Sedje Hémon wrought music from painting

Sedje Hémon, pfoto Max Koot, Paris 1956

The name of Sedje Hémon (1923-2011) will not immediately ring a bell with most people. She was one of the first artists to work in a interdisciplinary way, basing her compositions on her own paintings. Her painting-scores were recently shown during Documenta 14 in Kassel and Athens, but her music has not been performed for almost 4 decades. The Hague Ensemble Modelo62 puts Hémon back on the map with the production Hidden Agreements. This will premiere on May 3 in Korzo Theatre The Hague, and then tour our country.

Violinist in Auschwitz

Sedje Hémon was born in Rotterdam and started drawing at the age of three. She developed an abstract style characterized by dots, lines and planes. At the age of eight, she spontaneously decided to become a professional violinist when she heard the famous Nathan Milstein on the radio.

During the Second World War she helped boys to flee to Switzerland, but she was betrayed by her neighbours. She survived Auschwitz by playing the violin in the camp orchestra. However, her health was so damaged that after the war she spent a long time in hospitals. She was forced to give up playing the violin, but continued to draw. Based on her own injuries, she would later develop a successful method to fight RSI.

Music from painting

On the advice of a fellow patient, she transferred her abstract drawing techniques to canvas. She was soon discovered and in 1955 she got an exhibition in Paris. It was there that art connoisseurs were struck by the music that was ‘hidden’ in her paintings. This encouraged her to actually make those hidden sounds audible. To this end, she developed her ‘Integration Method’.

On transparent paper she designed a grid of pitches and tones. She placed this over her paintings, in order to extract the hidden ‘musical data’. She then translated her findings to a sounding score. This technique is reminiscent of the transparents filled with dots and lines John Cage employed to create  music in the same period. In our country, Hémon was quite unique.

Reprogramming of the body

The initiative for Hidden Agreements came from visual artist Marianna Maruyama and composer Andrius Arutiunian. Together with the Sedje Hémonstichting and Ensemble Modelo62 they hope to bring Hémon’s music to life. They play three of her compositions, two of which can be heard on Soundcloud: Harmony and Lignes Ondulatoires. These are placed in a modern context with new works based on her artistic ideas.

Maruyama was inspired by Hémon’s RSI prevention course, a ‘reprogramming of the body’. Because of her injuries sustained in the camp, Hémon got a deep understanding of the body in relation to music making. She learned to relieve others of pain and prevent it by using the body in an optimal way. Fascinated by Hémon’s exercises, Maruyama developed choreographic instructions for the musicians of Modelo62.

Website as an interactive score

In turn, Andrius Arutiunian reopens Hémon’s virtual reality world. In 2007 – she was already over eighty years old – Hémon launched a virtual museum. This consisted of fragments and shapes from her painting-scores and was filled with her artworks and music. Arutiunian uses the museum’s website as an interactive score.

The virtual reality museum is projected on a large screen behind the musicians. They give a musical interpretation of the various rooms, while the conductor ‘walks’ through them. The trailer of the program is really enticing. It also makes it painfully clear how unjust it is that we get to hear and see Hémon’s work so rarely.

Unfortunately I have to miss the premiere, but luckily there will be more performances of Hidden Agreements. A must see, must hear!

Korzo 3 May, 8.30 pm: Hidden Agreements. Info and tickets here

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Guillaume Connesson: ‘I used a 12tone-row to create an icy atmosphere’

Guillaume Connesson attending rehearsal of Les cités de Lovecraft with Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, 11 October 2017

The French composer Guillaume Connesson (1970) writes colourful music that speaks directly to the heart. Like many of his peers he is not preoccupied with innovation per se, but seeks inspiration in the entire treasure trove of musical history. In his wonderfully orchestrated works you can hear echoes of such different composers as Richard Strauss, Dmitri Shostakovich, Steve Reich, Henri Dutilleux and Witold Lutosławski.

This season Connesson is composer in residence with the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, for which he composed two new works: Les cités de Lovecraft and Liturgies de LumièreThe Royal Concertgebouw joins in with a commission for a piece to be performed in a concert on the theme of War and Peace. On 12 April it will present the world première of Eiréné in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw under the baton of chief conductor Daniele Gatti.

Connesson named Eiréné after the ancient Greek goddess of peace. ‘I wanted this to be a study of silence and pianissimi’, the composer says. ‘It’s a universe of light touches, rustlings and fragile crystal that unfolds throughout this Poème nocturne for orchestra.’ He deems it a beautiful coincidence that it will witness its first performance in April: ‘Eiréné was also associated with spring, the traditional season of the war in antiquity.’

H.P. Lovecraft: lush use of adjectives

In October 2017 I interviewed Connesson on the occasion of the world première of Les cités de Lovecraft in the AVROTROSVrijdagconcert, which was broadcast live on Radio 4. The three movement work was inspired by the novella The Dream-Quest of the Unknown Kadath (1927) of the American fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft. This explores the world of dreams. ‘It’s pure psycho-therapy’, says Connesson.

The work of the American author has always fascinated him because of its lush use of a diversity of adjectives, which he translated into a teeming orchestral fabric. The ambiguity of the character of the ‘narrator’ is caught in quarter tones; the sombreness of the city of Kadath is symbolized by a 12tone-row.

In truly European spirit I posed my questions in English, and Connesson answered in French.



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City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra brings Raminta Šerkšnytė to TivoliVredenburg

Raminta Šerkšnytė, Photo Music Information Centre Lithuania

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is coming to Utrecht for a concert in TivoliVredenburg on Monday 9 April. Under the direction of their young chief conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla they’re playing music by Wagner, Debussy and Beethoven. – A fairly standard programme at first sight. Fortunately the Lithuanian Gražinytė-Tyla also presents a piece from her compatriot Raminta Šerkšnytė, Fires. Šerkšnytė composed this in 2010 as a companion piece to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony that will also be performed.

Šerkšnytė was born in 1975 in Kaunas, a city over a hundred kilometres West of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. From the age of seven she played the piano, and soon after she started composing. She studied composition with the renowned Osvaldos Balakauskas at the Music Academy in Vilnius. Subsequently, she took part in master classes abroad, with such divergent composers as Louis Andriessen, Magnus Lindberg and György Kurtág.

In 2005 Šerkšnytė made a name for herself with her composition Vortex for violin and ensemble in the International Gaudeamus Music Week. In this work the material continually revolves around in a vicious circle, the ‘whirlpool’ from the title. With each ‘turn’, the music becomes more dynamic and complicated. That same year Vortex won the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers Award. Since then she has gained a permanent place in Lithuanian and international music life.

Šerkšnytė’s music leans toward (post)romanticism but also incorporates elements from (post)minimalism, jazz and avant-garde. From het very first compositions she has enchanted the audience with her intense emotional expression; her work is very passionate. At the same time she has a great sense of form and instrumentation, combining a complex web of rhythmic textures with colourful harmonies.

Her main sources of inspiration are the broad spectrum of psychological states of mind and musical archetypes. Her work varies from calm and meditative to mysterious or nostalgic, but also shows bursts of vital energy. Many of her compositions are in a way musical equivalents of landscape painting. For example her grand orchestral work Aisbergas (Iceberg Symphony), with which she concluded her master’s composition in 2000.

This work was the start of a series of orchestral works inspired by natural phenomena and elementary forces. These include Mountains in the Mist (2005), Glow (2008), and Fires, which is performed during concert of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. In this two-part composition, Šerkšnytė has tried to depict different ‘faces’ of fire: from the detached perception of an approaching disaster to thundering explosions of compressed energy.

The first movement, ‘Misterioso’, opens with ethereal tones and long-held sounds from strings and winds. Gradually, bubbling motifs develop, evoking images of a subcutaneous fluttering fire. The dynamics become more powerful and low instruments join in, after which the fire comes to an initial eruption. Then a sense of – apparent – peace returns, but below the surface it continues to rumble, like a volcano about to erupt.

The explosion comes with thundering noise in the second movement, ‘Con brio’. This opens with repeated themes from brass and strings, played fortissimo; the passage is vaguely reminiscent of John Adams’ music. The ever-closer fabric of violently swirling rhythms and melodic lines generates an increasing amount of tension.

Descending melodies and glissandi create the impression of crashing beams and falling bricks. The structure finally ‘collapses’ with a quote of the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Thus Šerkšnytė alludes to her illustrious predecessor: she composed her piece for a Beethoven cycle by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. In the concert Fires will precede Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

 More information and tickets here

I hope to speak to conductor Gražinytė-Tyla during my introduction from 19.30 to 20.00

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Ligeti festival – ode to an adventurous and idiosyncratic composer

The Hungarian composer György Ligeti (1923-2006) suffered under several dictatorships. The Nazis killed his father and brother during World War II, and after the war the communists forced him to write bland ‘folk music’. After the Hungarian uprising of 1956 he fled to Vienna and from there to Cologne, where he was confronted with yet another type of dogmatism from the musical avant-garde.

In the West he soon established himself as an idiosyncratic composer. He resisted the dogmas of the avant-garde and took a different direction in which microtanility, irony and humour play an important role. From Thursday 5 to Sunday 8 April he will be featured in the large-scale Ligeti festival in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ Amsterdam.

Love for Bartók

György Ligeti was born in 1923 in a Jewish family in a small town in Transylvania. In 1941 he started studying composition with Ferenc Farkas, but three years later the Nazis called him up for a labour camp. Only after having lived through this and the war had ended, he was able to resume his studies. He at once moved to Budapest, where he again studied with Farkas, and with Sándor Veress. They relegated their love for Bartók to him, which shines through in early compositions such as the First String Quartet. This will be performed by the Dudok Quartet on Saturday, April 7.

In 1949, Ligeti completed his studies at the Franz Liszt Conservatory in Budapest, where he was then employed as a harmony teacher. Meanwhile, the communists had taken over the helm and there was a strong pressure to incorporate ‘folk’ elements in art music. In principle Ligeti had no problem with this, since Bartók had also been inspired by folk music. Within the given constraints, Ligeti looked for ways to create a personal sound world. For example in the Cello Sonata, which he composed for the Hungarian Radio in 1953.

‘Formalistic tendencies’

This was banned immediately after the broadcast because it harboured ‘formalistic tendencies’; from now on Ligeti composed for the proverbial desk drawer. Meanwhile, he kept the authorities satisfied with choral works in Kodály-style. That same year he completed Musica ricercata, a collection of eleven pieces for solo piano. These are on the programme of the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard on Friday 6 April. The first movement opens with only two tones: a fundamental and its octave. In each subsequent variation one tone is added, until in the eleventh movement all twelve tones of the western tonal system are heard.

Just after World War II, Hungary was officially cut off from the pernicious West, which did not prevent Ligeti from secretly listening to German radio stations at night. These were distorted by signals from the Hungarian Government, so that mainly the higher frequencies came through. In this mutilated form he heard works such as Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony and Herbert Eimert’s electronic music. Their line of thought corresponded with his own need for renewal. As soon as a period of thaw set in in 1954, he bought scores and records of modern composers.

From communist to musical dictatorship

During this period, Ligeti also heard the first radio broadcast of Stockhausen’s tape composition Gesang der Jünglinge. He was deeply impressed and contacted his German colleague by letter. He also wrote to Herbert Eimert, director of the electronic studio of the WDR in Cologne. One month after the invasion by the Russians in November 1956, Ligeti fled to Cologne, where he was welcomed by Stockhausen and Eimert. In their electronic studio he completed his first ‘Western’ composition, Artikulation for tape.

Although Ligeti basically agreed with the principles of Stockhausen and his fellow avant-gardists, he deplored the rigidity of serialism in which all musical parameters are arranged according to strict rules. Having escaped one dictatorship, Ligeti refused to submit to a new dictatorship from the musical avant-garde. He became fascinated by the idea of replacing strict order with a large degree of freedom. Thus he used unfettered rhythms instead of mathematically organized ones, while at the same time replacing the twelve tone series of the serialists by clusters. The resulting harmonies contained many microtones, a novelty in Western art music.

Music from metronomes

In 1960, this led to the ground-breaking orchestral work Apparitions, which caused a scandal at its premiere. – Ligeti’s name as an independent avant-gardist was established. He then composed Atmosphères and Volumina, also based on clusters. But soon he walked new roads again. In 1961 he wrote The Future of Music, consisting only of a set of instructions to the listeners, jotted down on a blackboard. A year later he created Poème Symphonique, in which 100 metronomes create a complex ‘micropolyphony’. The premiere in 1963 in the Town Hall of Hilversum caused yet another scandal.

This contrary piece had been commissioned by the Gaudeamus Music Week and will be performed live on Saturday 7 April in the entrance hall of Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. The television registration of the 1963 premiere can be seen and heard on a daily basis. The Dutch broadcasting company NOS had decided not to air the material, and for a long time it was considered lost. Recently it was rediscovered in the archives of Beeld en Geluid (Sound and Image) in Hilversum.

Time and again, Ligeti confirmed his sovereign spirit. While his colleagues abhorred any form of tonality, he re-established harmonic centres in his music. For instance in the choral work Lux Aeterna from 1966, which was immortalized in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Nederlands Chamber Choir will perform this on 7 April under the baton of Reinbert de Leeuw, Ligeti’s favourite conductor.

Car horns & Rossini aria’s

From 1974-77 György Ligeti worked on his opera Le Grand Macabre, his magnum opus. It is based on the absurd play Ballade du Grand Macabre by the Belgian author Michel de Ghelderode and is set in the time of Breughel. The hero Nekrotzar – the ‘Grand Macabre’ of the title – announces the end of time at midnight. But when the clock finally strikes twelve Nekrotzar is the only one to die.

In Le Grand Macabre, Ligeti brought together everything he had achieved so far; the music is often downright hilarious. The opera opens with an overture of car horns and juxtaposes Rossini-like arias with disconcerting recitatives and abysmal screams. The singers burb, and we are treated to the sound of whips and other ‘unmusical’ objects. Thus allusions to predecessors such as Rossini and Monteverdi get an ironic twist.

After Le Grand Macabre, Ligeti got somewhat into a deadlock. His adventurous and investigative mind simply refused to repeat itself. He had always pursued his own course, yet was invariably mentioned in one breath with the avant-gardists Boulez, Stockhausen and Nono. When their influence began to wane, he threatened to be dragged along in this downward spiral. The more so when a younger generation of composers returned to old forms, harmonies and tonality.

Caribbean rhythms

Though Ligeti did not care to track tail of this of new euphony, he was inspired by it. In 1982 he wrote his Horn Trio, in which he combines Caribbean rhythms with Brahms-like melodies. However, they are a trifle disjointed; their irregular rhythm is somewhat related to Hungarian folk music. The Horn Trio will be performed on Saturday 7th April by Aimard, the violinist Joseph Puglia and the horn player Marie-Luise Neunecker. In 1999 he composed his Hamburg Concerto for her.

In the eighties Ligeti became increasingly fascinated by Caribbean, African and Arabic rhythms. Their ‘limping’ character infused his work with spontaneity and liveliness. Not attracted to the new tonality of the younger generation, he designed new scales and tunings.

In 1993 he completed his Violin Concerto, in which the brass plays overtones. He also uses instruments with an unsteady intonation, such as ocarinas and recorders. It will be performed by Joseph Puglia on 5 April with the Asko|Schönberg under the direction of Reinbert de Leeuw.

Microtones versus perfect pitch

Ligeti continued to experiment with overtones and deviating scales in his later works. Like in the aforementioned horn concerto, in which the soloist is ‘shadowed’ by four natural horns. They have a different sound with a different spectrum of harmonics, so the score is full of microtones. Ligeti did not like this term, however, since it is based on the tempered tuning, as we know it from the piano. A mistake, Ligeti proclaimed. ‘The natural third sounds slightly lower than the tempered one. If truth be told, what we consider perfect pitch is out of tune and microtonal.’

More information and tickets here.

I spoke Ligeti in 2000 about his Horn Concerto, you can hear our talk on YouTube.

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Recensie #Reinbertbio: ‘De Leeuw teruggebracht tot menselijke proporties, mét behoud van magie’

Soms lacht het leven je toe. Zo stuitte ik geheel toevallig op een prachtrecensie van mijn biografie Reinbert de Leeuw: mens of melodie van Jaïr Tchong. Hij schreef zijn bespreking al in 2015 voor het online magazine Mixedworldmusic, maar deze was tot vandaag volkomen aan mijn aandacht ontsnapt.

Tchong heeft verder gekeken dan de controverse rond de publicatie. Hij noemt mijn Reinbertbio ‘hoogst lezenswaardig voor iedereen met een interesse in zowel avontuurlijke muziek op de podia, als de cultuurpolitiek die dit (al dan niet) mogelijk maakt’.

Hij blijkt mijn boek goed gelezen te hebben, getuige ook onderstaande paragraaf: ‘Derks [schept] ook ruimte voor tragisch vergeten voorgangers van De Leeuw, zoals Elie Poslavsky. Ook geeft zij genuanceerd aandacht aan de fase waarin er kritiek komt op de onaantastbare positie van De Leeuw als ‘kingmaker’ in de Nederlandse muziekcultuur.’

Tchong looft verder de manier waarop ik De Leeuw ‘tot menselijke proporties weet terug te brengen, en wel mét behoud van de magie van zijn prestaties’.

Hij eindigt zijn geïnformeerde bespreking met twee rake citaten uit mijn biografie. – Mijn dag kan niet meer stuk!

Je leest de volledige recensie hier; de biografie schaf je aan via deze link

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Sofia Gubaidulina: ‘Artists must fight the trivializing tendencies in society’

Sofia Gubaidulina © F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd.

Sofia Gubaidulina has become a real audience favourite in the Netherlands. She’s not only regularly featured by ensembles such as Asko|Schoenberg, but also by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and in the broadcasting series of Radio4.

The AVROTROS Vrijdagconcert presented the Dutch premieres of Glorious Percussion in 2011 and O Komm, Heiliger Geist in 2016. On Friday, 23 March 2018 the first Dutch performance of her Triple Concerto for bayan, violin and cello will be performed in TivoliVredenburg Utrecht. The concert is broadcast live on Radio4.

The Triple Concerto is dedicated to the Swiss accordion player Elsbeth Moser, now also performing with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. Her fellow soloists are the Latvian violinist Baiba Skride and the Dutch cellist Harriet Krijgh, who also played the world premiere in 2017 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The article below is partly based on an interview with Gubaidulina from 2011.

No small-talk

I meet Sofia Gubaidulina (Chistopol, 1931) at the Cello Festival in Zutphen. The night before the biennial event has opened with her Seven Words for cello, bayan and string orchestra. The moment we shake hands, she ignites in a glowing speech about the great performance and beautiful location.

This drive is characteristic: also in previous conversations Gubaidulina never engaged in small-talk. Her time is too precious and her mission too important. In-depth art must be made in order to counterbalance the trivializing tendencies in our society. It is her sacred duty to give voice to the spiritual.

Music in the basement circuit

The Tatar-Russian composer describes how difficult the situation was for independent minds and artists in the Soviet Union. ‘Everything was politically motivated. If you refused to praise the regime in socialist-realist style, it was almost impossible to survive. You got no performances, no money, nothing.’

‘But I couldn’t write such hymns of praise: we lived in a completely immoral society. Forced by these circumstanced my music was performed by brave musicians in the so-called basement circuit. They were my knights on the white horse. I am eternally grateful to them: without musicians there is no music, after all.’

Doors and windows swing open

Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1992, Gubaidulina moved to Appen, a village near Hamburg. She is delighted to recall how decisive this has been for her. ‘I was already sixty years old, my life was largely over, but at last I was able to compose freely what I wanted. All doors were opened.’

‘In Russia, everything was totally locked up, now I could easily get in touch with musicians, critics, the audience. This interaction is of vital importance to an artist. For the first time I was able to set myself really large-scale goals and realize them; my production has increased considerably.’

A house with a tree

Yet her style has hardly changed in the West. ‘The outside world does not have much influence on my way of composing, because I listen to my inner voice’, Gubaidulina explains. I could hear this clearer in Appen, because I got a much better contact with nature.’

‘Appen is a hamlet with only two streets. There is a tree in front of my house and I have a little garden, so I am literally in nature. In Moscow I was stuck in a small apartment surrounded by housing blocks and factories; at night everything was bathed in light. I always dreamed of the outdoors.’

But did she not go on long hiking trips with her father on the steppes of Tatarstan as a child? ‘Yes, I did. My father was a surveyor and I was sometimes allowed to join him on one of his missions. But we lived in Kazan, just as much an industrial environment as Moscow. The bitter thing is that he often had to measure land where an airport would be built or something, so I was enjoying landscapes that disappeared shortly after.’


I suggest she could have moved to a village outside Moscow if she needed greenery so much. She starts at my suggestion, aghast. ‘That was life-threatening, there was an awful lot of crime in the countryside! Moscow was considerably safer. In the beginning I sometimes took the tram to one of the city parks, but also there crime increased sharply. That’s why I stayed in as much as possible during the last decade of Soviet rule. The fact that I now have a house with a garden and a tree is Paradise for me.’

Does she nowadays feel rather more German than Russian or Tatar? She eyes me penetratingly. ‘Nationality isn’t really relevant anymore. People all over the world are in contact with each other via the Internet and we are losing our national character. You can no longer make a classification according to nationality or race, as we did in the past.’


‘In the current spirit of the age other criteria apply, such as: honesty is naive, high art is naive. There is a gap between intelligent people and the majority of society, which is hostile to the intelligentsia and the arts. Almost to the point of becoming militaristic. The Spasskultur is forcing artists to lose out, but we must continue to resist the trivializing trend.’

Gubaidulina doubts whether this will be possible, however. ‘I see a new man coming into being who no longer knows what it is like to have real contact, as we are having during this conversation. They’re watching the screen of their computer or smartphone all day and react to the outside world like machines. I see this as a great danger for the future: life becomes empty, shallow and one-dimensional, all diversity disappears.’

Elsbeth Moser

Her own music is everything but shallow and one-dimensional, it always has a strong spiritual element; Gubaidulina is deeply religious. She is also a true sound wizard, whose musical imagination does not diminish even at an advanced age. This is all the more evident from her Triple Concerto for bayan, violin and cello, which was completed in 2016. The mere idea of having three soloists is a reference to Trinity, as are the many triads on which the work is based.

The idea for this large-scale orchestral work came from Elsbeth Moser, a great advocate of her music. In 1991 Gubaidulina wrote Silenzio for bayan, violin and cello for her. Struck by the beautiful interaction between the Russian button accordion and western strings, Moser asked her for a triple concerto.

Dark orchestral sound

A striking feature is the predominant use of the low registers of the orchestral instruments. The concerto opens with a chromatic tone cluster of the bayan, starting on a low E and ascending to E flat almost an octave higher. The cello also plays a rising line, the intervals gradually becoming smaller in its higher register.

The violin starts on the lowest string and also goes up, and thus the concert is set in motion. It is mainly made up of short motifs, which Gubaidulina effortlessly forges into a convincing unity. Partly thanks to a subtle use of dynamics – sometimes swelling to apocalyptic hurricane force.

The two solo strings play sensually interlocking lines, embedded in colourful chords of the bayan and dark orchestral sounds. Instruments such as contrabassoon, tubas, trombones and double basses are an ideal complement to the sonorous low register of the bayan. Also beautiful are the soaring lines of a horn rising from the depths and ascending to heaven. The dull swishing and sizzling sound of a large drum is truly impressive. Is it covered with steel strings, like a snare drum in pop music?

We’ll find out on Friday 23 March!

Gubaidulina’s Triple Concerto is flanked by Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony
More info and tickets here

I spoke the three soloists for the live broadcast on Radio4. You can listen to my reportage here

My talk with dedicatee Elsbeth Moser can be heard on YouTube.

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Ingo Metzmacher on Das Floss der Medusa: ‘Death is a very seductive woman’

Le radeau de la Méduse, Théodore Géricault, image from Wikipedia

On Tuesday 13 March the Opera Forward Festival opened with Das Floss der Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa) by Hans Werner Henze. This oratorio from 1968 fits in seamlessly with the theme of the third edition: Fate and Awareness. It is inspired by a true story from 1816, when the French frigate Méduse stranded on the African coast. The people on board were left to their fate; of the 154 people on board, only fourteen survived.

The French painter Théodore Géricault immortalised this tragic incident on his canvas Le radeau de la Méduse. This formed the starting point for Henze (1926-2012). His oratorio is a timeless requiem for the nameless victims who fall prey to the indifference of the privileged. The piece is directed by Romeo Castellucci and conducted by Ingo Metzmacher, who personally worked with Henze: ‘Henze stood up for the weak from a deeply human standpoint. He was a convinced left-winger. Germany not always valued his stance.’

For a long time he was not really appreciated as a composer, either. How do you explain this?

Towards the end of the twentieth century modernism was the only truth, but Henze harked back to the past. He had his origins in composers such as Alban Berg and Karl Amadeus Hartmann. He had a great sensitivity to sound. His music originated from the theatre, from singing; singing is in itself something traditional. Unlike his contemporaries, he always sought to find beautiful melodies. He felt misunderstood in Germany, that is why he moved to Italy. There, too, his political commitment was less controversial.

Henze wrote in traditional forms, such as symphonies, operas and this oratorio, Das Floss der Medusa. Those genres are centuries old, he clearly felt comfortable with the official canon. Personally I think his music is incredibly complex, but at the same time it’s always text driven. Henze has a great sense of drama and creates strong contrasts. His music is very lyrical, always rooted in sound. Also in Das Floss der Medusa the lyrical moments are the by far the strongest.

Remarkably the role of Death is sung by a woman.

Indeed, there you have it! We say ‘Der Tod’, male; in Italian it is ‘La morte’, female. It was obvious to Henze that Death should have a woman’s voice. Death is enticing and seductive, it encircles you and provides security. He/she represents a great force in this piece, also musically. The voice of the soprano is interwoven with the strings, very suggestive and charming. Of the 154 people on board, only fourteen manage to resist her lure.

