a wink: ‘This will end up being shortened to just Prélude after all.’

Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra / André de Ridder  / violinLeila Josefowicz
Wantenaar • Prélude à une nuit américaine (commission work, world premiere)
Adams • Violin Concerto No. 1; The Chairman Dances
Reich • Music for Ensemble and Orchestra (Dutch premiere)
Friday 11 Oct 2019, De Doelen, Rotterdam
Saturday 12 Oct 2019, AVROTROSVrijdagconcert, Utrecht
In Utrecht I will talk with Wantenaar during my introduction. Info and tickets here
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‘Topical themes inevitably seep into my compositions’ – Meriç Artaç artist in residence for two seasons of Dag in de Branding

Meriç Artaç (c) Nine IJff

Born in 1990 in Istanbul, Meriç Artaç rapidly made a name for herself in the Netherlands, after graduating from Rotterdam Conservatoire in 2015. She realized topical operas such as Zonderland, Madam Koo and Vrouwenstemmen, leads her own ensemble AKOM and teaches at Amsterdam Conservatory. For the coming two seasons she will be artist in residence of Festival Dag in de Branding.

At the tender age of 5 you entered Istanbul Conservatoire to study the piano. How was this possible?

I was indeed the youngest student to be accepted to the piano class. This was on a suggestion from my teacher at kindergarten, who was a musician herself. I had trouble reading and writing and she noticed I had a really good ear for music, so she advised my parents to send me to a music school.

This was a very fortunate advice. Music has been in my life for as long as I can remember. My father is a movie/theatre director, my mother is a script/theatre writer, so I was immersed in the arts from day one. However, I only studied at the conservatoire on a part time basis. During the day I went to primary school, and later the Lycée Saint-Michel, in the evenings I would go to the conservatory.

At 18 you obtained a degree from the conservatory alongside a French baccalauréat from the Lycée Saint-Michel. So how come you ended up in Rotterdam, not in France?

To be honest, I also applied for conservatories in France. I was accepted there, too, but the moment I entered Codarts in Rotterdam it was love at first sight. I found the Netherlands in general really free and sensed straightaway I would be able to develop my talents as an artist here. In Istanbul the teaching method was completely different, quite disciplined and very conservative. – Debussy was considered the most contemporary composer.

At Codarts I felt that everything was open. I had to take responsibility for my own choices, whereas in Istanbul everything had been planned and formed for me. In Rotterdam I found a space in which I could shape my own study and my own future. I chose Peter-Jan Wagemans to be my teacher, for I wanted to refine my music/theatre language. Peter-Jan really helped me understand what I was passionate about. He also made me aware of how to connect my own background with what I was looking to achieve within my style.

You often describe your compositions as ‘musical representations of characters and stories’. How are we to understand this?

From a very young age I was interested in stories of people and humans in general. I consider myself an observer, and like to exaggerate things that are overlooked but strike me as worthwhile. I always draw my characters before I start composing. They are inspired by people I see in the street, personalities I admire, details that make someone special… Mostly I focus on one specific aspect of a character, a dominant mood which I then represent in my composition.

I am interested in situations or persons that are overlooked in everyday life. Thus, in Madam Koo, the whole play is set inside Madam Koo and her neighbour Mr. Oak’s house. We see her habits and obsessions, such as counting her pearls, organizing her house and all those small details that make Madam KOO who she is. Or take my opera Kayra, in which we see Kayra and her mother. Kayra is standing next to her mother, dying in the bathtub. This is not a big story line but a highly personal and intimate moment, and therefore all the more poignant to me.

You often address topical themes like discrimination, refugees, suspicion and fear in unfree societies. Do you see it as your task to relate to problematic themes in society?

 No, I don’t see that as my task. I am a very expressive person, which inevitably seeps into my compositions. I am inspired by life in general, so my characters and my music relate to what’s going on around me. Those subjects are so dominant in my life, people talk about them, I see and read about them on television, the internet, the newspapers etcetera. I react to these themes immediately, so naturally they become the subject of my operas.

You lead the AKOM Ensemble. In how far does it differ from other ensembles?  

AKOM Ensemble was formed by Jan Kuhr who was my classmate during our studies, I took over the artistic direction in 2015. We thought there was a lack of ensembles willing to play work by young composers, especially in Rotterdam. So, basically we formed it for our own interest. AKOM bridges the gap between graduating/graduated students and well-known professionals. The musicians are immensely dedicated and the ensemble gradually became more successful. Over the years we have become a strong team, with a passion to work together.

On 12 October AKOM will perform ‘Rudan’s Coffee Break’, that was premiered earlier this year in the Pera Museum, Istanbul. What can we expect?

Rudan’s Coffee Break was commissioned by the Pera Museum for their Kütahya Tiles and Ceramics Collection Exhibition Coffee Break. I was inspired by the ritual of coffee making. – Though not by just anyone, but by a man whose mind is highly chaotic and disturbed. Rudan is a business man who has been working hard all his life, running away from his personal dilemmas. He is a workaholic. The moment he stops and decides to make himself a coffee, all these suppressed thoughts and emotions spring up. We are stuck in his head while he’s making his coffee, the music whirls around him like a huge cloud of emotions.

The piece was premiered in May, but in The Hague I will present a re-arrangement/rework. Rudan’s Coffee Break was originally set for a trio of strings and electronics, the new version is for flute, clarinet,piano, violin, cello and electronics. Rudan is a character who is still alive and who is spending time at his place, but a couple of months have passed, also in his universe. I want to investigate the feeling of time passing and how this affects and transforms Rudan. 

You are artist in residence with Dag in de Branding for two years. What are your plans and how do you relate to the festival?

I have already programmed the upcoming 4 editions, we are still looking into the festival of 2020/21. Programming music for a whole day festival has helped me to understand how to create a bigger picture. It’s been interesting to think how to reach the audience and consider how I could connect different themes with my own pieces.

In each edition I will work on an aspect I want to develop further, such as light, space, scenery, and costume. I will be working with different coaches and artists to learn from each other and develop my pieces. For the December edition I have scheduled another run of Madam Koo.

For the March issue I’m working on a composition about multiple disorder, presenting my 3-headed figure Zizos. This character is sarcastic and self-destructive, and I want to investigate its inner psychological talks. I’m thinking of combining three singers with wind ensemble and surround electronics, but the work is still in progress.

Over the coming two years I want to sharpen my language in operatic installation, focusing on mentally disturbed characters. However, the mental disorder is not a concern in itself, but merely functions to explain the dominant mood of the character in hand. I am grateful for getting the chance to dig further into my own concerns. I hope to write seven new, short pieces. The last one will be premiered in the 8th edition.

For my final edition of Dag in de Branding I will create a big music & theatre installation. This will bring all the characters together in what I call the “character house”. I really look forward to presenting the outcome of my learning process in 2021!

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‘I hope we will glide into another world together’ – Calliope Tsoupaki composes Bosch Requiem ‘Liknon’ for November Music

Calliope Tsoupaki (c) Michiel van Nieuwkerk

In 1988 Calliope Tsoupaki (1963) came from Greece to the Netherlands to study composition with Louis Andriessen. Exactly 30 years later she was appointed ‘Componist des Vaderlands’ (Composer Laureate). In this capacity she has already composed a number of highly topical pieces. When Notre Dame de Paris went up in flames on 15 April, Tsoupaki immediately took to her composer’s desk. Five days later Jan Hage played the world premiere of Pour Notre Dame on the organ of the Dom in Utrecht. This year she is festival composer at November Music. She will compose its traditional Bosch Requiem, which will be premiered on All Souls’ Day.

Over the past three decades Tsoupaki has become one of the most important composers in the Netherlands. Unlike other students of Louis Andriessen, she did not embrace his percussive style, based on contrasting blocks of music, which became known as the ‘Haagse School’ (The Hague School). Instead of moulding her compositions from an amalgam of minimalism, jazz, popular music and modern-classical. Tsoupaki seeks inspiration from her personal background, weaving her own style out of the musical traditions of Greece and the Middle East, as well as early and new European music. Her work has an almost archaic, timeless beauty.

Death as a threshold

Nor does Tsoupaki deny her Greek roots in the choice of her subject matter. Already in 1993 she composed the successful Orphic Fields, later followed by successful oratorios such as St. Luke Passion, Maria and Oedípus. Last October Salto di Saffo for pan flute, recorder and orchestra was premiered in the NTRZaterdagMatinee. This double concerto was directly inspired by her own life. When she came to the Netherlands in 1988, her boat sailed past the place where the famous poet allegedly jumped off the rocks. – Just as Tsoupaki plunged into deep waters by exchanging her fatherland for an unknown environment.

