Joey Roukens honours J.P. Sweelinck: ‘He may well be the greatest Dutch composer ever’

Four hundred years ago, on 16 October 1621 to be precise, the organist, harpsichordist and composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck died in Amsterdam. Musicians from all over Europe flocked to the Dutch capital to hear the ‘Orpheus of Amsterdam’, and through his students, his influence reached as far as Johann Sebastian Bach.

To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Sweelinck’s demise, Joey Roukens composed a tribute, Vertekende Fantasie for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, that will be premiered on 29 October. It is his fourth commission from the orchestra, and I interviewed the composer for their magazine Preludium.

‘It is a great privilege to write for a top ensemble like the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’, says Joey Roukens (1982). ‘It gives a feeling of recognition that they have faith in me. Even though it’s my fourth commission, it remains challenging.’ However, it has become slightly less daunting over time, he acknowledges: ‘I no longer feel obliged to take into account what they like or dislike. With Out of Control, my first commission eleven years ago, I still thought I had to connect to the orchestra’s great Mahler tradition. As I get older, I worry less about the reputation of the performers or the repertoire they are renowned for. The RCO can handle anything, even if something is relatively far removed from them stylistically.

Connection to Sweelinck

Sweelinck is not the first composer that springs to mind when thinking of Roukens, yet the idea of a tribute did not come out of the blue, he explains. ‘Sweelinck runs like a small thread through my works. There is a Sweelinck quote in my string quartet Visions at Sea, about the maritime past of the Netherlands. There are also references to his music in my Percussion Concerto and in the more recent Angeli for female voices and cellos. I regularly play his keyboard works at the piano and it just so happens that artistic assistant Mark van Dongen of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra lives just around the corner from me. During incidental meetings in the street I told him about my love for Sweelinck.’

So when the idea of a tribute arose, the link with Roukens was obvious. The composer immediately seized upon the idea: ‘I found it a nice commission, but also a rather difficult one. For how can one, as a contemporary composer, honour such a specific predecessor from the 16th/17th century in a meaningful way? For me, Sweelinck is perhaps the greatest composer the Netherlands has ever produced. In any case, he is the most important Dutch composer of keyboard music. Via his pupils Scheidt and Scheidemann there is a direct line of influence through to Bach.’ Sweelinck’s vocal music attracts him slightly less, though: ‘The Cantiones Sacrae are splendid, but they are still entirely in the polyphonic tradition of the Renaissance, while his keyboard works already point forward to the Baroque.’

Artful structures from indifferent themes

He got to know Sweelinck’s music from the renowned Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, an English collection of 16th and 17th century keyboard music. ‘As a teenager I borrowed the book from the library and when I played it through on the piano I found one Toccata (SwWV 296) by a certain J.P. Sweelinck among all those pieces, mostly by English composers. It immediately appealed to me. The piece lasts only about five minutes but is typical of his keyboard style; I still often play it during my daily piano playing sessions. I especially love his Fantasies and Variations. It is music of enormous beauty and inventiveness, which, although built on English and Italian influences, still has its own unique character.’

Roukens once told me he did not consider himself a great melodist. This partly explains his affinity with Sweelinck, he says: ‘In that respect I find him fascinating, because his melodies – or rather his themes – are often not terribly captivating or distinctive in themselves. What makes his music interesting is how he subjects a simple theme to all kinds of contrapuntal techniques and figurations and creates a beautiful structure out of it. You can see this especially in the Fantasies, of which I have analysed several. These usually consist of just one, often unremarkable theme, which he artfully transforms into larger structures.’

Joey Roukens: ‘Vertekende Fantasie is Sweelinck seen through contemporary glasses.’

Distorted Fantasie

His love for Sweelinck’s Fantasies is reflected in the title Vertekende Fantasie (‘Distorted Fantasy’). Does this perhaps refer to one specific piece? ‘Yes, it does, the Fantasy SwWV 259 in Dorian mode, in which he once more creates an imposing structure from a rather “neutral” basic theme. I wanted to compose something in which the spirit of Sweelinck resounds, not a piece with one small quotation that has nothing to do with the rest. That’s how I came up with the idea of taking Sweelinck’s language as a starting point, but seen through contemporary glasses.’

‘My composition oscillates between the language of Sweelinck and my own. It’s a bit like hearing Sweelinck as in a dream – strangely distorted, surrealistically skewed. Somewhat comparable to how Berio approached Schubert’s music in Rendering. Sweelinck is never far away, but there is hardly a bar in which his notes sound completely original.’

Estranging and surrealist

How has he proceeded? ‘I always start the composition process by running my hands over the piano keys. However, since this time the rough basic material already existed, I started improvising over it. My piece starts and ends serene and meditative, just like most of Sweelinck’s works. But there are also great contrasts, moments of climax build-up and a transition to an intermediate section that is energetic and strongly rhythmic.’

‘These elements are characteristic of my style, but only came into use long after Sweelinck’s time. I briefly considered adding the organ, but in the end I thought it more interesting to use instruments that one would not readily associate with Sweelinck, such as piano, celesta, harp and percussion. That increases the estranging and surrealistic effect. In any case I have searched for more unusual colours and timbres in my orchestration.’

In 2017, at the request of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, he also composed a tribute to Leonard Bernstein, Boundless. In an interview at the time, he said he had had to discard quite a bit of material because it remained too close to Bernstein’s style. Did this problem occur again? ‘No, this time I had to delete considerably less. Precisely because Sweelinck’s music is so far removed from mine in terms of time and style, it was easier to honour him.’

The difficulty lay rather in finding the right concept, he says. ‘Although I will always be a slow writer, once I had found the right entrance, composing went smoothly.’

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Ukrainian Composer Maxim Shalygin honours Belarusian dissident Maria Kalesnikava in ‘While Combing Your Hair’

In 2011, Maxim Shalygin  (Ukraine, 1985) came to the Netherlands to study composition with Cornelis de Bondt and Diderik Wagenaar at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague. He never left and has meanwhile acquired a firm position in Dutch musical life with his adventurous pieces.

Commissioned by the AVROTROSVrijdagconcert he composed While Combing Your Hair for the Dutch Radio Choir. Peter Dijkstra will conduct the world premiere in the Jacobi Church in Utrecht on 8 October. The concert will be broadcast live on Radio 4.

The short piece is an indictment of the repression in Belarus and is dedicated to the musician and dissident Maria Kalesnikava. She was one of the three women who led the resistance against Aleksandr Lukashenko’s dictatorial regime in 2020. She was arrested, but when the authorities wanted to deport her, she demonstratively tore up her passport and was imprisoned. Recently, she was sentenced to 11 years in prison in a closed mock trial.

This was not only a blow to the opposition in Belarus and to Kalesnikava herself, but also a shock for Shalygin: ‘We met several times in Germany and became good friends. She is a warm, honest person, a moving personality. I miss her terribly.’ The composer seized the commission from AVROTROSVrijdagconcert offered him to express his feelings in music.

PERSONAL LETTER TO KALESNIKAVA

He wrote the text for his choral composition himself, which reads both like a lament and an attempt to buck Kalesnikava up. How did he conceive his text and who is actually speaking? Shalygin: ‘It is my personal letter to Maria. At the same time, it is indeed not always clear who is speaking; sometimes we hear voices in our heads.’

The writing process was difficult, says Shalygin: ‘On the one hand, my text is very personal, but at the same time I wanted to convey universal emotions through imagery. After I had finished a first draft, my friend Paul van der Woerd helped me improve it.’

Asked how he translated his poetic words into music, he replies in metaphor: ‘The structure of While Combing Your Hair reminds me of a stream that springs from a small source and rapidly expands into a mountain river, which in turn flows into a calm lake and freezes in it.’

Maxim Shalygin

Beautiful, but what should we expect from this in terms of sound? ‘I usually compose tonal music that sometimes becomes polytonal, or transitions into so-called extended tonality’, says Shalygin.‘I have been researching these techniques for years and have discovered how to develop them musically. Thus, this piece starts tonally and undergoes many modulations across different keys, to end up again in a simple, tonal music with a bright melody.’

VIBRATING BUT CALM CHORD

‘This melody is sung twice, but in a different colour scheme. Then it is incorporated into a polytonal chord that suddenly begins to vibrate.’ The vibration Shalygin refers to arises from the dissonant composition of this final chord (c-des-d-es-e-f-ges-g-as-a-b), in which with the exception of the b-flat all twelve semitones sound simultaneously.

Yet the ending does not evoke tension, but sounds instead very natural and calm, Shalygin emphasises: ‘While Combing Your Hair is my musical letter to Maria Kalesnikava. I want to float on the music and end up in the lakes I have never seen before and hope she can listen to my piece soon, sitting next to me in the concert hall.’

While Combing Your Hair

Wake up from your dream and look up straight to the sea.
Would you be silent, if its color turned suddenly red?
And from the emerald sky hundreds of various animals will start to fall down.
Will you believe the rainbow’s still near,
when at night the seagulls start screaming above all flooded market places,
will you take the hairbrush and start combing your dazzlingly stunning white hair?
The sound of the broken mirrors will freeze in the air:
thousands of silent shards!
And you will see lonely boats in quiet lakes with faces of fish:
praying, trembling and crying in primeval fear.
Let your hand shield your blue eyes
so darkness will be like blood in a world out of golden salt.
Stay in silence, and lift up your sorrowful,
exhausted face to the Sun.
Then flocks of birds will descend to every home,
people will hear them sing in their backyards.
And smiles will suddenly cover their frightened
yet trustful and beautiful souls.

Maxim Shalygin

Apart from the world premiere of While Combing Your Hair the choir will sing music by Dvorák, Bruckner and others.

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Cd La muse oubliée: pianist Antonio Oyarzabal showcases female composers: ‘It was difficult to find good editions of their scores’

On his CD La muse oubliée, Spanish-British pianist Antonio Oyarzabal places thirteen well-known and lesser-known composing ladies in the spotlight. The title speaks volumes, of course, because for centuries women were considered only as inspirers/muses, while their own compositions remained undervalued and unperformed.

But what drives a male musician to delve into the work of women composers? ‘I grew up in a world full of women who were independent, creative, strong and intelligent,’ Oyarzabal answers. He dedicated the CD to his mother, who taught him ‘to be curious about the unknown. From the time I was little I wondered where they were anyway, the women who were not mentioned in class, but whose presence you could still feel.’

not the exception but the rule

An exception was Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729) whose music he got to know at an early age. ‘This was when I started studying harpsichord in addition to piano.’ Later on, during a course in modern piano music, he got to know pieces by such luminaries as Elena Firsova, Sofia Gubaidulina and Karen Tanaka. ‘That felt like a privilege, for which I am grateful, but it shouldn’t be the exception but the rule!’

‘And my own passion for French music – impressionism, Groupe des Six – led me to discover Germaine Tailleferre and Lili Boulanger quite early on’, he adds. ‘The sound worlds of these two wonderful composers had a clear impact on me, and I have been including their works in my different programmes for years now. In my recitals I often play music by other fantastic women composers as well, such as Henriëtte Bosmans and Rebecca Clarke.’

Poor editons

He decided to undertake a year of research to discover even more neglected ‘female notes’. This proved to be easier said than done: ‘Unfortunately, the works discussed in biographies and encyclopedias often turned out to be impossible to find, or in poorly edited editions.’ Only later did he find his way to such institutions as Archiv Frau & Musik in Frankfurt am Main and Furore Verlag in Kassel, which specialize in music by women. ‘And the Dutch publisher Donemus helped me find scores of Henriëtte Bosmans.’

Bosmans may not have made it to the CD, but there is plenty to enjoy; Oyarzabal offers a fascinating selection of four centuries of music. In addition to the inevitable Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann and Lili Boulanger, he showcases a wide variety of composers. Ranging from the aforementioned Jacquet de la Guerre, court composer of Louis XIV, to Ruth Crawford (1901-1953), serialist avant-la-lettre, and from Mana Zucca (1885-1981) to Vítězslava Kaprálová (1915-1940), who like Leoš Janáček and her lover Bohuslav Martinů was inspired by the folk music of her homeland Moravia.

Arranged by mood

Remarkably, Oyarzabal has not arranged the pieces chronologically, but by mood. This works wonderfully well. For example, the Scottish Legend by Amy Beach (1867-1944), inspired by Scottish folk music, connects seamlessly with the romantic Prelude op. 73 by Zucca. After Beach, the swirling Femmes de légende by Mel Bonis (1858-1937), sometimes reminiscent of Debussy, sound completely natural. Nor is there a clash with the next track, featuring the contrapuntal Sélection de pièces de clavecin by Jacquet de la Guerre; pity though the virtuoso grace notes do not always sound as smooth as one would wish.

With his firm, clear toucher, Oyarzabal makes every note audible; in whichever style he plays, the music always sounds transparent. With his down-to-earth interpretation, he avoids sentimentality. Even Clara Schumann’s hyper romantic Drei Romanzen exude a somewhat matter-of-fact, detached atmosphere. But with his consistently unadorned interpretation, the pianist forges the various pieces into one coherent whole. Which, moreover, begins and ends in C-sharp minor, as he observes in the CD booklet.

Sadly, even today good performances of music by women are still rare. La muse oubliée offers a welcome addition to the existing body of recordings.

This article first appeared in both the Dutch and German issues of the music jounal Pianist.

Antonio Oyarzabal: La muse oubliée
Music by 13 female composers
LBS Classical LBS52021

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Marion von Tilzer composes Ten Songs of Change: ‘We are a drop in an immense ocean’

Recently Ten Songs of Change by composer-pianist Marion von Tilzer appeared on CD and LP. She composed this I Ching-inspired cycle of poetry and music for and with cellist Maya Fridman; author Lulu Wang selected the poems. Von Tilzer: ‘In China the I Ching (The Book of Changes) has the status of our Bible’.

‘Maya and I met in the winter of 2018 and immediately got into a conversation about mysticism,’ Marion von Tilzer (1968) explains enthusiastically. Shortly after, Fridman suggested devoting a composition for cello, piano and voice to The Book of Changes. She wanted to collaborate with the Chinese author Lulu Wang, who lives in the Netherlands.

Marion von Tilzer (c) Marco Borggreve

This idea immediately struck a chord with Von Tilzer: ‘I thought it was a wonderful prospect to be able to work with two such extraordinary artists, and fortunately Wang was willing to participate. Then Maya and I started brainstorming.’

Chinese Bible

Both had to acknowledge not to have an in-depth understanding of the Chinese book of proverbs. Von Tilzer: ‘Although I regularly read a translation that I had acquired in 1992, the book remained cryptic to me. Through the project I learned to understand it better, partly thanks to the insights and ideas of Lulu Wang. We often think of The Book of Changes as an oracle book, but it is a classic literary work that in China has the status of our Bible. Philosophical movements like Taoism and Confucianism converge in it.’

In the end, Von Tilzer decided to take the eight trigrams that form the basis of The Book of Changes as a starting point. These are Heaven; Lake; Fire; Thunder; Wind; Water; Mountain and Earth, concepts with which she feels a connection: ‘Each trigram has its own atmosphere and also refers to seasons, parts of the day, emotions and even sounds. In those underlying stories I heard music.’

Marion von Tilzer: ‘Ten Songs of Change is a fabric of experiences and moods that reflect the constant changes in nature.’

She gives some examples: ‘The spiritual association of “Mountain” is silence, which manifests positively as introspection and negatively as stagnation. The time experience involves the early morning and the sound suggests deep, subdued tones. My music here is hushed, with a great emphasis on the low C in cello and piano.’

‘The trigram “Wind” stands for gentleness, among other things, and is set for solo cello. It is very peaceful, as if a gentle breeze is rustling through the strings. “Lake” is associated with evening, innocence and reflection and, in terms of sound, with splashing and murmuring. I taped the piano strings to shorten the tone. Combined with pizzicati from the cello, this creates a light-hearted atmosphere.’

From morning song to lullaby

The eight trigrams are arranged so that the cycle runs through the complete twenty four hours of day and night. Von Tilzer added a prologue and an epilogue: ‘It begins with a morning song and ends with a lullaby. In the prologue, Maya, improvising on her cello and with her voice, responds to a tape recording of a love song sung by a young woman of the Mosuo tribe. In the epilogue, Maya sings a poem by Li Shangyin (813-858) in Chinese, while simultaneously performing a written-out cello part.’

Six poems are woven through the cycle, hence the description ‘poetry concerto’. Contrary to expectation, these are not verses from The Book of Changes: ‘Lulu Wang intended to make a text selection to match my music, but gradually felt that poems would be a better fit. She chose poetry from the Tang and Song Dynasties (618-1279), a period that is considered the golden age of Chinese culture. ‘The poems are close to the emotions of the trigrams and the music, it is a fabric of experiences and moods that reflect the constant changes in nature.’

INTUITIVE TRUTH

Von Tilzer is convinced text and music together tell one story: ‘During rehearsal, Lulu suggested poems, and Maya and I chose which one best suited the mood. Her selection is recited on the album by Lei Qiu, in Mandarin. Maybe a shame if you don’t know Chinese, but the language is so musical and fits the composition so well that it shouldn’t be a problem. Moreover, there are English translations in the booklet.’

Has the project brought her new insights herself? ‘Definitely! I have realized that we are guided by our constantly changing thoughts, which continue day and night and determine from moment to moment how we experience life. Moreover, it have come to understand that not everything can be fathomed with our intellect; there is also a deeper, intuitive truth.’

‘All 7 billion people, while different as individuals, are also connected to the energy of the earth itself, in essence we are all equal. Each of us is but a drop in an immense ocean, a soothing thought.’

This article first appeared in Dutch in the music journal Luister.

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Thomas Larcher voices fatal mountain climb in Third Symphony

In 2020, the world premiere of Thomas Larcher‘s Third Symphony fell through due to corona. The subtitle A Line Above the Sky refers to British mountaineer Tom Ballard, who fatally crashed in 2019. It wasn’t until February 2021 that the Symphony actually sounded for the first time, in Brno; on 25 September the belated Dutch premiere will be presented by the  Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of chief conductor Karina Canellakis as part of the radio series NTRZaterdagMatinee.

Thomas Larcher, born in 1963 in Innsbruck, is considered one of the most important composers of his generation. He is also a welcome guest in the Netherlands. He was the resident composer of the Concertgebouw in 2019-20 and the NTRZaterdagMatinee has staged many (world) premieres. Just this past May, the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, pianist Kirill Gerstein and principal conductor Karina Canellakis reaped great acclaim for the (also postponed) premiere of his Piano Concerto.

Thomas Larcher climbing Via Labyrinth Giallo (6c) am Piz Ciavazes

‘Pianist Kirill Gerstein and the orchestra draw you into an enchanting landscape’, wrote the Volkskrant – and gave five stars. ‘What follows is an exuberant finale on jazzy hopscotch rhythms’, the NRC noted. ‘Afterwards, you’ll want to hear Larcher’s Piano Concerto again immediately.’ I’d be surprised if his Third Symphony doesn’t lead to jubilant reviews again. The recording of its Austrian premiere in August, once more illustrates his apt sense of form and colourful way of orchestrating.

TYROL

Thomas Larcher is also valued in his homeland. In 2019 he received the Grosser Österreichischer Staatspreis and last June he received the Tiroler Landespreis für Kunst. This highest art award of the Austrian state of Tyrol is not only a tribute to the musical significance of the composer and pianist, but also a thank you for his relentless commitment to the culture of his native region. In 1994 he founded the Klangspuren festival, focused on new music, followed ten years later by the interpreter’s festival Musik im Riesen; both attract international luminaries.