This implies that the people choose to die, yet they are victims. After all, the government doesn’t do anything to save them from their rickety raft.

Certainly, but when you are in great need there is a great temptation to throw yourself into the arms of death. Moreover, Death is a physical person in this oratorio. A woman who constantly sings: ‘Come to me. Here it is better. You are with far too many anyway.’

That call sounds ceaselessly, loud and clear, engaging, flattering. It’s interesting that Henze so strongly emphasizes this temptation. Once the people have died, they not only sing lyrics from Dante’s Inferno but also from Paradiso. Without this ambivalence, it would have been a pure protest piece, a kind of agit-prop. This gives it a deeper meaning.

Das Floss der Medusa is very topical at the moment. Immediately after the refugee crisis broke out, I thought: we must stage this piece. And Castellucci does indeed relate it to the present. He even went to Senegal, where he shot a film. I think he would love to make a live connection with the boat refugees on the Mediterranean every night. But you should ask him, it is technically impossible anyway.

It is in any case a major challenge to stage such an oratorio. But if someone can do it, then it’s Castellucci. Without lapsing into sentimentality, he wants to move people and make them think about its universal theme. In essence, of course, it is about power.

We refuse to extend a hand to the weak, the disenfranchised, the poor. While they fight for their lives, we more fortunate Europeans sit comfortably back and relax. Our first impulse is not to help, but to give up. Henze opposed this attitude throughout his life, which makes him very dear to me.

Besides the soprano, there are two male soloists, what is their role?

A baritone sings the role of Jean-Charles, the mulatto from the original story who resists Death until the end. When a ship finally comes into sight he swings a red flag, but shortly after his rescue he dies. Musically he is linked to wind instruments, harp and melodic percussion instruments. His role is extremely dramatic, we can identify with him personally.

Then there is a narrator, who calls himself Charon, the mediator between life and death. He takes people across with his boat; his objective tone creates a purposeful distance. Charon is related to the percussion in the orchestra, instruments without pitch.

Thus Henze creates three different worlds, which remain largely separated from each other. The instruments at times play simultaneously, but more often they are opposed to each other. That’s why the strings in the orchestra pit are on the left, the wind players on the right and the percussion in between.

A similar distribution can be seen on stage. At the beginning of the performance the singers of the choir are on the right. They represent the realm of the living, the 154 people on the raft, including a number of children. Then the great dying begins and the choir divides itself up. It starts with a small group of dead, who move to the left of the stage.

In the second part, a lot of time has passed and this group has grown considerably. Towards the end, two ‘solo’ choirs are formed, consisting of the 14 living and 13 dying characters. The latter group gradually becomes smaller and smaller, and ultimately only the fourteen survivors are left standing on the right. Thus the piece does not end in pure desperation: they represent our hope for a better future.

I love this messianic attitude. Henze’s work has an impressive utopian power. He wanted to shake people awake, take them out of their comfort zone. He does so excellently in Das Floss der Medusa. To be honest, I miss that explosive power in contemporary music.

Info and tickets here
Info and agenda Opera Forward Festival here
I wrote a review for Theaterkrant (in Dutch), you read it here.
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Between diapers & dishes – the (in)visibility of the female composer

Walkyrien (c) Emil Doepler, via Wikipedia Media

Amsterdam, 8 March 2018. No chance to miss today is women’s day. The media are brimming with articles about the unequal pay for women and their still limited representation in prestigious positions. – In politics, the business world, universities and the arts.

The most conservative is perhaps the classical music world, where the female composer still has to fend for her right to exist. Even in 2018 she still has to cram her creative work in between domestic tasks, it seems. – Will a male composer ever be asked how he combines his work ‘with the children’? Despite tiny steps in the right direction, his female colleague still balances between diapers & dishes.

Perotinus & Leoninus

My own history began in a village in Limburg. I was not allowed to join the local brass band – simply because I was a girl. Later I started my own pop group. Though I wrote all the songs, invariably my male companions were asked all the questions. During my entire studies in musicology two ladies were mentioned. Hildegard von Bingen was treated extensively, but after that it remained silent. Only in my final year one song by Clara Schumann was analyzed.

During concerts I heard music from Perotinus & Leoninus, Bach and Handel, Mozart and Beethoven, Stravinsky and Bartók. Only in the world of new music I was sparsely treated to works by Galina Ustvolskaya and Sofia Gubaidulina, or Kaija Saariaho and Unsuk Chin. When I started working at Radio 4, I made thematic programs on countless subjects. But the moment I dedicated a series to female composers, I was deprecatingly dubbed ‘Her of the Women’.

Smyth ‘influenced’ by unborn Britten

Undaunted I tried to get work by female composers performed, but I stumbled on a wall of unwillingness and bias. The most poignant was my experience with the opera The Wreckers by Ethel Smyth. Everyone I played a recording to was enthusiastic about the beautiful and powerful music. – Invariably followed by the comment that Smyth had been ‘strongly influenced’ by Peter Grimes of Benjamin Britten.

A hilarious argument: Britten wasn’t even born when Smyth composed her opera in 1906. Indeed, Peter Grimes did not appear until 1945, a year after her death. When I pointed this out, my interlocutors fell silent, baffled. But the penny did not drop and the opera remained unperformed. While a rediscovered second-class composition of a man is not seldom hailed ‘discovery of the century’.

Netherlands’ Men’s Days and Bosmans Prize

During the yearly Netherlands’ Music Days hardly any women’s compositions sounded, so I dubbed them the Netherlands’ Men’s Days; in 2010 the event died a silent death. Even the composition competition named after Henriëtte Bosmans was never won by a woman. After I had criticized this in a column, at least some female jurors were recruited. But it wasn’t until 2008, when an audience prize was established, that this finally went to a female composer. After 2011 also this competition ceased to exist.

When the Festival of Early Music Utrecht put Felix Mendelssohn in the context of his time, not one note from his sister Fanny was played. She was not only Felix’s source of inspiration and sounding board, but also a composer who was highly appreciated in her own time. Most probably she developed the ‘Song without Words’, which is invariably attributed to her brother. After yet another column of mine the all-male concept was somewhat released. Since then, sporadically music by Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Barbara Strozzi, Hildegard of Bingen or Isabella Leonarda was programmed.

Modern music world forms an exception

A positive exception is formed by the circuit of modern music, such as the Thursday Evening Concerts of Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. The same goes for the Red Sofa series of De Doelen, the Oranjewoudfestival and Dag in de branding. In Gaudeamus Muziekweek, women’s work sounds regularly, although the competition itself is still dominated by men.

The coming edition of Classical Encounters in The Hague only has male works in store for us, even thought the programmer is a woman. Muziekgebouw Eindhoven features two ladies in its new season; the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra one; the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra none. In the upcoming Opera Forward Festival, only two female composers will be represented.

Bright spots

It is sad that even in the 21st century we have to fight for the music of women composers. Nevertheless, there have been some bright spots recently, thanks in part to the social media. Databases with female composers from all ages can be updated online and this information is shared quickly and easily. The #MeToo discussion also contributes to a greater awareness of the subordination of women.

In terms of policy, some steps have been made as well. Mayke Nas succeeded Willem Jeths as Composer Laureate in 2016. A year later, Kate Moore was the first woman ever to win the prestigious Matthijs Vermeulen Prize. The BBC initiated the project Celebrating Women Composers and the new February Festival gave voice to Fanny Mendelsohn and Clara Schumann. From season 2018-19 onwards, the Concertgebouw and NTRZaterdagMatinee will pay structural attention to composing ladies. Its counterpart AVROTROSVrijdagconcert also regularly features music by women composers.

Small successes that ‘Her of the Women’ will continue to fight for in the future.

Tonight Silbersee will perform work by Seung-Won Oh in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, I will speak to her during the introduction at 19.15 

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Cappella Amsterdam presents Baltic Souls: Estonia 100 years independent/non-independent

Cappella Amsterdam

Although Estonia is nearly 4000 square kilometres larger than the Netherlands, it has barely more inhabitants than the province of Utrecht. For centuries, powers such as Denmark, Germany, Russia, Sweden and Poland disputed the rule of this country on the Baltic Sea. Because of its geographical location, it formed an important link between East and West.

It was not until 1918 that Estonia proclaimed its independence, though this sovereignty was regularly violated. From 1944 to 1991 the country sighed under the yoke of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless the Estonians proudly celebrate the centenary of their independence. Cappella Amsterdam joins in with the programme Baltic Souls, conducted by Endrik Üksvärav.

As a matter of course Arvo Pärt is featured, alongside music by lesser known composers such as Pärt Uusberg, Galina Grigorjeva and Veljo Tormis. There are three Dutch premieres, starting with Pärt’s Litanei. The Stabat Mater of Tõnu Kõrvits and the Missa Brevis by Erkki-Sven Tüür were never heard in the Netherlands before, either. Both composers will attend the concert on 28 February in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, which forms the start of a short tour.

Stabat Mater: the text of texts

Tõnu Kõrvits (1969) composed his Stabat Mater in 2014. It was commissioned by The Sixteen and already appeared on CD.  ‘While composing, I listened to many other settings’, says Kõrvits, ‘for instance those of Pergolesi, Rossini and Pärt. It is the text of texts, long and complicated. It contains everything: substance, sonority, sensitivity and concentration. And above all, it has a lot of empathy. I felt that a composer should deal with this text in the second half of his creative life.’

His colleague Erkki-Sven Tüür (1959), is perhaps better known in the Netherlands. The Radio Philharmonic Orchestra presented the Dutch premiere of his impressive De profundis in 2015; two years later the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra performed the world premiere of his piccolo concerto Solastalgia. Now Cappella Amsterdam sings the Missa Brevis that Tüür composed in 2013. It was commissioned by the Deutscher Musikrat for the side-programming of a choir competition.

Personal resonance

‘Over the centuries the Latin Mass has been set to music many times’, says Tüür. ‘Therefore there are many archetypes associated with this “oh-so-overused” text, which made composing a new version exciting and challenging. I really had to dig deep to find a way to make my individual voice resonate naturally with the text. Without a personal resonance it would have been impossible – at least for me – to set the Latin mass to music.’

‘Although I had no specific other compositions in mind while composing, I acknowledge that everything in this world is implicitly connected. I have listened to and studied a lot of music from others in my life, which has undoubtedly left its mark on my own. Yet you won’t find any direct quotations in my Missa Brevis. – By the way, the assignment was to write something for a semi-professional choir, which sets limits to the possibilities. On closer inspection, however, the score appears to be more suitable for professional choirs.’

Text dictates form

What is more important: for the listener to understand the text verbatim or to experience its meaning?

‘The one cannot exist without the other. If we do not understand the text, we cannot comprehend its deeper meaning. I have “underlined” some sentences, or even words. For example by making them sound more or less colourful, more or less filled with light, tension or emotion. I use the tools of harmony in order to create these different nuances.’

‘While composing vocal music, my approach is completely different from when I write abstract, instrumental music. The musical form is already largely predetermined by the text. However, there are many ways to mold it. That is what I find most fascinating: how do various composers experience the meaning of these very old phrases? How do they respond to the challenge of adding their voice to the very long tradition of writing a mass? I myself have worked hard to find my own signature.’

Journey into light

You once told me that you want to stimulate the creativity of the listener. How have you tried to achieve this in Missa Brevis?

‘I just write music, I don’t deliberately use tools to manipulate the audience. As soon as the work is finished, I cherish the humble hope that it will appeal to the listener’s inner imagination. While composing, one of my most important criteria is to what extent the music can take me along on a journey into light. All means serve this purpose – how I deal with texture, colours, rhythms, harmonies, dramatic tension etcetera. It must help me. Only then can I hope it will work the same way for others.’

More info and tickets here.
On April 14th, chamber choir Amphion also looks eastwards in the Papegaai, with music by a.o. Indra Rise, Ester Mägi and Veljo Tormis.

On 1 April NTR will broadcast a recording in the Evening Concert on Radio4, including my interviews with both composers in Muziekgebouw aan ´t IJ on 28 February. 

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Fanny Mendelssohn: in the shadow of Felix

Fanny Mendelssohn, drawing by her later husband Wilhelm Hensel

Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847) was Felix Mendelssohn’s elder sister by four years. They both received sound musical training, but she surpassed him in virtuosity at the piano. Her relationship with Felix was intense, but also suffocating. Due to his opposition, Fanny Mendelssohn was unable to build an independent career as a composer. To this day her work is overshadowed by that of Felix, though she wrote almost five hundred compositions of very high quality. In its first edition the new February Festival features not only works by Felix, but also by Fanny Mendelssohn.

 Queen Victoria sings a song by Felix, oops Fanny

During one of his successful tours through England, Felix Mendelssohn had a private meeting with Queen Victoria. She loved his music dearly, and sang her favourite song, Italien, from his collection opus 8. When the queen had finished singing, Felix had to confess it was not he, but Fanny who had composed this song.

This anecdote illustrates the immense shadow Felix Mendelssohn cast over the life, and especially work, of his elder sister. Not only did he forbid her to publish her compositions, but he also appropriated some of them. Nevertheless, he highly esteemed her musical judgement: he submitted all his pieces to her for consideration.

Many only reached their final form because of her insightful comments. The oratorio St. Paul in particular bears the traces of Fanny’s influence. That Felix restricted his sister’s career so much may not only have been due to the misogynous ideas of his time, but also to jealousy. She was at least as talented, if not more talented than he was. The cruel fate is that Fanny Mendelssohn died shortly after she finally freed herself from his influence. She got a stroke while conducting a piece by Felix.

Bach-fugue fingers

Initially her prospects were promising. Fanny Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg on November 14,1805 in a wealthy Jewish banking family. Her grandfather was the respected philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. Two great-aunts had played an important role in eighteenth-century salon circles and would come to serve as role models for the entrepreneurial Fanny.

The Mendelssohn family was assimilated and liberal, but for certainty’s sake Fanny and Felix were baptized, while the gentile ‘Bartholdy’ was added to their surname. Thus their parents hoped to create more opportunities for the siblings – the climate in Germany was rather anti-Semitic.

Immediately after her birth her mother was delighted to see that Fanny had ‘Bach-fugue fingers’. She gave her the first piano lessons herself, her daughter turning out to be a child prodigy.

Playing ‘like a man’

In 1809 the family moved to Berlin, where the young Fanny started studying the piano with Ludwig Berger. At the age of eleven, she also briefly took piano lessons from Marie Bigot in Paris. Three years later she composed her first piece, a song for her father’s birthday. After that she studied music theory and composition with Carl Zelter, under whose care she composed her first important work in 1824, the Sonata in c minor for piano.

Her astonishing virtuosity on this instrument overshadowed that of her brother and led to the dubious compliment that she ‘played like a man’. During a family trip to Switzerland she developed a romantic longing for nature and Italy, which she translated into a number of songs, including the beautiful Italien that Felix would unabashedly appropriate.

Composing as ‘ornament’ rather than profession

Because of her enormous talent, a musical career for Fanny Mendelssohn seemed to lie ahead. But where her father stimulated his son on his compositional path, he thwarted his daughter’s ambitions. ‘Music is likely to become a profession for Felix, while it is only an ornament for you; it may never form the core of your life’, he told Fanny.

Forced by these circumstances, she dedicated herself to the Sonntagsmusiken. These musical salons at the family’s home had been set up by her mother in 1823 to develop the talent of her children. There was a small orchestra and the entire cultural elite of Berlin visited these afternoons. Famous contemporaries such as Carl Zelter, Wolfgang Goethe, Heinrich Heine, Niccoló Paganini, Franz Liszt, Clara and Robert Schumann and the Humboldt brothers were regular guests.

Initially, the concerts were led by Felix, but when he started the first of his many concert tours in 1829, Fanny took over the lead. She seized her opportunity to develop herself as a composer and pianist within the protective walls of the Mendelssohn home. She soon formed a choir, with which she could also perform large-scale works. In addition to chamber music, she composed orchestral and choir works and various cantatas, which she conducted herself with great zest.

Marriage with Wilhelm Hensel

Also in 1829, Fanny Mendelssohn married the court painter Wilhelm Hensel, who was considerably more liberal than her father and brother. Atypical for the period, he did not demand his wife to stop composing, but emphatically supported her musical ambitions. Her mother and the poet Wolfgang von Goethe also encouraged her.

Fanny Mendelssohn would compose over 250 songs in her short life, many of which to texts by Goethe. But even after her marriage with Hensel, the publication ban imposed by her father and brother remained in force. As a result, she could only hear her works in the salon and not submit them to public scrutiny.

However, thanks to the enduring and abundant praise from the illustrious visitors, her name became known more widely. Yet her only performance for a paying audience was a charity concert in 1838. Where she did not perform a piece of her own, but her brother’s First Piano Concerto.

Symbiotic relationship

Despite these frustrating circumstances, Fanny Mendelssohn continued to compose, even after giving birth to her son Sebastian in 1830. Four years later, she wrote her lively string quartet in E flat, which is still being performed today – albeit rarely.

When her father died in 1835, Fanny made her first contact with publishers. Again, however, she found Felix on her way, who opposed this fervently. ‘I think Fanny has neither the sense nor the vocation to go through life as a composer. For this she is too much a woman – as it should be’, he wrote to their mother.

As a married woman, Fanny did not really need to heed her brother’s dictates, yet nevertheless she was deterred by his negative attitude. This may seem strange today, but Fanny’s relationship with Felix was so symbiotic that she couldn’t bring herself to go against him. She decided not to publish her work, and continue to showcase her talents in the family salon only.

Unforgettable Italy

In 1839 Fanny Mendelssohn made a stimulating trip to Italy with her husband Wilhelm Hensel and their 9-year-old son Sebastian. In Italy, she was taken seriously as a composer and received a lot of response from the artists’ environment. She also met Charles Gounod, with whom she would remain friends for the rest of her life.

Jubilantly she noted in her diary: ‘I can’t think back unmoved by the beautiful pine trees, mixed with cypresses, which I saw from the Villa Medici and Villa Ludovisi! Never up close, but so often! And with so much pleasure! Oh, you beautiful Italy! How rich I have become innerly through you! What an incomparable treasure I will bear in my heart at home soon! Will my memory be true? Will I remember everything as vividly as I experienced it?’

Piano cycle and Song without Words

After a year, the couple returned to Berlin, where Fanny cherished her memories. She eventually incorporated them in the large-scale piano cycle Das Jahr. In a dozen character pieces she sketches the characteristics of the twelve months of the year.

January, from ‘Das Jahr’

This had never been done before. Moreover, it was also a multimedia work avant-la-lettre. Fanny wrote her music on coloured pages, surrounded by verse lines, and illustrations of her husband Wilhelm.

In the same period she probably also developed the ‘Lied ohne Worte’ (Song without Words), a genre that is invariably attributed to her brother. Characteristic is a lyric part in the high registers, which, like in a song, is supported by a thorough accompaniment in the lower registers.

Thanks to her stimulating experiences in Italy, the support of her husband and her many contacts with poets, philosophers, musicians and artists, Fanny Mendelssohn gradually gained more confidence in her own abilities. Moreover, her reputation grew steadily, despite the limited circle in which her music was heard.

First publications

In 1846 she was approached by two publishers asking her to publish her work. Felix finally gave his reluctant blessing, after which she published six opus numbers in quick succession, mainly consisting of songs and piano works. That same year she composed and published her cheerful Gartenlieder (Garden Songs) for choir a cappella, intended to be sung in the open air. She was very content with them and wrote to Felix: ‘There is a very pleasant time associated with these songs, that’s why they are more dear to me than my other trifles.’ – The mere choice of words is telling.

Positive review on dying day

Finally, at forty-one, she had cast off the shadow of her brother. On May 14,1847, a very laudatory review of her Gartenlieder appeared in the prestigious Zeitschrift für neue Musik. A successful career as a composer lay in store, but fate decided differently. That very same day Fanny Mendelssohn succumbed to a stroke – during a rehearsal of one of Felix’s choral works.

Her brother received the news in London, too late to attend her funeral. When he visited his sister’s grave on return, he was so devastated he could no longer work. Shortly after he himself suffered some strokes, dying on 4 November 1847, not quite half a year after his sister.

Felix was buried next to Fanny. – Even in death brother and sister were inseparable.

The February Festival presents music by Felix & Fanny Mendelssohn and by Clara & Robert Schumann from 14 to 18 February.
On Friday 16 February I will discuss the (in)visibility of female composers in my lecture Between Diapers & Dishes. Public library The Hague, 4-5 pm. 
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George Benjamin on his opera Written on Skin: ‘We emphasize the unnatural’

Composer George Benjamin with the score for his opera Written on Skin © Faber Music Ltd

George Benjamin with the score for his opera Written on Skin © Faber Music Ltd

George Benjamin (1960) is composer in focus of the coming Holland Festival. Apart from the Dutch premiere of his recent opera ‘Lessons in Love & Violence’ there’s a semi-staged performance of ‘Written on Skin’. Benjamin composed this highly successful opera in 2012 for the Festival of Aix-en-Provence, where it was premiered by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. This orchestra will now perform it in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ Amsterdam with a new vocal cast.

In 2012 I interviewed Benjamin on the occasion of the Dutch premiere for, a new-music website that was discontinued in 2015. Here is a translation of my article, originally published on 27 September 2012.

In July 2012, the world premiere of George Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin was the highlight of the Festival in Aix-en-Provence. It is a medieval story about a cruel landowner who hires a young illustrator to record his heroic deeds. When the boy starts an affair with his wife Agnes, he kills him and forces her to eat his heart. Hereafter she commits suicide. Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp present the characters as a kind of archaeologists, who summon up the old story and simultaneously bring it to life.

When I meet George Benjamin on Wednesday 26 September, he has just been rehearsing with the Nederlands Kamerorkest (Dutch Chamber Orchestra) for four hours. Excited, he says: ‘It was the first Sitzprobe, in which singers and musicians go through their parts together without acting. It was fantastic, the orchestra plays exceptionally well.’

The premiere in Aix-en-Provence was performed by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, but the singer are largely the same in the production of Dutch National Opera. Benjamin wrote his parts with these specific performers in mind.

George Benjamin & Thea Derks, Dutch National Opera 26 September 2012

You started working with the singers in 2008. Why so early?

Benjamin: ‘I didn’t want to compose for an abstract, idealized type of voice, but for people of flesh and blood. At the request of Bernard Foccroule, director of the Festival in Aix, we chose a medieval saga from the Languedoc, the region to which the city belongs. In order to fit the characters in with my own composition methods, I went in search of singers even before I had put one note to paper.

Once I’d found them, I invited them to my home, where I made an inventory of their possibilities. Apart from things such as colour, strength, agility and vocal range, I also noted what they like or don’t like to sing. It was very special that all five of them accepted straightaway, because I didn’t disclose anything of the libretto. – While composing I like to keep the horizon close to myself.

The role of the illustrator is sung by the countertenor Bejun Mehta. Why he?

I imagined it would be great to compose a love scene in which a high female voice and a high male voice encircle each other. There is a splendid example in Monteverdi’s Poppea; I find this much more attractive than a combination of a soprano with the usual tenor or baritone. Moreover, Bejun has a beautiful timbre and is a great and intelligent artist. He’s ideal for this role: a seductive, dangerous artist who enters the kingdom and makes trouble is a perfect fit for a countertenor, precisely because it is unusual to hear a man sing so high.’

You wrote the leading role for the soprano Barbara Hannigan, who cannot sing it in Amsterdam. What does that mean for you?

At first I thought it was terribly unfortunate. Barbara is the ultimate star and her interpretation of Agnes in Aix was remarkable. She sings the fiercest passages in complete fearlessness, but can also be intensely lyrical and remain very precise all along. Her interpretation was mesmerizing and enchanting, but she’d been booked for the role of Lulu in Brussels years ago. I regret she cannot be here now, but I’d like to stress I am very happy with the Swedish soprano Elin Rombo. Although she impersonates Agnes very differently I didn’t need to change one note in my score.

Did you give the different characters their own kind of music, use leitmotifs perhaps?

Certainly no leitmotifs, for I hate those: it’s as if the characters continually present their business cards, as Debussy once joked. However, I do associate the characters with certain instruments. For example, I use bassoons and horns for the ruler. In the beginning, when he still radiates a certain nobility and warmth, I accompany his vocal lines with celli.

I try to evoke the splendid colours of the boy’s illustrations with unusual instruments, such as mandolins, glass harmonica and viola da gamba. At times also by combining stopped trumpets playing in a low register with low overtones from the harp. But it is never obvious, it works on an unconscious level. At least that’s what I hope, as a composer I don’t intend to give any clues as to what you should hear and feel at which moment.

Whence the title ‘Written on Skin’?

First of all, the boy draws on parchment, which is made from animal skin. Martin and I requested to view a thirteenth-century document in The British Library. It was moving to touch this: it felt fresh and a little chilly, as if it had been made yesterday. Yet it was eight hundred years old! Furthermore, thanks to the boy, the woman becomes more self-confident and starts rebelling against her husband’s authority. After he has forced her to eat the heart of her loved one, she triumphantly tells him he can never undo what the boy has written on her skin. A metaphor, of course, but with an erotic undertone.

The characters not only act their role, but also comment on it. Does this not create a distance?

I think it works the other way round. Opera is intrinsically unnatural, but a hundred years after Puccini we live in a film age. I find it absolutely unconvincing to see people singing on stage while behaving in a naturalistic way as in a Hollywood production. That is why we have consciously emphasized the artificiality. Three angels tell the story from a contemporary perspective and, in passing, bring it to life. In the first erotic scene Agnes and the boy look deeply into each other’s eyes – nothing has happened yet, but the meaning is clear.