For the Bosch Requiem she again drew on her Greek background. ‘I did not want to write a lament in the tradition of the Latin Requiem Mass’ she explains. ‘That presents death as something irrevocable, but for me it is more like a threshold, a transition into the unknown. That’s why I chose the title Liknon, which means something like “cradle”. It’s a beautiful symbol of the elusive position between life and death.’

Two icons were leading when composing, says Tsoupaki enthusiastically. ‘Last summer I visited the Greek island of Kythira. There I saw the icon Panagia Myrtidiotissa, where the face of Mary has completely faded into a black spot. According to myth, this image was found in burning myrtle bushes, hence its name, Madonna of the Myrtle. I find it very moving, as if hundreds of years of veneration for Mary have been concentrated in that black face. It has fathomless depth, you can suspect so much behind it and project your own thoughts, hopes and fears on it. For me, it symbolizes beauty in darkness.’

Theofanis 1392

She was also inspired by an icon of Theofanis from 1392 about the Ascension of Mary. ‘Maria is lying on her deathbed, surrounded by the 12 apostles and her son Jesus. He towers high above her, cradling his mother as a baby on his hand. This completes the circle: life and death are actually one, a comforting thought.’

Tsoupaki is perhaps moved even stronger by the icon of El Greco from the sixteenth century. ‘This has a gripping expression of feeling, which actually runs counter to the tradition of icons as neutral objects of faith. But it fits wonderfully well with the Marian songs of the Cretan monk Agapios Landos (1580-1656), from which I have used verses. In my composition I also veer between objectivity and passion. It is a musical prayer to Mother Mary in times of doubt and need.’

Maria icon El Greco

She wrote Liknon for the tenor Marcel Beekman, the countertenor Maarten Engeltjes and his baroque ensemble PRJCT Amsterdam. ‘I deliberately chose two high voices, because of their angelic countenance. What’s more, a countertenor is elusiveness incarnate: a rarefied voice that transports you to higher spheres; it balances on a threshold. That fits in exactly with what I want to express with my piece. In the instrumental accompaniment I have tried to capture that hesitation as well, this continuous moving back and forth.’

Liknon is not the only piece of Tsoupaki’s to be performed in November Music. On 3 November a new version of Narcissus will be performed. She composed it in 2013, fulfilling a commission from the festival. ‘It’s about the youngster who falls in love with his own reflection in the water and eventually dies from it. A flower with an intoxicating scent sprang up on the spot. I designed the five-tone Narcissus-chord that is counterpointed by a five-layer “scent-chord” designed by Tania Deurloo. Together they carry the whole composition.’ In the original version violin and piano – the two ‘lovers’ – were accompanied by alter egos, now they operate purely as a duo.

Still awaiting completion are new solo pieces for trumpeter Eric Vloeimans and recorder player Erik Bosgraaf. And, last but not least, Tsoupaki composes a new ritual choral work that will ‘launch’ her Bosch Requiem. This will be sung in the open air by choirs from Den Bosch, visitors of the festival and everyone present on the square in front of Concert Hall Parade.

Tsoupaki: ‘I hope we will all glide into another world together. – And, of course, return.’

November Music, 1-10 November, Den Bosch
More information:

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Hanns Eisler: life-long struggle against oppression. Two-day symposium in Amsterdam and Hilversum

Hanns Eisler in 1940 – photo by C. M. Stieglitz (from Wikipedia)

Who was Hanns  Eisler? He may be a celebrity in Germany and Austria, but in the Netherlands his music is seldom heard. Nevertheless, his work is still highly topical. Throughout his life he fought against oppression, just as today people in Hong Kong and Venezuela continue to fight for their freedom.

His name is inextricably linked to that of Bertolt Brecht, with whom he defended the communist cause. Eisler set his wry lyrics to inflammatory music, infused with jazz and folk elements. Everything to make the oppressed masses climb the barricades. He fled from the Nazis to America, where he became the victim of communist hunter McCarthy.

In Holland Eisler has almost been forgotten. But he finds strong advocates in the Hanns Eisler Foundation, that has initiated an ambitious symposium in the weekend of 28-29 September. It’s chockful of music, lectures, a discussion with composer Kate Honey, and a presentation of Eisler scores in the broadcasting archives. A unique opportunity to get (re)aquained with life and music of this passionate composer.

From Viennese Conservatory to Arnold Schönberg

Eisler was born in Leipzig in 1898 as the son of the philosopher Rudolf Eisler. When he was three years old, the family moved to Vienna, where a piano was rented – if there was any money. Unfortunately this was often lacking, and Hanns learnt how to compose from books and scores. Already during his studies at the grammar school he wrote his first works. In this period he and his brother Gerhart joined a progressive youth club .

During the First World War Hanns Eisler fought in a Hungarian regiment, suffering several injuries. On his return he enrolled as a composition student at the Vienna Conservatory. However, he was dissatisfied with their teaching. In 1919 he turned to Arnold Schönberg, who taught him for free for four years. During this period Schönberg developed his twelve-tone music, which Eisler initially embraced. The best-known result is the short song cycle Palmström, which, with its jumpy ‘Sprechgesang’, is closely related to Schönberg’s Pierrot lunaire.

From twelve-tone music to agitprop

Eisler soon abandoned Schönberg’s atonal style when he moved to Berlin in 1925. He was open to influences from jazz and popular music and developed a Marxist vision of society. Brother Gerhart had become a communist journalist; sister Elfriede (a.k.a. Ruth Fischer) was co-founder of the Communist Party. Although Eisler supported the movement, he later declared never to have been an active member.

Gradually Eisler became somewhat estranged from his teacher, whose music he considered to be too remote from the common people. In turn Schönberg was horrified by the ‘vulgar’ traits in the work of his former pupil.

But Eisler was convinced music should be at the service of social change. Therefore he joined the agitprop group ‘Das rote Sprachror’ (The Red Announcer). Soon he began to compose marching songs and incendiary choral works, which were sung by left-wing trade unions throughout Europe. When Eisler met the singer Ernst Busch in 1929, his career gained momentum. Busch brought his socially critical songs to the fore with a poignant intensity.

Bertolt Brecht

It was a matter of course that Eisler would one day cooperate with the left-wing radical playwright Bertolt Brecht. They got to know each other in 1930 and forged a lifelong friendship, in which they worked together in many productions. Famous examples are the plays Die Massnahme and Die Mutter, and the film Kuhle Wampe that included the Solidarity Song. This became an international hit.

Together with Brecht, Eisler sharply denounced the hypocrisy of the ruling classes. The ordinary man is exploited and used as a pawn to satisfy their craving for power. A splendid example is Das Lied vom SA-Mann, an extremely fierce indictment of war. The text poignantly relates how, as a soldier, you are essentially shooting at your brother – who is a victim of the powers that be just like you.

After cominng to power in 1933, the Nazis banned the work of Eisler and Brecht for being ‘entartet’. Eisler wandered through Europe and America for a number of years before finally settling in America in January 1938. Brecht also initially stayed in Europe, where he lived in various Scandinavian countries before following Eisler to the United States in 1941.

Reconciliation in exile

Eisler’s name as a composer of socially critical pieces in a hybrid classical-popular style was now firmly established. Gradually he developed a synthesis between his former atonal music and his later style inspired by jazz and cabaret. He also began to use texts by other writers. In 1937 he composed the Roman Cantata on a text by the Italian anti-fascist poet Ignazio Silone, a fervent indictment of Mussolini’s dictatorship.

In 1938 Eisler became a lecturer at the New School for Social Research in New York. Two years later he received a grant from the Mexico University to investigate into the function of film music. He moved to Hollywood in 1942. There he again met up with Bertolt Brecht. In addition to several films, they made the plays Furcht und Elend des dritten Reiches and Galileo.

In Hollywood, Eisler moreover reconciled with Arnold Schönberg, who he brought into contact with Charlie Chaplin and Bertolt Brecht. The latter even wrote a birthday cantata for Schönberg, which Eisler set to music.

From ‘Entartet’ to ‘Un-American’

Eisler thought he was safe from the Nazis in the Land of the Free, but was deceived. In 1947 he had to appear before Senator McCarthy’s notorious Committee on Un-American Activities. The latter accused him of cherishing communist sympathies and called his brother Gerhart a ‘communist spy’. Eisler reacted furiously:

‘I am accused of being the brother of Gerhart Eisler, whom I love and admire and whom I will continue to defend. Does the committee believe that brotherly love is un-American? More importantly, the committee hopes that by persecuting me, it will be able to intimidate many other artists in America whom it may dislike for various unworthy reasons.’