The mountainous landscape of Austria is a constant source of inspiration for Larcher. An avid mountaineer and skier himself, he says he finds relief and solace in its rugged nature. No wonder he is fascinated by British alpinist Tom Ballard (1988-2019). Ballard established several imaginative climbing routes, including the Seven Pillars of Wisdom on the Eiger in Switzerland. He was also the first mountaineer to solo climb all six major alpine north faces in one winter season.

SILENT GIANTS

In 2015, Ballard gained world fame when he created the D15 route in the Dolomites, A Line Above the Sky. He designed this track using the dry-tooling method: the climber only has crampons on his shoes and an ice axe in each hand. Back then the route was the most difficult one in the world, though it is only some 45 metres long: it starts out vertically but very soon becomes almost entirely horizontal, so that the mountaineer quasi climbs ‘under a ceiling’.

In his own programme notes, Larcher expresses his admiration for Ballard: ‘He was one of the most fascinating and best alpinists of his generation, and was particularly strong in winter climbing.’ The composer is convinced that the fact Ballard named his infamous dry-tooling route A Line Above the Sky testifies of his desire to ‘live in the light’.

As an amateur climber, Larcher recognizes the strong connection Ballard felt with the mountains, ‘those silent giants that have been watching us for a long time’. He compares the Brit’s passion for mountaineering to his own devotion to music.

LIFE’S WORTH

Larcher, however, has less understanding for Ballard’s deliberation to put his life on the line, which eventually proved fatal  to him. During an expedition to Nanga Parbat, Pakistan in February 2019, Ballard disappeared from the radar; not long after, they found his disembodied body. Larcher: ‘That someone should persist in his attempts to climb the Nanga Parbat even in very poor weather conditions is beyond me.’

For the composer, this inevitably leads to metaphysical questions such as, ‘What is life’; ‘How much is your life worth to you’, and ‘What does your life mean to others?’ With these thoughts in mind, he composed his Third Symphony in 2019. The thirty-minute piece has two, untitled movements. The first is ‘a testimony to the intensity of life’, the second a ‘Trauermusik’ (mourning music)..

FROM COOKIE TIN TO THUNDER PLATE

As in earlier orchestral works, Larcher has expanded the regular orchestral lineup. Thus, in addition to their own instruments, the wind players play slide whistles, vibraslaps and water phones. The four percussionists not only operate an array of tuned and un-tuned percussion, but also a cookie tin, a milk pan, paper, an oil drum and other unlikely musical instruments.

Wind machine and thunderplate are generously employed and a starring role is given to cimbalom, accordion, celesta, harp and piano. – Some of the piano strings are fitted with E-bows or dampened with erasers, almost a matter of course in Larcher’s sound universe.

With this orchestral apparatus, Larcher manages to evoke both the expansive vistas and the implicit menace of the mountains. In claustrophobically dense sound fabrics, ascending and descending motifs battle for precedence. Icy highs find a counterpoint in abyssal lows; frivolous swirls are intersected with ominous thunderclaps; sudden silences make you hold your breath. The pace is slow, the orchestral sound luscious and expansive; Mahler is never far away.

SPIKE STAIRS

The soundscape constantly shifts between intoxicating stillness, arcadian lyricism, restrained tension and deafening roaring, just as in the mountains new landscapes and dangers lurk behind every corner. Striking are the many passages in which a soloist ‘climbs’ melodically up or down, while the cimbalom builds a spiky staircase with measured strokes. Toward the end, dissonant cries from the brass, solid drumbeats, violent tremoloes in the strings, a fierce accordion, and roaring tubular bells create an anxious climax.

The Symphony ends with a shrouded heartbeat in the piano, which is smothered in a charged silence, the strings softly dying away. – Suspended in mid-air hangs the almost rhetorical question: was it all worth it? 

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Gaudeamus nominee Jenny Beck is inspired by nature: ‘Farmlands and forests are sonically very rich’

Vocalist and composer Jenny Beck is one of the four nominees of the Gaudeamus Award 2021. In fact the selection was already made last year, but due to corona the competition was postponed. During the festival Beck’s music will be featured in several concerts, including the brand new Memory Town, composed especially for ensemble VONK. On Sunday 12 September the winner will be announced. He or she will receive € 20,000 for a new composition to be premiered in the next edition.

Jenny Beck (1985) writes music for instruments, voices, electronics, and found objects in a variety of small and large ensembles. She is currently pursuing a PhD in music composition at Princeton University, and heard about the Gaudeamus competition through social media. ‘I am looking forward to spending time rehearsing with the ensembles’, she says, ‘getting to know the musicians as well as the other composers and the panellists.’*

‘I find I learn a lot about my work during rehearsals and in live concert settings. Since I’m getting the opportunity to have this experience with three of my pieces at once, I anticipate coming away with some new perspectives and ideas for my current and upcoming projects: aspects of my composing that I’d like to do more of, do less of, develop more, circle back to, etcetera.’ 

Your work often relates to nature, whence this interest?  

‘I grew up in a tiny neighbourhood situated among farmland and forests. These environments are sonically very rich; every season has a different soundscape. And since the sounds come from the environments themselves, they are completely immersive, always all around you, with sounds emanating from seen and unseen sources, from distances near and far, from manmade objects, animals, trees, and more.’

‘You can’t always tell what sound is coming from where, and for my imaginative brain – especially as a child, especially at night – this ambiguity was and is a source of deep fantasy, both fearful and comforting. I now credit my early immersion in these soundscapes as the origin of my musical thinking, and I try to build worlds that are just as evocative and mesmerizing.’

You often employ non-musical instruments, so called ‘found objects’. How do you develop your music? 

‘When I first approach a piece, I feel like I can see it as a whole entity from a distance. The work, then, is to get close to it and see what it’s made of, so that I can translate that from my inner world to this one. Each work may have different parameters or qualities that are important, whether it’s pitch, rhythm, texture, colour, space, noise, breath, flow, mood, or yet something else.’

‘Non-musical sounds can be useful if I want something that is familiar but strange, or something to fill in the gaps between more discrete sounds, or something to create a blur effect within a texture.’

‘Actually, one of my original interests with found sounds was to work with noises where ‘Actually, one of my original interests with found sounds was to work with noises where duration is built into the gesture that produces them. For example, if you pour a bowl full of beads into another bowl, the duration is set by the quantity of beads in the bowl and how fast you pour them.’

Jenny Beck: ‘I’ve been really inspired by Joan La Barbara’s approach to sound as a physical entity’

‘So then if I ask a performer to pour the bowl of beads six times, that gesture becomes a rhythm of sorts, and even a structuring element in the piece. I also do this with conventional instruments, where I ask performers to hold notes until the end of a bow or breath. – The found sounds are simply a natural extension of that concept.’ 

Would you have any composers who inspired you?

‘Yes! I’ve been really inspired by Joan La Barbara’s approach to sound as a physical entity; by Unsuk Chin’s rigour and attention to detail; by Jo Kondo speaking about how he lets the notes he writes tell him which note should come next; by Pauline Oliveros and Laurie Spiegel’s work with early electronic instruments, how they used technology to engage with the cosmic and sublime; and by Christine Burke and the clarity of her ideas and her commitment to them.’ 

Is there a piece you look especially forward to in the Gaudeamus festival? 

‘I’m proud of different pieces for different reasons, since I set a specific goal for each one of them. Long It Glows, that will be performed by the New European Ensemble on Friday 10 September,was important for me because it was the first piece I wrote entirely in box notation. It ended up being more than twice as long as I expected, so that was an important lesson!’

‘It was also a risk for me to ask the musicians to pluck the piano strings and sing for a section of the piece. I wanted to open up a portal to another world within this world I’d already created; I’m really happy with how that has turned out.’

What are you working on at the moment?

‘I’ve been working on things for the last couple of years that haven’t made it out into the world yet, largely because of the pandemic. I have an album of ambient electronic music that I’m hoping to release in the coming year. It feels like a big accomplishment because it’s music that I always wanted to write. It was hiding inside me somewhere, and I was finally able to get past my mental and emotional blocks and write it.’

‘I’m also working on a big piece that I’m singing, which includes many of the same elements as Memory Town that I wrote for VONK for this festival. These pieces bring together many threads of my work – writing for voice, fully notated music, box notation, found sounds, and electronics – and I’m really excited to see how they turn out and where they will take me next.’

* It’s a jury of three: the Japanese composer Karen Tanaka, The British-American composer Oscar Bettison and the Greek-Dutch composer Calliope Tsoupaki.

On Friday 10 September at 21.30 hrs I will moderate a meet & greet with the nominees.

PS 15 September: our talk was captured on video.

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Gaudeamus nominee Annika Socolofsky: ‘All the fun lies in those messy moments between the notes’

Composer-vocalist Annika Socolofsky is one of the four nominees for the Gaudeamus Award 2021. Two years ago this prize for young composers was won by Kelley Sheehan; last year’s competition was postponed due to corona. Socolofsky’s work will be featured during several concerts, but she also composed a new piece for the accordion/clarinet duo Zöllner-Roche especially for the festival. On Sunday 11 September the winner of the Gaudeamus Award 2021 will be announced.

‘Donnacha Dennehy, one of my mentors, encouraged me to take part in the Gaudeamus competition’, says Annika Socolofsky (1990). ‘I look forward to making live music again with fellow musicians in a concert context. For this to be my first experience back during the pandemic feels like fasting for a year and a half, and then dining at the most wonderful restaurant. As excited I am to be performing again myself, I really look forward to taking in as many concerts as I can, experiencing the premieres by my fellow nominees.’

Annika Scolofsky (c) Nadine Dyskant-Miller

COMPOSER-PERFORMER

You are both a composer and a performer, how do you see the relationship between the two?

‘For me, there is no way to un-link them. I don’t think of myself as a composer and a performer, but as a composer-performer. When I’m composing, I’m always thinking about how the music will feel in the body of the performer – what the gestures will feel like, how the energy of the piece will build and dissipate in a manner that feels natural and satisfying to play, what the dialogue will feel like between performers. I’m constantly moving around, conducting, walking, trying to get the music into my physical being, so I know it will feel natural and rewarding to perform, even if I’m not performing it myself.’

‘When I’m performing, I can’t turn off my composer mind. No two performances are alike. I’m always improvising micro variations and micro inflections that respond to the other performers, or the resonance of the hall in real time. I love being flexible and composing in-the-moment like that. You get to feed off the energy and ideas of the musicians you’re performing with. It’s an exhilarating and collaborative way of composing that I don’t get to experience when writing alone in my studio.’ 

Annika Socolofsky: ‘When I’m performing, I can’t turn off my composer mind.’

On your website you describe yourself as an avant folk vocalist who explores corners and colours of the voice frequently deemed to be “untrained” and not “classical.” How are we to understand this?

‘I feel like I sing in all the ways that classical vocalists are told not to: I belt a lot (kind of a curated, musical shout), I do death-metal style growls, I explore types of vibrato that are not classical, I’ll use a microphone so I can produce sound that wouldn’t normally project through a concert hall in an acoustic setting, and I gravitate really strongly to the music that lies between the notes in folk music.’

‘This between-the-note music is a whole world of ornamentation, inflection, gesture, and swells that folk music lives for, but is often excluded from modern day classical vocal practice. I live for those messy moments between the notes. That is where the fun, the joy, the emotional connection lies for me.’

DOLLY PARTON

In this respect you often refer to Dolly Parton. What makes her so special?

‘The link between me and Dolly is those moments between the notes I’ve just mentioned. Dolly Parton is one of the greatest composers of all time, in my opinion. She’s written thousands of incredible songs that tell women’s stories. But not only is she a wonderful composer, she also approaches her vocal technique from a deeply compositional mind-set. If you take a recording of hers and hone in on a single vocal phrase and zoom in ever more closely, you will find the most spectacular density of vocal inflection, ornamentation, and nuance.’

‘But what’s so amazing to me is not the density or the nuance per se. It’s how this gorgeous web of inflections serves such a natural and powerful purpose within the larger line and the larger story of the song. Dolly’s moments-between-the-notes hit me straight in the heart. They are these pangs of emotion so small, but so powerful that I find myself breathless. Those moments mean the world to me. – I’ve been working on my Dolly Parton impersonation for years, and would be happy to demonstrate some examples of this live.’*

DEFYING SOCIETAL DEFINITIONS OF WOMANHOOD

You will perform ‘Don’t Say a Word’ in the Gaudeamus festival, which addresses the feminist issue. It strikes me that even in 2021 the theme of female composers still touches upon an open nerve. What’s your take on this?

‘I couldn’t agree with your article more: “women composers” is NOT a theme! Especially as a queer woman, I often find this kind of concert themes problematic. They try to draw some kind of sense of “universal womanhood” out of what is essentially lazy programming. Personally, I don’t feel that there IS any such thing as universal womanhood (aside from the fact that we all experience misogyny of various varieties).’

‘As a queer woman, my experience with my gender and sexuality is extraordinarily different from the one society tries to model for me. I’m constantly fighting against society’s definition of womanhood so that I can un-become the things I was taught to be that disagree with who I truly am.’

Annika Socolofsky: ‘Dolly Parton is one of the greatest composers of all time.’

‘And that’s where my piece Don’t say a word comes in. It’s part of a larger song cycle (soon to be released on CD) of feminist rager-lullabies for a new queer era. Lullabies are a centuries-old way of conditioning children with “morals” and societal expectations that are not only sexist, but also deeply homophobic. So I took these old texts from lullabies and nursery rhymes and re-set them to new music, changed the words, altered the meaning so that I could re-tell those lessons in a way that reflects the many facets of my identity.’

‘A cool thing about lullabies is that they’re the only performing space we have as vocalists where there’s no audience. When you’re singing a lullaby to a young child, they’re mostly taking in the musical aspects of the vocal line. It’s not until they are older that they really start processing the words. So mothers singing lullabies to their children are granted this safe performing space, where you can essentially sing the words and thoughts that are not safe to share in society.’

DISTURBING LULLABIES

‘This is why, throughout history and across cultures, you can find so many lullabies with texts that are deeply disturbing. For example, the English language lullaby Rockabye Baby is about a baby falling to the ground from a tree. Or, there is this Sephardic lullaby, Una madre comió asado (“A mother roasts her child”). The mother sings of an invading army, and her plan to roast her child before the soldiers arrive, to save it from a worse fate.’

‘That’s dark. But in society, women are not allowed to express the darkness of motherhood, they’re not allowed to show anger, they’re not allowed to deviate from society’s definition of womanhood. As musicologist Andrew Petitt puts it, “lullabies are the space to sing the unsung, to say the unsayable. You’re alone. Nobody is listening.” So you can express feelings that are inacceptable in society.’

Don’t say a word is one such lullaby, which explores the text of Hush little baby, followed by an unexpected turn in the original lyrics. It also explores the word “hush” in great detail. “Hush” is an interesting word in that it can be aggressive and silencing, but also calming and loving.

Which of your pieces are you proud of most?

‘Wow, that’s really hard to answer. I have to say I am most proud of the pieces that manage to capture that Dolly Parton sense of heart-pangs. I compose so that I can hopefully connect with people the way Dolly Parton has connected with me through her music. So I’m most proud of the pieces that have managed to do that.’

On Friday 10 September at 21.30 CET I will moderate a meet & greet with the four nominees in TivoliVredenburg

*In our talk I took up Annika on her promise to impersonate Dolly Parton; it was captured on video.

On 12 September Annika Socolofsky was declared winner of the Gaudeamus Award 2021

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CD ‘Fantasy’ Laura Kaminsky: scintillating music featuring star pianist Ursula Oppens

In the United States she is a celebrity, but in the Netherlands Laura Kaminsky (1956) is fairly unknown. Undeservedly so, because her music is both powerful and poetic and has an effervescent energy. The recently released CD Fantasy contains four compositions that were written between 2007 and 2019. All pieces were composed with or for piano and are played by Ursula Oppens. The subtitle ‘Ursula Oppens plays Kaminsky‘ highlights the decades-long friendship between composer and performer.

Ursula Oppens

Oppens is a well-known advocate of modern music and is also a regular guest in our country. Numerous icons of the avant-garde have composed pieces for her, including György Ligeti, Elliott Carter, Luciano Berio, Joan Tower and Meredith Monk. No wonder, because her playing is unprecedentedly rich and nuanced; she is the ideal interpreter for every composer. – Three of the pieces on the CD were composed especially for Oppens.

Irregular rhythms

Like Bartók and Ligeti, Laura Kaminsky often makes use of irregular rhythms. From 1992 to 1993 she studied African drum patterns in Ghana, three years later she delved into the characteristic dance rhythms in irregular metres of Eastern Europe. Her music breathes great freedom and switches at lightning speed between weightless cascades of notes in the style of Debussy, wild hammerings in the style of Prokofiev, jazzy syncopations, and tones placed pointillistically in space.

The Piano Quintet was created in 2019 as a gift for Oppens, who celebrated her 75th birthday that year. The opening movement is built on a rhythmic groove in 13/8 time, in which piano and strings seem to want to outdo each other with fierce rhythmic motifs; the second movement is a solemnly spun-out lament; in the third and final movement, thundering piano clusters and aggressive string lines are infused with lilting lyricism. Oppens and the Cassatt String Quartet give a spirited performance.

Fantasy, the solo piece from which the CD derives its title, is the only one not written for Oppens. In the booklet Kaminsky calls their collaboration ‘a fantasy, a dream come true’. In about twenty minutes, many different atmospheres pass by. Frolicsome runs remind one of Schönberg’s Pierrot lunaire and swinging boogie-woogie is alternated with faltering rhythms à la Conlon Nancarrow or a mangled waltz.

The single-movement Piano Concerto that Kaminksy composed in 2011, has a strikingly chamber music approach. It opens with a swirling cadenza over the entire piano keyboard, with a double bass sneaking in on stocking feet with long sustained notes. Magnificent solos by flute, oboe, bassoon and trumpet, gossamer strings and atmospheric percussion build the tension to a shrill, forte climax. Then the orchestra falls silent abruptly, whereupon the piano embarks on another cadenza and the story starts all over again, as it were. Hats off to Oppens, the Arizona State University Orchestra and conductor Jefferey Meyer for their excellent interpretation.

Laura Kaminsky (c) Rebecca Allan

Country in turmoil

Perhaps the most beautiful piece is Reckoning for piano four hands Kaminsky composed in 2019 especially for the CD. It is performed by Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal. In her explanatory notes, Kaminsky refers to the ‘tumultuous political landscape’ and increasing polarisation in her country; the subtitle reads ‘Five Miniatures for America’. Without mentioning former President Trump by name, the titles of the five miniatures speak volumes.

In ‘Majestic. Yet.’ the two pianists create an image of a still powerful country, with solemn chords and sparkling swings of notes. ‘Hurtling. Still.’ paints a picture of stockbrokers swarming on Wall Street. Lovely motifs in the treble register are stopped by angry chords in the low register in ‘Reverie’; this procedure is intensified in ‘Divided’. In the closing ‘Forward. Yet.’ cautious optimism shines through.

For those who don’t know the music of Kaminsky, Fantasy is a brilliant introduction, for the connoisseur it is yet another confirmation of her quality.

This review first appeared in the Aug/Sept issue of the Dutch music magazine De Nieuwe Muze. In July I interviewed Ursula Oppens for my blog, and played Reckoning in my radio show on Concertzender.