I love how the singers at the same time say their lustful lyrics and comment on them – “says Agnes” – “says the boy”. I find the mixture of warm eroticism and cool artificiality much more interesting than conventional language. Precisely by acknowledging that what happens on stage is artificial, the audience can be absorbed by it all the more spontaneously.

Through his approach Martin lifts the story a few centimetres above the ground. And exactly in that space comes my music. Without this my music would be superfluous.’

Info and tickets for the production on 28 June.
Part of our interview can be heard on Soundcloud 

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Matthias Pintscher makes debut with Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

The German Matthias Pintscher (Marl, 1971) makes his debut as a conducting composer with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. On Thursday 1 February he conducts the programme Japanese impressions, with works by Noriko Baba, Toru Takemitsu and Claude Debussy. The next evening Baba’s piece is replaced by Rudolf Escher’s Passacaglia. In both concerts Pintscher moreover presents the Dutch premiere of his violin concerto Mar’ eh. Soloist is the fearless American-Canadian Leila Josefowitz.

Pintscher studied composition with Manfred Trojahn and learned to conduct music at the International Eötvös Institute. From the outset he composed for symphony orchestra, not the most obvious thing to do for young composers at the time. The poetic eloquence of his music brought him many prizes and commissions.

He is honoured to work with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra: ‘The orchestra has its own signature, with strikingly lush strings. But the wind section is also special. Their brass has a warm, full tone, with soft attacks ­– even a fortissimo still has a rounded sound. This is unique in the world. To me the orchestra is the centre of European playing. It represents the Old Country.’

Since its foundation in 1888, the Concertgebouw Orchestra has worked with conducting composers, Pintscher stands in a long tradition. He himself is very impressed by Leonard Bernstein, whose hundredth birthday is celebrated this season. ‘But Mahler and others have also been a great inspiration to me. However, in this context, I’d rather speak of a complete musician. Because the alternation of composing and conducting gives you insight into both aspects of orchestral practice.’

Boulez taught me that it is not about us as conductor, but about the score. You must communicate the composer’s intentions to the audience, it’s irrelevant whether you want a sforzando to sound shorter or longer. It’s important to get that insight. Conversely, as a composer I have learned to graft my scores efficiently, because there is always too little rehearsal time. No matter how complex your piece, your notation must be clear and understandable. During the rehearsal we can then concentrate on form and content rather than on insignificant details.’

In Mar’eh, the solo violin weaves fine, glistening threads through delightful whisperings from the orchestra. The Hebrew word from the title has several meanings. Pintscher: ‘It means, among other things, “perspective”, “face”, “sign”, but also “aura”. Words can go in many directions, they are ambiguous. But I am a composer, not a writer, and have simply chosen mar’eh because it has strong connotations. It acts as a prism that is coloured by its context. The solo part is not virtuoso in the traditional sense, nor does the orchestra play an accompanying role. Both parts are completely equal.

The subtitle of the concert is a motto by Luigi Nono: presenze—memorie—colori—respiri. Pintscher explains: ‘This is a poetic description of what the core elements are music should convey. I have always immensely admired Nono’s music. We were to meet in Berlin in 1990, but he passed away three days before. We were born on the same day – and then we miss each other out with three days! This is my way to make a deep bow for him.’

On its website the Concertgebouw Orchestra labels Mar’eh ‘a search for purity in form and thought’. But don’t ask Pintscher about the deeper “meaning” of his concert. ‘It is nonsense to think that we can only understand a piece if the composer gives us a handle. When you go to a vernissage you do not ask the painter what the essence of his or her work is. My painter-friends always get away with it when they say nothing about their canvases.’

With a mischievous smile he concludes: ‘Composers are held hostage by that longing for an underlying message. But music speaks for itself. Every listener experiences music according to his or her own frame of reference. The opinion of a complete layman is just as valuable to me as that of a connoisseur.’

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Julia Bullock sings Anne Truelove in #TheRakesProgress: ‘Anne is a very mature woman’

Julia Bullock (c) Christian Steiner

At the first opportunity he abandons her. He leads a debauched life, marries someone else and ends up in the madhouse. Yet Anne Truelove keeps loving Tom Rakewell, the main character in The Rake’s Progress. On 1 February, Dutch National Opera will present its fourth production of Stravinsky’s opera, staged by Simon McBurney.

It’s a collaboration with Aix-en-Provence, where the opera was premièred in July 2017. The same vocal cast performs in Amsterdam, accompanied by the Dutch Chamber Orchestra under Ivor Bolton. The young American soprano Julia Bullock sings the role of Anne Truelove. Bullock: ‘Anne faces her emotions, learns from them and continues. She is a very mature woman.’

Reading the libretto of W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman I can’t help asking myself what on earth Anne sees in the weakling Tom. Julia Bullock laughs exuberantly at my bewilderment, but then carefully chooses her words. ‘Tom is an intelligent, ambitious and warm person; Anne is attracted by his energy, his liveliness. The opening scene at once offers various dynamics, but most important is the dynamics between Tom and Anne. They express their mutual love. And whatever this implies, it must be presented as sincere and real’.

Tom is an unfaithful rake, who is seduced by Nick Shadow to lead a debauched life in London. Yet Bullock abstains from condemning him outright. ‘He is someone with great ambitions, getting the chance to realise them. If you get every conceivable possibility handed to you on a silver platter, this brings along quite a lot of temptations. This applies to everyone, but some can handle this better than others. Tom is less stable and self-confident than Anne, though I do not believe she is trying to save him.’

‘I consider it important to convey that their love relationship really goes deep, that their concern for each other is sincere. Despite the unholy path he follows, she remains faithful to him.’ Anne’s behaviour set Bullock thinking about her own life: ‘I recently got engaged myself. If Christian were going through a difficult time, or even if we were splitting up, I would still like to be there for him.’

The soprano finds a new challenge in every piece: ‘I learn from each composer and from any character I perform. Anne is a remarkable person. She copes with the many difficult personalities and situations that come her way. Moreover, she has the gift of constantly growing her compassion and love. Anne is certainly not a silly girl, but a mature and thoughtful human being.’

Once more Bullock’s contagious laugh fills the room: ‘It’s refreshing to have to train that muscle in myself while working on this piece. The more so because of the intimate way director Simon McBurney works. This sometimes leads to tensions, but there is great mutual respect. Perhaps he goes home and gets really furious at his performers, but during rehearsals he is very patient. I regularly cry out: this is not going to work! Yet we always find a solution. Simon was a performer himself and acquaints you step by step with the character you are interpreting.’

‘As for Anne, of course she has intense and also negative feelings. Sometimes she is extremely angry, bitter or deeply sad. Simon helps me to shape all these layers emotionally, psychologically and physically. He strives for authenticity, it must never be artificial. Thus I learn to internalize my character and make contact with the Anne inside me. She is able to admit strong emotions; she learns from them and goes on. Tom, on the other hand, carries circumstance after circumstance with him. I think that’s also what is haunting him and ultimately driving him mad. If you can’t let go of a trauma, you will disassociate from yourself, because it becomes too hard to bear.’

Tom imagines being Adonis and ends up in the madhouse. Anne plays along with this delusion at first and pretends to be Venus, but leaves him alone in the end. Is she choosing for herself after all? Bullock: ‘You could say that, but what can she do really? No matter how important her presence is to Tom, in his new world Anne remains peripheral. She may have been tempted to be part of their love story again, but he is in a place where she just cannot follow him. Once again, it testifies to her adulthood that she acknowledges this.’

But what development does Tom make? After all, the title of the opera is The Rake’s Progress. ‘You should ask Paul Appleby, who sings his role,’ says Bullock, thoughtfully raking her fingers through her curls. ‘For me, his progress lies in a form of self-realisation. Tom reaches a point where he sees who he was, what he wanted to achieve and where he ended up landing.’

‘He wanted to take up an elevated position throughout his life, hence the fantasy of the gods. But that’s not the sort of place a human being can function within, at least not permanently. We can have moments of ecstasy, but Tom wanted to always be in this heightened reality, this heightened world. Towards the end he increasingly reaches that insight. He is not totally lost, but accepts the reality of his life. You hear this in the music, which ends calm and simple. Tom has finally found his peace, he is not wrestling anymore.’

Info & tickets
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Here’s a registration of the production in Aix

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#Grammy for Barbara Hannigan & Ludwig Orchestra

Expectations were high. Both Reinbert de Leeuw and Barbara Hannigan were nominated for a Grammy Award 2018. Hannigan competed for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album, with the CD Crazy Girl Crazy, featuring music by Berg, Gershwin & Berio. De Leeuw was nominated in the category Best Classical Compendium with his compilation of all conducted choral and ensemble pieces by György Kurtág.

Hannigan was able to cash her nomination on Sunday 28 January, De Leeuw was less fortunate. The prize for Hannigan is fully deserved, for on her winning cd the soprano not only impresses as a singer, but also as a conductor.

Crazy Girl Crazy opens with a pure and intense interpretation of Berio’s famed Sequenza III. Hereafter we are treated to Alban Berg’s Lulu Suite, played with great understanding of his idiosyncratic mix of atonality and popular music by Ludwig Live.

Last but not least Hannigan and Ludwig Orchestra give a vivid interpretation of Gershwin’s Girl Crazy Suite. It brims with energy, and while Hannigan seductively croons away with jazzy timing, the musicians at times provide jaunty background vocals.

Incidentally, I’d have welcomed a grammy for the immaculate Kurtág edition, which I dubbed ‘historical’ in my review half a year ago. But De Leeuw and his performers were surpassed by All Things Majestic, a cd dedicated to three works by the American composer Jennifer Higdon. ‘A bit disappointing’ De Leeuw said to the Dutch news agency ANP. But the mere nomination alone has given the CD box an enormous boost, so no worries there.

– That the prize eventually went to a portrait-CD of a female composer makes my day…

Here’s a list of all the winners


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Composer Marie Jaëll: French flair, Russian pathos

Marie Jaëll, photo credit Wikipedia

If her name had been Marc, not Marie Jaëll (1846-1925), she would undoubtedly be considered one of the leading French composers of the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. But she was a woman – therefore unimportant. During her lifetime praised by none less than Franz Liszt, she was quickly forgotten after her death. At best she lives on in her piano method, which is still widely used in France. Palazzetto Bru Zane puts her music back on the map with an exemplary edition of three CDs, included in a book written in both French and English.

It is to be hoped that concert organizers are willing to listen to and programme her compelling compositions. My experiences in this respect are not very promising. But we live in 2018 and women are on the rise, so I keep my fingers crossed for Marie Jaëll. The more so because her powerful music is performed at the highest level, by such forces as the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Hervé Niquet.

Her orchestral song cycle La Légende des ours (The Legend of the Bears) sketches the tragic love affair of a bear couple. Jaëll immediately grabs you by the throat with pounding rhythms and growling strings in the low registers, evoking the image of a bear storming wildly at us. She is a sorceress with timbres, masterfully painting the many different atmospheres: from exuberant cheerfulness to expectant excitement, loveable silence, and utter sadness. Passages rising from the lowest regions dissolve into the most ethereal heights. Yet, no matter how dense and sonorous the texture, the music remains transparent.

The soprano Chantal Santon-Jeffery is the ideal interpreter, bringing across every single emotion with her supple voice and heartfelt interpretation. Striking are the quasi Spanish embellishments in the soprano part, which give the music a joyful and exotic touch. At the same time, Jaëll creates an un-French kind of heaviness, evoking associations with the pathos of her Russian contemporary Tchaikovsky. This highly theatrical song cycle makes it all the more regrettable she never completed her opera Runéa.


Jaëll’s flair for writing appealing melodies and vibrant harmonies is further illustrated by the other orchestral works. Jaëll gives individual musicians ample opportunity to shine in smooth solos. In terms of lyricism, her Cello Concerto is no less appealing than Antonin Dvorák’s or those of Camille Saint-Saëns – with whom she studied for some time. The cellist Xavier Phillips is the ideal advocate; his warm tone and soaring melodies are superbly accompanied by a resonant Brussels Philhamonic under Niquet.

That Jaëll started out as a piano virtuoso is evident from her two passionate Piano Concertos. They are performed with great skill by David Violi (nr.1) and Romain Descharmes (nr.2), both accompanied by the Orchestre de Lille under the baton of Joseph Swensen. Rippling piano runs and hammered chords are counterbalanced by sweet lyricism, embedded in a swirling orchestral accompaniment. No wonder her contemporaries compared Jaëll with Franz Liszt, whose music she often performed. Much to his delight, apparently: ‘She has the brain of a philosopher and the fingers of an artist’, he said about her.

The CDs also feature her two piano cycles Les Beaux Jours and Les Jours pluvieux. In their poetic beauty they emulate the much better known Kinderszenen by Robert Schumann. Parts of the more experimental Ce qu’ on entend…. give an insight into the scientific way in which she investigated the possibilities of sound projection. The accompanying book sketches a good picture of life and work of the idiosyncratic Jaëll, whose powerful voice deserves to be heard in every concert hall.

Hello concert organizers out there, are you listening?!

More info and cd
The above is an adapted translation of the review I wrote for Cultuurpers in 2016. The German pianist Cora Irsen won the Echo Klassik Award 2017 for her recording of all Jaëll’s piano works. 
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Silvia Colasanti: ‘The collaboration with Quartetto di Cremona enriches my music’

Silvia Colasanti, photo Barbara Rigon

Whether employing flowing melodies, driving rhythms or dense sound clouds, the music of Silvia Colasanti (Rome, 1975) is always lyrical. On Monday 29 January Quartetto di Cremona will perform the world premiere of Ogni cosa ad ogni cosa ha detto addio in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ Amsterdam.

The concert forms part of the brand new String Quartet Biennale that will take place in the Dutch capital from 27 January to 3 February 2018. The ambitious programme presents a great variety of music in concerts, workshops and masterclasses, opening each morning with a string quartet by Joseph Haydn, mastermind behind the genre.

Apart from classical and modern repertoire there are new works by composers such as Jörg Widmann, José Maria Sánchez-Verdú, and Silvia Colasanti. Colasanti’s quartet was commissioned by the Biennale and will be played in the first early morning concert, along with Haydn’s quartet nr. 28. Colasanti: ‘I have often collaborated with the Quartetto Cremona, which greatly enriches my work.’

Why did you call your quartet ‘Ogni cosa ad ogni cosa ha detto addio’?

This is the title of a collection of poems by the Italian poet Valentino Zeichen. It is dedicated to the city of Rome, not only as it appears to us today, but also at the time of the Roman Empire. Zeichen speaks of themes such as nostalgia and adulthood; the book is about beauty and time that passes, about the city and its contradictions. I must add, however, that I have avoided trying to compose a musical equivalent of the poetry, my quartet is not a translation of poetic lines or thoughts.

I dedicated Ogni cosa ad ogni cosa ha detto addio to Ilaria Borletti Buitoni, secretary of state in the government of Paolo Gentiloni for the department of culture. I admire her because she is not only active in politics but also in numerous organizations in the cultural field, especially music. She is a highly sensitive woman. Our roads crossed only three years ago, but we developed a relationship of friendship and deep esteem.

Your quartet is on the programme with Haydn’s quartet nr 28. In 2010 you wrote ‘Chaos: Commento a Haydn, Hob. XXXI:2’ for chamber orchestra. Will your new string quartet also reflect on Haydn?

No. In my new work our oldest musical roots – those of Monteverdi – coexist with the most advanced achievements of the recent avant-garde. Thus distant and veiled harmonies can resonate in a new shape without losing their original power of expression. The quartet is in a single movement, with alternating contrasting sections. It is based on two different ideas: the one more rhythmic and aggressive, the other more delicate and lyrical. For this second idea I took some harmonies from Monteverdi’s madrigal Darà la notte il sol. I reworked these with modern timbric, formal and harmonic techniques so that the ancient material is still audible, but in a different guise.

You seem to have a preference for melodious music.

Indeed, it’s a shame there were years when it seemed music could no longer be lyrical. But I strongly believe the melodic aspect of music must continue to exist, though reinvented with the means and words of the present. In this respect there are many composers who I admire, but I will mention one name to represent all of them: György Ligeti. He taught us how all the traditional musical parameters can be redefined.

What do you do first when you begin working on a new piece?

I start from a basic idea that I try to crystallize into a structure, a project. This initial idea however is very fluid and absolutely not rigorous, so I always leave open the possibility to welcome new ideas that pop up while composing. I do not work at the piano, nor at the computer, but only use my head. – And paper, pencil and rubber.

Quartetto Cremona often performs your music, did you work together with them on this new piece?

I have known Quartetto di Cremona for over ten years now, practically since it was founded. We worked together for the first time at the Fondazione Spinola-Banna per l’Arte, for a wonderful project on contemporary music. That meeting sparked a close collaboration, also in the writing phase. They have a profound affinity with my music, not only with its technical aspects but also the thoughts and emotions behind it.

This deep understanding allows us to work with mutual profit, both during the composition process and in rehearsals. Their questions, their doubts are a source of reflection for me and have occasionally led me to review something. I always seek a close relationship with the interpreters, and our intense collaboration greatly enriches my work.

More info and tickets for the concert here

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The Berio Project: Joseph Puglia performs 34 Duetti per due violini

On Sunday 21 January the American-Dutch violinist Joseph Puglia will perform all 34 of Luciano Berio’s Duetti per due violini in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ Amsterdam. He’ll play together with 18 different violinists ranging from students to amateurs, including children who boast half size violins. Puglia is first violinist of Asko|Schönberg and a passionate advocate of contemporary music. With this ensemble he premièred the violin concerto Roads to Everywhere the Dutch composer Joey Roukens composed for him in 2016.

That same year Puglia released his first solo cd, in the famed series ‘Ladder of Escape’ of the record label Attaca. It is entirely dedicated to Berio and opens with the 34 Duetti, a series of miniatures dedicated to friends and composers who Berio admired. Each piece tells its own story and uses different techniques; the thirty-four portraits also have an educational function. Berio’s idea was for them to be performed by a combination of professionals and young musicians, as Puglia does both on the cd and during his concert in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ.

In some duets, the difficulty of the two parts varies considerably. In number #17, ‘Leonardo Pinzauti’, for example, one violinist only plays a scale, while the other weaves graceful lines through it. On the cd Puglia performs it together with his eight-year-old pupil Sebastian Cynn, who ardently saws away at his violin, giving the music a disarming fragility. Puglia’s oldest partner is Vera Beths, with whom he plays number #6, named after Berio’s colleague Bruno Maderna. Berio catches his joyous personality with playful music, at times evoking a mangled waltz.

Arguably the most beautiful duet is number #20, ‘Edoardo Sanguineti’, which concludes the cycle. At Berio’s request, the second part is played by an orchestra of violins. Puglia performs it with students of the NJO Summer Academy and colleagues such as Peter Brunt and Emmy Storms. For a moment you think you’ve ended up in one of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, but soon the exhilarating patterns make way for more introverted lines, interspersed with silences.

Anyone who dedicates a CD to Berio cannot ignore his famous Sequenze, solo pieces in which he explores the possibilities of instruments to the extreme. Sequenza VIII was composed in 1976 for the violinist Carlo Chiarappa. It is based on two tones (A and B), which form the starting point for an immersive exploration of the violin. Ranging from sweet cantilenas to ferocious thumping; from hushed flageolets to swirling, seemingly polyphonic loops. Puglia’s performance is flawless and seemingly effortless, with an impressively refined dynamic and audible pleasure.

The two other pieces on the CD are also very worthwhile. The pianist Ellen Corver proves to be an empathetic accompanist in Due pezzi per violino e pianoforte. The spirited, almost terrifying Corale su Sequenza VIII makes for a deeply exciting listening experience in the combination with Nieuwe Philharmonie Utrecht.

With this CD Joseph Puglia presents a highly convincing business card, proving once more that ‘modern’ music is not a priori dry and unapproachable, but can be passionate and emotional. Undoubtedly the live experience will be even more exhilarating.

More info and tickets here.
CD available here.  

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Composer Victoria Borisova-Ollas: ‘I wondered what the music of the pharaohs sounded like’

The latest achievement of the Russian-Swedish composer Victoria Borisova-Ollas (1969) is Dracula. This opera based on Bram Stoker’s book on the famous vampire was premièred at The Stockholm Royal Opera in October 2017. ‘A colourful and highly atmospheric musical score’, containing ‘one of the most emotional scenes in any Swedish opera’, wrote a critic.

Seven years earlier she composed her highly successful clarinet concerto Golden Dances of the Pharaohs for Martin Fröst and the Swedish Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This was dubbed ‘a wondrous song from an ancient realm that reaches very far’.

On Saturday 13 January 2018 the concerto will be performed in NTRZaterdagMatinee by Residentie Orkest and Martin Fröst. In 2010 Fröst also played the Dutch première, with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra; I interviewed Borisova-Ollas for the live broadcast on TROS Radio 4.

You were born in Wladiwostok in the easternmost part of Russia, near China and Korea. Yet you studied in Moscow, why so far away?

Russia is a very big country, indeed. The Soviet educational system was good, but centralized. If you didn’t live in the central towns of Moscow, Leningrad or Kiev, you had to go far away to study. I had wanted to be a composer from when I was very young, but the academy of music in Wladiwostok didn’t offer composition in its curriculum.

Therefore my mother sent me to The Central Music School in Moscow when I was 13 years old; it was the junior department of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory. Fortunately that same year they decided to do an experiment and let us, who were still quite young, study composition directly as a main subject.

Why did you continue your studies in Sweden and England after graduating?

I went to Sweden because I married a Swedish man. I had already finished my education by then, but found the climate in Sweden very much different from what I was used to in Russia. I realized that in order to understand how the cultural climate works in Sweden, I should continue my schooling there. After having studied at the Malmö College of Music for some years, I took part in an exchange programme with the Royal College of Music in London. I was really curious to find out how people teach composition in different countries.

What were the differences?

I found the British system to be rather similar to the Soviet one. You start studying music from an early age and move through ever higher levels of education to eventually reach the conservatory. A difference was that in England you had more opportunities to study modern styles of composing; during my years in Russia contemporary music was only just being discovered.

In Sweden I couldn’t quite work out where and when musical education actually started. Almost all of my fellow composition students had only had private teaching. There were no schools or music gymnasiums to prepare young people, so it was all up to chance: if you were lucky with your first teacher maybe you could enrol at the conservatoire. The basics of music were learnt at a much later stage than in Russia and Britain. Fortunately all this has changed, there are more music schools now in Sweden.

You composed ‘Golden Dances of the Pharaohs’ in 2010. Was it your own idea, or a commission?

I had been thinking of doing something with ancient Egypt for a while, already. I always have a list of some ten titles in my mind. When Martin Fröst asked me to write a clarinet concerto for him, the theme of the pharaohs immediately sprang to mind. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra who commissioned it also thought it a great idea, so we decided to go ahead and do it.

Why ‘golden dances’, not just ‘dances’?

My idea was to create something dancing for Martin Fröst, who is not only a great clarinettist, but also moves very beautifully while playing. When I was thinking of his stage performance, I came across an art-book on ancient Egypt. On the cover was the famous golden mask of pharaoh Tutankhamun. This image is iconic: when we think of ancient Egypt, we think of gold, of mighty things.

Curiously however we  never think of sounds. We know practically everything of their daily habits, but not about the instruments the Egyptians used, how they danced or how they sang. The mask triggered my imagination. I thought: let’s imagine a dancing party in the pharaoh’s palace. How could it have sounded? With this in mind I started composing.

At the beginning we hear a voice on tape. Who is this, and what text is he reciting?

It’s Martin Fröst himself, whose voice has a kind of ancient…


Yes, we changed the timbre of his voice. Thus I refer to Herodotus, the father of historians, who travelled through Egypt in the 5th century B.C. I quote a text from the book he wrote about this: ‘Concerning Egypt I will now speak at length, because nowhere are there so many marvellous things, nor in the whole world besides are there to be seen so many works of unspeakable greatness.’ I asked Martin to read these words, and then we gave the recording an ancient touch.

Since you’re deeply rooted in Swedish musical life now, do you consider yourself a Russian or a Swedish composer?

I would like to see myself and my music to be cosmopolitan. And anyway, what might the nationality of music be?

More info and tickets here.

Part of my talk with Borisova-Ollas can be heard on YouTube

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Zara Levina Piano Concertos: Rachmaninoff meets Shostakovich

The name of Zara Levina is not widely known, but this will soon change. The Swedish pianist Maria Lettberg recorded her two Piano Concertos together with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ariane Matiakh. Their spirited performance of Levina’s powerful music was nominated for the ‘Classical Instrumental Solo’ Gramophone Award 2018.

Zara Levina (1906-1976) was the daughter of a Russian teacher and a father who passionately played the violin. She turned out to be a child prodigy: at the tender age of 8 she gave her first piano recital. Six years later she finished her piano studies at the conservatoire of Odessa. Though a career as a concert pianist lay in store, she decided to become a composer, moving to Moscow to study composition with Reinhold Glière and Nikolai Myaskowski. She continued studying the piano however, with Felix Blumenfeld and Bertha Reingbald.

Like many of her colleagues Levina suffered under state censorship, yet she managed to develop a successful career as a composer. She finished her Piano Concerto nr. 1 in 1942, in the heat of World War II; it was premièred three years later. In spite of the circumstances the work has an optimistic and confident character. Written in the tradition of the grand Romantic piano concerto, it pits a virtuoso piano part against an energetic and dramatic orchestra.

The first movement opens with sweeping chords from the piano over the entire keyboard, answered by a broad, unison theme in the orchestra. Levina sounds very self-assured: soaring melodies and pounding rhythms leave the listener virtually gasping for breath. The second movement is intensely lyrical, with supple runs from the piano, beautiful solos by the woods, and undulating strings with a touch of melancholy. The third and last movement is witty and lively. Its spiky rhythms, hammered piano chords, cheeky brass and droll woodwinds hint at the subtle parody Shostakovich liked to spice his music with.