‘The committee hopes to hunt down every liberal, progressive and socially aware artist in this country, and to subject their works to unconstitutional and hysterical political censorship. It is horrible to think what will become of American art if this commission is to judge what art is American and what is Un-American. This is the sort of thing Hitler and Mussolini tried. They were not successful, and neither will be the House Committee on Un-American activities.’

Socialist Utopia

Thanks to international protests, Eisler was not convicted, though he was expelled from the country. Via Vienna he eventually settled in East Berlin, the capital of the brand new GDR. Here, Eisler contributed with dedication to the construction of the socialist Utopia. He was convinced he would serve the cause best by composing ‘applied music’ for film, theatre, television, cabaret and public events. He even wrote the East German national anthem.

Eisler may have been very committed to the socialist cause, even in the GDR he clashed with the authorities. When he published his self-written libretto Faust in 1953, the apparatchiks accused him of harbouring an antisocialist, pro-American attitude. Eisler however was convinced having just written a ‘Nationaloper’ in which the exploitation of the common people was denounced. The accusations are particularly harsh given his exile from the US and his voluntary return to the GDR.

(K)ein Leben ohne Angst

Nevertheless, Eisler remained loyal to East Germany. He even wrote a so-called ‘Canossa letter’, in which he humbly pledged to comply with the wishes of the State. In 1962 he completed his last work, Ernste Gesänge (Serious Songs) on texts by various poets. In this work he seems to take stock of his life. The phrase ‘Leben ohne Angst zu haben’ (Living without fear) from the sixth song speaks volumes in this respect.

Hanns Eisler completed this work in 1962, and died shortly after. It was not until a year later that his Ernste Gesänge were premiered. One of these will be performed at the Muziekcentrum van de Omroep in Hilversum, where various Eisler arrangements are stored. A worthy conclusion to the two-day Eisler Days.

*On Saturday 28 March I will speak with Kate Honey and Monique Krüs about their relationship with Eisler, University Theatre Amsterdam.

Info and tickets here.

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Clara Schumann: after 200 years still overshadowed by Robert

Clara Schumann in 1878, drawing by Franz von Lehnbach (c) Wikipedia

Two hundred years ago, on 13 September 1819, Clara Schumann was born in Leipzig, as Clara Wieck. She ranks as one of the greatest pianists of the nineteenth century. Against her father’s will she married Robert Schumann, whose work she fervently promoted. She also wrote well-received compositions herself, and was more famous than her husband.

Still, she was largely forgotten after her death, and even her 200th birthday did not unleash a tsunami of tributes. On Sunday 15 September there will be two memorial concerts in the Oude Jan in Velp and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

Clara Schumann was brought up with music. Her father, Friedrich Wieck, was a music publisher, singing teacher, pianist and piano teacher. Her mother Marianne Tromlitz was a singer and pianist who performed in important venues such as the Gewandhaus in Leipzig. Her father was city cantor of Plauen, her grandfather was a well-known flutist and composer.

Although Clara’s parents shared their passion for music and soon had five children, their marriage was unhappy. Marianne was a strong and independent person, who could not cope with her husband’s many outbursts of anger. After eight years she divorced him, Wieck getting the custody of the children; Clara was only five years old. Later on she’d confess having missed her mother dearly, no matter how much love her father lavished on her.

Speechless but musical

Clara suffered from the tense atmosphere at home, and at the age of four she was still unable to talk. Only when she was of eight years old did she finally speak at the level of her age. Musically, on the other hand, she developed rapidly. Daddy may have been hot-tempered, but he was a gifted pedagogue. He taught in a playful way, adapting to the character of his students. Hearing and finger training exercises thus became pleasant activities. He moreover stimulated his daughter to develop her own feelings.

Soon Clara was able to play scores from scratch, while at the same time she was a great improviser. ‘Her scales swayed from high to low over the keyboard, like the waves of the sea’, her daughter Eugénie wrote years later. Clara attended concerts with her father and played in soirées he organised in their home. This developed into a hotspot avant la lettre: everyone who mattered in the cultural and musical world came to visit. Thus Clara learned to play for an interested but critical audience.

When she was nine years old, the violinist Niccolò Paganini praised her ‘sensitive playing’ and predicted a glorious future. That same year she played in the famous Gewandhaus for the first time, making her official debut there two years later. She performed works by Carl Czerny and herself, among others. This concert was an enormous success and launched an international career that would only end 61 years later.

Child prodigy with depth

Clara Schumann and her father toured all over Germany, where performances in smaller cities severely tested their stamina. Not only did they have to deal with rickety, out of tune pianos, but also they were often forced to stay in bad lodgings. In one of them, Clara’s precious concert dress was eaten by spiders. After this, father Wieck decided to limit concerts in the province as much as possible.

He kneaded his daughter’s career carefully; after all, she was not the only child prodigy. Clara had a dizzying technique, but Frederick understood that the audience would soon weary of empty, virtuoso performances. Her programmes therefore placed showy popular works alongside more profound compositions by herself, Chopin, Liszt and Mendelssohn. At the age of fifteen she wrote her sparkling Piano Concerto. Though this compares very favourably to Robert’s, it is rarely performed.

Rascal Robert

The success of their tours contrasted sharply with their concerns in everyday life. During one of the soirées Clara had met the composer and pianist Robert Schumann, who was nine years her senior. When she was eleven years old he enrolled as a piano student with Wieck and came to live with the family. Robert and Clara fell deeply in love – to her father’s annoyance. Wieck did acknowledge Robert Schumann’s talent, but found him a rascal, who smoked and drank too much and had too little discipline.

Wieck’s attempts to curb the burgeoning love between his daughter and Robert Schumann failed miserably. In November 1835 they gave each other their ‘first kiss’, after which Wieck threatened to ‘shoot Robert if he ever tried to meet Clara again’. Clara and Robert secretly wrote each other love letters, which were delivered by a mutual friend. At a concert in Leipzig on 13 August she played three of Robert’s Etudes symphoniques. The next day the couple got engaged and Robert officially asked permission from her father to marry Clara.

This was followed by an unsavoury period of harsh confrontations. It took a lawsuit for Robert and Clara to finally be able to get married, on 12 September 1840. Thus ‘all those nights of care, insomniac thinking of you, and all this miserable sorrow, came to an end’, wrote Clara in her diary. The couple moved into an apartment in Leipzig. – It was not until three years later that Clara’s father reconciled with this marriage, mainly because he noted she kept composing and continued her intensive concert practice.

‘Are you musical, too?’

At that time Clara was much better known than Robert. She had travelled as a concert pianist all over Europe and was placed on an equal footing with such greats as Liszt, Thalberg and Rubinstein. Lovingly she was dubbed ‘Queen of the Piano’. She played with an extremely lyrical tone and a glowing expression. She would grab the audience’s  attention with a popular virtuoso piece, then feeding them serious works by herself and composers such as Mendelssohn and her husband. Thanks to Clara, Robert Schumann became known throughout Europe: she performed the premieres of almost all of his pieces.

The extent to which she surpassed her husband in fame is illustrated by an anecdote about the Dutch King William II. During a Clara Schumann concert in The Hague he asked Robert: ‘Sind Sie auch musikalisch, Herr Schumann?’ (Are you musical, too?)

Depression taken out on Clara

Clara had grown up in a family full of tensions, but her own marriage was not easy either. Robert may have loved her very much, even paying tribute to her compositions in his own works, but he suffered from depressions, which he took out on her. When he was not happy with something, he would start picking on her, making her feel insecure. In 1853, she wrote in her diary: ‘What good is the applause of others if I can’t please him in any way?’

However, this year was generally a happy one: Clara enjoyed having her own room in the Düsseldorf apartment they had just moved into: ‘If I can study so much, I really feel in my element. It’s as if I’m in a completely different mood, lighter and freer, and everything seems happier and happier.’ That same year she composed her beautiful Sechs Lieder aus Jucunde opus 23.

Johannes Brahms

In 1853 the violinist Joseph Joachim introduced his friend Brahms in Schumann’s home. The cheerful young composer was a bright spot for Clara at a time when her husband was getting ever sicker. Robert attempted suicide and was admitted to a sanatorium in Endenich in 1854. To her desperation Clara was not allowed to visit him, after which she sought solace from Brahms. This has led to wild speculations about a possible love affair. According to Clara herself, she only had maternal and friendly feelings for her young admirer. She was his muse and Brahms would submit all his compositions for her to review.