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From the meaningful to the elusive – An interview with cellist-composer Wilma Pistorius

Her website sums it up nicely. At the age of three, Wilma Pistorius found herself irrevocably drawn to a cellist playing on the street; a year later she started her cello lessons. She not only learned to play the instrument but also made up her own tunes, and in her teens she started composing seriously. She recently completed Crossroads. The 8 movements of this cycle form the core of the debut CD of ensemble Ugly Pug. I interviewed her for Dutch Composers Now.

As so often with beautiful stories, the truth is a little more mundane. ‘I can’t really remember what I found so irresistible about the cello when I was three’, admits Wilma Pistorius (1991, Belville, South Africa). ‘We still lived in South Africa, but at the time I was in Bath, England with my parents. When I saw the busker playing, I exclaimed “Mamma, I want to do that too!” and she said I could when I was four. I remembered the promise, and just before my fourth birthday, I asked if she’d bought me a cello, yet.’

EXISTENTIAL SIGNIFICANCE

The instrument is inextricably linked to her life and work: ‘For as long as I can remember, playing the cello has been something I have always wanted to do – and have done. It has given me something that is truly mine: the relationship with myself and my creativity through the cello is very valuable. This has inevitably evolved over the years, but is still of existential significance.’

As a child, she also thought up her own tunes and wrote out existing music by ear. In my teens I started composing seriously, creating and developing musical material with attention to overarching concepts and underlying structures. Before that I didn’t really know that composing could be a profession, it seemed more like something that ‘happened’ to you.’

At thirteen, Pistorius moved to the Netherlands with her parents. ‘My father had the opportunity to obtain his doctorate here in antenatal ultrasound imaging. That was very convenient for me, because in the Netherlands there were many more opportunities to develop as an artist than in South Africa!’ She went straight to the Academie Muzikaal Talent in Utrecht, where she received cello lessons from Lenian Benjamins.

‘That was between my 13th and 18th birthday’, says Pistorius. ‘Lenian gave me a whole new perspective, teaching me to play with less tension by employing more natural gestures and making a better use of weight and gravity. She moreover told me about the Alexander Technique, for which I have been a teacher in training myself since 2017. This has not only brought me a great deal of ease and lightness in how I move, and play the cello, but also in my creative process and my entire way of being.’

TWO WORLDS MEET

At nineteen, she went to study with Jeroen den Herder at the Rotterdam Conservatoire. ‘I learned a lot from Jeroen as well. With him I really “grew up” as a cellist. I found my own voice, because he believed in me and treated me as an equal. And, since he is very much at home in the world of new music, I got the chance to immerse myself in that, too and bring two of my worlds together: cello and composition.’

Jeroen den Herder

During the same period, she studied composition at the Conservatory of Amsterdam with Wim Henderickx and Jorrit Tamminga. ‘It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what I learned from my various teachers. Over the years, their lessons and advice have become a whole, in which the individual threads can no longer be clearly distinguished. The most important thing I learned from them was less a matter of specifics than their overall approach. In that respect, all three of them continue to inspire me.’

A few things do stand out, however. ‘The first thing that springs to mind when I think of studying with Jeroen is that he gave me confidence as a cellist. Jorrit taught me that music can also be “cool”, and draw inspiration from other styles. My musical taste is very broad, but for a long time I thought the only thing that really counted was Classical Music (with capital letters), and that anything else ranked as guilty pleasures. Thanks to Jorrit, I dared to integrate my broad taste in my work, which ultimately leads to more inspiration!

‘And Wim… Wim’s attitude is very aesthetic. He understands the way timbre appeals to me, and how I try to capture the intangible. Because he understood these non-verbal aspects of my creative process, I learned to regard them as valuable myself. His own work also confirmed to me that, as a composer, I can and may seek out stillness and beauty.’

SERIOUS WITH A WINK

In her biography, Pistorius writes that her music is ‘serious but with a wink’. How are we to understand this? ‘In essence, my music arises from the interaction between how I experience myself and the world around me. The creative process always starts from something meaningful: something elusive that I cannot put into words. – That is precisely why I write music! In translating these abstract, sensory and inner experiences into notes and sounds, I can only be sincere. Hence “serious”.’

‘But “serious” needn’t necessarily be “heavy”. For me, lightness, humour and playfulness are essential: they are integral to how I experience the world. They contribute for instance to the meaning of a theme or a piece of music; they make it human. If something is only serious, it loses some of its meaning. By counterbalancing it with lightness, I find an opening to make it my own. Hence the “wink”.’

MYSTERIOUS FEMINITY

On her website Pistorius writes that her music has a ‘mysterious feminine ambiance’. In these (post) feminist times, this comes across as a dire form of political incorrectness. What does she mean by this? ‘As I said before, my music originates from my personal reaction to the world around me. For example, the feeling of softness and promise that a beautiful sunset evokes in me. An important part of the “interaction” comes from who I am, and the inner perception of myself.’

‘There are many different aspects of the self: “Man is an onion made up of a hundred integuments, a texture made up of many threads”, writes Herman Hesse in Steppenwolf. You experience these different aspects largely subconsciously, outside your field of vision. It is more about the way you look than what you see: a kind of lenses that colour your experience of the world around you.’

‘The way you are is different when you are gardening from when you’re playing music by yourself, or cooking for friends. Often we experience different facets simultaneously, and mostly we don’t even give it a thought. Some parts of myself are more closely connected to my creativity than others, and my femininity is inseparable from my creative process. It’s always there and it colours the way I create and think, react and feel. Sometimes it’s a conscious choice or a “tool”, sometimes it’s unconscious and I only recognise it afterwards.’

‘And “mysterious”… When I’m composing, something else comes into play, something that defies language. A feeling of profound significance, something magical that is on the verge of being clearly seen and understood; something unfamiliar and exciting that lies around the next corner, just out of reach… People have told that they sometimes experience something like that when they hear my music. So I know I’m on the right track. But it’s hard to explain, it remains elusive.’

NEW MUSIC ON EARLY INSTRUMENTS

In 2018, Ugly Pug asked her to write them a piece. The ensemble boasts an unusual combination of instruments. Juho Myllylä plays recorder and electric guitar and operates live electronics; Miron Andres plays fiddles, viola da gamba and vihuela, and Wesley Shen plays the harpsichord. ‘When they commissioned me, I at once thought of contrasts and layering,’ says Pistorius.

‘Historical instruments have something pure and direct, many timbral nuances and a certain subtlety of expression. That suits my music well. The gamba/vihuela, harpsichord, recorders, and electric guitar complement each other wonderfully: they can contrast with one another, but also blend beautifully. I can emphasise contrasts but also make the sounds blend, so that it is not always clear who is playing what. This lends itself perfectly to my layered way of writing and of playing with different timbres.’

‘The titles of the eight movements relate to the different images or ideas that form their starting point. I work with the friction between them: the field of tension itself, and what can emerge from it. Sometimes they amplify one another, at other times they overlap, or something new springs up. For example, between day and night there is dusk. It may be orange, pink, purple, yellow, while day is blue/white and night is black/grey.’

CONTRASTING OR BLENDING

‘Some contrasts inevitably presented themselves because new music is being played on historical instruments. I used hints of Baroque gestures and cadences now and then, as a respectful “flirtation” with the early style. In Crossroads, I also took inspiration from more popular music, such as by David Bowie and rock. But there are also references to Indian Ragas. Crossroads was the first piece in which I had the chance to employ the whole spectrum of my musical taste.’

On the CD, the eight movements are interspersed with compositions by others. What motivated this choice? ‘The trio asked me for a piece with a flexible duration, something that could be adapted to different concert programmes and also be used as an “umbrella” to tie a programme together. I decided to go a step further and give the players permission to play the movements in a different order, creating different contrasts each time. The only requirement is that section IV. Playful/Comfortably Dark must always play a central role, for this is the centrepiece.’

How would she describe her composition to an uninitiated audience in only one sentence? ‘Crossroads is a journey through a really dark sound landscape, where different characters, moods and colours overlap, blend and contrast with one another.’

This article was written for, and first published by Dutch Composers Now on the website Newmusicnow.nl

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Cecilie Ore: ‘I did not choose composition, composition chose me!

While studying piano in Paris, Cecilie Ore realised that she was more of a creator than a performer. She switched to composition and moved to Amsterdam to study with Ton de Leeuw. This autumn her H2O-Trilogy for string quartet will premiere, and her choral composition Speak Louder! will be recorded for CD.

‘I come from a family of scientists’, says Cecilie Ore (Oslo, 1954), ‘but my mother was very interested in music, opera and modern art. In addition to the importance of natural sciences, I was also imbued with the value of artistic expression. I discovered contemporary music on my own, however.’

Cecilie Ore (c) Ketil Born

There was no piano at home, but the instrument nevertheless exerted a great attraction on her: ‘Wherever I was, I would always find a piano. I really wanted to learn how to play, but it was not until I was eight years old that I got my first piano lessons.’

This proved to be decisive for her development: ‘By playing the piano, I learned to understand music on a deeper level and realised that while composing you must always bear in mind the importance of interpretation.’ She studied the piano with Liv Glaser at the Norwegian Academy of Music and continued her studies in Paris with Suzanne Roche. ‘That was my own idea, but Liv Glaser supported it wholeheartedly.’

Golden move

It was a bit of a culture shock: ‘As a teacher, Roche was the total opposite of Glaser. She was one of Vlado Perlemuter’s assistants and I remember her as being strict and very focused on technique. In any case, education in France was much more authoritarian than in Norway and, in my opinion, more conservative as well.’

Yet it turned out to be a golden move: ‘I learned a lot from Roche, who organised fantastic meetings and concerts in her home in Montmartre. During that period I realised that I was not really a stage personality. I did not feel comfortable in the limelight and discovered that my inner need was rather to be creative.’

‘In hindsight, a career as a concert pianist had never much appealed to me, I think I am more of a back-stage person. My piano playing led me to composing, and I’m very grateful for this! These days I hardly ever touch the instrument anymore, though; the compositional process takes place inside my head.’

Ore now also understands better why she was so keen on going to Paris after graduating: ‘It was largely subconscious, and only much later the penny dropped as to where this urge came from. Once I had written my first composition, there was no looking back; it felt like coming home at last. It is not as if at a certain moment I changed my mind. I did not choose composing, it chose me!’

Literature

Besides her studies in Paris, literature also gave her a firm push towards composition. In several interviews, Ore mentioned she needs literature in order to compose. Does this refer to specific writers or books? ‘No, it is more general. I have always been a reader, so it was only natural that my first compositions were triggered by literature and language. On the one hand, a text can evoke mental images and trigger extra-musical ideas. On the other, music and literature have many aspects in common, such as timbre, rhythm, pitch and form. For me, working with text is like working with a sparring partner; it offers both resilience and ideas. Literature was a vehicle that helped me find my way into composing.’

In 1984 she wrote Calliope for solo soprano, after The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein. As in her later vocal music, Ore employs fragmented texts and countless repetitions, in a wide range of vocal variations. ‘This was still during my studies, when I was reading books about the functioning of our brains.’

‘I wanted to create a sound picture of how our mind freely generates associations, roaming around, forking in and out of new thoughts. Calliope was an attempt to create an inner polyphony of thoughts and a musical heterophony with only one voice: whispering, speaking, singing, shouting and otherwise. It is a piece that raises questions: For whom are we writing? Ourselves? Strangers? Or…?’

Ton de Leeuw

Ton de Leeuw (c) Muziekencyclopedie

Heterophony, the repetition and variation of motifs in alternating sequences in different voices, often occurs in Early and Asian music. As an ethnomusicologist, Ton de Leeuw studied non-Western traditional music extensively, and he regularly used heterophony in his own work. Did De Leeuw perhaps spark off her love for this technique?

‘Certainly, that aspect of his teaching has been important to me. As a student, I had a period when I mainly listened to Indonesian, Chinese and Japanese ritual music, especially gagaku (Japanese court music, TD) and kecak (Balinese temple music, TD). It was a shock to hear how modern it sounded!’

There are more similarities with De Leeuw, who in connection with his own output often spoke of ‘music of being’, a concept he borrowed from Asian music. He contrasted this with Western developmental thinking and the tonality associated with it. In this ‘music of becoming’, a composition rushes from climax to climax, building up ever more tension that is finally resolved in the fundamental. This feels like a safe ‘homecoming’. Eastern music, on the other hand, is generally built from variations on similar motifs and rhythms. In essence, it is always the same, though it constantly changes colour, like a kaleidoscope. This gives the listener room for reflection, and to discern new patterns each time.

Time

However different in style, a feeling of timelessness also characterises Ore’s work, and she readily admits being interested in the phenomenon of time. Between 1988 and 1992, she dedicated the tetralogy Codex Temporum to it, and in 1999 she completed yet another four-part cycle, Tempora mutantur. Both have been released on CD.

‘Fascinated by Asian music, I looked for ways to connect the Eastern way of thinking with Western musical ideas’, says Ore. ‘I wanted to create an open landscape but at the same time music that has flux and direction. This idea underlies most of my work.’

Being Norwegian, how did Ore end up studying with Ton de Leeuw? ‘Two important role models for me in Norway were the composers Lasse Thoresen and Olav Anton Thommessen. They had both studied at the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht, and advised me to study with Ton de Leeuw.’ As with her previous studies in Paris, this choice worked out well: ‘Ton de Leeuw was an attentive listener! His way of teaching was very open and tolerant. He did not try to force his ideas on me, but let me find my own way. This required a great deal of independence, which not all students found easy to cope with.’

Ore appreciated it, though: ‘Ton de Leeuw held up a mirror and forced you to look at your strengths and weaknesses. His approach was hard at times, but in the long run it was really valuable. He did not wish to create epigones, but instead focused on discovering the uniqueness in his students. Thanks to him I learned to develop my own expressiveness instead of imitating others.’

She never mentally asks him for advice, though: ‘The core of his teaching was to make his students independent, and inspire us to view current musical trends with a critical eye, in order to look beyond them. Exactly what true teaching is all about.’

Cycles

In perusing her list of works it strikes one that Ore seems to have a penchant for thematic, multi-movement works. In addition to the aforementioned cycles on the concept of time, she also devoted a three-part series to cloud formations under the overall title Cirrus. Coming autumn her H2O-Trilogy for string quartet will premiere.

‘Composing cycles is attractive’, explains Ore. ‘You can formulate ideas and reformulate them again and again, penetrating ever deeper into the musical material. In my H2O-Trilogy, for example, all the scales and harmonic structures are derived from the 2:1 ratio of hydrogen to oxygen. Which incited an abundance of major and minor seconds.’

The trilogy is a ‘homage to and celebration of nature’, says Ore. ‘The first string quartet, WaterWorks, pictures the movement of water, starting from the high mountains, flowing through rivers, lakes and waterfalls and eventually ending up in the sea via the fjords, where it evaporates and returns as rain. Then the circle starts all over again. The next movement, Glacier Song, is an ode to ice and glaciers . The strings quote fragments from Purcell’s Cold Song, as a reminder of the little ice age in Europe. Morning Mist, the third and final movement, is about moisture and fog.’

Ore uses various musical means to make these concepts palpable. ‘It has long been taboo to write programmatically’, she says, ‘but with this cycle I wanted to challenge the modernist concept that music must be abstract. I want the audience to hear the water running, so I use dramatic scale- and trill-movements. With the use of extreme ponticelli I hope to make them experience the chill of ice, while rapid figurations molto sul tasto, and fingers that barely touch the strings evoke the feeling of being enveloped by the vague consistency of mist.’

Political and social themes

Another constant in her work is the engagement with social and political themes, which manifests itself ever more strongly. It began in 2001 with A. – a shadow opera, a chilling inner monologue by Agamemnon. This constitutes a long and fierce indictment of war, violence, and abuse of power. Six different voices – accompanied only by sparse gongs – speak, groan, shout or whisper fragmented verses by the Norwegian poet Paal-Helge Haugen. Gradually, we recognise the well-known Nazi excuse of ‘Ich habe es nicht gewusst’, recited in an array of voice inflections that send shivers down your spine.

The libretto was partly written in collaboration with Iannis Xenakis. ‘Xenakis was originally supposed to compose the music’, recalls Ore. ‘But when he fell ill, I was asked to take over. That assignment heralded my return to vocal music. It pulled me from the safe but narrow confines of contemporary instrumental music and threw me straight back into society. For all my subsequent vocal pieces I asked myself: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be civilised? From here it seemed natural to explore topics such as the death penalty, freedom of speech, misogyny, criticism of religion, superstition and the like.’

This led to impressive compositions such as the opera Dead Beat Escapement, about the inhumanity of the death penalty (2008); the choral piece Come to the Edge!, inspired by the mock trial against Pussy Riot in 2012, in which statements by the two accused women are quoted (2013), and Who do you think you are?, in which a solo soprano recites a chilling litany of (death) threats against women who dare voice their opinions (2014). In the at times hilarious Vatican Trilogy, Ore zooms in on issues such as a dead pope on trial, the gruesome murder of a pregnant pope and the fig leaf campaign that led to a secret closet filled with severed penises (2015-2017).

Man versus Nature

In 2019 she composed Speak Louder! for mixed choir, which will be recorded for CD by Ensemble 96 in September. The fourteen-minute composition targets overpopulation. Ore: ‘An important mantra repeated by almost every politician in the world today is growth. But where has this got us? Europe and many other countries are overpopulated. We use natural resources as if they were infinite.’

‘We exploit and steal the habitat of animals, birds and insects. We behave as if the world were created only for mankind and fail to recognise that our survival depends on the subsistence of other species. – And then we act surprised when Covid-19 comes along! We should really stop exploiting and overpopulating the world, and start treating nature with more kindness, understanding and respect.’

Her love of nature is immediately apparent on visiting her website, which opens with a larger-than-life photograph of a colourful dragonfly. Ore: ‘The image indeed symbolizes my concern for nature, but it is twofold. Years ago, someone said that my first string quartet, Praesens Subitus, was reminiscent of the movements of a dragonfly: standing still in mid-air, suddenly moving and then just as unexpectedly standing still again, and so on. In that piece, I investigate the relationship between horizontal and vertical events, between movement and stasis. ‘Indirectly, the dragonfly embodies the question: how do you create music in which Eastern and Western ideas are incorporated on an equal footing?’

Which brings us back to Ton de Leeuw: ‘His approach to Eastern music and its underlying philosophy remains a constant source of inspiration for me.’

This interview originally appeared in the August/September 2021 issue of the Dutch music magazine De Nieuwe Muze. I translated it at the request of Norsk Musikkforlag, publisher of Ore’s scores.

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Italian pianist strikes Ukrainian stillness at heart

An Italian label promoting piano music of a Ukrainian composer, it does not seem the most likely combination. Yet earlier this year, the CD Handsome Skies featuring piano works by Valentin Silvestrov (1937) arrived on my doorstep, sent from Rome by the independent label KHA Records. According to the contact person, who only introduced himself as ‘Massimiliano’, it specialises in ‘minimal music from John Cage to Arvo Pärt’.

The closest affinity is that with Pärt, of course, who became a public favourite in the mid-seventies with his so-called ‘neo-spiritual music’. Like his Estonian colleague, Silvestrov at first composed in a strict modernist idiom that brought him into conflict with the Soviet authorities, and subsequently changed over to a less complex style. His cycle Silent Songs (1977) marked the beginning of a style in which tonal, ear-catching pieces predominate, often described as ‘new simplicity’. 

Valentin Silvestrov (c) Door Smerus

Valentin himself prefers to speak of ‘meta-music’ or ‘metaphorical music’, because to him, the entire music history resonates in all new compositions: ‘I do not write new music. My music is a reaction to and an echo of what already exists’.