Quite different in character is Piano Concerto nr. 2 that Levina composed in 1975, a year before her death. She suffered from a heart disease all her life and knew she was dying. She considered this to be her best work, yet couldn’t witness its première. There’s only one movement, the tone is darker, and virtuosity is not an issue per se.

Instead of taking the lead the pianist interacts subtly with a sometimes hushed, at other times rumbustious orchestra. The rhapsodic style full of contrasts calls to mind the Groupe des Six, though the underlying wistfulness makes it unmistakably Russian. – Levina truly is a kindred spirit of Shostakovich, her almost exact contemporary.

It is a shame Levina’s music is not better known, for it is engaging from beginning to end. Maria Lettberg and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra give their best under the accurate and dedicated direction of Ariana Matiakh. Their fresh and vivid performance ideally brings out the high quality of Levina’s music. Fingers crossed the Grammy nomination will indeed result in a Grammy Award.

Zara Levina: The Piano Concertos was released on the label Capriccio in 2017. The price is € 16,99. Available here

Here’s a YouTube video of the recording process, including interviews with Matiakh and Lettberg


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Opslaan en vernietigen: aanklacht tegen verkwanseling cultureel erfgoed

Een Saoedische prins betaalt 450 miljoen dollar voor een matig schilderij van Leonardo da Vinci; een Nederlandse politicus looft een kratje bier uit voor een nieuwe compositie. In een notendop vangen deze twee uitersten onze huidige omgang met cultuur. De totale minachting enerzijds en de onvoorstelbare overwaardering anderzijds zijn twee kanten van dezelfde medaille. We beoordelen kunst niet om haar intrinsieke, maar om haar economische waarde. Het doet er niet toe of de prins het schilderij mooi vindt, het is slechts een trofee, zoals de politicus componeren beschouwt als een onbeduidende hobby.

Jacqueline Oskamp signaleert ditzelfde verschijnsel in haar boek Opslaan en vernietigen, dat onlangs verscheen bij uitgeverij Ambo|Anthos. Hierin uit zij haar verontwaardiging over de dreigende teloorgang van drie belangrijke Nederlandse muziekarchieven. In 2011 schrapte staatssecretaris Halbe Zijlstra de overheidssubsidie aan Muziekcentrum Nederland (MCN); het Nationaal Muziekinstituut (NMI) en de bibliotheek van het Muziekcentrum van de Omroep (MCO).

Niet sexy

Dit was een van de maatregelen waarmee het Kabinet-Rutte I veertig procent bezuinigde op het budget voor podiumkunsten. De ongekend rigoureuze korting was een knieval voor gedoogpartner PVV, wier leider de kunsten had gebombardeerd tot ‘linkse hobby’. Zijlstra op zijn beurt sprak van ‘subsidieslurpers’. De cultuursector zou te veel ‘met zijn hand naar Den Haag en met zijn rug naar het publiek’ staan. Dit populistische beeld ging er bij het grote publiek in als koek. Zo werd een serieus debat over het belang van kunst en de taak van de overheid daarin vermeden.

In de algehele ontzetting over de draconische bezuinigingen sneeuwde het lot van de archieven een beetje onder. Weliswaar gold behoud van ‘cultureel erfgoed’ als top prioriteit, maar de Canon van Nederland bevat niet één componist. De aantrekkingskracht van een in kilometers materiaal vervat muzikaal geheugen bleek gering. Klassieke muziek kampt toch al met een imagoprobleem, stelt Oskamp. Die is simpelweg niet sexy, om haar woorden te parafraseren.


Dat de archieven van MCN, NMI en MCO uiteindelijk ontsnapten aan de papierversnipperaar is te danken aan onvermoeibaar lobbywerk van direct betrokkenen. Het MCN-materiaal over naoorlogse Nederlandse componisten vond onderdak bij de afdeling Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteit van Amsterdam. De zeer diverse NMI-collectie – van vooroorlogse Nederlandse componisten tot betekende partituren van Willem Mengelberg – verhuisde naar het Haags Gemeentearchief. Het MCO, met unieke handschriften van zowel lichte als klassieke muziek, bleef op zijn eigen plek in Hilversum. De inventaris wordt gecatalogiseerd en deels gedigitaliseerd. Vanaf 2020 stelt de Gemeente Hilversum zich garant voor de exploitatie.

Of de redding definitief is zal nog moeten blijken, betoogt Oskamp. De collecties worden niet meer geactualiseerd en zijn bovendien zo weggestopt dat slechts doorgewinterde professionals ze weten te vinden. Voorlopig kunnen onderzoekers nog putten uit de specialistische kennis van de vroegere beheerders, maar die verdwijnen gaandeweg uit beeld. Wanneer de archieven opnieuw beoordeeld worden naar bezoekersaantallen, ‘zal de uitkomst fataal zijn. Deze zogenoemde oplossing lijkt een sterfhuisconstructie’.

Functioneel geheugen

Toch zijn archieven van wezensbelang voor een goed begrip van onze cultuur, schrijft Oskamp. Zij citeert met instemming de Duitse wetenschapper Aleida Assmann, die de term ‘cultureel geheugen’ muntte. Assmann maakt hierbij onderscheid tussen een ‘functioneel’ en een ‘opslaggeheugen’. Het functionele geheugen put uit een collectief bewustzijn van een gedeeld verleden, zowel immaterieel (herinneringen) als materieel (standbeelden, herdenkingsplaatsen). Dit functionele geheugen hebben wij actief paraat, op basis hiervan creëren wij een gemeenschappelijke identiteit. Daarnaast is er een enorm reservoir aan passieve kennis die ogenschijnlijk niet ter zake doet en onbenut blijft.

Maar omdat wij ons steeds anders tot elkaar en tot het verleden verhouden, wisselt voortdurend het perspectief. Wat wij nu volkomen onbelangrijk achten, blijkt over 40 jaar onmisbare informatie; elke tijd kent immers zijn eigen prioriteiten en invalshoeken. Juist vanwege hun wezenskenmerk – ‘het grote perspectief’ – mogen archieven nooit geofferd worden aan de waan van de dag. Dezelfde documenten kunnen toekomstige generaties tot nieuwe inzichten brengen. Zo toonde archiefonderzoek van verschillende musicologen aan dat Nederland al lang vóór de ‘Notenkrakers’ openstond voor moderne muziek.

Van verheffingsideaal naar rendementsdenken

In Opslaan en vernietigen tracht Oskamp ook te formuleren waaróm de kunsten tegenwoordig zo ondergewaardeerd worden. Het socialistische verheffingsideaal maakte vanaf pakweg de jaren negentig plaats voor een toenemend cultuurrelativisme. Hoge en lage kunst werden elkaars gelijke; premier Rutte bewierookt zowel ‘de Toppers’ als het Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest. Tegelijkertijd vatte de gedachte post dat kunstenaars ‘hun eigen broek moeten ophouden’. Dat dit rendementsdenken haaks staat op de alledaagse werkelijkheid waarin particulieren noch bedrijven gulle gevers blijken, werd gemakshalve vergeten.

Oskamp noemt hiernaast de teloorgang van aloude instituties en de opkomst van minderheidsgroepen, die elk hun eigen identiteit formuleren. Dit staat haaks op de conservering van wat gezien wordt als een fossiel verleden. Papieren archieven spreken bovendien niet tot de verbeelding van de moderne mens, die vooral uit is op beleving. Misschien kunnen de instellingen zich omvormen tot musea en bezoekers een zintuiglijke ervaring bieden, oppert Oskamp.


Zelf voelde ze een zindering toen ze in het NMI een handgeschreven compositie van de jonge Mozart vasthield. Juist hierin schuilt de kracht van archieven: een gedigitaliseerde brief of partituur blijft immers een kopie. Bovendien verandert de digitale technologie voortdurend, terwijl papier – mits goed geconserveerd – duizenden jaren meegaat. Hoewel Oskamp niet pleit voor behoud van elk bonnetje of kattebelletje doet zij een dringend beroep op de overheid ons immateriële erfgoed te beschermen.

‘Is de Nederlandse muziek levensvatbaar zonder geschiedenis?’, vraagt zij retorisch. Het antwoord van bovengenoemde VVD-politicus laat zich raden: het zal hem worst zijn. En precies daarin ligt het probleem, concludeert Oskamp in een raak maar schrijnend citaat van Elie Wiesel. ‘Het tegengestelde van cultuur, schoonheid, edelmoedigheid is onverschilligheid, dat is de vijand.’


Van onverschilligheid kun je Oskamp niet betichten. In haar ijver het belang van overheidssubsidies te onderstrepen voert zij echter een wat wijdlopig betoog. Hierdoor raken de muziekarchieven geregeld uit beeld en beziet zij sommige zaken door een gekleurde bril. Zo zou de muziekwereld te klein zijn om vriendjespolitiek te bedrijven aangezien iedereen elkaar op de vingers kijkt.

Dit gaat voorbij aan de vele controverses rond het Fonds voor de Podiumkunsten. Deze instelling kreeg vaak het verwijt modernistische componisten te bevoordelen ten opzichte van hun meer behoudende collega’s. Bewezen zijn die malversaties niet, maar de – op archiefonderzoek gebaseerde (!) – cijfers wijzen wel in die richting.

Opslaan en vernietigen is een terecht pleidooi voor structurele ondersteuning van de archieven van MCN, NMI en MCO. De boodschap was wellicht krachtiger overgekomen in een essay, maar hopelijk blijkt zij niet aan dovemansoren gericht. – Anders moeten we op zoek naar een Saoedische prins.

Jacqueline Oskamp: Opslaan en vernietigen: muziekarchiven bedreigd (2017)
In 2016 publiceerde Oskamp Een behoorlijk kabaal, een literatuurstudie van het Nederlandse muziekleven. Lees hier mijn bespreking.
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Aribert Reimann: “Ich schätze sowohl die musikalische Tradition als auch die modernen Entwicklungen”

Aribert_Reimann By Aldus Rietveld – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Trotz seines hohen Alters ist der deutsche Komponist Aribert Reimann (1936) immer noch sehr aktiv. Im Oktober 2017 feierte seine Oper L’invisible nach Maeterlinck-Texte seine Uraufführung an der Deutschen Oper Berlin. Am 14. Dezember erklang die Uraufführung seines Zyklus Die schönen Augen der Frühlingsnacht in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ Amsterdam. Er komponierte diesen für die Sopranistin Mojca Erdmann und das Kuss Quartett. Es handelt sich um eine Adaption von Liedern des wenig bekannten romantischen Komponisten Theodor Kirchner. Drei Fragen an Reimann.

Was streben Sie als Komponist an?

‘Ich komponiere seit meiner frühesten Kindheit und schätze sowohl die musikalische Tradition als auch die modernen Entwicklungen in meiner Arbeit. Von Anfang an habe ich versucht, eine eigene Stilsprache zu entwickeln, die unabhängig von Mainstream-Mode oder Strömungen ist.

Drei Elemente sind mir sehr wichtig: Form, Klang und Ausdruck. Das Singen steht sowohl in meinen Opern als auch in meinen Instrumentalkompositionen im Mittelpunkt. Beim Komponieren denke ich nie an ein Publikum, aber ich freue mich, mit meiner Musik Menschen jeden Alters zu erreichen.’

Wie kamen Sie auf die Idee Die schönen Augen der Frühlingsnacht zu schreiben?

‘Schon in jungen Jahren hörte ich eine Reihe von Liedern von Theodor Kirchner (1823-1903), der von Größen wie Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy und Johannes Brahms unterrichtet wurde. Ich lernte sie kennen als ich mit dem Bariton Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau Aufnahmen machte für eine Kompilation deutscher Lieder von 1850 bis 1950. Ich war so begeistert dass ich mich entschloss, die Kirchner Lieder mal zu bearbeiten.

Als die Sopranistin Mojca Erdmann und das Kuss Quartett mich baten ein Werk für sie zu schreiben, kamen mir diese Lieder wieder im Sinne. Dann habe ich letzten Sommer diesen Zyklus komponiert für Sopranistin und Streichquartett.’

Wie haben Sie die Arbeit aufgebaut?

‘Es hat eine ähnliche Struktur wie mein vorhergehender Zyklus …oder soll es Tod bedeuten? Dies ist ein Arrangement für Sopran und Streichquartett mit acht Liedern von Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Dieser Zyklus ist durchschnitten von sechs Intermezzi, die durch ein wiederkehrendes Thema verbunden sind. Die Intermezzi können daher nicht separat durchgeführt werden.

Für Die schönen Augen der Frühlingsnacht habe ich diesmal sechs Lieder von Kirchner ausgewählt, und für die gleiche Besetzung adaptiert. Der Unterschied ist, dass ich jetzt sieben Bagatellen hinzugefügt habe. Der Zyklus beginnt mit dem ersten und endet mit dem letzten, die Lieder werden dazwischen gelegt.’

Angst für Verlockung

‘Die Bagatellen können auch als eigenständige Komposition gespielt werden, enthalten aber subtile Bezüge zu Kirchners Liedern, so dass sie nicht ganz im luftleeren Raum stehen. Manchmal ist das eine Geste, ein Akkord oder sogar ein einzelner Ton. Ich habe mir den Titel aus der ersten Zeile des fünften Songs ausgeliehen. Wie immer bei Heinrich Heine soll es auch hier etwas ironisch gemeint sein.

Schöne Augen können wunderbar sein, aber auch genau das Gegenteil. Ich denke Kirchner meinte eher das letzte, denn in dem Lied Unterm weißen Baume sitzend hat er den Heine Text geändert. Statt ‘Dein Herz liebt aufs neue’ , schreibt er mehrfach ‘Mein Herz liebt aufs neue’. Als ob er fürchte auf eine unglückliche Verlockung herein zu fallen, und Angst hat sich wieder zu verlieben. Ich habe dieses Lied als letztes in dem Zyklus gewählt. Es endet sehr dramatisch und verzweifelt, dann nimmt das Streichquartett das Ende der ersten Bagatelle wieder auf und beschließt den Zyklus.’

Erfolgreiche Uraufführung

Die schönen Augen der Frühlingsnacht wurde hervorragend und mit berührendem Ausdruck ausgeführt von Mojca Erdmann und dem Kuss Quartett. Streicher und Sängerin zeigten ihr tiefes Verständnis für die Musik von Aribert Reimann, dessen Zyklus …oder soll es Tod bedeuten das Konzert beschloss. Das Publikum im Amsterdamer Muziekgebouw war begeistert und hat minutenlang geklatscht. Der Zyklus wird noch zweimal gespielt: Samstag 16. Dezember im kleinen Sendesaal des NRD in Hannover, Montag 19. im Watergate Club Berlin.

Vor der Uraufführung sprach ich mit Aribert Reimann über ‘Die schönen Augen der Frühlingnsacht’ und ‘… oder Soll es Tod bedeuten’ im Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ Amsterdam. 


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Wat ‘hoorde’ de dove Beethoven? Martijn Padding formuleert een antwoord in Glimpse

Vrijdag 8 december speelt het Residentie Orkest in het AVROTROS Vrijdagconcert Beethovens Tweede Symfonie en het Tweede Vioolconcert van Prokofjev. Een niet direct voor de hand liggende combinatie, maar het cement tussen de opgewekte muziek van de Duitser en de opruiende klanken van de controversiële Rus vormt Glimpse van de Nederlandse componist Martijn Padding.

Hierin verklankt hij zijn visie op Beethovens Tiende Symfonie, waarvan alleen schetsen bestaan. Altijd in voor een geintje schreef Padding zijn 12 minuten durende stuk voor een orkest dat speelt op darmsnaren, maar het mag ook uitgevoerd worden op moderne instrumenten, zoals het Residentie Orkest nu doet.

Nederlands geluid

Padding heeft een naam hoog te houden op het gebied van tegendraadse composities en kreeg in 2016 de prestigieuze Johan Wagenaar Prijs. De jury noemde hem ‘veelzijdig, inventief, origineel en virtuoos in zijn instrumentaties. Zijn werk is dwars, eigengereid en heeft een onmiskenbaar Nederlands geluid.’

Vaak wordt Martijn Padding omschreven als vertegenwoordiger van de ‘Tweede Haagse School’, naar analogie van de ‘Haagse School’ rond Louis Andriessen bij wie hij studeerde aan het Koninklijk Conservatorium in Den Haag. Zelf zegt hij: ‘Die aanduiding wordt vaak verkeerd gebruikt. Het gaat bij componisten als Louis Andriessen en Diderik Wagenaar niet om het harde geluid, een beukende stijl, maar om een open houding. Dat herken ik in mijn eigen werk.’

Liever spreekt de componist van een Nederlandse manier van componeren. ‘Die zit hem in de volstrekte transparantie, zowel in het idee van een stuk als in de klank zelf. Wij hebben een zekere rechtlijnigheid van denken. Een Nederlandse kunstenaar zal nooit een zijpaadje inslaan. Dat maakt ook het verschil tussen pakweg de Italiaan Giralomo Frescobaldi en Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, of tussen de Fransman Pierre Boulez en Louis Andriessen. Nederlanders zijn puur gefixeerd op de binnenkant van de compositie, op het bouwwerk.’

Publiek ‘bouwt’ zelf het klankbeeld op

Dat geldt ook voor Glimpse, dat Padding in 2010 componeerde als opmaat tot de integrale uitvoering van Beethovens 9 symfonieën in het Holland Festival door oudemuziekspecialisten Anima Eterna en Jos van Immerseel. Hij koos de orkestbezetting van Beethovens Geschöpfe des Prometheus en liet zich inspireren door diens muzikale schetsen.

‘Ik wilde een stuk schrijven over de stilte rondom Beethoven, en over de werveling in zijn hoofd waarmee de noten van een symfonie ontstaan’, zei Padding hierover. ‘Voor mijn stuk gebruik ik noten van Beethoven, maar het is vooral mijn fantasie over het scheppingsproces van Beethovens Tiende.’

Zo stelde hij zich voor hoe Beethoven voor zijn orkest zit en gaandeweg tot een compositie komt. ‘We maken als het ware het hele compositieproces mee, het orkest wordt gesymboliseerd door twee pauken. Hij denkt… de pauk klopt het hele stuk door… we horen een flard… hij denkt verder… nog een flard. Pas na driekwart van het stuk trekken de flarden zich samen tot een symfonisch moment.’ Aangezien Padding slechts ‘superzacht de contouren’ aanlevert dient het publiek, luisterend met de hand aan het oor het uiteindelijke klankbeeld als het ware zelf te realiseren.

Na de wereldpremière repte de Volkskrant van een ‘tantaliserend proces, waarin motieven en akkoorden komen langswaaien als uit een verre zaal waarvan iemand af en toe de deur even opendoet. Zelden komt de muziek helder door: Beethoven was immers potdoof op het eind van zijn leven. Het fascinerende is dat Padding met dit wazige, maar zelden tot gearticuleerde gedaante uitgroeiende klankmateriaal een stuk heeft gemaakt dat zowel zijn eigen vingerafdrukken draagt als die van Beethoven. Hij weet de toehoorder de illusie te geven dat hij werkelijk ervaart wat zich tussen de dove oren van Beethoven heeft afgespeeld.’

Het concert vormt onderdeel van de radioserie AVROTROSVrijdagconcert en wordt live uitgezonden op Radio 4. Info en kaarten. 
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Ensemble 1904: loving CD portrait of almost forgotten Poldowski

Poldowski re-imagined is the name of the latest CD of the French Ensemble 1904. Poldowski who?? Like many of her female colleagues, this Polish-British composer (1879-1932) is as good as forgotten; also her name is problematic. Born as the youngest daughter of violinist and composer Henryk Wieniawski, she was baptized Irène Régine Wieniawski. Yet she published her first compositions as Irène Wieniawska. After her marriage to Sir Aubrey Dean Paul in 1901 she called herself Lady Dean Paul and several variations hereof, before finally deciding on the short but powerful Poldowski.

Although she inherited her father’s talent, Poldowski never knew him: Henryk Wieniawski died on a tour of Russia when she was 10 months old. She stayed behind in Brussels with her British mother. Her father had been a professor at the conservatoire in the Belgian capital. According to some, Poldowski studied piano and composition there, but this is not supported by archive material.


Poldowski started composing early on and published her first mélodies (songs) in 1890, with a Belgian publisher. About six years later she moved to London, where she quickly made a name for herself as a pianist and composer. Although she married an Englishman and assumed British nationality, she continued to use French texts. She had a great predilection for the poetry of Paul Verlaine, who at the time was also popular with fellow-composers.

On its new CD the French Ensemble 1904 presents all her 22 Verlaine settings. Not in their original version but in arrangements for piano, violin and double bass. These were made by pianist and artistic leader David Jackson in tribute to Poldowski. She often made arrangements of her songs for chamber ensemble, but these were all lost. Jackson took inspiration from her Sonata for violin and piano, but also gave free rein to his own imagination. Hence the ‘re-imagined’ from the title.

Impressionist splashings

What immediately strikes the ear is Poldowski’s flair for text setting. The parlando style of singing – with only one note per syllable – makes the words easily understandable. Her music sounds very French and is reminiscent of the mélodies of Debussy and Ravel. The declamation is almost casual, yet subtle twists and turns make the emotions acutely palpable. At times, as in Impression fausse, we hear tormented outcries that betray her partly Slavic origins.

The atmosphere is mostly melancholy, but sometimes also inflammatory. As in the mischievous Cortège about a circus lady whose slave peeps under her skirts. That Poldowski herself was an outstanding pianist is evident from the varied and colourful piano part. Often she weaves impressionist splashing waterfalls through the vocal part, at other moments supporting the argument with hammered chords. The lines of violin and double bass added by Jackson fit in seamlessly.

Loving portrait

It takes some time before you are captured by the appealing charm of her music. Jazmin Black-Grollemund has a warm soprano voice, but her generous vibrato is at odds with the reticent expression so typical of the French mélodie. The intonation of the strings is not always flawless and the dynamics are somewhat uncontrolled. From the sprightly Colombine (Track 13) things become more balanced, the performers sounding more sovereign and confident.

One gets the impression the remaining songs were performed in a concert setting before; surely the preceding ones would also benefit from some more live experience. But these are just minor comments on what is undeniably a loving portrait. Ensemble 1904 breaks a convincing lance for Poldowski, and the excellent cd booklet contains a lot of useful information. May this edition be the prelude to a rediscovery of Poldowski, her music deserves it.

Ensemble 1904: Poldowski re-imagined
22 Mélodies on the poèmes de Paul Verlaine; Irène Régine Wieniawska; arr. David Jackson
Resonus RES10196
€ 14,99 
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Vanessa Lann: pianists ‘Vicky Chow and Saskia Lankhoorn can play anything’

Vanessa Lann (c) Teo Krijgsman

On Friday 1 December the piano duo X88 will present the world première of naked, I by Vanessa Lann at a recital in the Amsterdam Bimhuis. The American-Dutch composer wrote it especially for this adventurous piano duo, that performs complex contemporary music as if it were rock. It consists of the Canadian Vicky Chow, pianist in Bang on a Can All-Stars, and the Dutch Saskia Lankhoorn, who is a member of Ensemble Klang.

Like many foreigners, Vanessa Lann (New York, 1968) came to the Netherlands in the nineties, attracted by the vibrant musical life of the time. She is now firmly rooted here, thanks to successful works such as Inner Piece for solo piano (1994), Resurrecting Persephone for flute and orchestra (1999), Illuminating Aleph for cantor, choir and instrumental ensemble (2005), and her opera De Stilte van Saar (Saar’s Silence) in 2013.

Being a pianist herself, she has written many works for grand or toy piano. Four of these can be heard on the portrait cd Moonshadow Sunshadow that was released in 2015. Her work often has a theatrical aspect and Lann likes to fiddle with our expectations. This holds for her new piece for two pianos as well, of which the mere title may evoke confusion. Thus I assumed ‘I’ in naked, I meant the cipher 1, wondering how many pieces there were to follow in this new cycle.

None, Lann tells me. The title refers to the scientific term ‘naked eye’, which describes what the eye can perceive without microscope or telescope. ‘Since there are no electronics, the piece is about the raw/naked/honest expression of two people and two grand pianos. A piano is a big instrument, and the question is whether the two women are in control or not. In an almost ritualistic manner the piece confronts the performers with their capacities, not just as players, but also as individuals.’

Here we touch on a second layer: ‘The prounoun “I” refers to identity, who am I, who are you, how do we relate to each other? Naked, I explores the vulnerability of the players, as well as the power required of them in performance. It is inspired by extremes: when does soft playing become too soft, how long will a certain pattern hold our attention, what is scary, what is funny? In a sense both pianists try to determine who they are in relation to the piano as an instrument, and also to each other.’

Piano duo X88: Vicky Chow & Saskia Lanhoorn (c) Peter van Beek

This links naked, I strongly to De Stilte van Saar: ‘In my opera I address the theme of how we deal with our personal and social media identities. We create a two-dimensional, idealized image on Facebook, which we will eventually meet. Thus, in a way we become our Facebook identity. I composed it for Silbersee and Ensemble Klang, in which Saskia Lankhoorn played the toy piano.’

Lann is thrilled by the energy and virtuosity of Lankhoorn and Chow: ‘They can do absolutely ANYTHING, play ANYTHING, they’re quite fearless. But in this work they are “naked”, for they have to show themselves while playing the simplest of patterns.’

Halfway through they change pianos. ‘Like in my piece Moonshadow Sunshadow for two violins, you then hear the same material as before, played on the same instrument, but by a different performer. In what way does it sound different the second time: does the character of the pianist play a role in how we listen to the raw material? This question intrigues me: what you see is what you get.’