Despite her grief and the effort it took to support herself and her seven children – and shoulder the cost of the sanatorium – Clara Schumann continued to compose. In 1855 she published her Three Romances opus 22, which she dedicated to Joseph Joachim. It would be one of her last compositions. When her husband died in 1856, Clara Schumann stopped composing, it’s not quite clear why. She remained active as a pianist and pedagogue until the end of her life. In March 1896 Clara Schumann suffered two strokes shortly after each other, succumbing on 20 May; she was 77 years old.

Her compositions were forgotten, but thanks to the efforts of feminist musicians and musicologists, these are gradually gaining more appreciation. Nonetheless, on her 200th birthday, Clara still stands in the shadow of Robert. – May the next hundred years bring the recognition she is due.

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Whoever said modern music is humourless and cerebral? Kelley Sheehan wins Gaudeamus Award 2019

Kelley Sheehan, photo Anna van Kooij

For a moment the envelope doesn’t seem to open, but then Ingrid van Engelshoven conjures up the redeeming piece of paper. ‘The winner of the Gaudeamus Award 2019 is Kelley Sheehan!’ The small American composer is visibly surprised, she hasn’t seen this coming. Probably not entirely coincidentally, the organisation for new music has positioned her right in the middle of her four fellow candidates. – She herself would have divided the prize equally among them, she tells me afterwards.

Sheehan’s surprised reaction is heartwarming, as is the presence of the Dutch Minister of Cultural Affairs. It is a message to up-and-coming composers and other artists: you matter! Thus the award ceremony on 8 September was a nice icing on the cake of a varied festival. A range of cross-border productions spread across the city of Utrecht. – From festival centre TivoliVredenburg to Kunstruimte Kuub and from Theater Kikker to Centraal Museum and Nicolaïkerk. There were also free outdoor performances on the Neude and Weerdsluis.


The fact that young composers no longer exclusively focus on black and white dots on paper is a given. Collaborations with other disciplines such as dance, visual arts and technology are a matter of course. What did strike me in this year’s festival however, was the desire for collectivity on the part of the five nominees, their bent towards joint creation. – A reassuring feeling in times of polarisation and excessive individualism.

The most pronounced in this are the American Scott Rubin and the Canadian Remy Siu. Rubin creates his pieces together with dancers equipped with movement sensors, in direct interaction with the performing musicians. Siu develops music projects with his own Hong Kong Collective, for which he writes software inspired by video games. In our pre-concert talk he even challenged the fundamental concept of a composer. The Canadian Stefan Maier, the British composer Nicholas Morrish and prizewinner Sheehan also regard the performer as a kind of co-composer.

Strapped violins, crackling cactus

Jurors Clara Ianotta, Yannis Kyriakides and Gerhard Stäbler describe Sheehan as ‘a true explorer of sound’. She ‘works with objects that are stretched in their function’ and creates ‘an unusual noise world’. This certainly applies to Four Sharp Corners for string quartet, performed on Thursday by the Utrecht based ensemble Insomnio. Four string instruments ensnared by fishing wires lie on as many tables. While the musicians try to free their instruments, screaming electronic sounds emerge. With their bows the four string players elicit crunching sounds from their music stands. Two players compete for who can raise or lower his stand with the loudest bang. Whoever said modern music is dry and cerebral?

The Traces that Remain by Nicholas Morrish also has a fresh, humorous slant. Conductor Ulrich Pöhl dribbles back and forth between three old-fashioned gramophones that are prominently placed on stage. He winds up the mechanism and places shellac discs made by Morrish himself. These contain the ticks and splutters inherent in their manufacturing process. The drummer grates a metal comb over the needles of a cactus. According to Morrish, cactus needles were once used to pick up the sound of the records. The ensemble plays fragments of the romantic music we expect to hear from these analogue discs.

Stifling depression, drowning bodies

But it’s not just lightheartedness that sets the tone. In the theatrical DisOrders, Petra Strahovnik makes various forms of depression oppressively palpable. The musicians of Modelo’62 breathe in and out obsessively, writhing over the floor while banging the sound boxes of their instruments, dipping the cup of their clarinet in water and producing an orgy of noise on drums and thunder plates. After about an hour the heavy breathing returns while the musicians are being wrapped in translucent plastic foil. Clearly, there’s no escape from this stifling universe.

The performance Nocturne in EUropean Waters by the Spanish-Dutch composer Jonás Bisquert is downright poignant. Musicians from the New European Ensemble and singers of Consorte are positioned on either side of the Weerdsluis. Gracefully undulating melodies travel from musicians to singers and from quay to quay. Poet Randa Awad recites her poem The Long European Nights, standing on the parapet in the middle of the lock, partly in Arabic, partly in English. Four singers join her, but she abruptly pushes them into the water: ‘Now dead, you oscillate!’ It is a crushing image of the refugees we leave to their fate in the Mediterranean Sea.

Marimba wall

The festival opened on Wednesday, September 4 with the world premiere of W.A.L.L. by Aart Strootman, performed by Slagwerk Den Haag and Temko. Strootman thus fulfilled the composition assignment associated with the Gaudeamus Award, which he won in 2017. He personally built a wall-filling 60-tone marimba, which had been announced with a great deal of fuss. We were even offered a preview of a documentary about its creation. Unfortunately this was rather uninformative. We see Strootman frantically sawing, sanding and fretting, but must learn from the programme booklet that he has divided the octave into 60 instead of 12 tones.

Slagwerk Den Haag playing the marimba wall, photo Anna van Kooij

The promised ‘wall of sound’ also failed to materialise. W.A.L.L. is rather more a study in softly echoing, microtonal guitar arpeggios, sparsely larded with lovely patterns played on the marimba wall. The percussionists – veering upwards from their stools to ‘climb’ the wall – create some beautiful, buzzing passages, but on the whole the wall is subservient to the guitars and the other percussion instruments. Only rarely the percussionists are allowed to indulge themselves in noisy thunderclaps on metal tubes placed between the marimba wall. All in all, the musical material failed to hold our attention over the duration of an hour.

Trumpet concert in disguise

More interesting was Bird, the new piece that Sebastian Hilli, winner of the 2018 Gaudeamus Award, composed for Asko|Schönberg. It is a cheerful amalgam of loud staccato blasts from the ensemble, intersected with sudden silences. Hilli creates a lively question-and-answer game that bounces from jazzy percussion and big-band brass to cheery marching band sounds and exhilarating poppy dance music. The percussionist plays a brilliant solo on bass drum and hi-hat, the pianist pounds out roaring chords on her grand piano.

A star role is reserved for the solo trumpeter, Bird turning out to be a sort of trumpet concert in disguise. Trumpeter Bas Duister has an unprecedentedly beautiful tone full of colour shades, and effortlessly produces the highest notes in virtuoso melodies. The work ends with a parody of the endlessly repeated chords with which classical composers like Beethoven conclude their pieces. Every time you think it’s over, a squeaking piccolo screams for attention. A wonderful piece that sends you home with a cheerful feeling. Gaudeamus could not have wished for a better finale to its 69th edition.

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Gaudeamus nominee Remy Siu: ‘I got fed up with the notion of being a composer’

On Wednesday 4 September the 69th Gaudeamus Music Week kicked off with W.A.L.L. that Aart Strootman composed for a self-designed 60-tone marimba, four percussionists and four guitarists. – He won the Gaudeamus Award in 2017. Before its première I moderated a pre concert talk with this year’s nominees. Remy Siu (1990) admitted having gotten fed up with being the typical composer, writing notes on paper that others have to interpret on the stage.

Instead, he prefers to collaborate with other artists, writing software for them to react and respond to. As with fellow nominee Scott Rubin, this makes each project a communal endeavour rather than an individual achievement.

For the Gaudeamus Award Siu submitted three works in his Foxconn Frequency series. ‘I had just finished Foxconn Frequency nr. 3 and the series spans my output for the last seven or so years. Thus it showcases how I eventually developed a focus on real-time game mechanics as a compositional tool, and also how I implement them.’

Each work was made some years apart with the Hong Kong Collective, in Siu’s studio in Vancouver. ‘I haven’t written a traditional score in many years because I am tired of the relationship between performer and composer implied by that process. Moreover some of my friends are very interesting performers but cannot read music, I work in a lot of interdisciplinary environments. Our studio is occupied by dancers, theatre people, music people, and new media artists.’

‘Since I work with friends, I try to find interesting ways for them to exist inside my works. The Foxconn Frequency originates in my relationship with people who perform them, cultivated over multiple years. My hope is for them to make real-time decisions on stage that are interesting. Also I hope they are present/have presence, and that there are some stakes in the performance. That’s one of the reasons I create these works with software/hardware, to reconfigure the “play-space”, as e.g. in Foxconn Frequency nr. 3.