MELODY

His work is strongly focused on melody, which in Silvestrov’s view forms the basis of everything, but was direly neglected in the course of the 20th century: ‘All music is song, whether it is sung or purely instrumental.’

The twenty pieces on the CD Handsome Skies by Italian pianist Alessandro Stella are the perfect illustration of this conviction. Whether Bagatelles, Waltzes or simply Pieces, the melodic wealth is overwhelming: they all sing from beginning to end.

Silvestrov builds his melodies with tonal and modal means, which makes them recognisable and singable. Yet his flowing lines continue to surprise, in an organic way. They never become predictable or kitschy, like the music of the Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi. The motifs and melodies are given ample space and sometimes breathe the atmosphere of Satie. Such associations are blown away however by the occasional fragment of folk music or jarring rhythm.

With his poetic interpretation, velvety toucher and refined use of the sustain pedal, Alessandro Stella creates a serene peace, as if we are hearing dreamy echoes of eternity. As an Italian, he manages to touch the heart of this timeless Ukrainian stillness.

Valentin Silvestrov: Handsome Skies
Alessandro Stella, piano
KHA Records KHA019

This review appeared first in the Aug/Sept issue of the Dutch music magazine De Nieuwe Muze.

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Pianist Ursula Oppens on composer Laura Kaminsky: ‘She dares to express extreme emotions’

Ursula Oppens is a renowned champion of contemporary music, who worked with all the greats of the 20th and 21st centuries. – TIME dubbed her ‘The Madonna of contemporary music’. She has a close bond with the American composer Laura Kaminsky, whose music is featured on the album Fantasies: Ursula Oppens plays Laura Kaminsky.

When and how did you get interested in music from the early 20th century onwards?

‘There are many roads to my interest in contemporary music. My parents, emigres from Europe, felt that they had left great music behind. At least that is what they told me, but I suspect that they were in fact interested in the music of our time. I have my father’s membership card from 1945 in the International Society for Contemporary Music. My mother had actually taken a course with Anton Webern, but was very reluctant to talk about it.’

‘There were also a number of seminal events: a concert and lecture demonstration by the Juilliard String Quartet of Elliott Carter’s 2nd String Quartet in the summer of 1961. The following winter, my freshman year in college, Pierre Boulez gave the Norton lectures at Harvard, and I remember a wonderful concert of his music, featuring Le Marteau Sans Maître and Leonard Stein performing the Piano Sonata No. 3.’

Then I became aware that there were composers all around me, and I found their music fascinating. When I returned to New York after college, I became a devotee of the concerts of The Group for Contemporary Music at Columbia University. Together with some close friends we started the group Speculum Musicae in 1971.’

‘It is always exciting to hear something that you don’t know, and to gradually make sense of it. I recently had the wonderful experience of hearing Laura Kaminsky’ latest piano work, Alluvion played by five different pianists; each interpreted it somewhat differently, but also my ears were changing as I got to know it better.’

Ursula Oppens (c) Hilary Scott

You’ve been championing modern music for a very long time now, was it difficult to get composers such as Schoenberg, Carter or Ligeti programmed when you started out your career?  

‘This is actually a hard question to answer. I think the main difficulty was to play these composers without being pigeon-holed as someone who could only play new music. As for the general attitude towards modern music, of course this has varied much over time. To this day there are venues that are mainly interested in the new and exploratory, and others that imagine the only way to make ends meet is to play the old favourites. But many of the organizations supporting young performers are emphasizing that we need both the new and the old.’

‘The attitude of the organizers is very important for the impact on the audience. ‘I think the public responds very much to their enthusiasm – or lack thereof. If he or she brings across the feeling they are only programming contemporary music because it is a condition of some grant or institution, you can imagine how the audience will respond…’

You have commissioned works from a lot of composers, were they always happy to comply, or did you at times have to convince them?

‘I was always able to find funds to pay the composers, which is a very important part of the commissioning process, and of course, they know my own work. When I commissioned Conlon Nancarrow, who had written very little for live performers for many years, I sent him recordings of The People United Will Never Be Defeated (Frederic Rzewski) and Night Fantasies (Elliott Carter). Thus I hoped to convince him that I was not afraid of difficult music and also that my politics were reasonably close to his. He accepted my request and honoured me with Three Canons for Ursula in 1988.’

You have a long-standing relationship with Laura Kaminsky. How did you get acquainted and how has your friendship developed?

‘I first  knew Laura as a presenter who hired me on various occasions. Then gradually, I heard various works of hers, and we became friends and have had wonderful long discussions about a wide variety of topics. I  believe that my performance of Fantasy and also our planning for the Piano Concerto predate the premiere of her opera As One in 2014, that catapulted her to the forefront in the world of new music.’

How would you position Laura Kaminsky? 

‘I believe that Laura Kaminsky is one of the most important American composers of her generation, and that her reputation will grow very rapidly as her operas and other works get heard.’

‘Laura’s music is harmonically very, very original – atonal yet honouring the harmonic tensions of tonality. She has a vast rhythmic palette. Most of all I think she dares to express extreme emotions – and brings the listener with her anyway.

You commissioned the Piano Quintet that opens the CD. Was it your specific wish she compose a quintet, or did you simply ask her to write ‘something’ for you?

‘Yes, I specifically wanted a Piano Quintet to play with the Cassatt Quartet. I find the Piano Quintet to be a particularly wonderful instrumental combination: one thinks of Brahms, Schumann, Dvorák, Franck, Shostakovich, Amy Beach, not to mention Wuorinen, Carter, Hemphill, León, Tower and other quintets of our time.’

Have you worked on the piece together in any way? 

‘Generally, and in this case, I am not involved with the composer while s/he is writing a new work. Once it is finished, and I or we play it, there may still be small changes. Of course, we agree in advance on approximate length, instrumentation, etcetera, but I think it is best not to interfere with the composer’s own vision. I love the orchestration, and I believe that the orchestral players are delighted with the transparent and varied texture. – It has meant the world to me she offered it as a gift for my 75th birthday!’

The Quintet mingles West African drumming patterns with Eastern European irregular dance rhythms, how does this work out for the musicians?

‘At first we were rehearsing it very slowly, and struggling with each and every measure. Then Laura came to a rehearsal, and pointed out that if we played it closer to tempo, we would be able to hear the rhythm. And that solved all our problems. As with pieces by György Ligeti, who also employed African and Eastern European rhythms, one has to work both in painstaking detail and also keep an overview of the sounds and melodies.’

Laura Kaminsky wrote ‘Reckoning for Piano Four Hands’ especially for the cd. It seems to be  a protest against the divisive rhetoric of former president Trump. Can one hear this in the music, and could a staunch Trump supporter play this piece?

‘I believe the piece will outlast any memories of Trump! As for the composition: almost all composers of four-hand music, from Mozart onwards, take great delight in having the two pianists play the same notes and fight for the same space. Laura is no exception. But we also get to play wonderful counterpoint, to support each other in virtuoso music, and enjoy quiet, beautiful harmonies.’ 

The CD is named after the 4-part ‘Fantasy’ Laura composed for the pianist Jenny Lin, how does this fit in with the rest of the pieces?

‘I was most interested in presenting a single composer in a wide range of output, so each work on the CD is for a different instrumental combination. And the Fantasy is such a very grand work for solo piano, I simply had to include it.’

What, to you, is the most striking aspect of Laura Kaminsky’s style?

‘As with the other composers I admire the most, I cannot predict her next piece, no matter how much I study her previous works. Everything she writes connects to the human being and the human voice, but I cannot say exactly how she achieves this…’

‘It’s this mysterious, intangible quality that makes her music so enchanting.’

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Vanessa Lann: ‘The Pilgrim Fathers “founded” America, but for the Native Americans it was an entirely different matter’

In Far Cries | Distance No Object, premiered in Operadagen Rotterdam in 2020, Vanessa Lann addressed the theme of leave-taking. The show was inspired by the 400th anniversary of the day in 1620 when the Pilgrim Fathers embarked on a voyage across the Atlantic to seek refuge in North America. For the present Delfshaven Festival the composer made a new, somewhat extended version under the title Far Cries 401. Two of the four performances take place on 22 July, the very day the Pilgrims set sail for the New World.

‘In May 2020 I was fortunate enough to receive a small grant as part of the ‘balkonscènes’ (balcony scenes) initiative from the Dutch Performing Arts Fund’, says Vanessa Lann (New York, 1968). ‘This was intended to support freelancers who were affected by the corona crisis, so they could realize small-scale productions in corona-proof settings. For me this meant it was a Do it Yourself venture: I was composer, producer, librettist and marketer all in one. When Operadagen offered me a place in their festival, I gladly accepted, for  I have always been a huge fan of the festival and live and work in Rotterdam.’

Embarkation of the Pilgrims on the Speedwell, 22 July 1620. Painting by Robert W. Weir

The production was premiered to public acclaim in September 2020, yet for the Delfshaven Festival you changed the title to Far Cries 401. Why?

‘The Delfshaven Festival was meant to take place last summer, to celebrate 4 centuries of Dutch-American relations, but had to be postponed due to the pandemic. In 2021 it is exactly 401 years ago the Pilgrims made their historic voyage to the New World. They sailed from Delfshaven, a Rotterdam neighbourhood that to this day is home to people from very different cultures and backgrounds, including myself.’

In the promotion material we read about ‘heartrending goodbyes’, but why did the Pilgrim Fathers leave the Netherlands in the first place? Hadn’t they found refuge here because their Calvinist faith was repressed in Britain?

‘This may seem a bit paradoxical, indeed. The English Pilgrims arrived in the Netherlands in 1608, stayed in Amsterdam for a year and then in Leiden for another 11 years. They were very devout and hard-working people, who lived in near-poverty. At a certain point they realized that their children were growing up and falling in love with Dutch teenagers, whom they considered to be a bit on the “wild” side. They feared the kids, and maybe even their own adult group, were veering further and further away from the mind-set which had brought them to the Netherlands originally.’

‘So eventually they decided to journey to the New World to develop their convictions further, and to set up a colony of likeminded people where they could “start from scratch”. In so doing, they would be the first “families” to journey together to the New World, aiming to establish villages and homes. Up to then only single men had been travelling back and forth across the ocean for business purposes. The decision to travel with entire families inevitably entailed the Pilgrims leave friends, family, and their former communities behind. It was evident the crossing would be difficult and filled with unknown challenges. Though only one of the 102 voyagers died during the passage, only 52 would make it to the following spring.’ 

Instead of focusing on this historic background, you chose to broaden the theme. How?

Far Cries 401 explores the feelings of family members when they set sail for distant shores, knowing they will most likely never see their loved ones again. In the production we combine true documentation of the Pilgrims – before, during and after their voyage to the New World – with true stories of people in the Netherlands and the States who recently lost loved ones during the corona pandemic. It’s a collection of stories of enforced “goodbyes”, then and now. Therefore my libretto is both in Dutch and English.’

How did you select the texts?

‘The show is structured around a seven-part song cycle for soprano and piano, based on a text by the American poet Denise Levertov. It involves memory, time, and how we experience patterns, and loss. There is also music for saxophones, clarinets and loop station, incorporating the well-known Emma Lazarus text on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor…”. In the carillon part I have incorporated recognizable American folk music about loss, memory and hope. The speakers quote from documents and journals by William Bradford, the leader of the English Pilgrims, and memorials in online newspapers written by people who recently lost dear ones to Covid-19.’

You chose for a line-up of soprano/violin/clarinets-saxophones/piano/carillon, as well as three speakers, including yourself. Why this particular combination? 

‘The performers are all good friends, with whom I’ve worked before. There is an element of improvisation in several of the parts, so I chose musicians who could act as co-devisers of the sound world. The carillon is special, because it is site-specific, coming from the tower of the Pilgrim Fathers Church. Also, with its hourly bells it symbolically denotes the passage of time – related to journeying, and memory. Thus the church itself becomes part of the story. For his mis-en-espace Neil Wallace has taken into account its dimensions, energy, resonance and depth, involving it as a ritual place. For after all, the Pilgrims held their last congregation here before leaving the country.’

David Kweksilber in Far Cries | Distance No Object, Pilgrim Fathers Church 2020

How do the performers interact?

‘The soprano and pianist are featured as one unit, performing the song cycle, while the clarinettist/saxophonist and violinist perform notated and non-notated music, in solo form and in combination with each other. The speakers and the musicians interact in a subtle mise-en-espace throughout the piece. By the end of the piece they are a sort of family, from which the soprano is completely excluded. The carillon is a sort of “disruptor”, coming from the outside and being brought into the world inside.’

What kind of audience did the first version attract in 2020 and what was their response?

‘The production attracted largely an Operadagen audience, interested in contemporary music theatre, or story-telling through song and movement. A lot of people were very emotional, as the idea of losing loved ones is universal. A number of visitors were very moved by the energy in the Pilgrim Fathers Church, seated as they were in a corona-proof setting (distanced, but still intimate) in the length of this beautiful and historic building.’

‘I expect Far Cries 401 to attract an audience from outside of the performing arts world as well. People who are interested in the history of the region, the link between America and the Netherlands, and the impact of our present situation.’ 

You are a descendant from a Jewish family that emigrated from Ukraine to the United States, whence you in turn moved to the Netherlands. Do you feel a personal affinity with the theme of leave-taking? 

‘Well, the fact that I am both an American as well as a Dutch citizen, makes the historical significance of this production very close to my heart. For years I’ve wanted to create a piece based on the different parts of my background and my experiences as a double national. I feel very connected to the theme of immigration, and how mythologies are formed by those telling the stories.’

‘Obviously, for many people the “story” of America begins with this historic voyage, and the events which unfolded once the Europeans had reached North American shores. But we must never forget there is another side to every story. – For the Native Americans who considered the American continent their home it was a completely different experience. It’s the multifaceted aspect, and the complexity of all these stories which intrigues me the most and inspired my creative exploration.’ 

Far Cries 401 runs twice on both 21 & 22 July, tickets here.

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Medea, Circe & Penelope get a voice of their own

Euripides immortalized Medea in his eponymous play, Homer recounted Circe and Penelope in his Odyssey. Throughout the centuries, their labelling of the threesome became ever more solidified. We regard Medea as a hysterical child murderer, Circe as a malicious witch and Penelope as a passive, eternally waiting wife. But do we do them justice, Tamar Brüggeman, organizer of the Wonderfeel summer festival, wondered. From 17-18 July the outdoor festival presents a different take in the production They Have Waited Long Enough.

waited poster klein
At Brüggeman’s request, librettist Gaea Schoeters and author Natalie Haynes examined other possible interpretations of the classical heroines. They arrived at a change of perspective ‘simply by taking their stories seriously’. This alternative view took on musical form in three brand new compositions by as many female composers: Annelies van Parys (Medea), Aftab Darvishi (Circe) and Calliope Tsoupaki (Penelope). Each one set a text by Schoeters for the soprano Charlotte Wajnberg, the Carousel String Quartet and three soloists: Annelien Van Wauwe, clarinet; Rhaphaela Danksagmüller, duduk, and Osama Abdulrasol, qanun.

Thus, after two millennia, the mythological ladies finally get their a voice of their won. The three musical portraits premiered online on May 21 at the Festival of Flanders, in a coproduction with the aforementioned festival Wonderfeel, Lunalia, Antwerp Liedfest, Oranjewoudfestival, Mittelfest and November Music.

THE ANGUISH OF MEDEA

Annelies van Parys zooms in on Medea and begins and ends her piece with a lullaby, played by the clarinet. In contrast to the monster that many see in Medea, she feels empathy for her tragic fate. The sorceress from Colchis left her homeland to follow her lover to his native land. In this foreign environment, she was immediately swapped for another. Not out of bloodlust but out of pure love, she then kills their children : she wants to save them from the humiliation she herself suffered as an outsider.

In Schoeters’ libretto Medea lulls her children into a deadly sleep. Her tenderness and agony are beautifully expressed by the sweet cantilenas of the clarinet and the soprano’s swaying vocal lines, infused with abrasive multiphonics and grinding strings. Sliding tones, rustling sounds and resigned recitatives alternating with sudden, passionate outbursts from the singer, make Medea’s doubts and despair palpable.

THE LONELINESS OF CIRCE

The Iranian-Dutch Aftab Darvishi painted Circe’s portrait. We regard her as an evil witch who turned men into pigs, but Darvishi recognizes a fellow sufferer in her. Like the demigoddess exiled to an island, she knows the feeling of loneliness and displacement when a person must build a new life in unfamiliar territory. For the solo instrument, Darvishi chose the Armenian duduk, a double-reed instrument with a sweet melancholic sound that can also sound shrill and unpleasant.

The muffled tones of the duduk almost imperceptibly blend with the voice of the soprano, who mainly communicates her sad message on one single tone. In stark contrast to her apparent resignation are the rich, romantic harmonies of the strings, that sketch a carefree, Arcadian universe. The string players do make attempts at rapprochement, though, but the moment they lovingly try to absorb the ‘foreign’ instrument, the duduk wriggles free from their embrace with harsh, unpleasant shrieks.

Waited (2)

Screenshot online premiere

THE POWER OF PENELOPE

The Greek-Dutch Calliope Tsoupaki portrays Penelope. For many years, Odysseus’ wife kept a pack of would-be lovers at bay by unravelling her fabrics at night. Because of its resemblance to a loom, Tsoupaki chose a qanun, an Arabian zither with a trapezoidal soundboard strung with three-stranded strings, played with a plectrum. With its heavenly tinkling treble and deep buzzing basses, the instrument beautifully symbolizes the layered character and mental prowess of Penelope.

Tsoupaki gives the rich sound of the qanun a prominent role. Sparkling ascending and ascending motifs and modal scales are embedded in sonorous harmonies and fierce tremoli in the strings, coupled with sweltering melismas from the soprano. Abundant drones and bent tones evoke an oriental atmosphere. Arpeggio’s and minimalist repetitions effectively call to mind the never-ending journey of Odysseus and the patient but sovereign waiting of Penelope.

DIGNIFIED OWN VOICE

Wajnberg’s agile, full voice, careful diction and empathic performance flawlessly bring the characters’ changing emotions to the fore, aided by immaculate performances of the three soloists and the ever alert Carousel String Quartet. Its four players combine symphonic allure with individual perfection. Natalie Haynes introduces each composition with an impassioned spoken narrative, but in her enthusiasm sometimes overestimates the listener’s craving for detail.

The production offers Medea, Circe and Penelope a worthy voice of their own. This was about time, for indeed: They Have Waited Long Enough!

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Merel Vercammen on The Boulanger Legacy: ‘It was unthinkable not to include a work by Nadia, who devoted her life to the legacy of Lili’

When Merel Vercammen first played a piece by Lili Boulanger, she discovered that her sister Nadia had taught Grażyna Bacewicz, one of her favourite composers. Now there is the album The Boulanger Legacy, featuring works by the two sisters and students of Nadia, including Astor Piazzolla and Leonard Bernstein.

‘The seed for the album was sown in 2020’, says Merel Vercammen (1988). ‘The Dutch television programme Podium Witteman invited me and pianist Dina Ivanova to play Lili Boulanger‘s Nocturne on International Women’s Day, 8 March. This was just before the lockdown. I had known Lili Boulanger’s music for some time, but when I was forced to stay home because of the corona-measures, I decided to look into her further. While reading, I discovered that one of my favourite composers, Grażyna Bacewicz, had been a pupil of her sister Nadia. That sparked off the idea for a CD.’