In their recital the duo will also perform premières by Nik Bärtsch, Tristan Perich and Pete Harden. The concert will be repeated in the Red Sofa series of the Rotterdam Doelen on Saturday 2, and in Korzo Theatre The Hague, as part of the Festival Dag in de Branding on Sunday 3 December.
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Kate Moore wins Matthijs Vermeulenprijs – as first woman composer ever

Kate Moore, ©Marco Giugliarelli for the Civitella Ranieri Foundation

On Saturday 2 December the Australian-Dutch composer Kate Moore (1979) will receive the Matthijs Vermeulen Prize for her composition The Dam. The prize was established in 1972 and consists of € 20,000, made available by the Performing Arts Fund. It is named after the Dutch composer and music critic Matthijs Vermeulen (1888-1967).

Until now it has invariably gone to men, some of them even getting it twice. Moore will receive the prize coming Saturday as the first woman ever, during Festival Dag in the Branding in The Hague. After the ceremony in the Korzo Theatre, her piece will be performed by ensemble Herz.

Kate Moore combines repetitive patterns with an opulent sound world. This summer she surprised friend and foe with her oratorio Sacred Environment during the Holland Festival Proms in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. The large-scale work for orchestra, choir, soloists and live video was inspired by the sacred grounds of Australia’s first people.

The at times overwhelming masses of sound evoked memories of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. In general Moore’s music is more restrained; it often has a dreamy, seductive atmosphere. She regularly combines instruments with artistic sound objects, which form a subtle but important part of the composition. She also built her own ceramic percussion instruments.

Moore composed The Dam in 2015 for the Canberra International Music Festival, Australia. It was originally set for soprano and chamber orchestra, including a didgeridoo and an electric baritone guitar. Two years later, the British ensemble Icebreaker asked her to make an instrumental version, in which the didgeridoo was replaced by pan flutes; this version was awarded the Matthijs Vermeulen Prize. For the Herz Ensemble Moore made yet another arrangement, in which both didgeridoo and singer are re-instated.

For The Dam, Kate Moore found inspiration in nature: ‘It is based on the rhythms of the sounds made by cicadas, crickets, frogs, birds, flies, spiders and other creatures that inhabit a waterhole in the bush’, she said. ‘Far away from human intervention, their evening song becomes a great choir joyously singing out into the vast universe. It is possible from far away to hear where the waterhole is without being able to see it, and it is also possible to hear the shape of the landscape around it as many tiny creatures create a sonic pointillist landscape. I am attracted to the almost but not quite polyrhythmic tapestry of sound they create.’

The jury calls The Dam ‘both an exciting, immersive composition and a rich sounding of our times. The ultra-soft, mysterious motoric movement with which the work opens, convincingly develops into a grand musical gesture.’ Furthermore, the report lauds the ‘organically woven evocative interplay of lines’. The jury also praises Moore for having the guts ‘to combine an almost monomaniac musical movement with an extremely precise sound performance.’ It concludes: ‘Moore does not want to nuance or soften in her music, but rather touches the listener directly without compromise.’

That afternoon also the Willem Pijper Prize will be awarded, to Moore’s Mexican colleague Hugo Morales Murguía (1979) for his composition Equid (2014). This will be performed by Slagwerk in the Nieuwe Kerk, The Hague. According to the jury report, the piece has a ‘signal function’, because it ‘inspires to listen in a different way to the sounds of everyday life’. The composition prize is curated by the Johan Wagenaar Foundation for the Municipality of The Hague.

Normally Dag in de Branding only lasts one (Satur)day. On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Johan Wagenaar Foundation however, an extra concert was added the day after. On Sunday 3 December, the piano duo X88 will give a recital in Korzo featuring four world premieres. The pianists Vicky Chow and Saskia Lankhoorn will perform, among others, Preservation (Pearl Morpho) by Pete Harden and Naked, I by Vanessa Lann.

A complete overview of the two-day festival can be found here.
Here’s a live performance of The Dam by the Herz Ensemble


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How Franz Schubert led Klaas de Vries to neotonal heaven

The music of the Dutch composer Klaas de Vries (1944) combines Stravinskyan clarity with southern sensuality. He cherishes a love for poets like Pablo Neruda and Fernando Pessoa and his work excels in recognizable melodies and rhythms. ‘No matter how innovative, to be communicative music must always contain a traditional element’, he once said. On 28 and 30 November, Asko|Schönberg will perform a revised version of Mirror Palace (Spiegelpaleis), which he composed in 2012. Herein De Vries questions the future of music: ‘I ended up at Schubert, but I didn’t find the definitive answer.’

When and why did you hit on the idea of Mirror Palace?

For years, I had been wondering what direction Western composed music should take. I wanted to explore this in a full-evening piece, somewhat in the vein of The Fifth Book by my colleague Peter-Jan Wagemans. That incorporates a chamber symphony, a number of ensemble pieces, a mini-opera, a part with only electronics, and a complete Mass. But instead of a succession of different genres, I envisioned something that would be rather more continuous and coherent. A piece in which two opposing developments take place simultaneously.

When the Doelen Ensemble asked me for a new composition in 2012, I decided to work out the idea. I wrote a ten-movement work for mezzo-soprano, electronics and ensemble in which two sound worlds collide. One is becoming increasingly harsher and dissonant, the other ever more sonorous and consonant.

Simply put, Mirror Palace is made up of two types of compositions, an A-group and a B-group. The first moves away from the music towards sound-art, as it were. It contains a lot of live electronics that distort the sound of the instruments on the spot. This development culminates in the penultimate movement in a text from Nostalghia by Tarkovsky, spoken by the mezzo-soprano.

The B-group becomes increasingly consonant, resolutely moving in the direction of tonality. In my first version Mirror Palace ended with a performance of the adagio from the Octet by Franz Schubert. But that solution was born from lack of time and I wasn’t happy with it. Therefore in my revised version for Asko-Schönberg I have added a vocal line, on a hopeful text by Cesare Pavese.

In your own programme note, you call this final movement a ‘utopian neotonal heaven’. Do you think the future of music lies in a return to tonality?

I must honestly admit that I do not know. I am not in favour of or against certain trends either, but I do have a lot of criticism of the neonatal movement. After all, it almost invariably concerns a simplification of real tonal music, it is much more primitive. If you want to repeat Brahms or anyone else, you must be able to improve on them. Or at least be equally good. That’s why, in the end, I didn’t quite succeed in writing my own neotonal piece either.

Inevitably I arrived at Schubert, a great love from my youth. But he had already realized the tonal heaven, what could I add? In the end, I made an adaptation of the second movement of his Octet. First of all by adding a vocal line. That was quite difficult because the adagio itself is already a song, with beautiful, spun out melodies of the clarinet. I have fully adopted Schubert’s notes, but the mezzo-soprano part is completely new. In my own melody, I have stayed as close as possible to his tonality, however.

In the low register of the piano I have added a gong-like chord, as a halo around the original music. That’s why it sounds a bit nostalgic, which emphasizes that it’s about something from the past. At the same time, the poem of Pavese speaks of hope, of a door that opens, after which ‘you will come in’. It was about a woman he was in love with, but for me it is also a symbol of the future.

Asko|Schönberg, foto Gerrit Schreurs

Partly because of the Italian texts, the song sometimes sounds almost like Puccini. Schubert is thus lifted a little closer to our time, while at the same time the romantic chords act as quotation marks. This section also contains electronics, not to distort the music, but as a kind of super echo. This makes it almost kitsch. At least I hope that it will balance on the edge of kitsch like some of Puccini’s music. I find that exciting.

The electronics were developed by René Uijlenhoet, what is its function?

I can’t even turn on a computer myself, but René knows how to translate my sound conceptions into electronics. It serves to bring the outside world in. For example, Mirror Palace starts with two percussionists playing woodblocks, standing on either side of the stage. They play in hocket, alternately producing the notes of the same theme. The electronics pulverize this, making it sound like a hailstorm. In this way nature enters the music.

Nature is gradually becoming more grey and fiercer, which is in line with the text of Tarkovsky in the ninth movement. This turned out to be surprisingly topical. It is about ‘so-called healthy people’ who have brought the world to the brink of disaster. How freedom means nothing if we don’t dare look at each other, dare not eat, drink or sleep together. Such observations seem to reflect the current fear of immigrants and our tendency to destroy the planet.

Tarkovsky’s text expresses both homesickness for a paradisiacal past and a desire to do better in the future. He believes we should dare to dream together and strive for a higher goal. His words are spoken and whispered by the mezzo-soprano, her timing is improvised. She is accompanied by the two percussionists, again standing on either side of the stage, each playing a large drum with their hands. Finally, she says: ‘And now music!’, after which she sings the Pavese song over the adagio from Schubert’s Octet.

In the score she is referred to as ‘lab assistant’. Why?

Though she is on stage from start to finish, the mezzo-soprano does not play a leading role, contrary to what you might expect. In the beginning she makes some general announcements. ‘This piece will last ninety minutes and has ten movements. Please do not applaud in between,’ She also speaks a text from Tarkovsky’s film The Mirror, in which Alexei dreams of becoming a child again. This was a happy time in which the future was still completely open.

Meanwhile, we hear plucked chords from the double bass player, while the pianist is tinkling some fragments from the Octet. He is completely turned into himself, seemingly unaware of his environment. The two musicians are already playing when the audience enters the hall; you wonder what that lady is doing on stage. Gradually she reveals herself as the stage manager, who arranges the lecterns and microphones for the changing formations of instruments. In the ninth movement, she suddenly addresses the public directly: ‘Hey, healthy people!’ This has a somewhat disruptive effect.

Whence the title Mirror Palace?

The piece is full of reflections. First of all, Schubert’s Octet shines through all the notes like a subcutaneous mirror. Even the extremely dissonant sound-art passages are inspired by its opening measures. Each of the ten movements reflects the previous one and together they mirror the Octet. The electronics in turn reflect all the music that is played. Because the sounds are distorted live, it sounds different every time, like a mirror sometimes changes colour. And then of course there is the text from Tarkovsky’s The Mirror.

Have you found an answer to your question of which direction music should take?

Certainly not. Mirror Palace is only one possible answer from thousands. Nor is it a plea for a return to tonality, which has never been lost anyway. I am amazed at the ease with which atonality is condemned today. For what, in fact, is atonal music? Look at Alban Berg or even Arnold Schoenberg, who developed the twelve-tone technique. Even in their music, you always feel the gravitational force of a tonal centre. Luciano Berio reintroduced tonality by way of quotation in his Sinfonia and even in Notations by Pierre Boulez there are tonal elements.

Our ears experience them as a matter of course. But, as I said earlier, I have no sympathy whatsoever for the neotonal movement in music. To call a spade a spade: you hear so much Philip Glass today, which I find absolutely ter-ri-ble! I have the feeling that he’s taking us on a ride with cheap shit. After all, what is it you are listening to? To very bad, continuously repeated triads. Loads of people listen to it with their eyes closed, swaying to and fro and cheering afterwards. I do not understand why. There isn’t a shimmer of anything that might disturb you or that makes you think: hey, this is a memorable moment. Apparently mankind wants to be deceived !

You also quote Tarkovsky: ‘The real evil of our time is that there are no more great masters’.

I fully agree with that. Everything has become so democratised these day. I sometimes visit the composition class at the Rotterdam Conservatoire. There are students from all over the world, enormous talents. This also applies to Amsterdam and The Hague. What will all these people do after their studies? They will each acquire their own little place. But great masters? Those were Boulez, Ligeti and still Kurtág. Today, I really would not know.

Doesn’t this thwart your own creativity?

No, because I simply can’t stop composing.

More info and tickets via this link:
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Dobrinka Tabakova composes double concerto for pianists Lucas & Arthur Jussen: ‘It brims with energy’

Dobrinka_Tabakova By Dobrinka Com –, CC BY-SA 2.0, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid=47250814

The Bulgarian-British composer Dobrinka Tabakova (1980) writes music that is highly lyrical and communicative. On Thursday 16 November a new double concerto will be premièred in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ: Together Remember to Dance. She composed it at the request of Amsterdam Sinfonietta, for this occasion supplemented with Slagwerk Den Haag. Soloists are the famed pianists Lucas and Arthur Jussen.

What characterizes you as a composer?

Improvising was perhaps my first passion, as soon as I started piano lessons when I was around 7 years old. This quality of free expression, while aiming to communicate is an important part of my language. I am happy when people say they feel moved by the music, but I am also intrigued by the question how sound becomes structure in time.

How did your new composition come about?

Amsterdam Sinfonietta premiered my Concerto for Cello & Strings at the Amsterdam Cello Biennale in 2008. We worked wonderfully together, and then they came up with the idea of this double concerto. I am excited to work with Lucas and Arthur Jussen for the first time, and Slagwerk Den Haag. The new concerto for 2 pianos, percussion and strings is called Together Remember to Dance. The title is made up of the names of each movement; I was inspired to write a work which would be uplifting and with a buzzing energy.

Arthur (above) and Lucas Jussen, foto Dirk Kikstra

How have you shaped this double concerto?

I remember immediately having an idea of its structure: three movements, creating a classical symmetry of ‘fast-slow-fast’. It’s important for me to imagine how the time will flow for the duration of the new piece. Then I start sketching and improvising to find the themes and timbres of each movement. Out of all ‘classical’ forms, the concerto is the one I feel closest to, for the early baroque relationship between soloist(s) and ensemble appeals to me: a dialogue rather than a declaration with background.

In Together Remember to Dance the pianos, percussion and strings all have their own roles and layers; our attention continuously shifts from one to the other. This was the key concept of the first movement, ‘Together’. It sets off with a clash between arpeggio’s in the piano’s and clusters in the strings.

The traditionally slow middle movement, ‘Remember’ is a whirling waltz in which I create a sense of spiralling: themes and gestures recur, but each time with a new twist. As if you discover something new while reliving certain memories. The final movement, ‘Dance’, has a constant pulse, but also catches us unexpectedly.

Your piece is on the programme with Bartók’s classic Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Has this inspired you while composing?

Works like Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, or Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring are among the icons of 20th century music and it is impossible as a composer not to have absorbed and admire them. However, while writing I am so involved with what I am trying to express that it would be difficult to concentrate fully if the thought of another work were hovering in the background.

That Bartók researched music from my home country Bulgaria and uses its rhythms in his final movement is close to my heart. The last movement of my concerto is also a fast paced, kaleidoscopic dance, though the effect is different; it’s like a perpetuum mobile. Writing for this combination of instruments will always carry with it a certain link with Bartók, but that goes for any structure or work which bears resemblance to a past form. It is our responsibility as composers and creators  to be aware of the past but also to reflect the present and make steps forward.

You were born in Bulgaria, but moved to Britain, where you studied music. Why?

My parents and I moved to London in 1991; they’re medical physicists and my father was offered a position at King’s College. By that stage I was playing the piano and improvising, but it wasn’t until we came to London that I auditioned for a place at the Royal Academy of Music and started studying composition formally. My parents sensed that music would be important in my life, maybe more as a performer, but they were always encouraging and supported my interest in composition.

You studied with Simon Bainbridge, Diana Burrell and George Benjamin. Who was the most influential?

The most important thing is that each of my teachers has their own compositional voice, and I never felt pressed to create pieces which match their styles. For years I studied with different tutors at the same time, so I experienced all of these different techniques of teaching and composing. My first degree was at a conservatoire, which is a very practical environment. At least compared with the more academic university, where I received my PhD.

At the conservatoire, being around performers all the time created a very fertile environment for composition. We could put on our own concerts, which meant finding the musicians who would perform, making rehearsal schedules, conducting… It took composition away from the desk and the lesson and into the concert hall. I treasure the conversations and discussions with each of my teachers, but it was the rehearsals with musicians where you see all of these techniques coming to life.

You also took master classes with Louis Andriessen. Could you say something about this experience?

Louis Andriessen was in London for concerts in the early 2000s. One of the great things about studying in a conservatoire next to the Barbican Centre is that visiting composers would often come over to give presentations and masterclasses to students. I remember submitting a portfolio and having the chance to show some of my works to Andriessen, including some sketches for a chamber opera. We spoke about collaborating with different artists, experimentation, about challenging audiences and choosing different venues. I have a great respect for him and hope he’ll come to the première of Together Remember to Dance.

More info and tickets.

On Wednesday 16 November there will be a public rehearsal of Together Remember to Dance in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. Afterwards I’ll speak with Tabakova, the brothers Jussen and Candida Thompson, artistic leader of Amsterdam Sinfonietta.

During the public rehearsal some new insights popped up, I spoke with Tabakova afterwards. 

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Du fond de l’abîme Lili Boulanger: heartrending plea for a glimmer of light

Lili boulanger, foto credit Wikipedia

Although Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) is considered one of the most important French composers of the early twentieth century, her music is rarely performed. On Friday 10 November Du fond de l’abîme will sound in AVROTROS Vrijdagconcert. An extraordinary opportunity, because this setting of psalm 130 is heart-wrenching. Boulanger completed it in 1917, a year before her death. The American conductor James Gaffigan will lead the Dutch Radio Choir and Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. The concert is broadcast live on Radio 4.

The first – and only – time I heard Du fond de l’abîme live was in 1993. Then the same broadcasting ensembles were conducted by Ed Spanjaard in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. I was studying musicology at the time, but no teacher had ever mentioned the name of Lili Boulanger. Also during the rest of my studies she got zero attention. But what music! Du fond de l’abîme is a powerful, intense lament of a human being pleading for a glimmer of light. I remember even now how, during the performance, I got goosebumps all over and felt my hair roots tickle.

Ill but resilient

Lili Boulanger was born in Paris in 1893 as the second child of the Russian princess and singer Raïssa Mischetzky and the French composer Ernest Boulanger. Even at the very tender age of two she showed great musical talent, which her parents cherished. At the same age, however, she got pneumonia, which severely damaged her immune system. Boulanger would remain sickly throughout her life and be dependent on the care of others.

That’s why she mainly received private education, at first from her parents and her six-year-old sister Nadia. But from the age of five she regularly went along with Nadia to her lessons at the Paris Conservatoire. There she also read music theory and studied organ with Louis Vierne. Moreover she learned to sing and to play the violin, cello and harp. She compensated her delicate constitution with an iron perseverance; in her short life she realized an impressive oeuvre.

Gift for melody

Boulanger received composition lessons from George Caussade and Gabriel Fauré, among others. The latter was particularly impressed by her talent and often brought her songs. She studied these carefully and wrote a lot of vocal music herself, yet also her purely instrumental compositions excel in melodiousness. After Nadia had made several unsuccessful attempts to win the Prix de Rome, Lili decided to have a go at this much coveted composition prize. The family honour was at stake since their father had won it in 1835.

Her first attempt failed, but in 1913 her cantata Faust et Hélène was indeed crowned with the Prix de Rome. Le Monde Musical wrote: ‘Her work ranks far above that of the other applicants. It holds everyone in its grip, even on a first encounter.’ Despite her bad health, she left for Rome to work in the Villa Medici for a year. She also signed a contract with the renowned Italian publisher Ricordi.

Socially involved

The outbreak of the First World War forced Boulanger to return to Paris. There she set up the Comité Franco-Américain du Conservatoire National. Together with her sister Nadia she raised funds to give both material and moral support tot musicians at the front. Her music also attests of her commitment to the fate of soldiers. For example in Pour les funérailles d’ un soldat for baritone, choir and piano three-handed, which describes the burial of a soldier, including the associated tribute.

In 1916 Lili Boulanger returned to the Villa Medici in Rome. There she started the opera La princesse Maleine, based on a fairy tale in which war plays a central role. She wasn’t able to complete it, but did compose the famous Vieille Prière Bouddique. The Buddhist text begs for freedom and tolerance between people. In particular, it calls for the peaceful coexistence of Aryan and non-Aryan people. As if Boulanger had premonitions of the impending horrors of the Second World War.

Composing with death on her heels

An outbreak of the intestinal tuberculosis that had plagued her for years forced her to return to Paris again in mid-1916. From that moment on, she knew she wouldn’t have much longer to live. Although she was confined to bed most of the time, she continued to work with admirable perseverance. She dictated her notes to Nadia and in 1917 she completed her setting of psalm 130, Du fond de l’ abîme. She dedicated this moving work for alto, tenor, two choirs, organ and orchestra to her father.

She had lost him in her sixth year; Ernest Boulanger was already 77 when Lili was born. She never completely managed to overcome her grief, which also found its way to Du fond de l’ abîme (‘From the abyss I cry to you, Oh Lord’). The profoundly experienced and forcefully expressed despair clearly betrays her Russian roots, while the sheer beauty of the music at times outshines Debussy’s best works.

The piece opens with dark harmonies and ominously rumbling timpani; a tuba and a cello play a Gregorian melody. Agitated rhythms and strong dissonances suggest both despair and anger. There are heartrending outcries of the choir on the names ‘Jahweh’, and ‘Adonai’. It is impossible not to be carried away by this highly personal outcry, which reverberates through the concert hall like a tidal wave.

With Du fond de l’ abîme, Lili Boulanger wrote her own requiem, as it were. Not long after completion she died, only 24 years old.

More info and tickets via this link.

In 1993 the 3rd International Women Composers Festival was dedicated to Boulanger. An extensive programme book features many articles: Vom Schweigen befreit

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Kill the West in Me – muziektheater over botsing Oost-West

Raden Adjeng Kartini, fotocredit Wikipedia, uit Collectie Tropenmuseum

We worden tegenwoordig doodgegooid met opinies over de voor- en nadelen van multiculti. Al naargelang politieke voorkeur zijn mensen bijzonder enthousiast dan wel zeer negatief over de toenemende ‘verkleuring’ van onze maatschappij.

Het gamelanensemble Gending, het Doelen Kwartet en Het Geluid Maastricht besloten de koe bij de horens te vatten. Zij baseerden Kill the West in Me op feministische brieven van de Javaanse prinses Adjeng Kartini (1879-1904) en actuele teksten over uitbuiting van schrijfster/journalist Ayu Utami (1968). Het theatrale concert gaat 12 november in première in De Doelen in Rotterdam.

Het libretto voert twee personages op: prinses Kartini en haar moderne bijna-naamgenoot Katini, een Javaanse werkster. De sopraan Bernadeta Astari zingt de rol van de prinses, actrice Romy Roelofsen vertolkt Katini.

De muziek voor dit project werd gecomponeerd door de Nederlander Boudewijn Tarenskeen en de Spanjaard Jonás Bisquert. Zij schreven voor de bijzondere combinatie van traditionele Javaanse instrumenten en strijkkwartet. De gamelan is weliswaar anders gestemd dan westerse instrumenten, maar strijkers kunnen met afwijkende vingerzettingen hun toonhoogte aanpassen.

Acculturatie Oost-West

Het idee voor Kill the West in Me: Kartini & Katini, two stories kwam van Jurrien Sligter, artistiek leider van Ensemble Gending. ‘Met mijn ensemble zoek ik naar zinvolle manieren om het idee van acculturatie tussen Oost en West uit te werken. Ik liep al lang rond met het plan iets te doen met de prachtige brieven van Kartini. Die vormen een uitzonderlijk tijdsdocument. Zij begon met het grenzeloos bewonderen van het Westen en eindigde –veel te jong – vol kritiek op het kolonialisme.’

Op zoek naar een hedendaagse aanvulling op de teksten van Kartini stuitte Sligter al snel op de eveneens Javaanse Ayu Utami. ‘Zij schreef al in haar eerste boeken openhartig over seks. Utami verzet zich tegen de toenemende islamisering van Indonesië en tegen de anti-porno wetten. Ze is trouwens ook kritisch over Kartini, omdat die uiteindelijk braaf met een oude sultan trouwde. In haar haar tekst voert ze een dienstmeid op die – zoals velen vandaag de dag – in een Arabisch land geld gaat verdienen voor haar familie.’

Betekenisvolle ontbrekende R

‘Haar vader wilde haar vernoemen naar de inmiddels in Indonesië beroemde Kartini, maar is analfabeet. Bij de aangifte vergat hij de letter r, zodat zij bij de burgerlijke stand werd ingeschreven als Katini. Geen onbeduidend detail want de r blijkt te staan voor Rape; Katini wordt door haar werkgever verkracht. Uiteindelijk brengt zij haar werkgeefster om.’

‘Ons stuk opent in de gevangenis, waar Katini wacht op haar terechtstelling. Ze roept Kartini ter verantwoording: “Jij met je mooie bedoelingen, zie eens wat ervan gekomen is!” Van Kartini’s overtuiging dat vrouwen meer rechten zouden krijgen blijkt immers bitter weinig terecht te zijn gekomen.’

Al eerder werkte Ensemble Gending samen met het Doelen Kwartet. Sligter: ‘In 2013 deden we mee met een project componeren voor gamelan en strijkkwartet van de Gaudeamus Muziekweek. Ook in dergelijke combinaties zoeken we altijd naar acculturatie of confrontatie.

Dit keer heeft deze combinatie bovendien een theatrale functie: gamelan is Oost en strijkkwartet is West. Hoe kan dat samengaan – of juist niet samengaan? Aanvankelijk hadden we de voorstelling opgezet als een tweeluik. Jonás Bisquert zou voor de pauze muziek componeren voor de historische prinses, Boudewijn Tarenskeen daarna voor de moderne dienstmeid. Maar al snel bleek een confrontatie van de twee figuren en muziekstijlen interessanter.’

Kloof wel of niet overbrugd

De muziek is de toonaangevende drager in deze voorstelling volgens het persbericht. ‘Muzikale verschillen lopen parallel met politieke, sociale en persoonlijke verschillen tussen Kartini en Katini. Twee solisten met hun eigen metier, twee componisten met hun eigen taal, twee ensembles met hun eigen traditie. Dat is het ‘slagveld’ waarin de componisten orde scheppen, balancerend tussen verbluffende syntheses en onoverbrugbare tegenstellingen. Zij brengen twee tradities samen, de oosterse en de westerse. De schijnbare kloof tussen muzieksoorten, teksten en acties wordt nu eens soepel overbrugd, om vervolgens onoverkomelijk te (b)lijken.’