The exhortation that Foxconn Frequency nr. 3 must be performed by ‘three visibly Chinese performers’ may evoke raised eyebrows. However, the pianists occasionally recite Chinese poetry, and Siu also winks at the lack of ethnic diversity in the classical music world. On another level he addresses the abominable working conditions in Chinese factories by setting his performers almost impossible tasks in a series of mini-games. These are projected live for the audience, to see if they succeed or fail.

While the keyboardists are playing, 3D-printers ‘portray’ their skills, translating these into a physical cube for each performer. This cube usually comes out quite warped, because they can’t fulfil all commands they get from the software. However, when no mistake whatsoever is made, a perfect cube will appear.

Siu: ‘This has never occurred yet, but who knows  the concert coming Friday will yield a flawless specimen after all.’

I interviewed the five nominees on 4 September in TivoliVredenburg. (Remy Siu is last, picture by Co Broerse).

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Gaudeamus nominee Scott Rubin: ‘All performance is to an extent composition’

Scott Rubin 2019

Scott Rubin (1989) is one of the five nominees for the Gaudeamus Music Award 2019. The prize is intended for composers under 30, but the Chicago based Rubin defies a strict interpretation of the concept of  composer. – Or of the performer for that matter.

He plays the viola himself, but develops his works in close collaboration with dancers and movement artists. What we see and hear onstage is rather more the outcome of a communal process than the achievement of one particular person. ‘I often act as a performer myself, but I wouldn’t like to use labels that privilege one activity over another.’

All three works he submitted for the Gaudeamus Award involve dancers and motion-sensitive live electronics. Naked to the Sky (2016) calls for 5 performers (4 musicians + movement artist) and was written for/with the Toronto based Thin Edge New Music Collective. Ironic erratic erotic (2017) was composed for/with Jack Adler-McKean, Adam Goodwin and Yuri Shimaoka for a project in Berlin.

In tensions (2018) was developed in collaboration with the cellist Polina Streltsova and movement artist Marie Albert, and was premiered in Paris earlier this year. It will be performed by the fearless cellist Maya Fridman and Emma Evelein in Theater Kikker on Saturday 7 September.

Rubin admits having hesitated to apply for the Gaudeamus Award: ‘I rarely take part in competitions because so few new music institutions support works with dancers. However, Gaudeamus seemed open minded. I’ve been following the festival for years now and have many friends and colleagues who participated in the past. I applied because I thought I had something unique to say and this competition would provide the platform to say it.’

‘I thought that sending a family of interdisciplinary works would convey a cohesive message that contemporary music festivals aren’t just about who writes the best scores for the best musicians. They are about the total collaborative process and audio-visual performance, what the audience sees and hears, and the psychological and theatrical states of the performers.’

‘To me the relation between performer/composer is fluid, non-binary, and intensively collaborative. Everyone creates, it’s just a matter of when. In my honest opinion, all performance is to an extent composition – it’s a question of how far in advance you plan, your relationship to the material and those you created it with, and your attitudes towards flexibility and expressivity.’

‘In my compositional work, I rely a lot on performers to be sensitive and improvise to the best of their abilities at any given moment. They are as much responsible for the success of the project as I am. During the creation process, their material often helps me create structure, so it’s not beneficial to discuss it with regards to ownership or authorship. I often think of myself more as a director or large-scale decision-maker rather than a composer.’

In the Gaudeamus festival he will not be playing his viola on stage. ‘But since all of my works feature live electronics I’m required to perform live from the tech table, often improvising and balancing the marriage between audio and motion data generated by what the performers are doing.’

‘I’ll bring my viola to Utrecht for rehearsal purposes, though. Hopefully I can find some people to jam with…’

I interviewed the five nominees on 4 September in TivoliVredenburg (picture by Co Broerse).

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Gaudeamus nominee Stefan Maier: ‘I embrace the unpredictability of sound’

Stefan Maier

Stefan Maier

For its 69th edition Gaudeamus Music Week again nominated five composers under 30 for its coveted Award. Some 300 scores were submitted by 95 composers from 29 different countries. The jury (Gerhard Stäbler, Yannis Kyriakides and Clara Ianotta) selected Nicholas Morrish (1989) from Great Britain; Scott Rubin (1989) and Kelley Sheehan (1989) from the United States, and Remy Siu (1990) and Stefan Maier (1990) from Canada. Remarkably all five nominees have an Anglo-Saxon background. Were there no aspiring composers from other parts of the world, one wonders.

Anyway, the festival offers a diverse range of music, music installations and music theatre, ranging from the multimedia project Zamenhof: Breaking the Codes by the Polish artist in residence Jerzy Bielski through the performative sound installation Senses Working Overtime to the world première of Bird, that the Finnish composer Sebastian Hilli wrote for Asko|Schönberg – fulfilling the commission attached to the Gaudeamus Award 2018.

Many of today’s composers move freely between genres, styles and disciplines, not seldom blurring the boundaries between composer and performer. This holds definitely for Stefan Maier, whose compositions, installations, and performances ‘examine emergent and historical sound technologies’, to use his own words. He likes to ‘highlight material instability and unruliness’, to ‘explore the flows of sonic matter through sound systems, instruments, software, and bodies’. He seeks to ‘uncover alternate modes of authorship and listening possible within specific technologically-mediated situations’.

Maier applied for the Gaudeamus Award 2019 with Bellows, Territories III and Thicket; the first two will actually be performed. ‘I guess I’ve always followed the Gaudeamus competition since I got into composition’, he says. ‘It’s always exposed me to exciting new voices, so I thought I’d see if I could do it myself. I hope and expect to hear a lot of great music and to meet interesting people. I look forward to meeting my co-nominees, getting acquainted with their music, but also to seeing and performing alongside friends.’

How do you see the relationship between performer/composer?

‘That’s a complex question for  me — and it has changed significantly over the past years. I have always been interested in the intrinsic dynamism of the performance of classical music — the fact that interpretation, ensemble dynamics, and even the acoustic signatures of the performance space transform and enliven works.’

‘So I don’t really believe in a straight through-line from composer to interpreter: it’s always a complex trajectory, muddied by instruments, technology, individual agency, material resistance, it’s totally non-linear. This has always been central in my work, especially with the use of extremely chaotic sounds/hyper-specific extended-techniques. I’m drawn towards contingency within the inner-life of materials — materials that have certain “infinity” properties, such that the sounds are always changing and are unpredictable for performers.’

‘The performer is encouraged to engage this unpredictability and, indeed, revel in it. My attention to this has opened more and more over the years — especially since working with feedback systems, as e.g. in Bellows and in my live-electronics work.’

‘With Bellows, basically the entire structure is determined by acoustic feedback in the performance space. Its acoustic signature literally determines most parameters of the work. For example, there’s a listening score for the ensemble so that when the feedback generates a certain tone, then the ensemble imitates it, etcetera. It’s super open and contingent, way more so than in my more traditional ensemble writing. And that’s precisely what I find to be most interesting about it!’

‘With works like Bellows, the traditional relationship between composer and performer is destabilized. — Yes, I’m making a ton of decisions to facilitate ensemble dynamics and form and other composerly concerns, so I’m still in the picture — but it’s also about highlighting the “material intelligence” of the sounds taking on the role of the composer in a way.’

‘Sometimes that results in stuff that I’m not happy with, but now that my practice has evolved to include a studio/electronic music/improvisation practice, I feel that if I want a super specific thing, I can just work on it in my studio. Live performance, then, becomes something else for me – something far more indeterminate!’

In the festival Maier will perform with pianist Vicky Chow in a new work called Rare Earth. ‘I’ll be playing modular synthesizer. I will also be playing organ/electronics for Bellows, alongside my collaborator Ragnhild May, who co-authored that work.’

I interviewed the five nominees on 4 September in TivoliVredenburg.

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Gaudeamus nominee Kelley Sheehan: ‘I enjoy an open dialogue with the performers’

Kelley Sheehan

From 4 to 8 September the Gaudeamus Music Week presents state of the art contemporary music, performed by a plethora of ensembles and musicians. Five composers compete for the coveted Gaudeamus Award 2019: Stefan Maier (CA, 1990); Nicholas Morrish (GB, 1989); Scott Rubin (US, 1989); Remy Siu (CA, 1990), and Kelley Sheehan (US, 1989).

The festival will be opened on Wednesday 4 September in TivoliVredenburg, with the world première of W.A.L.L. by Aart Strootman, winner of the Gaudeamus Award 2017. He composed this for his own ensemble Temko and Slagwerk Den Haag.