Cover-boulanger klein

At that moment several fascinations came together, the violinist recalls. ‘Some years ago, I noticed that the ratio of men to women in music practice was definitely not fifty-fifty. So I started a small search for good composers who happened to be women. Bacewicz was one of the first names I found and I was immediately impressed. She was not only a great composer but also a very gifted violinist. – She composed seven beautiful Violin Concertos! I immediately decided to put some of her music on the album.’

Prix de Rome

She was also moved by the life story of Nadia and Lili Boulanger. Their father Ernest (1815-1900) was a composer and pianist and at 62 he married the much younger singer Raïssa Mychetsky (1856-1935). They had three daughters, the eldest of whom, Ernestine, died in infancy. Nadia was born in 1887, Lili in 1893. It is said that her father made Nadia, then six years old, promise to always take care of Lili. – As if he foresaw the misery that lay in store for her.

Both Nadia and Lili followed in the footsteps of her father, who had won the coveted Prix de Rome in 1835. Nadia was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire at the age of nine, Lili was already exceptionally musically gifted at the age of two. At this age, she contracted pneumonia, which severely damaged her immune system. She remained in poor health for the rest of her life and, due to this mainly received private lessons. From the age of five, she was allowed to join Nadia’s composition class at the Paris Conservatoire. Both sisters competed for the Prix de Rome. Nadia was awarded second prize in 1908, but five years later Lili was the first woman ever to win first prize. She died in 1918, at the age of 24. Father Ernest had already passed away in 1900.

American Conservatory

‘I find it a moving idea’, says Vercammen, ‘the six-year older Nadia who takes her talented younger sister under her wing from the start and, even after Lili’s premature death, remains tirelessly devoted to her musical legacy. Nadia even stopped composing almost completely and dedicated herself to helping other (aspiring) composers. She was a gifted pedagogue and for thirty years (from 1948-1978) headed the American Conservatory at Chateau de Fontainebleau near Paris. She had an enormous influence on the music of the twentieth century. Composer and music critic Virgil Thomson even joked once that every city in America has a department store and a student of Boulanger.’

Lili-and-Nadia-Boulanger

Lili and Nadia Boulanger

Yet only one of them, Leonard Bernstein, found his way to The Boulanger Legacy. How did the selection for the album come about? ‘It was quite a difficult job’, Vercammen admits. ‘But if you limit yourself to the repertoire for violin and piano, this diminishes your choices considerably. I absolutely wanted the Polish Bacewicz on the album, and the Argentine Piazzolla was an absolute must. Firstly because Nadia Boulanger had such a great influence on him, and secondly because his hundredth birthday was celebrated earlier this year. The American Bernstein is such an icon that he could not be missed, either. Along with the pieces by Nadia and Lili Boulanger, this meant the disc was full.’

Grażyna Bacewicz

Grażyna Bacewicz was at the top of Vercammen’s wish list. Why? ‘I think she is one of the most undervalued composers of the twentieth century, only in her homeland she ranks as a celebrity. Her pieces are lively and contrasting, and I discern a clear link with Lili Boulanger. She has a similar lightness, although sometimes a kind of madness emerges, as in the fourth movement of the Sonata no. 3. Sometimes her writing is very modern, at others one also hears influences from folk, then again Bacewicz writes real earwigs, like in the third movement of the Sonata. She composed this piece in 1948 and Dina and I found it the most fitting to the rest of the compositions. Moreover, Bacewicz represents the French sound among Nadia’s students.’

Astor Piazzolla

Le Grand Tango by Astor Piazzolla was released on single in March 2020. ‘It’s a great piece, which he wrote for the famous cellist Rostropovich, and was arranged for violin and piano by Sofia Gubaidulina. We wanted to put Piazzolla in the spotlight on the occasion of his 100th birthday on 11 March. This is better achieved with a single than by simply including his piece as one of several tracks on the album. Piazzolla is one of the gems in Nadia’s rich teaching practice, especially because she had such a decisive influence on his development.’

The story has been told many times: Piazzolla showed his scores to Nadia Boulanger, who found them lacking in originality. Asked what he was doing in Argentina, he played her one of his tangos on bandoneon, whereupon she is said to have exclaimed: ‘This is the real Piazzolla, never leave him again!’ After this, Piazzolla developed the so-called ‘nuevo tango’, a mixture of the traditional Argentine dance form, classical music and jazz. ‘I like that’, says Vercammen. It shows how much Nadia Boulanger searched for the strong points of a composer, even if he or she wrote music that differed completely from hers. She even taught Quincy Jones, the producer of Michael Jackson’s Thriller!’

Vercammen klein

For the recording of Le Grand Tango, Vercammen and Ivanova sought help from bandoneon player Leo Vervelde. ‘We tried to imitate his sound in rhythm and articulation, to capture the pulsating power of tango. Dina plays it in a beautifully propulsive way, it is her favourite piece. Even though Piazzolla wrote this work for the classical cellist Rostropovich, I myself have occasionally borrowed effects from the typical tango violin style. For example, the chicharra (cricket sound that arises by bowing briefly and rhythmically on the other side of the comb) and latigo (‘whip’, a short glissando effect). I dared take these liberties because Piazzolla was a great advocate of musical freedom. The music is accessible and at the same time has a great melancholic quality. Dina and I made the choice for Le Grand Tango unanimously.’

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein is represented with the only Sonata for Violin and Piano he ever wrote. Vercammen: ‘He composed it in 1939, even before he studied with Nadia Boulanger, but we recorded it anyway because Bernstein often consulted her after his studies. Moreover, he was one of the last people to speak to her before she died. The Sonata is a series of variations on a theme, in which we hear how a young composer with great qualities plays with form and tries to relate to the modernism of the time. The more often Dina and I play it, the more enthusiastic we become. Bernstein was obviously very pleased with it himself, for he reused themes in his ballet Facsimile and his Second Symphony, The Age of Anxiety.’

The Boulanger Legacy opens with music by Lili and ends with a piece by Nadia Boulanger. ‘Once the idea had taken hold, I decided to record all three pieces Lili wrote for violin and piano, starting with her brilliant Nocturne from 1911, though it was originally composed for flute and piano. It was unthinkable that Nadia would not be represented, but unfortunately she never composed anything for this combination. So we made our own arrangement of the first part of her Trois pièces for cello and piano from 1914. – Which in turn was an arrangement of her triptych for organ of the same name.’

Patron

Nadia Boulanger’s music is often labelled bland, but Vercammen disagrees: ‘The Trois pièces have something icy and contemplative about them, which suits the violin very well. The melody line seems to come from afar, and is so penetrating that you wonder how she would have developed, had she not stopped composing. There are also gems among her songs, such as Soleils Couchants.’

The album came about thanks to a patron, says Vercammen: ‘He wishes to remain anonymous, so I won’t reveal his name. I got to know him during the presentation of my album The Zoo in 2019, after which he invited me to a house concert. When his mother passed away, he decided to set up a foundation with part of the inheritance, which offered me the chance to record this CD. It’s great that there are people like him, who are eager to make new things possible out of their passion for music. Like Nadia Boulanger, they must be cherished!’

This article appeared first in De Nieuwe Muze, May/June 2021

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Lotta Wennäkoski honours Sibelius in Verdigris: ‘I aimed to be as capricious as possible’

Finnish composers never seem to be able – or allowed – to escape the shadow of Sibelius. On the occasion of his 150th death anniversary in 2015 the Scottish Chamber Orchestra commissioned Lotta Wennäkoski to write a piece referencing his music. She found inspiration in En Saga and composed Verdigris. It will have its continental premiere on 21 June, when the Dutch radio station NPORadio4 will air a pre-recorded concert of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by John Storgårds.

Lotta Wennäkoski (c) Maarit Kytöharju

On her website Wennäkoski writes: ‘How to refer to the music of Jean Sibelius in a way that would hopefully lead to something personal and fruitful in 2015? Not an easy task.’ She admits being a staunch admirer of his symphonies, because of their ‘solidity of material and the incredible economy with which this is processed’.

We must not take this as an abstract kind of professional admiration, though, she stresses: ‘The music actually speaks to me directly. It crystallises something essential of the human condition and comes across as pure spirit and emotion. It stops you and pierces you.’

Patina over music history

The title Verdigris refers to patina – a thin layer on a surface that is produced by age. This term is usually employed to describe the greenish haze covering bronze statues and refers to a pigment known as ‘green from Greece’, that was already used by the Romans. ‘Verdigris’ is a corruption of the French word vertegrez (vert-de-Grèce).

The idea of a hazy coating accumulated through age appealed to Wennäkoski: ‘Isn’t that more or less what composers do – write new layers over music history, even if their work explicitly refers to older music?’

Yet it was out of the question she would allude to or quote from his symphonies. Instead she sought inspiration in the tone poem En Saga. She feels attracted to its energy and found that some musical gestures match her own ideas about orchestral music, such as the string arpeggios and the back-beat rhythms. Thus inspired, she decided ‘to continue the fairy tale!’

To be or not to be capricious

Titillated by the lamentation of the critic Karl Flodin that Sibelius’s musical intuition in En Saga was a bit too ‘capricious’, Wennäkoski decided to ‘be as capricious as I can’ with the material she used from Sibelius’ original. This may manifest itself relatively innocently in placing quotes of single motifs in such a different context that entirely new melodies develop.

More daring are the written phrases sprinkled through the score that quote from and respond jocularly to the critique from 1893. These are spoken or whispered in cut-up repetitions by the musicians: ‘A critic found the work puzzling and his intuition too capricious’…. ‘papa removed some violent passages from the piece, now it is more civilised, more polished’…. ‘Finnish composers must be much more capricious.’

chain of slowed-down Sibelius motif with ‘blurring’ harmonics

Howl

Enjoying herself, Wennäkoski impulsively decided to throw in a quote from yet another piece by Sibelius, Andante Festivo. ‘I couldn’t withstand turning this into a howl, by prescribing hysterical vibrati on harmonics from bar 235 onwards.’ Towards the end of Verdigris the strings weave a chain from a slowed-down Sibelius-melody, adding on an abundance of harmonics that ‘blur’ the original.

The premiere of Verdigris in Edinburgh in October 2015 was a success. The Scotland Herald lauded its ‘delightful Ravel swirls’, The Guardian heard an ‘absorbing new work’ from ‘a composer with play at the heart of her music. Here the joke is fondly on Sibelius, with some striking gossamer textures wrapped around fragments of his music’. – For good measure on 21 June the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra will perform his Suite nr. 2 from The Tempest.

Verdigris is part of an eclectic programme: apart from Wennäkoski and Sibelius there’s music by Webern, Stravinsky and Vasks. More info at Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest. Wennäkoski is presently working on the opera ‘Regine’, commissioned by the Savonlinna Opera Festival 2022.

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Musicologist-pianist Samantha Ege: ‘The music of Florence Price was a revelation!’

Samantha Ege did not know any black composers until she heard music by Florence Price in 2009. In 2020 she completed her musicology studies with a thesis on Price, a year later saw the release of her CD Fantasie nègre, featuring all 4 Fantasies.

The album is named after the first piece Samantha Ege (1989) ever heard by Florence Price (1887-1953). ‘That was in 2009, when I was studying at McGill University in Canada on an exchange scholarship. During a lecture about the early twentieth century, our teacher played her Fantasie nègre No. 1 in E minor.’ Ege was deeply impressed by this piece for solo piano from 1929: ‘So refined, expressive and colourful! I had never heard anything like it in the classical world.’

Suppressed musical heritage

‘My education had overemphasised George Gershwin as the only composer who drew influence from Black creativity. When I heard Price’s music, this illusion was completely shattered. Although I have been playing the piano since I was three and have always been interested in classical music, it was only in 2009 that I first came across a female composer with African roots. It was also my first encounter with classical repertoire that goes back to Black folk music from a period before jazz and the blues: Price incorporated influences from the spiritual songs of the enslaved.’

The discovery was an eye-opener: ‘It was important for my view of classical music, Florence Price became a role model. It turned out that there is a long history of Afro-American composers who incorporate their cultural heritage into their work. They drew inspiration from slave songs and wanted to give an uplifting voice to an incredibly painful past. Their history had always been suppressed in my musical education. – When I heard Price’s Fantasie nègre No.1, I did not even know there were three more fantasies. I only found this out once I had decided to devote my PhD research to her.’

Stars not yet aligned

This was about six years ago: ‘I was so impressed by her music that I wanted to learn to play it myself. Moreover, I had enormous admiration for Price, because she was a pioneer. In 1933, she was the first black woman to have her work performed by a national orchestra, when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered her First Symphony. As I studied her Fantasy, I soon decided to devote the dissertation for my doctorate at York University to her. But somehow I was not yet “ready” for this piece. – Sometimes it’s as if the stars have to align in a certain way when I choose my repertoire.’

Instead of the Fantasy, she turned to the Sonata in E minor from 1932. ‘I studied it extensively and recorded it on my Four Women CD. I also performed the Sonata in cities like Chicago, Arkansas and Boston, which were important to Price. That is how I came to understand her pianistic voice, the way she approaches form, melody and modulation.’

BLACK Renaissance

‘Her music has a distinctly romantic sound, which resonates with Schumann, Liszt and Chopin. This also goes for black contemporaries such as Samuel Taylor-Coleridge, Nora Holt and Margaret Bonds, who also incorporated Negro spirituals. This anchors her firmly in the aesthetics of the Black Renaissance, a movement in the 1920ies that celebrated the beauty of Afro-African folk traditions.’

Ege played the Fantasy No. 1 in Chicago for the first time in the spring of 2019, at the local Cultural Centre: ‘A place with a rich history, where Price had often spent time herself in the past. I had a wonderful audience, many of whom were familiar with her music. Additionally, I programmed works by Chicago composers Dolores White and Regina Harris Baiocchi, who attended the concert. The atmosphere was magical, and I felt very much part of this history. I think this was the beginning of my next chapter as a musicologist-pianist, for at that moment the stars began to align for an album of all four Fantasies.’

SCATTERED Manuscript pages

That sounds more obvious than it was, because for decades only the First Fantasy had been known. The other three were only found by chance in 2009 in a dilapidated house in Illinois. ‘They had never appeared in print, and were partly scattered around the room as loose manuscript pages.’ Thanks to her thorough knowledge of music theory and Price’s style, Ege managed to reconstruct the pieces in their original form.

All four Fantasies are based on a pentatonic theme, a feature of much folk music. Ege: ‘The First is based on the negro spiritual Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass, the music continuously circles around the five notes E-G-A-B-D. For the Second, Price chose her own five-note theme, in which she links the melancholy of the spiritual to romantic figurations. All four Fantasies have majestic chords, but the Fourth is the most impressive. Price immediately builds up tension with a ceremonious opening, followed by a folk theme that is worked out in expansive variations.’

With substitute pride, Ege concludes: ‘This Fantasy No. 4 in B minor best reflects the diverse and unfettered palette of Price’s artistic expression. It was not without reason that she received an honourable mention for it in 1932.’

This article first appeared in the May issue of the Dutch music magazine Luister.

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The dark night has vanished: songs by Josephine Lang taste for more

Already at the age of 16, the German composer Josephine Lang (1815-1880) published two collections of songs; eventually she would write over 300. Although she was very successful in her own time, rivalling such established song composers as Schubert and Schumann, today her work is rarely heard. The Scottish-German mezzo-soprano Catriona Morison and the Scottish pianist Malcolm Martineau put her centre stage on their CD The dark night has vanished.

As the daughter of a violinist and an opera singer, Josephine Lang was brought up on music and revealed a considerable talent for composing when she was only five. Thanks to her grandfather, she got to know composers such as Felix Mendelssohn and Ferdinand Hiller, who trained her in music theory.

Salient detail: while Felix forbade his own sister Fanny to publish her music, he did his best to help Lang put her work in print. – It makes one wonder: was he simply jealous of Fanny’s talent?

Josephine Lang published over forty opus numbers during her lifetime; in 1838 Robert Schumann included one of her songs in his Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. She married a poetic lawyer, whose poetry she set to music, and with whom she had five children. When her husband died in 1856, she supported her family by composing and teaching piano.

Morison and Martineau chose six songs from different opus numbers, including one by her husband Christian Reinhold Köstlin, ‘Ob ich manchmal Dein gedenke?’ (Do I ever think of you?). It is a passionate declaration of love, with the closing line ‘Dich zu lieben ist mein Sinn’ (To love you is my aim).

The song opens rather more melancholic and reflective than fiery, but seething emotions rage beneath the recited text. Lang gives a masterly account of love that sizzles under the skin and at times breaks loose in graceful, heavenly outbursts of the soloist. Her vocal lines are followed like a shadow by the piano, which closes the song on the keynote as serenely as it began.

Mignon Challenges her fate

Lang’s setting of ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt’ after Goethe’s poem – better known as Mignons Klage – is more exciting than many other versions by the ‘greats’. Against the sadness of Schubert, the passivity of Schumann and the restrained despair of Wolf, Lang places fierce, short exclamations of the mezzo-soprano. She fires her words at us like gunshots, in dynamics that abruptly veer between piano and fortissimo.

Now here’s a woman who for once does not go down in misery but stubbornly resists her fate. Her ever-larger intervals cross all registers, supported by a furiously pounding piano. About halfway through, singer and pianist suddenly fall silent, only to pick up speed again with the forte exclamation ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt/Weiss was ich leide!’, repeated three times.  

The other songs are no less brilliant. The subdued ‘Scheideblick’ expresses the pain of parting with such poignant harmonies that the poet Nikolaus Lenau burst into tears during a performance. In ‘Die Schwalben’, jumpy piano melodies evoke frolicking swallows; ‘Gestern und heute’ is permeated with melancholy for lost happiness.

JOSEPHINE LANG DESERVES PORTRAIT CD

The opening line of this previously unpublished song is also the namesake of the CD ‘Die dunkle Nacht ist nun entschwunden’. In the closing ‘Abschied’, the piano supports the singer’s yearning vocal lines with flowing sixteenths, which give the song speed and urgency.

With her warm, sonorous voice and excellent diction, Catriona Morison perfectly expresses the virtuoso vocal lines and underlying emotions. Malcolm Martineau confirms his reputation as the ideal accompanist: he subtly follows Morison in imitations and variations of her melodic line, but confidently takes the lead in purely instrumental parts.

The songs by Grieg, Brahms and Schumann are also performed flawlessly. Still, it is a pity that Morison and Martineau did not devote their entire album to Josephine Lang. Her music is appealing and original and would have deserved a full portrait CD!

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Sam Adams’ take on Concerto grosso premieres in Concertgebouw: Movements (for us and them)

For the season 2020-2021 Samuel Adams was booked as composer in residence of The Concertgebouw. Both his residency in Amsterdam and the new orchestral work he was to compose for NTRZaterdagMatinee fell prey to Covid-19 however. On Saturday 22 May the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra will instead perform the Dutch premiere of Movements (for us and them), under the baton of chief conductor Karina Canellakis.

Sam Adams (San Francisco, 1985) is determinedly shaping his career as a composer. – Preferably under his own steam: his biography does not even mention he is the son of the world-famous John Adams. In 2019 he was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship.

He had been looking forward to exploring our capital city by bike in order to find inspiration for his new orchestral work, he said in 2020. Though this fell through, he did complete his new composition, Variations, for the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.

However, the line-up proved too large for a corona proof performance, therefore it was replaced by Movements (for us and them) for string orchestra. Adams composed this in 2018 for the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Critics praised its ‘trance-like energy and radiance’, ‘subtle emotional power,’ and feverish rhythms’.