Meer info en speellijst:

Voor de uitvoering in Theater Kikker op 19 november is een crowdfundingproject opgezet bij Voordekunst





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Dirigent Filip Rathé: ‘Karel Goeyvaerts was een groot componist’

Donderdag 26 oktober speelde het Vlaamse Spectra Ensemble een concert met Compositie 1-3 van Galina Oestvolskaja en Zum Wassermann van Karel Goeyvaerts. Beiden volgden  radicaal hun eigen weg, ook al nam Goeyvaerts een wat kronkeliger pad dan Oestvolskaja.

Ik schreef eerder een voorbeschouwing over deze bijzondere combinatie, die het helaas niet erg talrijke publiek in het Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ zeer bleek aan te spreken. De uitvoering was bijzonder intens, met pianist Gerard Bouwhuis als gedreven aangever in Oestvolskaja, en Filip Rathé als een dansante dirigent in Goeyvaerts.

Tijdens ons voorafgaande gesprek toonde Rathé zich een begenadigd verteller, die boeiende inzichten in het werk van Goeyvaerts verschafte, en zelfs spontaan een taalcompositie improviseerde om het verschil duidelijk te maken tussen minimalisme en repetitieve muziek.

Ik nam het gesprek op met mijn smartphone en zette het op YouTube.



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Goeyvaerts en Oestvolskaja – man en vrouw met een hamer

Spectra Ensemble

In februari 2017 combineerde Het Collectief de radicale muziek van Galina Oestvolskaja met de hemelse gezangen van Hildegard von Bingen. Minder vreemd dan het lijkt, want beiden waren diep gelovig en componeerden vanuit innerlijke noodzaak. Donderdag 26 oktober plaatst het Spectra Ensemble Oestvolskaja naast Karel Goeyvaerts, onder de titel Radicale eenlingen in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. Oestvolskaja is hier te lande inmiddels genoegzaam bekend, maar wie was Karel Goeyvaerts?

Muzikale pionier

Karel Goeyvaerts werd in 1923 in Antwerpen geboren, de stad waar hij 70 jaar later ook zou overlijden. Hij studeerde er compositie aan het conservatorium en volgde muziekanalyse bij Olivier Messiaen in Parijs. Geïnspireerd door diens heldere analyses besloot Goeyvaerts de verschillende muzikale parameters als uitgangspunt te nemen voor zijn composities. Hij zette niet alleen de toonhoogte, maar ook toonduur, dynamiek, klankkleur en articulatie in een reeks waarop hij een stuk baseerde. Zo stond hij mede aan de wieg van het zogenoemde serialisme.

Het eerste resultaat was de Sonate voor twee piano’s, die hij in 1951 samen met Karlheinz Stockhausen uitvoerde in Darmstadt, het Mekka van de nieuwe muziek. Zoekend naar nog meer klankmogelijkheden ontdekte hij de elektronica en in 1953 schreef hij Compositie nr.5, het eerste werk dat was opgebouwd uit pure sinustonen. Maar terwijl Stockhausen en diens collega’s Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio en Luigi Nono de seriële en elektronische muziek verder ontwikkelden, kreeg hij steeds meer behoefte aan ‘het menselijke’.


Goeyvaerts ging religieuze stukken componeren waarin hij stijlfiguren uit de Barok verwerkte, zoals in De passie voor orkest uit 1963. Bovendien experimenteerde hij met vocale nonsensklanken in composities als Goathemala voor mezzosopraan en fluit. In de jaren 70 liet hij zich inspireren door het Amerikaanse minimalisme en componeerde hij repetitieve stukken, met als eerste hoogtepunt vijf genummerde Litanieën voor uiteenlopende bezettingen.

Vanaf 1983 tot vlak voor zijn dood werkte Goeyvaerts aan Aquarius, een opera die zijn verlangen uitdrukte naar een ‘betere samenleving, waarin iedereen aan zijn trekken komt’. Zoals Stockhausen jarenlang zo’n beetje elke nieuwe compositie onderdeel maakte van zijn opera Licht: die Sieben Tage der Woche, zo beschouwde ook Goeyvaerts elk nieuw werk voortaan als een schets of voorstudie voor zijn eigen magnum opus. 

De titel Aquarius verwijst naar het astrologische idee van een nieuwe tijd die eind twintigste-eeuw zou aanbreken, als de wereld het tijdperk van het sterrenbeeld Waterman binnentrad. Dit zou een utopische maatschappij opleveren met volkomen gelijkwaardige intermenselijke verhoudingen.

Zum Wassermann

In 1984 schreef Goeyvaerts Zum Wassermann voor strijkkwintet, hout- en koperblazers, piano en slagwerk, dat nu wordt uitgevoerd door het Spectra Ensemble. Het is te beschouwen als een kamermuzikale blauwdruk van het eerste bedrijf van Aquarius. De vier delen corresponderen met de vier scènes van de eerste akte, waarin de mens een valse start lijkt te maken op weg naar de toekomst. Het ideaalbeeld wordt (nog) niet wordt bereikt.

In  ‘Vorspiel’ wordt de mens beknot in zijn individuele streven. Korte eruptieve motieven die maar niet echt op gang komen evoceren het geworstel van een gekooid wezen. Het hierop volgende ‘Erwachen’ begint als een uitbundige dans maar mondt uit in schrille dissonantie. Beukend slagwerk drijft de gevangene terug zijn cel in. – Een mooie parallel met het gehengst op een houten kist in Oestvolskaja’s Compositie nr. 2, ‘Dies Irae’.

In deel 3 ‘Wassermann-Gesang’ kringelen lyrische lijnen om en door elkaar in opperste harmonie. Dit verbeeldt de intuïtieve, ‘vrouwelijke’ visie op de nieuwe wereld. Het vierde en laatste deel ‘Zum Wassermann’ symboliseert de rationele, ‘mannelijke’ benadering.

Het opent met dartele, hoketusachtige motieven die steeds asynchroner en kakofonischer worden. De moeizame pogingen uit het keurslijf van de rationaliteit te ontsnappen verzanden in amechtig dalende melodielijnen en afgeknepen samenklanken. Met een paar ferme klappen van het slagwerk wordt het laatste restje hoop op de utopie de grond in geboord.

Verlate première

Pas in 2009 beleefde Aquarius zijn wereldpremière, in een door Pierre Audi geregisseerde coproductie van de Vlaamse Opera en het Holland Festival*. Ook Zum Wassermann wordt niet vaak uitgevoerd. Jammer, want Goeyvaerts’ muziek is uitgesproken beeldend en heeft een grote emotionele zeggingskracht. – Net als het werk van Oestvolskaja. Hoe verschillend van temperament ook, Goeyvaerts ramt zijn boodschap minstens even dwingend onze ziel in als ‘de vrouw met de hamer’. Een concert om naar uit te zien.

Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, donderdag 26 oktober 2017, 20.15 uur. Om 19.15 uur spreek ik tijdens de inleiding met Filip Rathé, dirigent van het Spectra Ensemble. Info en kaarten 

*In 2009 maakte ik hiervan een reportage voor Cultura.




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Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ: Revolutie, Russen, Reinbert

Alexander Khubeev

Tijdens het Holland Festivalvan 1989 werd Reinbert de Leeuw zo gegrepen door de muziek van Galina Oestvolskaja en Sofia Goebaidoelina dat hij zich opwierp als hun onvermoeibare pleitbezorger. Dat niet lang na dit ‘Russische’ Holland Festival de Sovjet-Unie in elkaar zou storten, was niet te voorzien, maar maakte de weg vrij voor een vruchtbare uitwisseling tussen Oost en West. Onder de titel Revolutie, Russen, Reinbert plaatst De Leeuw donderdag 19 oktober hun muziek naast werken uit het Rusland van nu.

Sofia Goebaidoelina: sjamanistische klankwereld

Bij Sofia Goebaidoelina komt elke noot voort uit haar diepgewortelde geloof in de verbondenheid van de mens met het universum. Dit spreekt meteen al uit de titel Concordanza voor vijf blazers, vier strijkers en slagwerk, die zoveel betekent als ‘overeenstemming’ of ‘harmonie’. Zij componeerde dit stuk in 1971 en het ging datzelfde jaar in première tijdens het festival Praagse Lente.

De Russisch-Tataarse componist weeft als een muzikale sjamaan bezwerende, magische structuren uit breekbare, vaak niet eerder gehoorde klanken. Zij weet met behulp van subtiele speelaanduidingen instrumenten anders te laten klinken dan wij gewend zijn. Zelf zegt ze dat ze haar muziek ‘opkweekt uit de stilte’; deze varieert van bijna onhoorbaar, breekbaar geritsel tot fortissimo geraas.

Dat geldt bij uitstek voor Concordanza, dat donderdag wordt uitgevoerd door Asko|Schönberg. Het opent met een tere toon van de fluit, die wordt overgenomen en omspeeld door de overige instrumenten. Zij lijken geheel met elkaar te versmelten, maar al snel wordt de schijnbare eendracht verstoord door wilde capriolen van de houtblazers en beukend slagwerk. Al even plotseling keert de etherische rust terug, met fluisterzachte unisoni van de strijkers, tinkelende cimbaaltjes en lyrische soli van hoorn en fagot.

Galina Oestvolskaja: beukende ‘Goddelijke genade’

Galina Oestvolskaja componeerde alleen als zij in een ‘staat van goddelijke genade’ verkeerde. Anders dan Goebaidoelina deed zij echter niet aan subtiele klankverkenningen, maar had zij een voorkeur voor onopgesmukte rechttoe-rechtaan klanken, veelal in een eenvoudige ritmiek. 

In haar Octet voor twee hobo’s, vier violen, pauken en piano uit 1950 voert zij ons door een troosteloos, kaal en uitgebeend soort maanlandschap. De piano plaatst met spaarzame akkoorden piketpaaltjes; de hobo’s spannen hiertussen prikkeldraad met schelle klanken en schurende dissonanten; de strijkers blazen in langgerekte lijnen een ijzige poolwind door de ongenaakbare vlakte.

Het trage, voornamelijk in kwartnoten voortschrijdende tempo maakt enkele malen plaats voor meer beweeglijke, door elkaar krioelende lijnen, die een geagiteerde sfeer creëren. Het geheel wordt doordesemd met luide paukenslagen. Zij evoceren de gepassioneerde, wanhopige hartenklop van een mens die uit het diepst van de afgrond roept tot God. Dit monomane gehamer stond haaks op de sovjet-esthetiek; het Octet ging pas twintig jaar na voltooiing in première en veroorzaakte flink wat opschudding.

Dmitri Kourliandski: maatschappijkritisch

Ook de muziek van Dmitri Kourliandski is bepaald niet behaagziek. In 2003 won hij de Gaudeamus Award met Innermost Man voor sopraan en vier instrumentgroepen. ‘Een nieuw en onorthodox geluid in de hedendaagse muziek’, oordeelde de jury. Afgelopen zomer ging zijn politiek geladen opera Trepanation in première tijdens het Holland Festival, waarover ik weinig enthousiast was. 

Ook Innermost Man voor sopraan en ensemble is maatschappijkritisch, maar iets geslaagder. Kourliandski koos hiervoor regels uit de satirische romans Chevengur en The Foundation Pit van Andrei Platonov uit 1929/30. Hierin wordt het leven op de hak genomen onder de door Lenin ingevoerde Nieuwe Economische Politiek; in het groteske Utopia blijkt enkel de moorddadige geheime politie efficiënt georganiseerd.

De sopraan spuugt in verbrokkelde lettergrepen teksten uit als: ‘De mens is geen geest, maar een lichaam vol gepassioneerde pezen, met bloed gevulde kraters, heuvels, openingen, pleziertjes en vergetelheid.’ De instrumentalisten ‘spreken’ met haar mee in felle, percussieve erupties, waarvan niet eens de toonhoogte genoteerd is.

Geregeld onderbreken zij haar met een oorverdovende kakofonie van de meest onwaarschijnlijke klanken. Zij slaan op hun mondstuk, ratelen met kleppen, spelen gierende multiphonics vol microtronen, produceren onheilspellend gebrul en krassen met hun nagels over de snaren. Toch lijkt de sopraan uiteindelijk het pleit ‘te winnen’.

Valery Voronov: verwaaide citaten van eenzame gevangenen

Een fraai contrast met de hectiek van het stuk van Kourliandski vormt Aus dem stillen Raume dat Valery Voronov in 2010 componeerde. Opvallend is dat ook hij zich maatschappelijk betrokken toont. Zijn stuk is geïnspireerd op teksten die gevangenen van de Gestapo tijdens de Tweede Wereldoorlog op de muren van hun cellen krasten. Vaak worden daarin liederen geciteerd, zoals Lili Marleen; de titel is ontleend aan de openingsregel van het laatste couplet.

Het stuk opent met de overbekende melodie, voortgebracht door een speeldoosje. Het thema is echter zo uit elkaar getrokken, dat je het nauwelijks herkent: het mechanische instrument staat op een pauk met ingedrukt pedaal, waardoor de tonen verlengd en vervormd worden. Deze worden omkleed met aarzelende klanken van viool en fluit, terwijl de pianist zijn snaren beroert met een eetlepel en nauwelijks hoorbare glissandi produceert.

Bevend op de snaren stuiterende strijkstokken creëren ritsel- en ruisklanken, korte glissandi lijken op ingehouden angstkreten. In combinatie met wollige, geplukte noten van een contrabas en laag dreunende multiphonics van de houtblazers ontstaat een duistere, geheimzinnige sfeer. Zo voert Voronov ons naar eigen zeggen mee naar ‘een soort stille kamer, van waaruit je als luisteraar de melodie zelf actief moet gaan horen’.

Alexander Khubeev: straf op gedachten

De in 1986 geboren Khubeev is niet alleen de jongste, maar muzikaal ook de meest radicale van de jongere generatie. Belichten Kourliandski en Voronov misstanden uit het verleden, hij sluit in The Codex of Thoughtcrimes voor koor en ensemble aan bij de actualiteit. De titel verwijst naar mensen die vanwege hun gedachten worden veroordeeld. De teksten komen van historische figuren als Thomas More, Rosa Luxemburg en Alexander Solzjenitsyn, maar Khubeev citeert ook Edward Snowden. Tevens put hij uit recente posts op Russische sociale media, die leidden tot veroordelingen en gevangenisstraf.

Khubeev won twee jaar geleden de Gaudeamus Award. Met het prijzengeld componeerde hij The Codex of Thoughtcrimes stuk voor Asko|Schönberg en Cappella Amsterdam. De première tijdens de afgelopen Gaudeamus Muziekweek riep gemengde reacties op. Geen wonder, want wie zich verheugt op fraaie zanglijnen of opruiende teksten, komt bedrogen uit. Deze zijn namelijk onverstaanbaar omdat de zangers kartonnen kokers voor hun mond houden die hun stemmen vervormen.

Ook de overige instrumenten klinken anders dan we gewend zijn: de blaasinstrumenten hebben mondstukken van berenlokfluitjes; de snaarinstrumenten zijn voorzien van plastic linialen; de pianosnaren zijn afgeplakt. We horen slechts een onaards gezucht, geknars, gepiep en gegrom, dat soms griezelig apocalyptisch klinkt, alsof we regelrecht in de werkplaats van de hel zijn beland. Na een enorme climax komen ensemble en zangers steeds amechtiger hijgend en puffend tot rust.

Rest een open vraag: zijn de ‘misdadige’ gedachten definitief ten grave gedragen, of duiken zij weer onder de radar?

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Michel van der Aa: 3D-opera Sunken Garden in NTRZaterdagMatinee

sunken Garden foto

In 2013, the ‘first 3D opera’ in the world was launched in the Holland Festival with a lot of fanfare. This fourth opera by Michel van der Aa (1970) got mixed reviews. Two years later the Dutch composer made a revised version for the Opéra de Lyon. Based on this, he wrought a semi-scenic performance that will be premièred in NTRZaterdagMatinee in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw on Saturday 21 October.

At the time I was impressed by Sunken Garden, yet considered it somewhat too long. Hopefully this disadvantage has been taken care of in its latest version.

Here’s a translated reblog of the review I wrote for Cultuurpers in 2013.

Crime & Punishment before, after and in Death

Amsterdam, 5 June 2013 – It’s hard to find a production that created such a stir as Sunken Garden by Michel van der Aa. After its première at the London Barbican Theater last April this ‘first 3D-opera’ was both called ‘soporific’, and dubbed ‘the future of opera’.

Therefore I curiously entered the Rabozaal of the Amsterdam City Theater, where I was given 3D-glasses and a note with instructions when to put them on. The string orchestra Amsterdam Sinfonietta was complemented with winds, percussionists and a keyboardist; the young André de Ridder conducting.

As in his previous opera After Life, Van der Aa takes us to the antechamber of death. Where in After Life the characters relive their dearest memory before finally passing into afterlife, in Sunken Garden they can escape their responsibilities. Amber Jacquemain caused the death of her rival in love, Simon Vines was asleep when his daughter died in the cradle, Toby Kramer committed euthanasia on his mother.

The three protagonists make different choices: Amber finally leaves for the empire of the dead, Simon decides to live on with his guilt and Toby is reincarnated in the shape of his benefactor/tormenter Zenna Briggs. She built the sunken garden to become immortal, but was counteracted by Doctor Marinus, who lost his life over this. In passing the Orpheus theme is addressed: Toby falls in love with Amber, whom he tries – unsuccessfully – to free from the underworld. This is visualized by a 3D explosion of brightly colored plants.

Also musically, Van der Aa expands on former compositions. He supports the story with functional sounds, whether or not combined with electronics. Long-drawn chords are interspersed with frantic sound eruptions, yet at times there’s more lyricism. His favored broken branches aren’t missing either. Striking is the use of a consciously nerdy sounding synthesizer, which evokes associations with the seventies. Amsterdam Sinfonietta and conductor André de Ridder were in excellent shape, but the music was too uniform to engage our attention for two hours.

The vocal lines are slightly less angular than in After Life, yet still mainly move back and forth between the high and low registers. Thanks to the recitative style and the great performance of the singers, the texts were understandable. With his warm baritone, Roderick Williams convinces as the tentatively searching artist Toby Kramer, the soprano Katherine Manley is great as the venomous, lightly hysterical Zenna Briggs and Claron McFadden shines as the desperate Marinus.

In the filmed parts the baritone Jonathan McGovern (Simon Vines) also holds our attention, though you unconsciously squeeze your ears shut during his larmoyant “aria” about his daughter’s death. The pop singer Kate Miller-Heidke moves us as the naïve-devious Amber Jacquemain, especially when her sultry vocal lines surface above the stampeding dance-beats that threatened to drown her earlier.

Unfortunately all music is amplified, sometimes resulting in distorted vocals. Moreover it creates distance, because you see an orchestra in the pit and singers on the scene, yet hearthem through speakers to the left and right of the stage. Identification with the characters is problematic anyway, because David Mitchell’s storylines are so complicated and far-fetched that after one and a half hours boredom creeps in. – But then it continues for another thirty minutes.

Sunken Garden is a brave attempt to search for new ways, but it seems unlikely this opera ‘will change history’, as Van der Aa’s alter ego Toby Kramer postulates.

The revised, semi-staged version of Sunken Garden will be performed in Concertgebouw on 21 October in the series NTRZaterdagMatinee and is broadcast live on Radio 4. Info en tickets

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Rozalie Hirs creëert dromerig muzieklandschap in ‘parallel world [breathing]’

Rozalie_Hirs WikipediaRozalie Hirs (bron Wikipedia)

Al eeuwen zien wetenschappers verbanden tussen muziek en de ordening van het heelal. Het Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest nam dit als uitgangspunt voor zijn concert op 19 oktober in de serie Horizon. In samenwerking met de Universiteit van Amsterdam wordt een ‘polyfone kosmos’ gerealiseerd. Peter Eötvös componeerde hiervoor het orgelconcert Multiversum, Rozalie Hirs schreef ‘parallell world [breathing]’. Het stuk van Eötvös beleeft zijn Nederlandse première; de compositie van Hirs was 7 oktober al te horen op Amsterdam Science Park en klinkt nu tijdens de afterparty.

Hirs componeerde ‘parallel world [breathing]’ in opdracht van de Faculteit der Natuurwetenschappen, Wiskunde en Informatica van de UvA. Uitgangspunt was een kamermuziekstuk rond het thema Multiversum, voor vijf musici van het Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest. Een kolfje naar de hand van de componist, die zich al sinds 1997 bezighoudt met onderzoek naar de wetmatigheden van klank. Tijdens het componeren combineert zij een intuïtief creatief proces met wetenschappelijke frequentieberekeningen. Hierin is zij verwant aan zogenoemde ‘spectralisten’ als Tristan Murail, bij wie zij studeerde.

RozalieHirs, première van ‘parallel world [breathing] ‘, 7 okt 2017, musici KCO o.l.v. Alexander de Blaeij , locatie UvA Science Park, foto Machiel Spaan

Droomachtig muzieklandschap

Het nieuwe stuk ‘parallel world [breathing]’ is het eerste deel van de nog te voltooien cyclus ‘parallel worlds’. ­– Niet voor vijf, maar voor acht musici. Dit heeft vooral een praktische achtergrond. ‘Ik was uitgegaan van een bezetting van fluit, klarinet, piano, viool en cello’, zegt Hirs. ‘Maar er bleek geen goede piano op locatie te zijn. Ze vroegen of ik in plaats daarvan een harp wilde inzetten. Omdat ik inmiddels een behoorlijk deel van de pianopartij af had, besloot ik de harp te combineren met slagwerk. Voor de rijkdom van de harmonieën voegde ik een extra strijker toe, een altviool. Vanwege de zwaarte van de partij werden het uiteindelijk twee harpen; ik gebruik bovendien elektronische klanken.’

De titel ‘parallell world [breathing]’ verwijst naar de parallelle werelden van het Multiversum, een thema uit de snaartheorie. Hirs: ‘Dit eerste deel van de cyclus is gebouwd uit tere harmonieën, met gebroken akkoorden van vibrafoon en harp. Die kunnen opgevat worden als metafoor voor wind rond de wereld, of adem van de mens. De uitgesponnen klanken voeren de luisteraar mee door een droomachtig muzieklandschap dat herinnert aan minimal music en spectrale muziek. Het is een meditatief stuk vol beweging.’

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Amsterdam Sinfonietta schittert in schimmenspel met Kurtág en barok

Amsterdam Sinfonietta met schim Michiel Weidner, foto Anna van Kooij)

De Grote Zaal van het Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ is pikdonker. Dan floept een spotlight aan op het eerste zijbalkon rechts. Daar spelen Alexander Sitkovetsky, Maria Milstein, Rosanne Philippens en Jacobien Rozemond drie delen uit Concert voor vier violen van Telemann. Ze eindigen in een freeze, waarna de fluisterzachte, breekbare tonen klinken van Schatten van György Kurtág. We zien alleen de uitvergrote schaduw van cellist Michiel Weidner op het achtertoneel. Zodra hij klaar is, verschijnt het silhouet van Servaas Jessen, die het stuk nog eens uitvoert, in de versie voor contrabas. Dan klinkt opnieuw de levendige barokmuziek van Telemann.

Zo laat Amsterdam Sinfonietta een avond lang muziek en beeld met elkaar vervloeien. ‘De roep van violen’ blijft verrassen, mede dankzij de uitgekiende choreografie en belichting. Solisten, trio’s en kwartetten ‘interrumperen’ vanuit alle hoeken van de zaal het betoog van het strijkorkest. Volkomen organisch weven zij delen uit Kurtágs cyclus Signs, Games & Messages door muziek van Telemann en Vivaldi. Het levert een spannend schimmenspel op, waarbij de raakvlakken tussen klassieke en moderne muziek op poëtische wijze worden uitgelicht.

Rosanne Philippens, Maria Milstein, Alexander Sitkovetsky (foto Anna van Kooij)

Gelegenheidsconcertmeester Sitkovetsky heeft een mooie, ranke toon en speelt met veel vuur. Indrukwekkend ook zijn Milstein en Philippens, die als furies hun snaren geselen in het neobarokke Concert voor drie violen van de Finse componist Olli Mustonen. Amsterdam Sinfonietta speelt eveneens op wereldtopniveau. De strijkers hebben een overweldigende inzet, een diep begrip van de uitgevoerde noten en musiceren als één ademend en fraserend geheel. Hoe lastig de soms razendsnelle ritmes ook zijn, alles klinkt spatgelijk – zonder dirigent. Ook de dynamiek is om door een ringetje te halen.

Samen vertellen de musici een verhaal dat je onherroepelijk bij je lurven grijpt. Bij mij komt steevast het Engelse woord ‘elevating’ op. Zij voeren je mee naar hogere sferen, tillen je uit boven de dagelijkse werkelijkheid. Zelfs de wat kleurloze, alle kanten op schietende Serenade in C van Ernö Dohnányi smeden zij tot een aansprekend geheel. Terecht dwong het publiek na afloop met een stormachtig applaus twee toegiften af.

Dit schitterende schimmenspel is vanavond, 7 oktober, opnieuw te horen in de Stadsgehoorzaal te Leiden. Daarna klinkt het in iets gewijzigde vorm in Oostburg en Breda. Ik zou zeggen: zorg dat je erbij bent!

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Noord Nederlands Orkest speelt orkestversie Canto ostinato

Simeon ten Holt, foto Friso Keuris

Tot zijn eigen ongenoegen werd Simeon ten Holt beroemd als componist van één enkel stuk: Canto ostinato voor vier piano’s. Deze compositie raakte bij zijn wereldpremière in 1979 meteen een snaar. Nog altijd klinkt het zo’n beetje elke dag wel ergens ter wereld, in alle mogelijke bezettingen. Van 12 tot en met 14 oktober presenteert het Noord Nederlands Orkest een versie voor symfonieorkest van Anthony Fiumara.