Prior to the concert I’ll interview the five young contestors about their music and expectations for the festival. Kelley Sheehan already provided some answers.

Sheehan is a composer and computer musician moving between acoustic, electronic, electro-acoustic, and performance art works. In any medium, her work centres on noise, performance, and interaction. Her music has been described as “Full of discovery, collaboration, and unpredictability” (Gaudeamus Foundation), and was lauded for its “woozy electronics” (LA Weekly).

Her music was performed at prestigious venues such as Disney Hall (LA), Experimental Sound Studios (Chicago), and The Banff Center for the Arts (Alberta). She was awarded residencies and fellowships to MISE-EN Place Bushwick, the National Composers Intensive with the LA Phil, Nief Norf, wasteLAnd Summer Academy, and the Banff Center for the Arts.

Sheehan regularly performs with The Plucky Plunkers, an improvisational duo focusing on works for toy piano and multimedia collaborations. Her work and research has led her to study composition with composers of various interest and background such as Sivan Cohen Elias, Marcos Balter, and Fredrick Gifford. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Composition at Harvard University, studying with Chaya Czernowin and Hans Tutsku.

How did you know about the Gaudeamus competition?

A teacher of mine had recommended looking into the festival so I’ve kept tabs on the competition, but this was my first year applying. I wanted to experience the concerts and witness everything the festival and a competition like this has to offer.

What do you expect from the Gaudeamus Music Week?

I’m really looking forward to hearing new exciting music, hearing all the new works that will be premiered, as well as meeting a ton of people with whom I share the love for contemporary music – that’s very exciting for me.

Of course I also look forward to hearing the premiere of my new piece, which I developed in close collabaration with the Nadar Ensemble. Naturally I’m also curious to hear the interpretations of my other works that are being played over the course of the festival.
You are not only a composer but also a performer, how do you see the relationship between the two?

Being an improviser myself, I see the relationship between performer and composer within myself as two sides of the same coin. In regards to working with other performers when I am strictly in the composer role, then I really enjoy having a close relationship that involves a lot of exchange of ideas and an open dialogue. I won’t be performing myself at the Gaudeamus Music Week.
With which pieces of yourself are you most satisfied?

I’m very happy with the three works I submitted for the competition: Talk Circus; Four Sharp Corners, and 3 Movements.I

I interviewed the five nominees on 4 September, prior to the opening concert in TivoliVredenburg. 

On 8 September 2019 the Gaudeamus Music Award 2019 was won by Kelley Sheehan, very much to her own surprise…

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Fifty years of Raschèr Saxophone Quartet: ‘Stay upright!’

Raschèr Quartet in 2014: Elliott Riley, Christine Rall, Kenneth Coon, Andreas van Zoelen (c) Felix Broede

On 22 September the Raschèr Saxophone Quartet will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary with a gala concert in Freiburg. This is a sample of their versatility, with works by such diverse composers as Bach, Xenakis and Auerbach, and with the collaboration of a choir and a chamber orchestra. The concert is dedicated to baritone saxophonist Kenneth Coon, who died last May. I interviewed the Dutch tenor saxophonist Andreas van Zoelen, who joined the quartet five years ago.

Wish come true

In 1969 alto saxophonist Sigurd Raschèr (1907-2001) ended his solo career and founded the saxophone quartet named after him. Although the New York Saxophone Quartet Club was already active in the nineteenth century (1873-1885), this type of ensemble was far from self-evident. For a long time the instrument was mainly associated with jazz and Raschèr had fought tirelessly for acceptance of the saxophone in the classical music world. With the founding of his quartet a long cherished wish came true.

Members of the first hour were Raschèr’s daughter Carina (soprano saxophone) and two of his students: Bruce Weinberger, (tenor) and Linda Bangs (baritone). The ensemble quickly gained fame through its adventurous programming and collaborations with orchestras and even choirs. Once again, Raschèr was doing pioneering work. As the repertoire for the saxophone quartet consisted mainly of arrangements, he bombarded friendly composers with requests for new pieces.

Raschèr Quartet in 1977: Linda Bangs, Bruce Weinberger, Carina Raschèr, Sigurd Raschèr (c) Hugo Kocher

New ensemble, new repertoire

‘Now there are about four hundred of them,’ says Andreas van Zoelen, who succeeded Bruce Weinberger as tenor saxophonist in 2014. Many of these compositions are now among the cornerstones of the repertoire, such as XAS by Iannis Xenakis and the quartets by Tristan Keuris and Philip Glass. He considers it a great honour to follow in the footsteps of the last co-founder: ‘Bruce was full of ideas and constantly came up with different repertoire combinations, for which he succeeded to engage such greats as Luciano Berio’.

For Van Zoelen, these interrelationships largely determine the attraction of the Raschèr. ‘Recently we played Music for Saxophones by Tristan Keuris with the Badische Staatskapelle. In the combination of quartet and orchestra I find this piece the absolute highlight, because of its incredible eloquence, depth and colour. But also Water Music by Brett Dean is fantastic, because Dean asks us to explore our limits.’

Exploring boundaries

The latter is also an essential characteristic of the quartet: ‘Thanks to Adolphe Sax’ design strategy, our instrument has an immense range of possibilities. We see it as our task to fully explore this, together with the composer. As performers, we are the connection between the spiritual world in which he or she conceives the work and the audience, who get to experience a completely new landscape of sounds and colours. However, we are averse to empty virtuoso display, it is always about the content, which is why we choose our composers carefully.

This certainly applies to the Russian-American Lera Auerbach (1973), who in 2016 composed the full-length 72 Angels for the Raschèr and the Nederlands Kamerkoor. Van Zoelen: ‘The premiere in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in Amsterdam was one of the most profound experiences of my career. We have performed the piece many times since then and recorded it on CD last February.’

He finds it difficult to explain what precisely moves him so deeply and rather quotes Auerbach’s words from an interview I had with her for this blog. ‘She called it “a long, intense prayer of passion and hope” and said that “a saxophone quartet can ignite the fire, but at the same time can transcend its flame”. For me, that’s exactly what lies at the heart of this work.’

Distinctive sound

In addition to the special repertoire, Van Zoelen also praises the distinctive sound of the Raschèr. ‘We play on Buescher saxophones from the 1930s. Characteristic is the mouthpiece which, with its so-called ‘large chamber’, differs substantially from modern examples. In combination with the specific construction of these old instruments, this results in a sound that is faithful to the original intentions of Adolphe Sax.’

‘With his self-designed instrument Sax wanted to bridge the gap between the strings and wind instruments of a symphony orchestra, but also between the wood and brass instruments of a military marching band. This chameleonic character explains its overwhelming richness of colour.’

For Van Zoelen this pertains especially to the altissimo register, in which tones are played that are considerably higher than would be possible with the usual grip technique. ‘These are realized by a form of overblowing, using the natural overtones of the tube,’ he explains. ‘Sigurd Raschèr, pioneer of the classical saxophone and founder of our quartet, continued to elaborate on this technique, but even Adolphe Sax himself already managed to conjure up almost four octaves from his instrument!’

Demise of Kenneth Coon

The fiftieth anniversary is overshadowed by the absence of baritone saxophonist Kenneth Coon (1967-2019), who succumbed to cancer after months of struggle. However, there is no question of stopping, says Van Zoelen. ‘When we recorded the CD with 72 Angels, Ken was already seriously ill, and we asked Oscar Trompenaars to play the baritone part.’

All planned concerts were performed with various replacements, for the three musicians didn’t want to make a hasty decision about Coon’s succession. ‘It was all too fresh for that’, says Van Zoelen, ‘but after ample consideration we have decided to invite Oscar to take his place in our quartet. – Which will be fifty percent Dutch from now on.’

Coon had emphatically asked his colleagues to continue playing after his death. ‘The last thing he said to me was: “Stay upright!”. – We have taken this to heart, and will dedicate our new CD to honour his memory.’

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Violinist Monica Germino plays MUTED: ‘I feel like the cat Mehitabel, on the threshold of a new career’

Monica Germino with selection of mutes (c) Anna Reinke

Monica Germino with selection of mutes (c) Anna Reinke

On Sunday 21 July Monica Germino will play MUTED in the festival Wonderfeel. This piece was composed for her by Louis Andriessen and the composers of Bang on a Can when she was diagnosed with hyperacusis, a hearing disorder that makes her oversensitive to sound. In May Monica Germino also played MUTED in the festival dedicated to Louis Andriessen’s 80th birthday in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. I then interviewed her about her relationship with Andriessen and about her new ‘whisper violin’ for the Dutch music magazine Luister.