As the son of a composer and a photographer, Samuel Adams seemed predestined for a career in the cultural world. He started out as a double bass player in jazz ensembles – just as his father had once played the clarinet in jazz orchestras – and only later started composing.

But where John had been more or less caught between serialism and minimalism, Sam ‘didn’t have to choose sides’, as he remarked in an interview: ‘I can use anything I like in my music.’ His work is often lyrical and makes regular use of electronics; besides composition, he studied electroacoustics.

ITALO CALVINO

Movements (for us and them) was inspired by Sei proposte per il prossimo millennio (Six Memos for the New Millennium) by Italo Calvino (1923-1985). The celebrated Italian author wrote these for a series of lectures at Harvard, defining the different criteria he believed literature should meet. Calvino died when he had only worked out five themes: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity.

Adams built his composition mainly around the first three characteristics. There is a regular emphasis on high registers (lightness); the driving triplets give the piece an enormous velocity (quickness); the carefully dosed syncopations and irregular rhythms testify of his love for structure (exactitude).

COLLABORATION instead of competition

This is also evident in his second source of inspiration: the concerto grosso, which was popular in the Baroque era. The string orchestra is divided into two groups: a string quartet – similar to the concertino – and a thirteen-piece string ensemble that also includes a double bass.

But Adams gives his own twist to the genre: instead of placing the two groups opposite each other like rivals, he subverts the traditional hierarchy by having them work together, hence the subtitle ‘for us and them’.

In what he himself describes as ‘role fluidity’, both groups – and within them the individual musicians – are constantly changing roles. Sometimes they team up or even merge, but continuously new soloists detach themselves from both ensembles, now playing a sweet love song or wistful lament, then a jolly tune or a Scottish-style dance. The other strings produce a heartbeat of muffled pizzicati, knot a luscious carpet of sustained sounds, or play counter-melodies.

COLLECTIVE sigh

The furious tempo is abruptly halted several times on an eighth note in triple sforzando, after which the dense fabric breaks open and a moment of relaxation sets in. Adams repeats this trick at the end. After an exceptionally frenetic passage and a sledgehammer exclamation mark (‘sfff possibile’), the piece ends in deep quietude.

The soft tones fading away into nothingness create the impression of a collective sigh of relief: we’ve finally reached our goal…

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On 22 May the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra will also play the world premiere of Thomas Larcher’s Piano Concerto and Jean Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony

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Thomas Larcher: ‘Each composition is an excavation from my past’

On Saturday 22 May, the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, principal conductor Karina Canellakis and pianist Kirill Gerstein will premiere the new Piano Concerto by Austrian composer Thomas Larcher in NTRZaterdagMatinee. – Unfortunately still no audience is allowed in Main Hall The Concertgebouw, but the concert will be broadcast live on NPO Radio 4. I wrote the programme notes and Larcher was kind enough to answer some questions.

ARCHAEOLOGICAL EXCAVATION

Thomas Larcher (1963) has been featured in NTRZaterdagMatinee many times, both as a pianist and as a composer. He composed several (co-)commissioned works for the series. In 2017, his Second Symphony “Kenotaph” had its Dutch premiere in this radio series. The scheduled first performance of the Third Symphony last year was postponed because of corona. Larcher was composer in residence of The Concertgebouw then (2019-2020), and as such the predecessor of Samuel Adams, whose piece Movements (for us and them) opens the concert.

Larcher’s Piano Concerto again is a co-commission from NTRZaterdagMatinee. The composer often relates to music history, and this goes for the new piece as well: ‘Each of my pieces is an archaeological excavation from my own past’, he says. ‘Especially now perhaps, since it involves the piano, “my” instrument. The Piano Concerto is mostly inspired by pieces I wrote in the early 1990s, when I resisted composing for piano. There’s a lot of aggression and conflict in it.

This seems paradoxical, because in Larcher’s early compositions the piano plays a prominent role. However, he does sometimes ask the pianist to forcefully pound away on its keyboard, as in Naunz (1989). Moreover, he often works with a ‘prepared piano’, not always treating the instrument with excessive care. In Noodivihik for piano solo (1992), for example, he manipulates a vibrating bass string with a pair of rusty nail scissors. In Mumien for cello and piano (2001) he places an array of erasers between the strings and even covers some with duct tape.

Embalmed MUMMY

In the Piano Concerto, the instrument is mainly played in a ‘normal’ way. Apart from a few moments when the soloist hits the strings with the flat of his hand, scrapes them with his fingernails, employs an eraser or dampens them with a piece of denim. At times the dynamics change per note from fortissimo to piano.

The unorthodox orchestral line-up with accordion, two saxophones and cimbalom, is striking. However this is no coincidence, as Larcher has a name to lose in terms of using unusual sound colours. ‘The traditional orchestra is in dire need of change’, he explains.  ‘It must open up for instruments other than the usual ones, otherwise it will end up as a wonderfully embalmed mummy. The saxophones give the woodwinds more transparency, and their colour provides clear contours.’

Thomas Larcher: “The orchestra must open up for instruments other than the usual ones, otherwise it will end up as a wonderfully embalmed mummy.”

SPINE

Percussion also has a prominent role, with four musicians playing such unconventional instruments as tambourin de Provence (a narrow, portable drum) and steel drums. ‘The percussion acts as a kind of clock that sets the structure. It simultaneously serves as a timer, metronome, heart rate monitor, prompter, and blood pressure monitor.’

‘At other times the emphasis lies more on the melodic progression, for percussion may no less be a melody  instrument than the piano.’ Often the soloist teams up with percussion, accordion, cimbalom and celesta. Yet this does not mean they are acting as a kind of concertino or shadow ensemble: ‘Rather, these instruments constitute the spine and the nerve tracts enclosed within.’

CONSTRUCTION AND EXPRESSION

The Piano Concerto is dedicated to Larcher’s former composition teacher Erich Urbanner: ‘Both as a teacher and as a composer, he has meant a lot to me. A very outspoken, strong-willed and incorruptible personality, he taught with great passion. But he was also ruthless in his towering musical demands. For one, you had to master counterpoint to the hilt.’

Larcher greatly admires Urbanner’s own compositions. ‘I have known them since I was twelve. I am still deeply impressed by his Cello Concerto from 1981, which I heard in a performance by Heinrich Schiff. It opened up new worlds for me. For the first time I experienced a synthesis between construction and profound expression. That has left a big mark on my own music.’

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Sally Beamish: ‘My first language was music’

In April 2021 the double concerto Distans by Sally Beamish was scheduled to be premiered by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, but the concert was postponed due to corona*. She composed it for the Dutch violinist Janine Jansen and the Swedish clarinettist Martin Fröst. I interviewed the composer for Preludium, the magazine of Concertgebouw, and translated it at the request of Norsk Musikforlagene. Beamish: ‘I was inspired by the music of Scotland, Sweden and Holland.’

Double concertos for violin and clarinet are not very common, nor are solo concertos for alto saxophone, accordion or percussion. British composer Sally Beamish (1956) does not shy away from these, as her extensive list of works testifies. This is not a conscious choice, though, she says: ‘I work largely on commission and have also written concertos for more conventional instruments such as piano and flute. It is a pleasant challenge to compose for a line-up for which there is not yet much repertoire. I love the concerto form anyway, because you get to know an instrument – and its player – so well. Their personality will always find its way into the music.’

Although she considered herself a composer from the start, Beamish first made a career as a viola player before dedicating herself full time to composing. ‘I simply lacked female role models, I only knew Clara Schumann. – But she earned her living as a pianist.’

Sally Beamish (Ashley Coombes)

Musical family

Beamish grew up in a musical family. ‘My mother was a professional violinist, my father was a good amateur singer and flautist, and his mother again was a gifted pianist. Father worked for Philips and brought home records of classical music. That’s how I developed a love for composers such as Malcolm Arnold and William Walton, whose influence can be heard in my work. My brother is an excellent trumpet player and as a family we often gave concerts in local care homes and churches.’

Her mother taught her music notation. ‘I could read notes before I could read words. I used it to express myself. I made up stories and even wrote an ‘Opra’ at age 7; actually it was more a collection of songs than a real opera.’ Her grandmother taught her to play the piano and to sight-read: ‘We practised duets together, but if I couldn’t keep up with her she refused to wait for me. I had to keep playing, even if I only managed to hit a single note every bar. Granny had a great influence on me. She died when I was 13, but piano remained my most important instrument until I was 15.’

However, Beamish found the continuous training ‘difficult and lonely’. When Nicholas Kraemer became music teacher at her secondary school, she exchanged the piano for the harpsichord. ‘I blossomed musically. Especially when Kraemer asked me to play the viola in a youth orchestra, for I enjoyed the social contacts. I ended up in a circle of London strings and became a viola player in the National Youth Orchestra. Eventually I decided to become a professional viola player, so that I would always have enough work to support my composing.’

Oliver Knussen

While studying viola at the Royal Northern College of Music, the director advised her to enrol in Anthony Gilbert’s composition class. ‘I only had a few lessons with him, though. He felt that my style was developing in its own way and advised me not to study composition full time. For then I would have to conform to the complex atonal music that was in vogue at the time and which indeed did not appeal to me much. Looking back, I am grateful to Gilbert, because I learned so much from playing together with other musicians. It was the best ever composer-networking opportunity!

For ten years she freelanced as a violist in ensembles, several of which were specialised in contemporary repertoire. ‘Thus I got to know many composers and conductors who were generous enough to look at my own scores. The only real “composition course” I ever received was from Oliver Knussen, when he conducted a series of concerts with London Sinfonietta. For a week we jointly travelled cross-country by train. We discussed my work, but also his and that of colleagues such as Mark-Anthony Turnage and Luciano Berio. He showed me it is possible to find a language that is individual and expressive without alienating the listener.’

“Oliver Knussen showed me you can find a language that is individual & expressive without alienating the listener.”

When her precious viola was stolen in 1989, this acted as a catalyst: ‘It was so traumatic that I decided to give it a positive spin. I stopped playing and moved to Scotland with my husband, it was his homeland. This was a good decision, as I was already finding it difficult to combine my performance practice with caring for a baby and a second on the way.

Music bubbles up

Although she has composed many successful works since then, she is still not overly confident. ‘As soon as I receive a commission, ideas start bubbling up, but when I finally start composing, all those beautiful ideas suddenly seem cheap and predictable. But as I work, I regain my self-confidence and begin to enjoy it. By now I recognise the pattern and am less bothered by it.’

When she received the commission for a double concerto for Janine Jansen and Martin Fröst she immediately heard music. ‘That is always a good sign. Sometimes I ask the performers if they have certain wishes, but this time I decided immediately to incorporate traditional music from the Netherlands, Scotland and Sweden. In preparation I wrote a piece for violin and clarinet, The Flittin’. I had just moved back to England and the title refers to the Scottish word for moving house, which is related to the Swedish flytta. In this short duo I express my emotions about leaving Scotland, where I had lived for thirty years’.

She did not know either of the soloists personally: ‘I had heard Janine Jansen play live in Sweden once and went to see her in Amsterdam. It was great to exchange ideas with her – in fact it was her idea to ask Martin Fröst as second soloist. That was a golden tip. Janine’s playing is commanding, sensitive and delicate, Martin inspires with his physicality and rhythmic drive.’

Separation from loved ones

‘Dance lies at the heart of folk music’, Beamish continues. ‘Certainly in Scotland, where it is an integral part of everyday life. Two of my children live in Sweden: my daughter studies world music in Gothenburg and my eldest son lives in Borlänge. My younger son recently moved from Scotland to Denmark, and I myself returned to England two years ago. I felt the separation keenly. During the corona lockdown I learned Swedish, in order to feel closer to my “Swedish” children and grandson.’

She named her concerto after the Swedish word for distance, Distans. The theme of reaching out to loved ones is reflected in the structure: ‘At the beginning, the two soloists call out to each other from a great distance in a kind of kulning, the shrill cries with which cowherds used to rally their cattle. There are also cadenzas and duets and passages where violin and clarinet almost operate as one single instrument. At other times players from the orchestra step forward and the soloists take on a more accompanying role.’

Music voices emotions

In her orchestration, Beamish draws on the sound of folk instruments, such as the Swedish lur (wooden horn) and nyckelharpa (a violin with keys, related to the hurdy-gurdy) and the bagpipes, fiddle and Celtic harp that are so characteristic of Scotland. She also incorporated references to early Dutch dance rhythms and recorder music.

All this is strongly reflected in the title Distans, says Beamish. ‘Composing is my first language, which I use when words fail me. By translating difficult experiences into music, I learn to understand my emotions. That is what I want to share with the audience. The three-stage chemistry between composer, performer and listener is very important to me. I hope the music becomes more than notes on a piece of paper and will take on a life of its own.’

*Distans was a joint commission from London Symphony Orchestra, Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Swedish Radio Orchestra. It was premiered on 21 May by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Berwald Hallen, Stockholm.

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Chaya Czernowin: smoldering emotions under chill surface in opera Heart Chamber

A woman and a man seated at considerable distance from each other stare into space, silent and blank. The image immediately brings to mind the absurdist plays of Samuel Beckett, but Heart Chamber deals with the very recognizable uncertainties of being or falling in love. This fourth opera by the Israeli-American Chaya Czernowin was premiered at Deutsche Oper Berlin in 2019 and recently released on DVD.

The opera opens with a double bass player (Uli Fussenegger) filmed from above, conjuring an admirable arsenal of creaks, squeaks and plops from his instrument. The orchestra joins in almost imperceptibly with equally indefinable sounds produced by physical instruments and electronics.

Still from Heart Chamber (c) Michael Trippell

Czernowin creates a mysterious soundscape that seamlessly connects to the feelings of oppression which enthrall the two protagonists for almost an hour and a half. In their impotence to reach each other they stammer hushed, disjointed sentences; only rarely do we hear a shard of melody. The atmosphere of powerlessness is reinforced by the chorus of voices, whose whisperings, rasping breaths and screeching glissandi give voice to a range of fears.

The man (the baritone Dietrich Henschel) and the woman (the soprano Patrizia Ciofi) are only referred to as ‘he’ and ‘she’. On a split screen we see film footage of their getting ready for the day: she puts on her coat, he walks through a corridor with a briefcase. They both descend a flight of stairs and make their way onto the street.

Then the focus switches back to the stage, where people seem to be entering an underground railway station via a white staircase. The woman drops something – the music stops abruptly and the people freeze in their pose. In slow motion, the man hands her the lost object. After this first meeting both walk on uncomfortably.

Their contact will remain tense and fraught throughout the entire opera. In a seemingly random succession of situations Czernowin questions conventional views on love relationships, purposely abstaining from a clear narrative.

The hapless couple seem trapped in their loneliness, every attempt at rapprochement is brutally cut short. Especially by the woman, who seems terrified to enter into a relationship. She shrieks in fear when the man comes too close and abruptly slams a door in his face. – Yet at another moment she awkwardly covers his shoulders in a tentative gesture of consolation.

Two alter-egos (the alto Noa Frenkel and the baritone Terry Wey) circle the main characters like shadows and help to convey their distress. They also represent the clichés of a successful romance, for instance when they idyllically drink a glass of wine in a meadow. Less innocent references to standard expectations are visualized by extras behind the windows of the modernist bungalow: a woman cradling a baby in her arms, a little boy waving at the woman, who tries to reach him in vain.

Because there is no recognizable story or true interaction, the protagonists remain somewhat abstract. In his direction Claus Guth captures the oppressive atmosphere with sombre lighting; the bungalow’s forbidding architecture aptly underpins the lack of warmth that permeats the opera.

Underneath the chill of it all the music of Heart Chamber burns with a suppressed fire, making the smoldering emotions palpable. Czernowin’s dense, sustained sound textures and haunting murmurings keep one spell-bound from start to finish. The charged score is flawlessly performed by the musicians, singers and soloists of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Hats off to composer Chaya Czernowin and conductor Johannes Kalitzke.

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Vocal artist and composer Molly Pease: ‘My father gave me wings’

Molly Pease is an eclectic vocal artist and composer who sings rock, folk, jazz, neo-soul, classical, opera, experimental, contemporary, and improvisational music. As a composer-performer, she merges music, movement, and visuals in solo projects and interdisciplinary collaborations. Recently her eight-part cantata Inner Astronomy for four female voices and string quartet to poems by her father was released on CD. – I wrote a portrait of Molly Pease for the Dutch music magazine De Nieuwe Muze.

Molly Pease, (c) Sera Lindsey

In the CD booklet Molly Pease (1990) describes how, when she was little, her father Randall Pease would story-tell her to sleep with tales of his own making. ‘Sometimes they were scary, sometimes bizarre or romantic, but I was always the heroine.’ Her fondest memory is of the story in which she lives in a castle and looks longingly out over the woods. And her father loves her so much that he gives her wings with which she can fly away from him: ‘It is time for me to let you go.’

Daughter-Bird

Music often played a role in his fairy-tales, says Pease: ‘Sometimes I had a superpower: singing. I could heal animals with it or call for help over great distances. Later, he also wrote poems about my talent as a singer. Actually, the first poem of his I ever set to music is called “Daughter-Bird” – this was before I started Inner Astronomy.’

Music was equally prominent in everyday life: ‘My parents are both writers, but they often talked about their childhood, when my mother performed a lot in musicals and my father sang in a children’s choir. Their preference was for music from the 60s and 70s. My father would often play songs by Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin or Neil Young very loudly, dancing around the room and picking me up to “play” me like a guitar. My mother loved Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell, but also rocked out to bands like The Grateful Dead and Crosby, Stills and Nash.’

Pease didn’t limit herself to her parents’ musical tastes, but as a straightforward adolescent, she also sought out her own. ‘I was a big fan of Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder and other R&B classics, but also loved Radiohead, Death Cab for Cutie and Regina Spektor. As I got older, I started collecting vinyl records by jazz artists like Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Nancy Wilson.’

Judie Garland and Björk

Yet they were not necessarily her musical heroes: ‘As a child I worshipped Judy Garland. I will never forget how, as a two-year-old, I saw The Wizard of Oz for the first time and was deeply moved by the intense emotion she conveyed. She planted the seed in me that singing could be a career. Later I was charmed by Joni Mitchell because of her wild melodies, but I think the biggest influence is Björk. I discovered her as a teenager and she still endlessly surprises me; the worlds she creates are incredible. I’ve spent years transcribing and analysing her music, hoping to understand how she manages to convey such colourful images and powerful emotions.’

With her love of vocal music, it was obvious that Pease would join a choir. ‘I sang in the Sacramento Children’s Chorus from the age of five to eighteen, which was a life-changing experience. We sang all kinds of styles, travelled the world and participated in international festivals. The director, Lynn Stevens, was like a second mother to me. I also sang in musicals for many years with the River City Theatre, a youth theatre company in Sacramento.’

Her parents supported her from the start. ‘Parents often think that a career in music is a risky choice, but I was so determined that they couldn’t have stopped me, anyway’, Pease laughs. Besides, they were one hundred percent convinced of my talent.’ She took piano lessons for eight years and also studied guitar for a while, ‘but neither instrument really appealed to me. However, the piano did come in handy for voice training and composing.’

Performing composer

At Sacramento High School, in addition to the regular subjects, she also receives music theory and ear training. In 2012, she went to the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York. ‘Thanks to my solid prior education, I was able to complete my bachelor’s degree in just two years.’ In 2015 she returned to California, where she also completed a master’s in jazz studies at the renowned CalArts Institute in two years.