Het Noord Nederlands Orkest heeft iets met Simeon ten Holt. Al twee keer eerder werd Canto ostinato uitgevoerd, in de originele versie voor vier piano’s. Het iconische werk stond bij beide gelegenheden naast wereldpremières van de enige twee orkestwerken die Ten Holt componeerde. In 2014 werd diens op slechts vier tonen gebaseerde Centri-fuga ten doop gehouden. Twee jaar later klonk de eerste uitvoering van Une musique blanche, waarin verschillende orkestgroepen tegenover elkaar zijn opgesteld.

Meesterwerk van Nederlands minimalisme

Gezien het indrukwekkende aantal bewerkingen die in de loop der jaren zijn gemaakt van Canto ostinato, is het eigenlijk verbazingwekkend dat er nog geen versie voor orkest bestond. Dat vond ook Anthony Fiumara, die eerder al tekende voor orkestraties van muziek van David Bowie en Steve Reich. Zijn orkestbewerking van Canto ostinato maakte hij in 2016 in opdracht van het Residentie Orkest, dat het datzelfde jaar in première bracht in de Doelen in Rotterdam.

Fiumara is een groot liefhebber van Ten Holt, wiens Canto ostinato hij beschouwt als een van de meesterwerken van het minimalisme. ‘Het is een uniek stuk. Noch ervoor noch erna is iets soortgelijks geschreven.’, zei hij hierover. ‘Ik vind dat het kan wedijveren met wereldwijde topstukken als Music for 18 Musicians van Steve Reich of met Koyaanisqatsi van Philip Glass.’

Tonaliteit na de dood van de tonaliteit

Zelf moest de componist overigens niks hebben van een vergelijking met de Amerikaanse minimalisten, maar deze dringt zich onherroepelijk op. Niet alleen vanwege de eindeloos herhaalde motiefjes, maar ook vanwege de tonale teneur van de harmonieën en de bezwerend-meditatieve sfeer. In een interview met ondergetekende zei Ten Holt hierover: ‘Ik kreeg er genoeg van om aan een tafel, vanuit mijn hoofd te componeren – vanuit het intellect en niet vanuit het gevoel.’ Zo ontwikkelde hij naar eigen zeggen een ‘tonaliteit na de dood van de tonaliteit’.

Kortweg betekent dit dat Ten Holt ons weliswaar herkenbare akkoorden voorschotelt, maar deze niet onderwerpt aan de voor tonale muziek zo kenmerkende hiërarchie. In plaats van bepaalde, spanningsvolle akkoorden te laten ‘oplossen’ in ontspannende, rustgevende samenklanken, herhaalt hij ze juist eindeloos. Zo komen ze als het ware op zichzelf te staan en wordt je als luisteraar meegezogen in een tranceachtige sfeer. Die verklaart wellicht de grote populariteit van Canto ostinato, dat wel ’s nachts wordt uitgevoerd voor mensen op slaapmatjes.

Onder de motorkap

Maar hoe vertaal je dit meeslepende werk voor vier piano’s naar de verschillende instrumenten van een symfonieorkest? Een rechttoe-rechtaan klusje was het niet, erkent Fiumara in een interview met de Volkskrant: ‘Als je onder de motorkap kijkt, zie je dat Ten Holt veel vrijheden heeft ingebouwd. De musici mogen zelf beslissen hoe vaak ze een bepaald deel herhalen. Er is een hoofdlijn, maar er zijn ook alternatieven. Het oorspronkelijke stuk is voor vier piano’s. Tijdens een tafelgesprek met vier personen kun je elkaar nog wel onderbreken, maar met zestig man heb je echt een gespreksleider nodig.’

Als arrangeur moest hij de teugels dus wel iets sterker aantrekken. Op zijn blog schrijft hij: ‘Het orkest is een enorme machine met zijn eigen wetten en gedrag. Voor dat apparaat heb ik een vertaling gemaakt van de instructies en vrijheden die Simeon ingebouwd heeft in de notatie. Ik heb het orkest in twee helften verdeeld, die voortdurend met elkaar in dialoog zijn – precies zoals de pianisten in het origineel.’

Homogeen maar kleurrijk

Die kern van het origineel zit voor Fiumara in de homogene klank van de vier piano’s. Hij vergelijkt deze met zwart-witfotografie en de monochrome vlakken van kunstenaars als Mark Rothko of Ad Reinhardt. In zijn orkestratie wilde hij het rijkere klankpalet uitbuiten, zonder de oorspronkelijke homogeniteit uit het oor te verliezen.

Daarom koos hij voor een basisklank die wordt gevormd door de strijkers. Deze wordt spaarzaam aangevuld en bijgekleurd door houtblazers; slechts sporadisch zet hij koperblazers in. Ook het slagwerk gebruikt hij maar mondjesmaat.

Zo maakt Fiumara lijnen en bewegingen hoorbaar die in de pianoversie op de achtergrond bleven. Dit gebeurt echter niet al te nadrukkelijk, want ‘het moet klinken alsof Canto voor orkest werd geschreven’. En inderdaad: in zijn nieuwe jas is het stuk misschien nog wel bedwelmender dan het origineel.

Op donderdag 12 oktober in de Oosterpoort Groningen en vrijdag 13 oktober in de Harmonie te Leeuwarden verzorg ik voorafgaand aan het concert een inleiding. 

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Foto: Simeon ten Holt: Friso Keuris

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Bas-bariton Pieter Vis is niet meer – hij kon het zingen niet laten

Geheel onverwacht overleed donderdag 28 september de bas-bariton Pieter Vis (1949-2017), 68 jaar oud. Een hersenbloeding werd hem fataal. Die ochtend nog had hij op Facebook een bericht gedeeld van het radioprogramma De Ochtend van Vier. Onder zijn bekende pseudoniem Pyoter Riba – de Russische vertaling van zijn naam

Sinds hij dit sociale medium ontdekte, toonde hij zich een enthousiast gebruiker die onvermoeibaar likes en complimenten uitdeelde aan wie ook maar iets te melden had over muziek. In hem verliest het Nederlandse muziekleven een bijzonder bevlogen musicus. Zijn tijdlijn stroomde onmiddellijk vol met geschokte reacties over zijn plotselinge dood.

Pieter Vis was een van de warmste, hartelijkste en collegiale musici die ik ooit heb leren kennen. Ons eerste contact ontstond in 1997, toen ik voor de VARA de programmareeks Het tweede gezicht maakte, gewijd aan vrouwelijke componisten.

Het was destijds nog veel moeilijker opnames te vinden van componerende dames dan tegenwoordig. Zoekend naar muziek van onder het tapijt geschoffelde componisten als Catharina van Rennes, Hendrika van Tussenbroek en Bertha Tideman-Weyers stuitte ik keer op keer op zijn naam. – Als jongenssopraan, als bas of bariton, maar ook als dirigent. Per telefoon beantwoordde hij met graagte al mijn vragen en voorzag hij me van waardevolle tips.

Daarna verloor ik Pieter een beetje uit het oog, omdat hij zich in een ander muzikaal circuit bewoog. Hij maakte vooral naam in de wereld van de kerkmuziek en begon zijn carrière als jongenssopraan. Als solist trad hij geregeld op met het Rotterdams Jongenskoor, maar hij soleerde ook bij de vermaarde Wiener Sängerknaben.

Daarna studeerde hij zang bij onder anderen de alt Annie Hermes. Daarnaast volgde hij liedinterpretatie- en operacursussen bij grootheden als de sopraan Marie-Cécile Moerdijk en de bas-bariton Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Hij won verschillende binnen- en buitenlandse prijzen en trad op in de Festivals van Vlaanderen, Salzburg en Berliner Festwochen.

Een paar jaar jaren geleden kruiste Pieter opnieuw mijn pad, via het zojuist door hem – en mij – ontdekte Facebook. Ik had nog geen bericht geplaatst of hij had het al geliked, en dat gold al zijn volgers. Enthousiast deelde hij onze berichten, postte filmpjes en foto’s van eigen optredens uit heden en verleden en leverde commentaar.

Pieter beschikte over een fabelachtig geheugen en grote kennis van het Nederlandse muziekleven, die hij belangeloos deelde. Waar hij de tijd vandaan haalde om zoveel mensen actief te volgen, is mij een raadsel. Ondertussen bleef hij namelijk optreden, concerten organiseren en jongeren begeleiden op hun weg naar een professionele carrière.

Diverse malen nam hij ‘definitief’ afscheid van zijn zangcarrière. Maar hij kon het zingen niet laten, en beklom keer op keer opnieuw het podium. Zo hoorde ik hem na zijn zoveelste afscheid toch in een recital met Nederlandse operamuziek in Museum Kröller-Muller. Zijn warme stem en ingeleefde interpretatie vormden voor mij het hoogtepunt van het concert.

Op de aan hem gewijde website lezen we dat op 16 december 2018 ‘definitief het doek zal vallen voor de Nederlandse concertzanger en musicoloog Pieter Vis’. Dit allerlaatste van alle laatste optredens gaat hij niet meer halen, voortaan zingt Pieter in de hemel.

Op de foto: Pieter Vis met Daniël Wayenberg

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At Swim-Two-Birds: double concerto for violin & cello by Pascal Dusapin

‘I’ll never write a motif, rhythm, or chord that I cannot sing,’ Pascal Dusapin (Nancy, 1955) once said. And indeed, all his music has a vocal, cantabile quality. On Saturday 30 September the Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra will première his concerto At Swim-Two-Birds for violin, cello, and orchestra in Amsterdam Concertgebouw. Soloists are the violinist Viktoria Mullova and the cellist Matthew Barley, to whom the piece is dedicated. The première is broadcast live on Radio 4, organizer of the concert series NTR ZaterdagMatinee.

As a child Dusapin was so impressed when he first heard a jazz trio, that he decided there and then to start playing the clarinet. From his tenth he developed a passion for organ, but only when he heard Arcana by Edgard Varèse, he knew he wanted to spend the rest of his life composing.

Colourful tapestries

Instead of going to a conservatory – which he deemed too academic – Dusapin studied art history and aesthetics at the Sorbonne. He developed his compositional skills mainly on his own, yet did take some seminars with Iannis Xenakis between 1974 and 1978. He considered the Greek composer to be the living heir of Varèse. Unlike his heroes, he was not interested in using electronics in the compositional process. With purely physical instruments Dusapin creates highly organic music, full of colourful sound tapestries and lyrical solos.

He composed At Swim-Two Birds at the request of the violinist Viktoria Mullova and the cellist Matthew Barley. At first Dusapin had doubts about writing yet another piece for solo strings. Having recently finished both a violin and a cello concerto, he ‘felt a bit swamped by these two instruments’. When Mullova and Barley opined that the combination of a violin and a cello would make ‘a new instrument altogether’, he accepted the commission after all: ‘This changed everything.’

Extravagant narrative

While composing, Dusapin stumbled upon the experimental novel At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien from 1939. This is literally swarming with unlikely figures and characters, who in the end take over the initiative from the author. It is a mixture of farce, satire and fantasy and ranks as one of the important exponents of postmodern literature.

‘I was struck by the narrative and formal extravagance of this book’, says Dusapin. But though he took its title, he never intended his concerto to be a musical equivalent. Rather more he was taken in with the way the characters become entangled with each other. –  ‘And then, of course, there are two birds in the title…’.

Sensually intertwined

The number two not only applies to the soloists, but also to the form of the concerto. Instead of the current three, At Swim-Two-Birds has only two movements, both slow. Dusapin gives a lot of room to the soloists, who often play virtuoso solo lines against a silent orchestra. At other times the two ‘birds’ sensually intertwine in soaring duets, the orchestra moving in so cautiously you hardly notice they’re taking part in the argument.

The overall pace is slow, but towards the end vehement tapping on a tambourine triggers a faster tempo, while the dynamics become louder. The solo violin ‘breaks loose’ in staggeringly virtuosic figurations, giving the orchestra and fellow soloist the go-by. Yet they pull themselves together quickly, ‘overtaking’ the violin and restoring the quiet atmosphere. The concerto ends with softly rumbling drums and gongs, the string orchestra playing a chord that slowly fades away into nothingness.

I hope the actual performance will be as enchanting as is promised by the score.

Saturday 30 September, 2.15 p.m. Concertgebouw Amsterdam
Radio Filhamonisch Orkest / Markus Stenz
Ligeti: Lontano
Dusapin: At Swim-Two Birds
Info and tickets:

Photo credit: Jean Radel

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Peter Eötvös composes organ concerto based on string theory

Peter Eötvös foto Istvan Huszti

On October 19, Peter Eötvös will conduct the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Continue reading

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Nedpho en Koor DNO schitteren in La forza del destino

Van de onheilspellende klaroenstoten aan het begin tot de in het niets wegstervende fluisterstrijkers aan het slot: alles klinkt als een klok. Toch dirigeert Michele Mariotti La forza del destino van Giuseppe Verdi voor het eerst. Hij maakt met deze zelden uitgevoerde opera zijn debuut bij De Nationale Opera. Mariotti kwam, zag en overwon. Hij lijkt een geboren Verdi-interpreet, van wie we nog veel gaan horen.

Met elegante, maar trefzekere gebaren tovert de Italiaanse dirigent elke nuance te voorschijn in Verdi’s kleurrijke, hoogst dramatische muziek. Het Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest klonk zelden zo alert en ingeleefd, met prachtige soli van onder andere houtblazers en harp. Ook de interactie met het al even voortreffelijk zingende koor van DNO was voorbeeldig. Vier uur lang bleven hun inzetten spatgelijk, zelfs in ritmisch hondsmoeilijke passages als de opzwepende massascène ‘Rataplan’.

Onnavolgbaar libretto?

De Nationale Opera bracht La forza del destino nooit eerder op de planken. Velen wijten dit aan het onnavolgbare libretto van Francesco Piave. Maar zijn niet alle opera’s gebaseerd op een draak van een verhaal? In dat licht valt dit libretto best wel mee. Om te spreken met George Bernard Shaw: ‘Er is een tenor (Alvaro), die het aanlegt met een sopraan (Leonora) en een bariton (haar broer Carlo) die dit wil verhinderen.’

Helemaal zo simpel is het natuurlijk niet. Alvaro (Roberto Aronica) doodt per ongeluk Leonora’s vader (de bas James Creswell), waarop Carlo (Franco Vassallo) eerwraak zweert. Op het slagveld sluiten beiden – incognito – bloedbroederschap. Zodra Carlo diens ware identiteit ontdekt, besluit hij Alvaro en Leonora (Eva-Maria Westbroek) alsnog te doden. Uiteindelijk sterft hijzelf door het zwaard van haar geliefde, nadat hij zijn zus dodelijk heeft verwond.


Regisseur Christoph Loy volgt het libretto op de voet, in een fraaie enscenering van Christian Schmidt. Tijdens de ouverture zien we de drie hoofdpersonen als kind; Leonora neemt als een piëta haar broer op schoot. Aan het slot draagt Alvaro de dode Leonora op zijn knieën. Een mooi beeldrijm: Alvaro blijft verweesd achter, speelbal van het noodlot als hij is.

De vele massascènes zijn spectaculair vormgegeven, met wervelende choreografieën van leather-boys in blote bast. Aanstekelijk is de sensuele buikdans van waarzegster Preziosilla. Deze wordt bijzonder wulps uitgevoerd door de mezzosopraan Veronica Simeoni, die ondertussen uitstekend zingt.

Er zijn ook minder overtuigende scènes. Bijvoorbeeld als Carlo en Alvaro elkaar te lijf willen gaan met plastic kinderzwaarden. En waarom wordt Leonora verkracht door de broeders bij wie zij haar toevlucht heeft gezocht? Zij is immers verkleed als man en de abt houdt haar angstvallig voor de blikken van zijn kloosterlingen verborgen.

Leonora (Eva-Maria Westbroek) & op de stoel Il marchese (James Creswell) & Koor van de Nationale Opera (c) Monika Rittershaus

Melodramatische filmbeelden

Ronduit storend zijn de filmbeelden. Verdi maakt met zoetgevooisde soli, schrille dissonanten en onverhoedse trommelslagen de gemoedstoestand van de personages volledig invoelbaar. De emotionele, huizenhoog geprojecteerde gelaatsuitdrukkingen werken als verdubbeling, waardoor het geheel larmoyant en melodramatisch wordt.

Jammer ook dat er tussen Leonora en Alvaro maar geen vonk wil overspringen. Westbroek en Aronica delen schijnbaar enkel hun liefde voor ruimhartige vibrati. Bovendien overschreeuwen zij zichzelf, hebben zij moeite met hun intonatie en heeft beider stem een rafelrand. Gelukkig zijn de overige rollen beter bezet. Vassallo is fenomenaal als Carlo. Zijn warme bariton klinkt altijd beheerst, zelfs in razernij grijpt hij niet naar een turbovolume.

De ware ster is Verdi’s muziek

Een glansrol speelt de Oekraïense bas Vitalij Kowaljow als Padre Guardiano. Met zijn in alle registers egale stem bereikt hij moeiteloos alle hoeken van de Stopera, ook in zachtere passages. Waarom hij als abt van het klooster gekleed gaat als de dorpsdokter, is mij overigens een raadsel.

De bariton Alessandro Corbelli heeft als de knorrige Fra Melitone de lach aan zijn kont hangen. De sopraan Roberta Alexander maakt een smaakvolle miniatuur van haar kleine rol als huishoudster. Hopelijk mag zij in een volgende productie terugkeren.

Ook Michele Mariotti zie ik graag weer eens terug. Hij geeft de solozangers, de individuele musici en de koorleden alle ruimte om te schitteren. – De ware ster van deze productie is Verdi’s muziek.

Gehoord: 13-9-2017, Stopera Amsterdam
Aldaar nog te horen tot en met 1 oktober. Info en kaarten:
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Aart Strootman wins Gaudeamus Award #Gaud17

On Sunday 10 September the Gaudeamus Award for composers under 30 was granted to the Dutch guitarist, composer and instrument designer Aart Strootman (1987) in TivoliVredenburg, Utrecht. The jury, consisting of Joe Cutler, Christopher Trapani and Mayke Nas, chose him from the 5 nominees who had passed their first selection.

For this year’s edition 288 scores were handed in, from 36 different countries. The Gaudeamus Award consists of a commission of € 5000 for a new piece to be premiered in the next Gaudeamus Muziekweek. Strootman’s fellow nominees were the Americans Chaz Underriner, Ethan Braun and Sky Macklay, and the Serbian Ivan Vukosavljevic.

The jury comments on Strootman: ‘An artist who sees no boundaries between performing, composing, improvising, and designing instruments. He’s a complete original, whose sonic invention is an inspiration and who approaches composition with a remarkable freshness, reinventing the sound of each instrument within an ensemble down to the finest detail. A performer, an improviser, an inventor and a unique composer.’

Strootman was happily surprised: ‘I hadn’t expected to win the prize, I’m very honoured.’ Asked what he had in mind for the commission, he answered: ‘I don’t know yet. I’m immersed in writing a new piece for the Bang on a Can All Stars at the moment, for the upcoming November Music Festival. I’m going to concentrate on that and work very hard. – But first I’m going to have a stiff drink.’

Like last year, the jury selection betrayed a predilection for composers focussing on sound and texture. From the jury report we learn that Underriner ‘shows extreme attention to detail’; Braun writes ‘beautifully poised music’; Vukosavljevic ‘understands the physicality of sound’, while Macklay ‘finely balances process and intuition’.

However enchanting their works may be, of the 5 composers Macklay seems to be the only who dares surprise us with outright recognizable melodies and rhythms. She also likes to poke fun at tradition, as in her contageous Many Many Cadences for string quartet.


Insomnio performing Ballet Mécanique TivoliVredenburg 10-9-2017 (c) Herre Vermeer

With her spunk Macklay comes closest in spirit to ‘Bad boy of music’ George Antheil, whose Ballet Mécanique sparked off the afternoon. It got a dazzling performance by the Utrecht based ensemble Insomnio under the baton of Ulrich Pöhl.

This high energy piece for percussion, sirens, electric bells, (player) piano’s and airplane propellers is a modern classic. Antheil wrote it in 1924, combining the machine-like roar of the futurists with Stravinskian ostinati and repetitive motifs that pre-echo the minimalists. Pöhl and his musicians blew the roof off TivoliVredenburg and got a thunderous applause.

One would wish young music pioniers would venture further into unmapped territories. Exploring the physicality of sound and the effect of layering chords may lead to hypnotizing, meditative textures, but the overall soundworld becomes so similar you can hardly tell one composer from another. Hopefully next year’s jury will have more ear for truly original voices and select a wider variety of styles, so a new Antheil will not be overlooked.




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Gaudeamus Muziekweek: de piep-knor definitief voorbij?

De Gaudeamus Muziekweek lijkt het stadium van doorwrochte, maar publieksonvriendelijke ‘piep-knor’ definitief achter zich te hebben gelaten. Het gerenommeerde festival voor nieuwe muziek brengt in vijf dagen tijd 129 composities uit 32 landen. Asko|Schönberg en Cappella Amsterdam trapten woensdag 6 september af met een bonte variëteit aan stijlen. Hiermee was het openingsconcert een graadmeter van wat modernemuziekliefhebbers tot en met zondag kunnen verwachten.

De voor de Gaudeamus Award genomineerde Sky Macklay (VS, 1988) schildert in White/Waves met ruis- en sisklanken een imposant beeld van machtige oceaangolven. Jan-Peter de Graaff haakt in Rimpelingen voor cello en ensemble onbekommerd aan bij traditionele harmonieën en melodieën. De Rus Alexander Khubeev, winnaar van Gaudeamus Award 2015 kiest in The Codex of Thoughtcrimes juist voor het andere uiterste.

Bas Wiegers dirigeert Asko|Schönberg & Cappella Amsterdan in The Codex of Thoughtcrimes. TivoliVredenburg 6-9-2017

Bijna geen instrument klinkt zoals we het gewend zijn en de zangers uiten hun ‘gedachten die door anderen als misdaden worden gezien’ door wc-rollen. Het vervormde gekreun en gepiep lijkt wel wat op de manier waarop walvissen met elkaar communiceren. Gaandeweg ga je snakken naar een ‘gewone’ toon. Muzikaal is dit Russische Carnaval des animaux misschien niet helemaal overtuigend, maar geestig en aansprekend is het wel.

Timbre en eenvoud

Voorafgaand aan dit concert sprak ik met de vijf genomineerden, Sky MacKlay; Ethan Braun (VS, 1987); Ivan Vukosavljevic (Servië, 1986); Aart Strootman, (Nederland, 1987) en Chaz Underriner (VS, 1987). Hoe verschillend de jonge muziekpioniers ook zijn, zij delen een fascinatie voor timbre en werken graag met een minimum aan materiaal.

In Brauns Discipline produceren vier gitaren in dezelfde, afwijkende stemming, een complex weefsel aan boventonen. Ivan Vukosavljevic bouwt in Atlas Slave een hypnotiserende klankwereld vanuit een met strijkstok bespeelde gitaar. MacKlay presenteert in Many Many Cadences voor strijkkwartet een geleidelijk in glissandi uiteenvallende reeks cadensen.

Gaudeamus 6-9-2017 Ivan Vukosavljevic – Aart Strootman – Chaz Underriner – Thea Derks – Ethan Braun (hidden) – Sky MacKlay (c) Herre Vermeer

Herwaardering muziektraditie

Tijdens de concerten op donderdag van de Australische cellist Alistair Sung en ensemble IEMA bleek hoezeer jonge componisten de muziektraditie weer omarmen. De Amerikaanse Caroline Shaw (1982) baseerde In manus tuas voor cello solo op het gelijknamige motet van Thomas Tallis. Zij verweeft sonore flarden oude muziek organisch met moderne, meer industriële klanken. Het stuk werd stijlvol uitgevoerd door Sung.

De Japanse Yukiko Watanabe (1983) deconstrueert Bachs Goldberg Variationen in Nue voor piano en ensemble. De pianist vertolkt – hortend en stotend – het origineel, als een schim gevolgd door een koto en een onder de vleugel gezeten klarinettiste. Een slagwerker bespeelt een bloempot en projecteert vergeelde vakantiekiekjes. – Een mooi zinnebeeld van onze langzaam vervagende herinneringen, aan Bachs muziek en ons eigen verleden.

De Schotste Genevieve Murphy (1988) figureerde zelf als verteller annex zangeres in Squeeze Machine, geïnspireerd op het leven van haar autistische broer. In dit theatrale stuk debiteert zij met uitgestreken gezicht surrealistische teksten over de door angst en eenzaamheid gekwelde ‘Artuur’. Diens in zichzelf gekeerde personage wordt geregeld opgeschrikt door lawaaiige opnames uit een overvolle kroeg, waar accordeon- en doedelmuziek wordt gespeeld. Het vermakelijke stuk werd perfect en in opperste concentratie uitgevoerd door het IEMA Ensemble, een academie voor jonge musici van Ensemble Modern.

Genevieve Murphy performing ‘Squeeze Machine’ with IEMA Ensemble, Theater Kikker 7-9-2017

Apocalyptische smeekbedes

Klapstuk van de donderdag was de wereldpremière van Lacrimosa voor zeven violen van de Oekraïens-Nederlandse componist Maxim Shalygin (1985). Hij had zich altijd afgevraagd waarom het traditionele Requiem maar één lacrimosa bevat, de smeekbede van zondaars om mededogen en eeuwige rust. ‘In mijn beleving is dit deel het magische brandpunt waarin alle belangrijke ideeën samenkomen’, schrijft hij in een eigen toelichting. ‘Misschien daarom is het steevast ook het mooiste deel: vol gevoelens van pijn en catharsis. Langzaam maar zeker vormde zich bij mij het plan ook zelf een soort requiem te componeren.’