The first time Monica Germino played music by Louis Andriessen was in 1994, during the premiere of his opera Rosa in the Muziektheater in Amsterdam. A year earlier she had met him personally when she came to the Netherlands with a scholarship. ‘But in the spirit I had met him before’, says the violinist in her living room with a view of the Amstel river. ‘This was during my master’s degree at Yale. He had been a guest lecturer there a few years earlier and the students couldn’t stop talking about it. One of them said: are you going to the Netherlands? Then you must visit Louis Andriessen! And gave me his phone number.’

Something like that seemed a trifle too cheeky to her, because Andriessen was an icon to her. ‘I had heard a performance of De Staat at Yale and was blown off my socks. I was a Stravinsky fanatic and had played almost all his works for violin, from the Violin Concerto to the string quartet and In memoriam Dylan Thomas, and suddenly I heard the sound that comes after Stravinsky. I thought: this is it! This is the music I’ve been looking for, this is necessary music.’

Once in the Netherlands to investigate study possibilities, it quickly started to itch: ‘I just needed to know more about modern music in this country. I called Louis and he immediately invited me to come to café De Jaren that same evening. There I also met some of his former students, including Calliope Tsoupaki, Ron Ford and David Dramm. They were very nice and gave a lot of tips. Louis advised me to study with Vera Beths at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague.’

She eagerly followed all advice and a year later she moved to Amsterdam. When she happened to meet Andriessen at a concert and greeted him enthusiastically he looked at her somewhat mystified. ‘He had no idea who I was, while making his acquaintance had been life changing for me.’ She heartily laughs about it now. ‘At our next meeting he proposed to play Bach Sonatas together.’

‘As a typical American, ambitious student I immediately bought all the scores, listened to authentic recordings and studied baroque embellishment. But when a month and a half later I announced that I was ready, he reacted with a bit of surprise.’ Rehearsing together turned out to be a hit: ‘Louis played the piano beautifully and in the meantime shouted instructions: here comes a beautiful bass note! I learned as much from this as from listening to those recordings of early music.’

When Andriessen worked on Passeggiata in America in 1998 in tram e ritorno for voice, violin and ensemble, however, he did not think of Germino. He asked Rosita Wouda of the Schönberg Ensemble for advice, in which I occasionally played. She replied: why don’t you ask Monica? – I had already developed a fanaticism to produce the typical Andriessen sound, which I describe as a super-legato. A pure, vibration-free sound, without swelling or letting go of the bow, as if there were glue on the strings. I was overjoyed when I received a phone call to premiere Passeggiata.’

This also introduces her to the Italian voice artist Cristina Zavalloni, for whom Andriessen had composed the vocal part. ‘We rehearsed in Louis’ attic and it clicked immediately. It was as if we were one person, we even used the same body language. Cristina became a dear friend, who many years later would be our witness when Louis and I married.’ The 1999 premiere was a success and inspired Andriessen to produce the large-scale double concerto La Passione, which was also performed in the festival dedicated to him.

Unfortunately no longer with a solo role for Germino, who now suffers from hyperacusis, a hypersensitivity to sound. A personal drama, because Germino, who often works with electronics and was once known as the ‘loudest violinist in the Netherlands’, now has to drastically reduce the decibels.

When she was diagnosed at the end of 2015, she considered giving up playing entirely, but the composers of Bang on a Can put a stop to that. ‘No way’, Michael Gordon decided, ‘I’m going to write the softest piece ever for you.’ Julia Wolfe reacted dryly when Germino told her she had said goodbye to her violin: ‘Then say hello again!’ David Lang looked her piercingly in the eye: ‘I see this as a huge opportunity!’

The three of them proposed to make a joint composition with their mentor Louis Andriessen. Neil Wallace, then programmer at De Doelen, came to the rescue. He organised a composition assignment together with four other organisations, which led to the four-part MUTED. In a combination of mutes and four different instruments, the limits of audibility are explored. Germino premiered it to great acclaim in October 2018 as part of of the New York Philharmonic’s festival The Art of Andriessen,

One of the instruments is a ‘whisper violin’ that Marcel Wanders and Bas Maas specially designed and built for Germino. This is inspired by the so-called pochette violin by baroque dance masters. The neck has the shape of a raised finger: shush! The sound is naturally ultra-soft, but can be further muffled by placing stops in the sound box.

In this way, Germino turns her handicap into a virtue. ‘I am very grateful. So many people have helped me on this difficult road. I feel like the cat Mehitabel from the movement that Louis composed for MUTED. She had a bad life, always fell in love with the wrong males but still stayed afloat, like a Grande Dame. Thus I’m on the threshold of a new career myself.’

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Zomernieuwsbrief: Holland Festival en meer

Markus Stenz + Thea Derks + Os, 7-6-2019 TivoliVredenburg

Ook zo aan het genieten (of balen) van de aanhoudende hitte? Hierbij wat verstrooiend lees- en luistervoer. Enjoy!

Op vrijdag 7 juni nam het Radio Filharmonisch Orkest afscheid van chef-dirigent Markus Stenz. Ik interviewde hem voor het Avondconcert op Radio 4 en vroeg hem naar zijn achtergrond (Engelstalig).

Als dank voor de vele mooie concerten schonk ik Stenz Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht. Hij toonde zich aangenaam verrast en noemde het een ‘ideaal vakantieboek’. Als onverwachte bonus kreeg de Os ondertussen een prachtrecensie van Michaja Langelaan in het weekblad Argus. Dus grijp je kans: koop de Os voor jezelf of geef hem cadeau, het is tenslotte volgens velen ‘een must have voor elke muziekliefhebber’.

Ik gaf zondag 18 mei twee lezingen over mijn Os in het gloednieuwe Eratofestival in Meppel, waar ik twee dagen daarvoor tevens het openingsconcert had afgetrapt met een inleiding op het concert van Miranda van Kralingen.

Een week later ging de Os alweer mee naar het Oranjewoudfestival, waar ik twee lezingen mocht geven in het gelijknamige landgoed. Ik verzorgde daarnaast inleidingen bij How to Play the Triangle van Tatiana Koleva en ‘8’ van David Lang met Cello8tet Amsterdam.

Ongeveer tegelijkertijd barstte het Holland Festival los, met als hoogtepunt de driedaagse voorstellingen van Aus Lichteen belevenis!

Stockhausen was uiteraard niet de enige attractie van het Holland Festival. Ik bezocht ook de mixed-media-installatie Eight van Michel van der Aa en de opera Pelléas et Mélisande van Debussy. Deze productie van De Nationale Opera kreeg maar 2 sterren van verschillende collega’s, ik vond het prachtig.

Minder overtuigd was ik door Mitra over de Iraanse psychoanalytica Mitra Kadivar en Triptych, een ode aan de fotograaf Robert Mapplethorpe.

Afgelopen vrijdag toog ik naar Fort Rijnauwen voor de première van King Lear, de opera die Verdi nooit schreef maar die Holland Opera alsnog realiseerde.

Ik wens u een fijne vakantie!!

Thea Derks

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Four reasons to attend Pelléas et Mélisande at Dutch National Opera #HF19

Due to its wide range of events the Holland Festival is at times its own competitor. I missed Turan Dokht and the premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande because I attended aus LICHT. To visit a performance of Debussy’s first and only opera, I had to skip the concert by the French rapper/writer Abd Al Malik on 12 June. – Cultural ‘choice-stress’, frustrating on the one hand, but a wealth on the other. Was it worth it, you ask? I can’t judge what I missed, but I can sum up four reasons why you should visit the production of Pelléas et Mélisande in the Amsterdam Muziektheater.

Enchanting staging

A wickerwork of hanging steel pipes suggests the impenetrable forest in which Golaud runs into the lost Mélisande. As soon as the music starts, the rods start to lazily rock together, lit up like a nightly magic forest. They make way for a triangular staircase that functions as the castle of King Arkel. In ever-changing formations the stands also serve as Golaud’s castle, a cave, a pond and the secret meeting place for Pelléas and Mélisande.

Set designer Pierre-André Weitz consistently employs the triangular shape. A simple and effective reference to the difficult relationship between Golaud, his half-brother Pelléas and Mélisande. The mobile, multifunctional scaffolding works rival the breath-taking set design in Stockhausen’s aus LICHT.

The gigantic trapezoidal panels sliding down to form yet another triangle are oppressive. They resemble the axe of a guillotine and presage the tragedy to come. Lighting designer Bertrand Killy makes the suffocating atmosphere even more palpable with bright light accents on an otherwise dark stage. Thus the staging perfectly mirrors the enigmatic atmosphere of Maurice Maeterlinck’s libretto.