Pease has particularly fond memories of this post-graduate course: ‘Until then, I was a performer and songwriter, but I wanted to develop more as a composer. My mentors Mark Lowenstein and Fahad Siadat helped me to approach the composition process more formally. – I learned to look at the overall structure and the relationship between different parts instead of just placing a melody over a few chords. Thanks to them, I dared to experiment with sounds and textures. When Fahad called me “composer” one day, this gave my self-confidence a big boost.’

‘When Fahad Siadat called me “composer” one day, this gave my self-confidence a big boost.’

By then, she was already active on many fronts: ‘I collaborated in experimental opera productions, concerts with classical choir music, avant-garde jazz and improvisation and performed with R&B groups, sang in the art-pop collective Hello Forever and meanwhile worked on my rock album Ackland, which came out in 2018. All this is a dream come true for me, as I love traversing very different musical worlds. Through my eclectic performance practice, my own style has become infused with jazz, R&B, classical and “new music” experiments.’

So how does she envision the relationship between singing and composing? ‘When I sing something that I have written myself, I experience a different level of connection than when I perform other people’s work. It feels more personal, as if it comes from my deepest being. Of course I know my voice well and can write on its strengths, but in my own compositions I like to challenge myself vocally.’

These usually start with a simple motif or a poem, she continues. ‘They can be my own words or someone else’s. I chew on them for a few days and hum some ideas into the voice recorder on my smartphone. Then I sit down at the piano and work out all these themes in improvisation. Once I get going, I record everything and write down in a notebook where I want to place certain chords or melodies in the piece.’

Illness and addiction

For Inner Astronomy she chose eight poems by her father, which he wrote during a difficult period in his life. While ‘daughter-bird’ Molly was spreading her wings and building a career as a singer and composer, he himself lost his way. ‘When I was still in high school, he developed a serious form of esophageal cancer’, says Pease. ‘He underwent chemotherapy, radiation and surgery and was given opiates to deal with the pain. He recovered from cancer, but his suffering continued and he became addicted to the meds, eventually mixing them with drink as well.’

All this caused a lot of problems, both for himself and the family: ‘He eventually got sober after rehab and getting involved in AA, but succumbed to severe depression and bipolar disorder. His brain was very damaged by the whole experience. He attempted suicide more than once, but thankfully wasn’t successful. His body was also very broken because of everything he’d endured. He was in and out of the hospital over many years and began to lose his memory. His early-onset dementia led to his passing.’

It was a tough experience Pease acknowledges: ‘I went through a lot of phases throughout this long period. I was angry at him for a long time because I felt that his poor choices had led to his misery. But before the end, I accepted him as he was and just tried to be there for him the best I could. What helped me get to this place was focusing on all the incredible life-gifts he had given me, from creative cultivation to a profound connection to nature, and his steadfast, pure love for friends and family.’

During his illness and addiction, her father continued writing poetry about what was going on inside him. ‘In 2016, he sent me some 90 poems, asking me to make a book out of them and set them to music. I was a bit overwhelmed because there were so many, but he agreed I could choose my favourites. I read each poem until I landed on one that felt musical to me. Then I used only those sections that spoke to me. It was a fun process.’

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Feminine vibe

Inner Astronomy is set for four female voices and five strings. Why this line-up? ‘I knew from the start that I wanted to write for all women’s voices, because my Dad’s writing has such a feminine vibe to it. I thought women’s voices would provide the hopeful warmth the poems needed, but I also knew that the singers would be able to get gritty, as well. I really love writing for strings because of the incredible array of textures they can create, but also because I think they sound so good with voices.’

Despite the sad background, Inner Astronomy is by no means sombre or gloomy. Pease creates a light-hearted atmosphere with meandering, skilfully interwoven voices that irrevocably chase away every angry or scary thought. Because the singers and musicians rarely perform simultaneously all together, the fabric remains highly transparent. Thus Pease creates an enchanting sound world in which echoes of folk, pop, spoken word, minimal music, overtone singing and modern-experimental sound explorations resound.

Not infrequently one imagines oneself in the woods that Pease looked out over in her father’s fairy tale, with bird-like cries from the singers, and pizzicati from the strings that drip like rain. A recurring element is a call of a rising minor third followed by a sustained tone. The cantata radiates an immense tranquillity and spaciousness, as if we are sailing along on an endlessly spun out improvisation.  

There are indeed moments of improvisation, says Pease: ‘In “Recovery Family” almost all the string parts are just guidelines for different textures to go under the vocal lines. In “Higher Power” there is an improvised solo by the violin and myself, and in “From I to We” I leave the phrasing to the soloists. I love designing pieces to be interpreted differently each time, it makes them more personal.’

The song “My Son My One” is dearest to her: ‘It was the first poem I set to music, the melody came to me spontaneously. Moreover, it expresses most clearly what this poetic journey meant to my father. He speaks candidly about his depression and addiction, but also about his hope to find light at the end of the tunnel and make a connection with his version of God. I performed it with my brother at his funeral, a moving experience.’ The title Inner Astronomy is derived from a poem that ultimately did not end up in the cycle. ‘It does however, capture the personal and at the same time universal world that my father describes in his poetry.’

Wings to fly

The CD booklet is larded with colourful, somewhat naive sketches, which fit nicely into the dreamy atmosphere of the songs. ‘These are my father’s drawings’, says Pease proudly. He loved to draw with crayons and when he initially sent me everything, these were included. He asked me to use them in the poetry book I was going to make for him. Laura Sofía Pérez designed the CD cover and booklet, as well as the poetry book, using my Dad’s drawings throughout and cutting them up and collaging them a bit.’

Although Randall Pease himself had asked his daughter to set his poems to music, he was not involved in the compositional process. ‘He did, however, get to hear a few of the pieces some months before he passed away, watching them via video of my CalArts Graduation Recital. Unfortunately, he had trouble focusing on the performance, let alone remembering it much afterward. I wasn’t there to see his reaction, but my brother told me he teared up at one point, so I know it resonated with him at least a little bit.’

The collection of his poetry and drawings is also forthcoming, says Pease. ‘There will also be a music video coming out for “Higher Power” that will feature them I’m really excited about this, I like to work with artists from other disciplines and do so often. My father has given me wings to fly and choose my own path; I want to continue doing so for the rest of my life.’

This article appeared in the March-April 2021 issue of De Nieuwe Muze. I also did a 5-questions interview with Molly Pease for I Care if You Listen. Further information on the website of Molly Pease

I played parts of Inner Astronomy in my radio show ‘An Ox on the Roof’ Concertzender on 3 January 2021. Listen back here.

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Here are all the black female composers!

If you want to change the world, start with the young and malleable. This must have been the thought of Nathan Holder when he decided to write a book about black female composers. Instead of adding yet another exposé to the scholarly literature on the (in)visibility of women composers, he decided to write a book for children. – And call it Where are all the Black Female Composers? A strong and provocative title, because in the struggle for gender equality in music most researchers zoom in on white women composers.

In a mere 79 pages, Holder introduces over 30 composers of colour, arranged in chronological order. Starting with the Brazilian Chiquinha Gonzaga (1847-1935) and ending with the British Cassie Kinoshi (1993). In compact, Wikipedia style texts Holder describes their place of birth, education and achievements and sums up some of their most important works.

After the entries on the featured composers, Holder sometimes lists a few contemporaries, with or without dates or further explanation. Each lemma also offers a music note and three titles (haphazardly placed in inverted comma’s) that seem to refer to the online playlist on page 75, though underneath the QR-code there we find a different set of titles.

Red thread through the book are four children – Phoebe, Callum, Olivia and Zaki – who give ‘fun facts’ or pose questions to which the answers can be found at the end of the book. Olivia shares the fact that Florence Price (1887-1953) composed Rhapsody on Negro Themes for an orchestra of 100 musicians; Callum suggests the kids might recognize the surname of Shirley Graham Du Bois (1896-1977) ‘because she was married to the author W.E.B. Du Bois’. But how familiar is Du Bois to the average adolescent?

Zaki recounts how Irene Britton Smith (1907-1999) was ‘too nervous to accept the offer’ of Florence Price to help her with her compositions. Phoebe informs us that in 1988 Jeanne Lee was named one of the 100 most influential people in jazz in Jazzis, as shown on page 44, where she holds up the cover of this jazz magazine. The booklet is lavishly illustrated, with drawings by Charity Russell of different instruments, the four ‘guides’ in all kinds of postures and lifelike portraits of the composers.

One does wonder what particular kids Holder had in mind while writing. At the start of his book he asks a very relevant question: ‘What is a composer?’ For indeed, many young people are mystified by this concept. It seems unlikely, however they will feel enlightened by his answer that ‘a composer is someone who organizes sounds’. In the next paragraph he takes it for granted the kids are versed in musicological terms when explaining he will focus on black women composers ‘who have written in a classical or neo-classical style’.

Despite these incongruities and its somewhat erratic set-up Where are all the Women Composer provides a lot of valuable information. Composers such as Price, Margaret Bonds (1913-1972), Tania León (1943) and Eleanor Alberga (1949) are fairly well-known, but the names of Dorothy Rudd Moore (1940), Regina Harris Baiocchi (1956) and Nkeiru Okoye (1972) don’t immediately ring a bell’ with a general audience – nor with me for that matter.

By completely focusing on female composers of colour in a book for adolescents Nathan Holder really sticks his neck out. He offers a useful tool for further discoveries into a field that is still largely unexplored in the mainstream music world. His booklet has the impact of a proud banner: Here are all the black female composers!

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Tapping and hi-hatting clarinettist in Keyla Orozco’s Estudio del Pajarillo

Though in the last decade she has been living in the United States, Keyla Orozco still has a strong bond with the Netherlands. On 11 April clarinettist David Kweksilber will perform her Estudo del pajarillo for a live stream from Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ Amsterdam.

Born in Santiago de Cuba in 1969 Keyla Orozco studied piano and composition at the Escuela Nacional de Arte and Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana. In 1995 she moved to the Netherlands, to continue her studies with Theo Loevendie at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague and the Sweelinck Conservatoire in Amsterdam, where she became his assistant in 2002. In 2014 she moved to the US.

Keyla Orozco © Gabriel Guerra Bianchini

In her music Orozco explores her roots and in 2006 she conducted extensive field-research into the traditional Venezuelan/Colombian music known as Música Llanera. This project was subsidized by the Dutch Performing Arts Funds, and her later compositions have been strongly influenced by Latin-American rhythms. As in Estudio del Pajarillo for clarinet, hi-hat and tapping shoe that she composed for the Dutch clarinettist David Kweksilber in 2007. Orozco kindly answered some questions via email from Cuba.

Could you tell something about the title?

The Pajarillo (‘Little Bird’) is a popular music and dance style of Venezuela, which uses a harmonic circle of V-I-IV-V, in a minor key. It is very polyrhythmic, using 6/8 and 3/4 metres simultaneously. It’s a favourite with­­­ dancers and musicians and belongs to the Joropo family. This is the National music and dance style of Venezuela, which originated in the Plains around the Orinoco river. Traditionally it is performed with harp, cuatro (four-string guitar), and maracas. 

After my field research in Venezuela in 2006, I wrote Estudio del Pajarillo for bass clarinet, employing the original harmonic pattern. I wanted to have the polyrhythms of the traditional instruments reflected in just one single instrument. Therefore David not only plays his instrument, but also taps and plays percussion.

How did you decide on the tapping shoe and hi-hat? 

Originally, I wanted the player to accompany himself by tying something noisy to one foot, for instance bells. But David didn’t have any and instead suggested to use a hi-hat he had at home… At first I thought he was crazy, but I let him try it anyway, and I LOVED IT. The more so because it makes the piece more theatrical. The hi-hat may be replaced by bells if the performer doesn’t own a hi-hat, but he or she must wear a normal shoe on that particular foot.  

I’d had a tapping shoe in mind for the other foot straightaway, but hadn’t expected any bass clarinet player to own tapping shoes, or dancing shoes in general for that matter. So I asked David to use a shoe he could produce a good percussive sound with. But he again surprised me, for he did own a pair of beautiful tapping shoes and said he could even dance a little. So I went for it! I even included a cadenza in which he can improvise his own tap dance. After all, Pajarillo is a type of dance.

Pajarillo means ‘little bird’. Have you striven to imitate bird song in the score?

No, but David does play really fast and florid motifs, rapidly switching from one register to another. Also, the clarinet uses a couple of effects you might call ‘extended techniques’, but these are not of great importance. Rather I would highlight the sense of harmony and polyphony that I have tried to achieve in the treatment of the melody itself. Estudio del Pajarillo is technically very demanding. It’s a real virtuoso piece that is in excellent hands and feet with David!

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David Kweksilber performs Estudio del Pajarillo in Jewish Historical Museum Amsterdam

More info on the programme at Muziekgebouw

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Rob Zuidam zooms in on Joanna the Mad in his opera Rage d’Amours: ‘Joanna took me by the hand’

In 2005, Dutch National Opera and Holland Festival presented Rob Zuidam’s opera Rage d’Amours. Five years later, he received the Kees van Baaren Prize for this blood-curdling production about the life of Joanna The Mad. The award ceremony was part of the Festival Dag in de Branding, with a performance by Residentie Orkest conducted by Otto Tausk.

In its next edition on 10 April, Dag in de Branding will present a video recording of this performance from its archives. In 2005, I interviewed Zuidam about his opera for the programme book of Dutch National Opera. Below is an abridged version.

Amsterdam, June 2005, interview with Rob Zuidam on Rage d’Amours

Rob Zuidam (c) Maarten Slagboom

Rob Zuidam (1964) began his career in a rock band, but his interests did not quite run parallel to those of the other band members: ‘I wanted mainly to rehearse, preferably all day, but they were more interested in blowing and drinking than in making music. Besides, I soon felt the need to break through the usual rock schemes, but that required an alertness they couldn’t muster. So I started messing around with tape recorders myself.’

In the process, Zuidam became interested in all the music he could find in Rotterdam’s Central Discotheque, from Aboriginals and Eskimos via the usual classics up to and including the twentieth century: ‘Modern music particularly appealed to me, and through record sleeves I discovered new names all the time. When I read that someone had studied composition with Olivier Messiaen, I suddenly realized you could apparently learn to compose. Shortly afterwards I went to the Conservatory in Rotterdam, where the doorman referred me to Klaas de Vries.’

Even though he was hardly technically gifted, he was accepted. He was taught by the Belgian composer Philippe Boesmans and Klaas de Vries and soon developed into someone who, with flair, combined modern composition techniques with direct eloquence. In no time he became an internationally renowned composer.

In 1994 the Munich Biennale commissioned him to compose his first opera, Freeze. The libretto, written by Zuidam himself, tells the story of the millionaire’s daughter Patricia Hearst, who is kidnapped and joins the ranks of her captors. In this opera, Zuidam effortlessly combines juicy film music, cabaret and ripping guitar solos with the great intervals so typical of the post-war avant-garde.

Love beyond death

His second opera, Rage d’Amours, about the life of Joanna The Mad (1479-1555), followed in 2003 and was composed for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. ‘A friend once drew my attention to the wife of Philip the Handsome (1478-1506), who, after his death, dragged his corpse through Spain in the hope that he would come back to life. In the end they locked her up, after which she looked out from a dungeon on her husband’s grave for forty-six years.’

Joanna The Mad painted by Juan de Flandes

Zuidam was immediately captivated by her passion: ‘She asked nothing more of life than to be with her husband forever. I find this devotion both admirable and disturbing. Her love is truly imperishable: no matter what state Philip’s body is in, she continues to love him. This is contrary to our human nature, for which appearance is of great importance. We all have moments when we have to decide whether or not to give in to our impulses. Joanna decides to devote her life to her lover and does so with total abandon. That ecstasy fascinates me.’

For Rage d’Amours Zuidam again wrote the libretto himself, basing it on contemporary Spanish, French and Latin writings. ‘In a book about Joanna The Mad I found references to sixteenth-century sources. I came across the account of an anonymous chronicler, who describes Joanna’s life from the inside, in old French, the language of the court. It is a kind of fairy-tale French, so beautiful that I based a large part of the libretto on it.’

The reporting is detailed and straightforward, says Zuidam: ‘The author was clearly an intimate of the couple. He describes, for instance, how Philip slept with about every young lady that crossed his path, and the raging jealousy – ‘rage d’amours’ – this incited in Joanna. We also get a detailed description of how Philip’s corpse is cut apart and embalmed, and of how Joanna then travels across Spain with his coffin, neglecting her personal hygiene, not washing herself and peeing in her clothes.’

‘I have given these texts to the composer Pierre da la Rue, who acts as narrator’, continues Zuidam. ‘As a member of the Royal Chapel he was on intimate terms with both Philip and Joanna: they affectionately called him Pierchon. In the seventh scene, when Joanna kisses the corpse, I have quoted part of his motet Delicta juventutis, which he composed on the occasion of Philip’s death.’

Three Joanna’s

Interestingly the role of Joanna is divided among three sopranos. Zuidam: ‘The opera is set in a dungeon, which functions as a metaphor for her head. The three voices bring her obsession and torment to the surface. Joanna 3 has a solo in the second scene, in which she and Philip are threatened with shipwreck. While the bystanders scream murder, she remains deadly calm: she does not care if they drown, for after all, she is together with her husband. She is the unshakeable one.’

Joanna 2 represents her exalted side: while the monks dismember her husband’s corpse, she sings ‘mi amado’, my beloved over and over again. The carnal, necrophilic aspect is represented by Joanna 1, who embraces the corpse in the seventh scene. More often they are together Joanna, as at the beginning, when they sing a lament. I found that a moving image, three lamenters mourning over a coffin. Once I had the idea of having Joanna sung by three singers, inspiration started flowing immediately.’

The story of the Spanish queen’s life is indeed poignant, but it doesn’t generate much action. How has Zuidam created tension nevertheless? ‘I sailed by my inner compass. For example, in the intense fifth scene Joanna 2 sings her passionate declaration of love, and it wouldn’t be wise to continue with something laden after this. So I inserted a short scene in which a cleaning lady polishes the floor, accompanied by her own brushing and a contrabass clarinet. This is followed by the passage in which the coffin is opened so that Joanna can kiss the corpse.’

Rage d’Amours (c) Hans Hijmering

Philip, although already dead at the beginning of the opera, is sometimes shown alive. As in the eighth scene, in which he sings a heartrending love duet with Joanna 1, later joined by the other two Joanna’s. ‘I wanted to capture something of the first, happy period of the young couple. I searched for suitable texts for a long time, and finally found them in the Song of Songs. They have exactly the sublime purity that I was looking for.’

Although Zuidam did not consciously strive for local colour, the music of Rage d’Amours is very much in keeping with the Renaissance, with subtle references to Flemish polyphony and quasi-Gregorian chant. And some of the embellishments of the vocal lines sound unmistakably Spanish. The composer considers this inevitable: ‘Music and subject are interwoven. Freeze is set in 1970s California, so that opera is much poppier. Rage d’Amours is set in the sixteenth century, the pace is slower and the overall sound is different.’

‘In any case, I now have the idea I have come to the core of what I wanted to say. On the one hand because I have more experience, on the other because of the theme. Although I was fascinated by Patricia Hearst, deep down I still thought she was a silly rich girl, whereas Joanna touched me intensely: I really started to love her.’

This helped Zuidam while composing: ‘Take the fifth scene, for instance, which came about quite intuitively: everything was ready and waiting. Sometimes I wondered whether the music would become too exalted, but in those dark moments Joanna took me by the hand. Then the music wrote itself.’

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The scene picture shows the premiere in 2005, with from left to right: sopranos Young-Hee Kim, Barbara Hannigan and Claron McFadden. Reinbert de Leeuw conducted Asko|Schönberg, Guy Cassiers staged the opera. In 2019 a recording was released on CD.