Dat werd Lacrimosa, or 13 Magic Songs. Shalygin dirigeerde zelf de zeven violisten van het mede door hem opgerichte ensemble Shapeshift. Lichtvoetige, elkaar innig omstrengelende motieven (‘Light’), omineus gezoem (‘Insects’) en verwoed over de snaren kolkende arpeggio’s (‘Stream’) worden afgewisseld met momenten van pure, etherische schoonheid (‘Lullaby’), driftige pizzizati (‘Rain’), gierende glissandi (‘Sirens’) en furieus wapengekletter (‘Prayers’).


Shapeshift & Maxim Shalygin, TivoliVredenburg 7-9-2017 (c) Herre Vermeer

Shalygin voert ons door een scala aan emoties, waarin gevoelens van wanhoop, vrees en woede overheersen; de apocalyps is nooit ver weg. De op blote voeten spelende musici leken met hun woest bewegende lijven en armen soms onder hun zware taak te bezwijken. Hun totale overgave droeg sterk bij aan een enerverende luisterervaring.

Lacrimosa werd gecomponeerd in opdracht van de Gaudeamus Muziekweek. Het festival heeft de afgelopen jaren het accent verschoven naar communicatieve muziek en merkbaar meer aansluiting gevonden bij een algemeen publiek; de concerten van Sung en IEMA waren goeddeels uitverkocht.

Of met Shalygins intense, tot het hart sprekende Lacrimosa voorgoed een punt wordt gezet achter de academische ‘piep-knor’, zal nog moeten blijken, maar de teerling is geworpen. Na afloop van het concert werd het publiek gevraagd een cd-uitgave van Lacrimosa werk te helpen realiseren via Voordekunst. Mijn advies: doen!

De Gaudeamus Muziekweek loopt nog tot en met zondag 10 september. Dan wordt ook de winnaar van de Gaudeamus Award 2017 bekengemaakt. Surf voor meer info en kaarten naar:


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Interactief muziektheater over vluchtelingen in Festival Oude Muziek

Van een festival gewijd aan oude muziek verwacht je veel, maar geen actueel muziektheater. Toch is dat precies wat artistiek leider Xavier Vandamme voor ons in petto heeft. Op zaterdag 26 en zondag 27 augustus presenteert straattheatergroep Kamchátka Musica Fugit, een voorstelling over vluchtelingen. Als bezoeker wordt je zelf onderdeel van het verhaal, om te ervaren wat het betekent als vluchten een manier van leven wordt. – Stevig schoeisel aanbevolen.

Toen Vandamme dit ‘improvisatorisch en interactief muziekavontuur’ programmeerde, kon hij niet bevroeden hoe dicht dit op de huid zou zitten van de realiteit. Kamchátka ontstond in 2006 in Barcelona. Het is een collectief van artiesten met verschillende nationaliteiten die een interesse delen voor immigratie. Onder leiding van Adrian Schwarzstein maakten zij verschillende producties rond het thema van de ontheemde, die zijn weg moet vinden in een vreemde wereld.

Bloedige godsdiensttwisten

De thematiek van Musica Fugit sluit naadloos aan bij het festivalthema ‘zing, vecht, huil, bid’, waarmee deze editie inzoomt op de verschillende (contra)reformaties. Religieuze twisten gaan veelal hand in hand met bloedvergieten en dat geldt evenzeer voor de christelijke wereld. Hervormers als Maarten Luther en Johannes Calvijn wilden de katholieke Kerk weliswaar vreedzaam hervormen, maar werden te vuur en te zwaard bestreden door de paus en rooms-katholieke vorsten.

Desondanks groeide de aanhang van de hervormingsgezinden razendsnel. Dit leidde tot verschillende godsdienstoorlogen en daarmee gepaard gaande vluchtelingenstromen. Zo bracht de Franse koning Lodewijk XIV in 1685 een massale migratie op gang toen hij het Edict van Nantes herriep. Dit betekende het einde van de tolerantie jegens protestanten, waarop honderdduizenden hugenoten een veilig heenkomen zochten in Engeland en de Nederlanden.

Generositeit of egoïsme?

In Musica Fugit plaatsen Schwarzstein en zijn collectief de vlucht centraal. – Niet in de zin van een ontsnapping, maar als vorm van verzet in een gevecht voor een betere wereld. Zij thematiseren tevens de solidariteit van medemensen die de vluchteling helpen zijn nieuwe leven vorm te geven. Kamchátka wordt voor de gelegenheid uitgebreid met het ensemble Zamus Kölln. Samen belichamen zij de ‘tijdloze immigranten’, die hun realiteit van de ene op de andere dag zien veranderen en een vertrouwd verleden verruilen voor een onzekere toekomst.

Theatergroep en musici voeren ons naar diverse ruimten en toevluchtsoorden. Zij creëren een beladen, mysterieuze sfeer onder de klanken van componisten als Barbara Strozzi en Johann Sebastian Bach. Met de sopraan Emma Kirkby – koningin van de oude muziek – als kers op de taart. Tijdens de tocht wordt het publiek zelf onderdeel van het drama, met de muziek als enige communicatiemiddel tussen uitvoerder en toehoorder. Zo ontstaat, ‘zonder woord, gebaar of fysiek contact een vorm van nabijheid en betrokkenheid’, die ruimte geeft aan ‘mijmeringen rond individualiteit en generositeit’.*

De vraag wordt niet expliciet gesteld, maar Schwarzstein en de zijnen houden ons een morele spiegel voor. Zijn wij bereid de hulpzoekers te verwelkomen, of steken we onze kop egoïstisch in het zand? – Dapper dat het Festival Oude Muziek zo’n zwaar beladen thema durft aan te snijden.

Voor Radio 4 maakte ik een reportage, die zaterdag 26 augustus werd uitgezonden in de pauze van het Avondconcert van AVROTROS. U luistert hem hier terug.

*Aldus het persbericht. Tijdens de voorstelling was er echter juist opvallend veel fysiek contact, wij werden als deelnemers zelfs enkele malen stevig omarmd…

Musica Fugit
za 26 aug, 10.00 + 14.00 uur, Leeuwenbergh
zo 27 aug, 10.00 + 14.00 uur, Leeuwenbergh
Info en kaarten


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New website catalogues persecuted Dutch composers

On Wednesday, 20 June, Kajsa Ollongren launched the website Forbidden Music Regained. This catalogue of composers persecuted by the Nazi’s was initiated by the Amsterdam based Leo Smit Foundation. The city’s deputy mayor and alderman called the project ‘a giant leap for mankind’, quoting the astronaut Neil Armstrong.

Ollongren continued: “The website is important to Amsterdam because we can and may not forget what happened seventy years ago in our town. It is an honour to launch it.” – Striking detail: under Ollongren’s responsibility, the support of the Leo Smit Foundation was stopped.

Kajsa Ollongren launches website Forbidden Music Regained, Uilenburgersjoel 20-6-2017

Driving forces behind this large-scale project are the flutist Eleonore Pameijer, initiator and artistic leader of the Leo Smit Foundation, and manager Carine Alders. With stubborn perseverance they searched domestic and foreign archives for information about Dutch ‘degenerate’ composers. – Most of whom lost their lives in concentration camps during World War II. Pameijer and Alders assembled an archive of almost 2000 works and sound recordings.

The launch of the website was preceded by an international symposium. Pameijer: “Together with the chairman of our board, I went to Kajsa Ollongren. We said: “We have not come to complain about the Amsterdam council’s decision to stop supporting us, but to ask for a contribution to the symposium. – Moreover we want you to personally launch the website.”

Ollongren gave them € 3500 for the symposium and promised she would indeed launch the website. Pameijer: “She was bowled over when she learnt what we’ve achieved in the past two decades. In addition to a successful – subsidized – concert series, we published the book Vervolgde componisten in Nederland (Persecuted composers in the Netherlands) in 2015, without any form of public funding. We also organized an accompanying exhibition and concerts in the Amsterdam City Archive.

International symposium

In order to realize all this, the Foundation managed to collect € 80,000 in private gifts. And with support from music shop Broekmans & Van Poppel, the Dutch label Et’cetera released a ten-CD box of forbidden music. Pameijer: “This release got great reviews in the BBC and Gramophone magazines, but hardly drew attention in the Netherlands. There was one positive review in the music magazine Luister (Listen) and an offer in Klassieke Zaken (Classical Matters).

International bigwigs gave talks at the symposium. Pameijer: “We deliberately chose people who really relate to the subject. We did not want hotshots that are only invited for their name. I’m proud that we were able to engage Abram de Swaan. He is a great thinker and sociologist, who views everything from a much wider context than, for example, a musicologist or music journalist.

Frank van Vree, the new director of the NIOD (Dutch War Archive), was one of the speakers, too. Pameijer: “At first he was reluctant, because he doesn’t know much about music. But he has a vast knowledge of the period and its history, so it was very interesting to hear him speak about this.”

The flutist is perhaps even more thrilled by the presence of Albrecht Dümling from Musica Reanimata Berlin. “Over the years we have assembled a lot of international contacts. None of them had ever heard of the composers we’d unearthed, and they were invariably excited about their music. Dümling even invited us to present a complete program on Rosy Wertheim, that was broadcast live on the radio. It was a huge success.”

Wealth of information

Forbidden Music Regained offers a wealth of information about persecuted Dutch composers. The site is excellently searchable, offering biographies, sheet music, recordings, manuscripts and audio clips. For example, when you type ‘Rosy Wertheim’ in the search box, a list of 114 compositions pops up. The search can be refined further, e.g. on length, period of origin, orchestral or chamber music and the like. You can listen to Wertheim’s lively Sonatina for piano.

With this new website the Leo Smit Foundation has once more proved itself to be an indispensable knowledge center for persecuted composers.

Patricia Werner Leanse made a video documentary of the presentation.

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Cd-box Kurtág: already historic

The three-piece CD box with choir and ensemble works by György Kurtág is overwhelming. His soul-piercing sounds are sublimely interpreted by Reinbert de Leeuw et al. Also, the recording is impeccable. This box is already historic, a monument to the Hungarian master, who turned 91 last February.

Kurtág’s existentialist music has been performed in The Netherlands since the mid-1970s, by pioneers such as the pianist Geoffrey Madge and Residentie Orkest (The Hague Philharmonic). However it gained real fame only after the 1990s, when Reinbert de Leeuw became its tireless promoter. De Leeuw dedicated many memorable concerts to this master of the concise gesture, with whom he forged a close bond.


On this edition of the adventurous German label ECM, Reinbert has even surpassed himself. With his unwavering urge to push for the essence of a composition, he inspired Asko|Schönberg, Dutch Radio Choir, Cappella Amsterdam and a selection of soloists to realize intense and animated interpretations.

Kurtág was too fragile to attend the recordings personally, but was consulted extensively before and after each session. He is very pleased with the result: “It’s as though they had recorded the music in their own language.” He spoke these words in a moving video message during a portrait concert in Muziekgebouw aan het IJ in 2016.

György Kurtág in video message – seated next to his inseparable wife Márta

A telling statement, for language is extremely important to Kurtág – in more ways than one. He created a completely personal grammar from tormented, aphoristic sounds, that well up from a deep inner necessity. Reinbert de Leeuw mastered this language like no other. Seven of the eleven pieces on the compilation are vocal. Kurtág even learnt Russian to read Dostoevsky; three cycles are set in this language.

Complete novel in seconds

Of these the best known is Messages from the late Miss R.V. Troussova, which signalled his breakthrough in Western Europe in the 1980s. In 21 miniatures, a soprano relates bitter love experiences. The longest song lasts 3 minutes, the shortest 22 seconds. However, in these brief periods of time, Kurtág sketches complete novels.

The Russian soprano Natalia Zagorinskaya brings across every subtle nuance, her pure and secure voice moving effortlessly between the highest and lowest registers. In the equally flawless ensemble – with atmospheric horn and cimbalom – we hear references to Schönberg’s Pierrot lunaire. Zagorinskaya also shines in Achmatova Songs which Kurtág dedicated to her, and in Four Capriccios on texts by István Bálint. These originated between 1959 and 1973 and form the opening of the CD-box, which is chronologically arranged.

György Kurtág & Reinbert de Leeuw (c) Co Broerse

Lesser known pearls

Some pieces may almost be called popular. For instance Grabstein für Stephan, with its simple, recognizable motif on the guitar’s open strings. The Beethoven-inspired … quasi una fantasia … for piano and ensemble is a modern classic, too. Equally well known, but less often played is the Double Concerto for piano, cello and ensemble, with pianist Tamara Stefanovich and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras as superb soloists.

There are also lesser known pearls. Like the Four Songs on Poems by János Pilinszky, with the glorious baritone Harry van der Kamp. The Songs of Despair and Sorrow for choir and instruments are not often performed either. In some 20 minutes, the Dutch Radio Choir switches between ultra-soft whispering, shattering shrieks, desolate lament and excited joy. At times we seem to find ourselves at a Russian village party – Kurtág even included a bayan, a Russian accordion.


The highlight is Samuel Beckett: What is the Word, composed in 1991 for the Hungarian actress and singer Ildikó Monyók. She lost her voice in a traffic accident, but recovered it with utmost effort. Grunting and groaning, her pain almost tangible for the audience, she sang a poem about aphasia by Samuel Beckett, in a Hungarian translation. A crushing experience – live as well as on cd.

Monyók died in 2012, but Reinbert de Leeuw was determined to record the piece anew. The extremely critical Kurtág resolutely rejected every suggestion – until he heard a recording by the mezzosoprano Gerrie de Vries. “We found her!”, he called out. And he is right. With her hoarse, gritty voice De Vries makes you involuntary grab your throat. – As if you are prevented from speaking yourself.

In short, music, performance and recording are immaculate. The only minor point is the somewhat awkward documentation. The performers are not listed together with the pieces, but elsewhere in the booklet, and the name of Cappella Amsterdam is missing. You have to find out for yourself how long a piece lasts; on the individual cd-covers even track numbers are missing.

Troublesome for radio programmers such as me. For the rest: nothing but praise. As a matter of fact I’m airing the recordings in several episodes of my programme Panorama de Leeuw. – Kurtág’s music cannot be heard often enough.

ECM Records: György Kurtág, Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir 3-cd’s € 37,99
Panorama de Leeuw 5 juli 2017: Kurtág: 4 Capriccio’s; What is the Word; …quasi una fantasia…; Double Concerto opus 27 nr. 2
Panorama de Leeuw 2 augustus 2017: Kurtág: Four Songs to Poems by János Pilinszky; Messages fom the Late Miss R.V. Troussova; Songs of Despair and Sorrow. J.S. Bach/ arr. György Kurtág: Das alte Jahr vergangen ist. Hommage à Leeuw
The biography  Reinbert de Leeuw, mens of melodie zooms in on the relation between De Leeuw en Kurtág.
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Waarom David Lang de Matthäus-Passion koppelt aan een sprookje

Een passie wijden aan een sprookjesfiguur? De Amerikaanse componist David Lang draait er zijn hand niet voor om. Hij baseerde zijn koorwerk the little match girl passion op een sprookje van Hans Christian Andersen. Donderdag 6 juli wordt het uitgevoerd door het Nederlands Kamerkoor in het Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ. Het concert vormt onderdeel van de Koorbiënnale en wordt verlevendigd met dans.

Christelijke puurheid

David Lang schreef het libretto zelf en gebruikte niet alleen teksten uit Het meisje met de zwavelstokjes, maar ook uit de Matthäus-Passion van Bach. Hij ziet namelijk een verband tussen het lijden van Christus en het lijden van de doodgevroren luciferverkoopster. Hij beschouwt Andersens sprookje als een allegorie van armoe en geloof. ‘Het meisje lijdt, wordt veracht door de omstanders, sterft en wordt verlost. Ondanks alles bewaart zij haar christelijke puurheid.’

Voor Lang ligt de kracht van het verhaal niet zozeer in de plot zelf, als wel in de subtiele tegenstellingen. ‘Alle onderdelen – de gruwelijkheid en de schoonheid – zijn continu doortrokken van hun tegendeel. Het bittere heden van het meisje wordt verzacht door zoete herinneringen; in haar armoede blijft ze toch steeds hoopvol. Er is een soort naïef evenwicht tussen lijden en hoop.’

Richard Oppel, Pulitzer Board co-chair (left), presents the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Music to David Lang

Publiek wordt deelgenoot

De stap naar de Matthäus-Passion van Bach was snel gezet. ‘Het interessante is dat deze ook teksten bevat die niet direct gerelateerd zijn aan het eigenlijke verhaal. Zoals reacties van de omstanders, boetvaardige gedachten, uitingen van algemeen verdriet, geschokthei of berouw.’

Dit gebeurt vaak in de vorm van koralen die de kerkgangers meezongen. Een ideale vorm volgens Lang. ‘Door het verhaal tegelijkertijd te vertellen en becommentariëren worden wij in het centrum van de actie geplaatst. We worden deelgenoot van de treurige gebeurtenissen op het toneel.’

Devote sfeer

De devote sfeer van the little match girl passion herinnert soms aan madrigalen en Byzantijnse gezangen. De koorleden zingen niet alleen, maar bespelen ook eenvoudige slagwerkinstrumenten. Mede door het repetitieve karakter van de muziek wordt het idee van een ritueel hierdoor versterkt.

In 2015 maakte vocaal ensemble Silbersee een geënsceneerde versie, die het publiek tot tranen roerde. Tijdens de uitvoering door het Nederlands Kamerkoor voegen twee danseressen een extra laag aan de tragedie toe. Volgens het persbericht is choreografe Neel Verdoorn ‘net zoals David Lang gefascineerd door de akeligheid versus de hoop’.

The little match girl passion werd onderscheiden met een Pulitzer Prize. ­– Net als Anthracite Fields van collega Bang on a Can componist Julia Wolfe, dat afgelopen zondag in de Koorbiënnale werd uitgevoerd. Benieuwd of het lijden van het zwavelstokmeisje net zo’n impact heeft als het lijden van de (jonge) mijnwerkers.

do 6 juli Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ 20.15 uur
Nederlands Kamerkoor / Peter Dijkstra
Info en kaarten 
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Heike Matthiesen features lyrical music on CD ‘Guitar Ladies’

The German guitarist Heike Matthiesen (1969) took music in with her mother’s milk. She was taken to the opera from an early age and started playing the piano when she was four years old. At eighteen she decided to pick up a guitar study. She showed a natural talent and was a master student of the renowned Spanish guitarist Pepe Romero. During her studies she played plucked instruments at the Frankfurt Opera and recently she presented her fourth solo album: Guitar Ladies.

In her preface Matthiesen writes: ‘I have chosen music which I like, and I love to play.’ She selected works of nine – female – composers, including six guitarists. The title Guitar Ladies is just as obvious as it is aptly chosen. Matthiesen writes she purposely avoided ‘demonstrative virtuosity’, selecting ‘pure music’ instead. This purity lies in the ‘extreme sensual sonority, which cherishes the silence between the notes’. Well said, for the pieces pair a mellifluous soundworld to a beguiling sensuality.

The CD opens with seven Songs without words by the German-British guitarist and composer Madame Sidney-Pratten (1821-1895). She began her career as Catharina Josepha Pelzer in a famous guitarist family. She gave concerts as a child prodigy and married a British flutist when she was 33. She moved to England, where she became a celebrated guitar soloist, composer and teacher, mentoring even the daughters of Queen Victoria. Her charming Songs abound in tuneful melodies, bathed in langourous melancholy.

From here Matthiesen takes us on a trip along another fifteen compositions, by e.g. the French guitarist Ida Presti (1924-1967), who is represented by Segovia. She dedicated this piece to the Spanish guitar king Andrés Segovia, and its dark harmonies and nimble strumming reference the work of the master. The unexpected melodic twists in the subsequent Serenade Sofia Goebaidoelina (1931) sound even more ‘Spanish’.

Although not herself a guitarist, the Czech Sylvie Bodorová (1954) has a great affinity with the guitar, for which she wrote two solo concertos. Her deeply melancholic Pocta Kolumbovi – Elegy harks back to Spanish models, especially flamenco.

The Argentine Carmen Guzman (1925-2012) was also inspired by folk music. Her Tangos and Waltzes are again very melodic, but have a bit more spunk. A contemplative atmosphere pervades Tendresse of the Dutch Annette Kruisbrink (1958) and the otherwise lighthearted Waltz in the little café of her Polish colleague Tatiana Stachak (1973).

The CD concludes with four works of the British-German Maria Linnemann (1947), whose Two Elegiac Pieces are dedicated to Matthiesen. Linnemann composed these intensely lyrical pieces at her request, for the project ‘Orpheus and the Power of Music’.

With her superior technique and warm tone Matthiesen is the ideal advocate of these relatively unknown composers. It is laudable she should promote their music, yet her choice for sensual, lyrical sounds has one drawback: there is little contrast between the different compositions. Halfway through the CD I found myself craving for some shrill dissonance or a relentless beat.

Moreover the selection is a tad stereotypical: music composed by women is sweet, elegant, and harmless. Undoubtedly this is unintentional, and it does not diminish Matthiesen’s excellent performance. – For those who like to swoon away to romantic guitar music, Guitar Ladies is the perfect CD.

Website Heike Matthiesen
Buy CD 

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Podcast Moritz Eggert on his opera Caliban: ‘Our exploitation of others now comes back to us’

The theme of the 2nd edition of the Amsterdam based Opera Forward Festival is ‘macht/onmacht’ (‘power/powerlessness’ ). The German composer Moritz Eggert composed Caliban for the Asko|Schönberg ensemble, three singers and a narrator. The libretto by Peter te Nuyl is based on the hapless character in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.

Scorned and abused by Prospero and others, Caliban learns from his surroundings, gradually evolving from victim into perpetrator. The opera will be premièred on 25 March in the Amsterdam Compagnietheater.

I spoke to Moritz Eggert after a rehearsal for the podcast underneath.

More info and tickets via this link

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Van Baerle Trio speelt ‘Tombeau pour Ton de Leeuw’

Van Baerle Trio: Hannes Minnaar; Gideon den Herder, Maria Milstein, foto Marco Borggreve

Zijn composities zijn het resultaat van een fusie van twee in hem levende, tegengestelde krachten. Enerzijds de wil om de in hem levende creatieve energie om te zetten en te kanaliseren in strakke, abstracte klankstructuren, anderzijds de neiging tot directe actie, het omzetten van de creatieve impulsen in een onmiddellijk, emotioneel geladen gebaar.’

Aldus Ton de Leeuw (1926-1996) over zijn student en vriend Daan Manneke (1939), die zijn leermeester eerde in verschillende composities. Zo droeg hij zowel het orkestwerk Sine nomine als Symphonies of Winds voor blaasorkest of orgel aan hem op. In 1998 componeerde hij Tombeau pour Ton de Leeuw voor vier mannenstemmen, waarvan hij later ook versies maakte voor o.a. gamba solo, cello en piano, en zelfs harp, cello en vijfstemmig koor.

Ton de Leeuw (c) Muziekencyclopedie

Ton de Leeuw (c) Muziekencyclopedie

Voor het Van Baerle Trio realiseerde hij een nieuwe bewerking voor piano, viool en cello, die op vrijdag 6 januari zijn wereldpremière beleeft in het AVROTROS Vrijdagconcert in TivoliVredenburg. Ik sprak Daan Manneke in 2015 naar aanleiding van een hommage-concert voor Ton de Leeuw.

Waarom wilde je bij Ton de Leeuw studeren?

‘Ton de Leeuw was een internationaal gezochte en gewaardeerde docent: vanuit de hele wereld stroomde men naar Amsterdam om compositie bij hem te studeren. Ik had in 1968 een cursus muziekesthetiek bij Olivier Messiaen gevolgd, en herkende bij De Leeuw dezelfde ondogmatische en open houding ten aanzien van het componeren. Het stond voor mij vast dat hij mijn nieuwe leraar moest worden. In ons land gold hij als eigenzinnig en onorthodox, omdat hij zich onttrok aan gangbare stijlen. Hij ontwikkelde een eigen stem, meer gericht op belichting dan op ontwikkeling.’

‘Zelf vergeleek hij zijn compositiemethode met de werking van een caleidoscoop. Het patroon lijkt dynamisch omdat het kleurenpalet voortdurend verandert, maar er komt geen enkele kleur bij, evenmin gaat er eentje af. Het is een in zichzelf ronddraaiend geheel, dat de illusie van beweging wekt. Zo schiep hij een circulaire tijdsbeleving, als een soort ‘eeuwigheid’ in een spiralen muziektrappenhuis.’

Daan Manneke (c)

Daan Manneke (c)

Heeft je eigen muziek raakvlakken met die van De Leeuw?

‘Ik denk het wel. Dat zit hem bijvoorbeeld in het gebruik van modaliteit in plaats van een rigide atonale systematiek. We hebben ook allebei een feeling voor vocaal, lineair denken en een ‘romaanse’ sonoriteit met lange, cantando lijnen. Ook delen we een voorliefde voor de Franse taal, die een zekere verhevenheid en monumentaliteit genereert. Ton is me zeer dierbaar, ik schreef als eerbetoon mijn Tombeau pour Ton de Leeuw 1926-1996, waarnaar in 2015 ook een cd vernoemd is met een versie voor cello en piano.’

Een muziekjournalist schreef hierover: ‘Daan Mannekes Tombeau pour Ton de Leeuw sluit naadloos aan bij de impressionistische klanken van Ravel. In slechts enkele minuten roept hij een wereld vol licht melancholieke herinneringen en droombeelden op, opgetekend in zachte, warme kleuren.’

Ik ben benieuwd hoe de versie voor piano, viool en cello gaat klinken in de uitvoering door het Van Baerle Trio van Hannes Minnaar, Maria Milstein en Gideon den Herder. Zij plaatsen Tombeau pour Ton de Leeuw naast pianotrio’s van Beethoven, Ravel en Tristan Keuris.

 Het concert wordt live uitgezonden op Radio 4. Meer informatie via deze link.
Foto Van Baerle Trio: Marco Borggreve

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