Stylish costumes

In this gloomy setting the protagonists move about in black or grey custom-made costumes. The elegant cut of their three-piece suits is reminiscent of the early twentieth century, when Debussy composed his opera. Mélisande’s virginal white outfits form a sharp contrast with this. Weitz seems to cry out to us that she is innocence incarnate. But when she appears on stage for the first time, she wears a sensual, transparent robe, her nipples and thong visible to all. Perhaps the mysterious girl is less innocent than she seems? Golaud’s son Yniold is also dressed in white, as if he, too, were merely a victim of the circumstances.

Formidable singers

The Dutch National Opera has engaged a top cast for this production. The Russian soprano Elena Tsallagova is the ideal Mélisande with her pure, unadorned voice and girlish appearance. She moves one’s heart to the core as a frightened adolescent who is besieged by the older Golaud, as his depressed wife, as a teeny-bopper in love and as a delirious woman who dies in childbirth.

The Irish-American baritone Brian Mulligan is impressive as Golaud. With his sonorous voice and impressive appearance, he gives shape to the diverse aspects of his character. – From a cautious yet horny old buck harassing Mélisande in a #MeToo type of action, to a barish landowner who lets his subjects starve to death. He is as convincing as the jealous husband who kills Pelléas, drags Mélisande by the hair and even on her deathbed interrogates her about possible adultery.

The British bass Peter Rose shines in his role as the half-blind King Arkel. He shows remarkable insight into the troubled relationships between his grandsons Golaud and Pelléas. His compassion and concern for Mélisande are deeply moving. The sovereign tone in which he accepts the fate that deprives him of both her and Pelléas grabs you by the throat. Unfortunately Paul Appleby is a rather bland Pelléas.

Absolutely stunning is Maximilian Leicher of the Tölzer Knabenchor in his role of Yniold. In the first two acts he lovingly leads his great-grandfather Arkel by the arm. Next he obeys his father’s orders to spy on Pelléas and Mélisande with apparent reluctance, nevertheless answering his envious questions in a flawless soprano voice.

In the fourth act he sings a poignant solo full of ominous references to the imminent tragedy. Leicher is a gifted actor and his French is immaculate. The ostentatious boredom with which he hears out the lengthy discussions of the adults in the fifth and final act is contagious.

Debussy’s magical music

‘Prima la musica, dopo le parole’ (first the music, then the words), is the age-old adage for opera. For Debussy, however, they are inextricably linked. Without exception, the vocal lines are syllabic and follow the French accent closely. The absence of coloratura and other typical opera ornamentation creates a pleasant naturalness, the melodic lines are distinctly flowing. This approach is also beneficial to the intelligibility of the text.

Debussy excelled in creating ‘vague, impressionistic’ orchestral and choral parts. Sharply framed melodic contours and strong rhythmic pulses are absent, the harmonies are not based on traditional tonality. Instead of a propelling sense of purpose, Debussy writes music that is in a sense immobile. We can wallow in a bath full of brilliant timbres, larded with beautiful arabesques of woodwinds and brass instruments. When Mélisande sings, we often hear a subtle motif from a harp, traditionally the instrument that symbolises innocence.

This does mean to say that Pelléas et Mélisande is a sugary kind of kitsch. On the contrary, as a true master Debussy creates a magical, elusive atmosphere that wonderfully matches the symbolist story. Under the picturesque surface, disaster is ominously brewing, in low growling bassoons and double basses and softly rumbling timpani. Sudden silences, muted horns and hair-raising brass fanfares intensify the atmosphere of doom and inevitability.

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is audibly familiar with Debussy’s sound world, the musicians intoning their many short solo motifs beautifully and with care. Too bad the orchestra sometimes drowned out the singers. And to my taste, conductor Stéphane Denève could have added just a trifle more French perfume. But these are just minimal comments on an otherwise exemplary production.

Pelléas et Mélisande runs through 27 June. Info and tickets here.

If you wish to express your appreciation for this post, you can buy me a tea or coffee – or more – via PayPal.  Any amount, however small, is welcome! Thanks for your support!

On 5 June I played Debussy’s (un)finished opera La chute de la maison Usher in my programme ‘Een os op het dak’ on Concertzender. Listen here.

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Conductor Markus Stenz: ‘Sometimes I feel: now it’s music’.

Markus Stenz (c) Josep Molina

In 2012 Markus Stenz was appointed chief conductor of the Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, based in Hilversum. He conducted both classical masterworks, world premières and lesser known repertoire by Dutch composers, in NTRZaterdagMatinee in Concertgebouw Amsterdam and AVROTROSVrijdagconcert in TivoliVredenburg Utrecht.

On 7 June he takes his leave as chief conductor with Szenen aus Goethes Faust Robert Schumann. We know Stenz as a passionate and well-informed conductor, who always strives for the best result. But what is his background, and how did he end up in music?

Markus Stenz (1965) grew up in the village of Kaltenborn in the Rhineland-Palatinate: ‘A hamlet with two farmhouses, a church, a pub and a village school of which my father was headmaster. We lived above it. It was deadly boring and my parents made music to drive away the boredom. My mother was always singing, whether she was cooking, ironing, or doing any other household chores. My father was a skilled amateur musician, who, besides piano and organ, also played wind instruments and conducted a choir. As a toddler of two, I crawled under the grand piano, that’s how beautiful I thought it was.’

Little Markus also bangs the keys himself and at the age of five his parents send him to piano lessons. ‘They chose the best teacher in the region, Mrs. Haas-Paquet in Ahrweiler. She was such a typical gnome woman: small, with bony fingers and a bun. For my first lesson I refused to go inside, because I thought she was so ugly. I clasped myself to the door of the car. When my mother told her in distress what was going on, Mrs. Haas said wittily: “You’re right, I’m ugly! And now we’re going to start.” – And then I had lessons from her for ten years.’

This wasn’t a matter of course, however. ‘It was 45 minutes’ drive and I always got sick in the car. Both on the way up and back the question arose where to stop: in Kempenich or in Ramersbach, so that I could throw up.’ Moreover Haas-Paquet proved to be a strict teacher: ‘I drove her to madness because I improvised rather more than I practiced, so when I played she often corrected me: “You missed that note again!” – But she was also very sensitive, and I learned a lot from her.’

Although he grows up in a musical environment, Stenz only visits a concert once as a child: ‘Around my tenth my father took me to the Beethovenhalle in Bonn. I don’t remember what was played, but I do remember the conductor. With his bald head he looked very much like Professor Charivari from my children’s book Raumschiff Monitor, which I liked. I suspect it was Georg Solti.’

A few years later he sees Leonard Bernstein’s Norton Lectures on television. ‘A key moment! I thought it great that he brought jazz and classical music together in a self-evident way. He was so free in his thinking and illustrated his lectures with live music, from The Beatles to Beethoven, electrifying.’ At the age of eighteen he started studying conducting with Volker Wangenheim in Cologne and after that he took a course in Tanglewood with his hero Bernstein.

Stenz enjoys working with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, where he will regularly return as a guest conductor in the coming season. ‘I like the adventurous programming and the unconditional commitment of the musicians. The repertoire ranges from the classical canon – from Haydn to Beethoven through Mahler – to Dutch composers such as Rudolf Escher, Peter Schat and Joey Roukens. We’ve also performed a lot of concertante opera, often in combination with the Radio Choir, as last week we performed Die Gezeichneten Franz Schreker, and in 2017 we played the world première of Babylon Jörg Widmann.’

‘I hardly know of an orchestra that plays with more dedication and passion. We faced hard times because of the ongoing cuts on funding in the Netherlands, but we’ve responded to this with highly motivated playing. For me it is essential that an orchestra is able to play commissioned compositions. Discovering new avenues is a basic instinct, for all musicians. The great thing is that the public here has always been very open to the very latest notes.’

The reactions of the audience are of vital importance to Stenz anyway: ‘Without an audience there is no concert, they are the determining factor! We musicians are experience artists, we create art in the moment, and hopefully the audience will be carried away. It’s great when people come and tell us from the bottom of their hearts how much they liked a concert.’

‘I drew a lot of inspiration from the book Zen in the art of archery. It describes how in the perfect case it is not the shooter or the archer who shoots, but ‘it’. It may sound a bit ethereal, but at concerts I sometimes feel: now it becomes music, not I conduct, but ‘it’. – Those are magical moments.’

I interviewed Markus Stenz on Goethes Faust and his leave as chief conductor for the live broadcast of the concert on Radio 4

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