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Lisa Neher & Kendra Leonard present strong women in micro-opera festival

For over a year, theatres and opera houses have been closed. The American singer and composer Lisa Neher and librettist Kendra Leonard therefore organized the One Voice Project Virtual Micro Opera Festival. With few resources they realized a varied series of five mini-operas for unaccompanied solo voice.

Lisa Neher in ‘Momentum’

With their initiative, Neher and Leonard want to offer us some beauty and give themselves and others a chance to practice their craft. The ladies have thought carefully about the production. Once you’ve applied for a – free – online festival pass, you gain access to a load of information about the creators, the operas and the performers. From March 22 through March 26, they send a link to a new world premiere every day. The operas are offered for free on the pay as you can principle and remain available on YouTube.

The subjects are very diverse and partly arrived at in consultation with the singers. For example, the tenor Hugo Vera moved to Los Angeles in the middle of the pandemic. Leonard incorporates the associated anxiety, loneliness and confusion into her libretto. In Wide Awake in the New City, we see Vega somewhat lost among relocation boxes and haphazardly placed furniture in his new apartment.

‘Sorry we had to drive so terribly long,’ he sings to his cat Eloise. He mourns the loss of his friends and frets about his new job, in which he will have to teach virtually. But as soon as he steps out onto his balcony, the prospect of singing in the renowned Disney Hall one day cheers him up: ‘I can do this. In time we’ll figure it all out’, he muses in appealing coloratura.

The three following operas have a feminist-historical tinge. Par for the Course is about the athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias (1911-1956). She excelled in many disciplines, but became best known as a phenomenal golfer. When she qualified for the 1948 U.S. Open, the rules were abruptly changed so that only men were allowed to participate. The opera zooms in on the moment she learns – from the press – that she is excluded from participation.

Dressed in an orange blouse and black & white pepitre-skirt, soprano Audrey Yoder expresses her frustration. In flawlessly intonated, large intervals, she denounces men’s fear of her achievements: ‘I can even beat you at javelin throwing!’ – Behind her we see archival footage of the javelin throw with which Zaharias won a gold Olympic medal in 1932. Self-assured, Yoder lists her many successes, then quotes the criticism that female athletes are ‘unnatural’ on a listless, descending glissando. She ends on a powerful defiant tone: ‘Is there anything I do not play? – Yes, with dolls!’

Sung by Lisa Neher herself, Momentum is about the 1967 Boston Marathon. Kathrine Switzer (b. 1947) registered for the run under her initials. When an official noticed her, he tried to forcibly remove her from the race. She finished it nonetheless and five years later women were officially allowed as participants. Neher announces the opera somewhat emotionally; she is an avid marathon runner herself. The camera trails her along desolate streets and industrial estates, while she intersperses her sung indignation with rhythmical huffing and puffing.

The mezzo-soprano Margaret O’Connell sounds equally determined in Woman Waits With Sword. The noble Alberte-Barbe d’Ernécourt (1607-1660) defended her estate as Chevalier de Baslemont against French, Swedish and Croatian soldiers. – And against an intruder who one day thought he could take possession of her castle. With no more than a feathered tricorn hat, O’Connell portrays this man, ridiculing his macho behaviour. Finally, she challenges him to a duel: with sword drawn and arm raised, she looks into the camera. Bring it on!’

In the fifth opera, Now Available, we return to the here and now. The tenor Zach Finkelstein seems locked in his cramped room. Desperate, he looks out the window and sings about the closed theatres, the lack of bright spots, the fear of losing his skill as a singer. ‘I’m still singing… in my living-room.’ Leonard infuses his text with some criticism about opera companies that rarely offered compensation for cancelled performances. ‘Can I ever trust them again?’

The Voice Project Virtual Micro Opera Festival is a great example of grassroots music theatre. Without subsidy or advanced technology, the makers have created five wonderful miniatures in which everything is just right. No matter how simple the setting, the lighting, camera work and sound recording are spot on. Neher’s vocal lines are varied and imitable, without being kitschy, and are a perfect match for the often rapidly changing emotions. The singers are excellent, O’Connell standing out with her exceptionally empathic portrayal of the female Chevalier.

Go see and hear!

This review was first published in Dutch on the culture site Theaterkrant

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Composer and pianist Anne-Maartje Lemereis: ‘When the tour of my song cycle was cancelled I felt like a 6-year-old whose birthday party is called off’

The financial damage caused by the corona crisis is immense, and the end is not yet in sight. What are the stories behind the figures? The Dutch website Theaterkrant asks freelancers in the theatre sector how they are dealing with the crisis, both financially and mentally. For this series I interviewed composer and pianist Anne-Maartje Lemereis.

Anne-Maartje Lemereis (1989) wrote her first song when she was four, and later studied piano and composition at the Utrecht Conservatoire. She completed her studies in 2016 and has since composed many works, often on commission. She performs as a pianist and teaches both piano and composition but also organizes concerts, courses and festivals, for instance with her foundation In de Knop (In the Bud).

Anne-Maartje Lemereis (c) Mark Brants

She has a fondness for language and the human voice, so opera and music theatre are quite her cup of tea. Since 2019 she has been associated with KASKO as a young maker, exploring both genres together with director Kenza Koutchoukali.

The announcement of the first lockdown on 11 March 2020 immediately caused concern, Lemereis recalls. ‘I wondered whether the Young Composers’ day I had scheduled for April could ahead. When this was indeed cancelled, I began to realise that a number of premieres of my own work were also at risk.

Fortunately four of them went ahead anyway: Lumen was played by the Mallet Collective during the Bach Festival Dordrecht, and the Nederlands Kamerkoor NXT sang Label Me in Utrecht. Other commissions and performances were put on hold.’

Lemereis was to compose a series of mini-operas with children during the Oranjewoud Festival, which was cancelled altogether. ‘The autumn tour of my song cycle This is not a Fairy Tale was brutally interrupted after one performance by the second lockdown. We just managed to play it twice in one evening for 30 people, for which we got paid extra. For one of the missed performances the full fee was compensated, for the rest we are still looking for new dates.’

A long-term composition commission for the Dutch television programme Podium Witteman was also postponed. ‘Yet I was allowed to invoice an advance of 75% of the fee.’ This is not a matter of course though: ‘Many of my workshops take place at small institutions or collectives, which lack the scope to offer compensation if something goes wrong. I understand this, and fortunately the contacts remain warm; we trust in better times.’

She did not actively seek alternatives: ‘For me, security is a condition for being creative, so ever since my student days I have kept several irons in the fire. I have deliberately chosen not to depend on composition assignments, but to derive my basic income from teaching. It just so happens that in September 2019 I had just been offered a small salaried position at the Utrecht Conservatory. That provides some security, but when the proverbial washing machine breaks down, I’ll have to draw on my savings account.’

Lemereis spent her time to good avail: ‘Since 2017 I have an online series on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram: Happy Birthday Composer. I add lustre to the birthdays of great composers by incorporating this song in one of their masterpieces, which I perform on the piano. It has been one of my favourite pastimes to keep making and sharing music during the pandemic. Coincidentally the YouTube channel has attracted a lot more visitors since the lockdown.’

In June, she was able to perform at the Bach Festival Dordrecht. ‘They had set up a schedule whereby a new, small audience shuffled in per block. It was the first live music I had heard since March, I enjoyed it to the full!’ She also cherishes her livestream concert from Muiderslot. ‘We played in the beautiful Knights’ Hall and were taken on a tour around the castle with a very small group of people. A very special experience indeed!’

Financially, she never ended up in dire straits: ‘The newly acquired income stands in no comparison to losses caused by the many cancellations, but not once I had to perform my professional work for free or at a reduced rate. The Utrecht Conservatoire even assigned me an extra task. Besides teaching, I’m now also mentoring a group of Master’s students, which I really enjoy.’

Unlike many of her colleagues, Lemereis hasn’t even had to economise. ‘I can still pay my fixed costs from my income’, she says. ‘The worst thing about the pandemic are the ever-changing governmental measures. My agenda has become an inimitable document of scratches and cross-references. What I miss most is the inspiration I get from others during concerts, festivals, group lessons or a visit to a museum. – When the tour of  This is not a Fairy Tale was cancelled, I felt like a six-year-old whose birthday party was called off. I was upset for a week.’

Due to the extension of the lockdown until at least the end of March, several rescheduled performances were cancelled once more. ‘I was due to start work on a beautiful project by KASKO: a brand new opera in collaboration with a large group of local residents in Zwolle. Rescheduling this is quite a hassle. For next season In de Knop has planned a collaboration with the Ragazze Quartet to compose new string quartets with composers from 8 to 18 years old, for which the initial workshops will now have to take place online.’

Still, Lemereis sees some bright spots: ‘Thanks to the online lessons I now have more contact with some of my youngest students. Moreover, I was able to spend time on developing new plans for In de Knop with my co-director.’

This past period has even brought her closer to herself, Lemereis acknowledges: ‘At one point I felt that enormous inner drive to compose again. A few days behind the grand piano in my studio worked wonders: it is simply unimaginable that ever in my life I would not compose. A reassuring thought.’

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In 2021 the theme of ‘female composer’ still touches upon an open nerve

The theme of the invisible female composer  runs like a thread through my career and is still hot stuff in 2021. My musicology studies at the University of Amsterdam started out promising, with an extensive lecture series on Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). After that it remained deafeningly quiet, until one song by Clara Schumann came along in the classes about the 19th century. So the score of female composers in four years of study on over a thousand years of music was 2…

After my graduation in 1996, I immediately started advocating the ‘women’s cause’, both as a music publicist and programme maker for Radio 4. In fact, I already made my breakthrough as a journalist in 1995, thanks to an interview with Galina Ustvolskaya for Vrij Nederland. Two years later, I programmed the radio series Het tweede gezicht (At second glance), about composers from Hadewych to Bordewijk-Roepman and Componeren in Nederland (Composing in the Netherlands), eight extensive portraits of and with such diverse composers as Hanna Kulenty, Caroline Ansink and Calliope Tsoupaki.

Not everyone was enthusiastic and soon I was deprecatingly dubbed ‘her of the women’. An epithet that I then embraced as a badge of honour. A big problem in putting together the programmes was finding suitable material. Women proved not only to be virtually invisible in daily music practice, but also in the very extensive record and CD collection of the broadcasting company. And the few registrations I did find were, to put it mildly, not always of top quality.

The then head of Radio 4, Hans Hierck, supported me wholeheartedly in my aim to give female composers a voice, but was wary of the sometimes mediocre performances that were aired on his station as a result. This was a constant point of frustration and concern for me as well, because was I really helping the cause if compositions were not optimally performed? A convincing interpretation is essential for all music, after all.

When, at the beginning of the 21st century, I made the programme Composer of the Week for VARA Radio4, it was still often an endless quest to find suitable material. It proved really tough to fill the mere five half hours at my disposal with high quality registrations of the work of ladies such as Francesca Caccini, Ethel Smyth or Elena Firsova. From this never ending search I have gained many beautiful, international contacts, but through what sad cause!

At the moment, a new feminist wave seems to have arisen, in which a younger generation of musicians, musicologists and music journalists are ‘discovering’ women composers as a forgotten theme. Suddenly all around articles and books appear that address the shameful disregard for the inescapable trio Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann and Lili Boulanger. On the one hand this is heart-warming, on the other it is deeply disconcerting: as if all the hard work of earlier generations of feminists has gone unnoticed.

Precisely in the period when I became active myself, the invisibility of female composers was a much-discussed topic. As early as 1979, the Archiv Frau und Musik was established, and in 1986 the Furore-Verlag was set up to publish scores from women composers. Their work was further promoted in the book series Annäherungen (Approximations). In 1991 Helen Metzelaar published Zes vrouwelijke componisten (Six Female Composers); two years later the American musicologist Marcia Citron presented Gender and the Musical Canon.

Gradually, more and better recordings became available. But hit the CD section in music magazines such as Gramophone or BBC Music Magazine and you’ll discover that finding ‘female’ notes is like searching for a needle in a haystack. However, today there are countless online initiatives, varying from a Facebook group like Women & Gender Diverse People in Composition, to websites such as Women in Music and databases such as Composer Diversity.

Nice initiatives, but with a partly counterproductive effect: just naming the underrepresentation of women nowadays often works like a red rag on a bull. As recently as 2019 the programmer of an important concert series even argued in a letter to the editor that Bach was in danger of being overshadowed by his female contemporaries because of the continued demands for gender equality…

And as soon as, in a preview, review or interview about a cd or concert programme I issue a teasing note about its rather one-sided focus on male composers, hell breaks loose. Only rarely does the musician or concert organizer in question frankly admit simply not having thought about the topic. Others argue in an offended tone that they ‘don’t care’ whether music is written by a man or a woman, stressing they only base their choices on ‘quality’. – As if men never deliver a mediocre composition and women never produce a masterpiece.

Recently, I came across a very surprising issue on this theme. While one musician complained that female composers were too overcharged to accept a composition assignment, another despaired that he hardly knew any composing ladies. – Could the Twitter community please spit out some names?

A funny paradox, after which a stream of reactions quickly degenerated into the muddle of misunderstandings and reproaches so typical of social media. What one person regards as a harmless pinprick, another feels as a frontal attack, and what one person presents as incontrovertible fact, another person dubs blatant nonsense. In this way, everyone cherishes his or her own right.

This is not only unfortunate for all those who are devoted to the women’s cause, but at the same time it poignantly illustrates that even in the year 2021 the theme of ‘female composer’ still touches an open nerve…

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Bass clarinettist Fie Schouten: ‘We must not control nature but give it room’

Fie Schouten studied with bass clarinettist Harry Sparnaay and follows in his footsteps as an advocate of contemporary music. She organizes the biannual Bass Clarinet Festival and the monthly series Nieuwe Noten Amsterdam. She recently released the CD Nature, with six contemporary compositions.

Already as a child Fie Schouten was attracted to the bass clarinet: ‘At the Amstelveen music school I played the clarinet in a wind ensemble. When I heard an older student playing the bass clarinet I was immediately hooked: I want that too! I love its low sound and wide range, which makes it very versatile: you can take a bass function, but also play the melody; operate in the background, but also take the lead. In this I feel related to musicians who play cello, bassoon or trombone.’

Fie Schouten (c) Annelies van der Vegt

While studying clarinet at the Amsterdam Conservatoire, she heard there was also a bass clarinet teacher, Harry Sparnaay. ‘He specialized in contemporary music, but his class included students with backgrounds in both classical and jazz. He was particularly focused on the musician’s attitude and emphasized that you must always start from what the composer – or a composition – wants to say. As important to him was the question of what you yourself want to convey. After all, you are on stage and must have something to say to your audience. I compare it to reading a story to your children: of course you reproduce someone else’s text, but you put your own accents, in a way you make it your own story.’

With Sparnaay she shares her enthusiasm for contemporary music, following in his footsteps as an ardent advocate. By now over a hundred pieces have been composed for her. How does she decide who to ask? ‘I like variety. Sometimes I ask a Dutch composer, sometimes I feel more like inviting an Englishman, or prefer to have a new piece from a young talent, a contemporary, or an older, established name. As long as I expect them to make something meaningful.’

This may turn out better or worse, which makes it difficult to name favourites: ‘I love the solo Article 7, seven ways to climb a mountain for bass clarinet solo by Rozalie Hirs, but for the last Bass Clarinet Festival Ruud Roelofsen wrote a trio that I think is at least as beautiful. In October I picked up again Jorrit Dijkstra’s duo Veeg (Sweep) with flutist Karina Erhard, part of which calls for improvisation. We’re much better at that now than we were back in 2004 when he composed it, so it was great to play it again!’

She regularly performs in duets, trios and quartets with other musicians and as a substitute with ensembles such as Musikfabrik and Asko|Schönberg. It would make any random person dizzy, but not Schouten. ‘By working with different instrumentalists and singers you appeal to disparate aspects of your personality, which is enriching.’

Schouten occasionally shares the stage with her husband, the reed player and composer Tobias Klein. ‘We met in Harry Sparnaay’s class and have been together for 21 years now; we have two lovely children, aged 11 and 15.’ In 2014 they initiated the first Bass Clarinet Festival, in honour of Harry Sparnaay’s 70th birthday. To celebrate this, Klein composed Too Dark to Read for 7 clarinets and 3 bass clarinets, one of them played by Sparnaay himself.

How did Sparnaay react? Schouten laughs: ‘Actually, the idea came from Harry himself! In 2012 we gave a concert with eight bass clarinets in the Bethaniënklooster in Amsterdam. He then joked: Guys, I’ll be seventy in two years, will you throw me a party? Well, we took up the gauntlet. Harry enjoyed himself intensely and especially enjoyed performing along with his former students

The first Bass Clarinet Festival was remarkably ambitious straightaway, with concerts all over the country, masterclasses, bass clarinet days and more. Since then it has grown into a biennial event. The fourth edition fell largely victim to corona, but precisely on November 3, the night the Government declared a new lockdown, Schouten presented her CD Nature, with six pieces by contemporary composers, two of which were composed for her.

The subject is rather charged today: nitrogen crisis, rising sea levels, insect plagues and a global pandemic threaten life on earth. Should we interpret the CD as a political statement? ‘Not directly,’ says Schouten. ‘The idea arose during a series of lectures on music and nature, at the end of which I always performed a piece live.’

‘My association with nature is mainly that something is not artificial but free, natural. It also means: wonder, concentration, having respect for what others make and for what is already there. In a way, the title is a call to be patient, to listen to the music without judgment. Just like you should respect nature, not try to control it, but give it room.  I am dismayed to see how the few remaining empty spaces are swallowed up by construction projects.’

So the six pieces were not chosen from an activist point of view. In the CD booklet she writes: ‘With each track the gaze goes further up: from the sea to the birds in the sky, to the cirrus clouds, to the moon and finally to the stars.’ The album opens with Calling for bass clarinet solo by Calliope Tsoupaki. ‘Calliope composed it for me in 2015. I have performed it many times and have come to love it very much. It is lyrical, has a beautiful form and yet is very free. It is a personal lamento, in which looking out over the sea and the waves plays an important role.’

Next comes ‘Abîme des oiseaux’, the clarinet solo from Olivier Messiaen’s famous Quatuor pour la fin du temps. Schouten does not play this on the regular b-flat clarinet, but on a basset horn. ‘It’s a beautiful and important work for clarinettists in which birds make themselves heard loud and clear. It has been recorded many times, so I chose the basset horn, which conveys the desolate atmosphere even better because of its sonorous yet agile sound.’

Cirrus Light by Jonathan Harvey is very dear to her: ‘He was a special and spiritual person, I met him in 2002. He wrote this solo for clarinet in the last summer of his life, when he was already in a wheelchair, looking at the clouds that drifted by high and slow like wisps. It has not been recorded before, I hope now more clarinettists will pick it up.’

With Oi Kuu for bass clarinet and cello by Kaija Saariaho we travel further to the moon. ‘The Finnish title means something like “for the moon”. I first played it together with Eva van de Poll in 2001, but 20 years later we understand the piece and each other much better, so we decided to record our present interpretation. The flageolets in the cello and the multiphonics of the clarinet create a somewhat dreamy atmosphere, like mists before the moon.’

Following this duo is Façade Trio by French composer Georges Aperghis. ‘It is a theatrical piece for two bass clarinets and percussion that has rarely been performed after its premiere in 1998. The musicians are arranged in a triangle, like the points of a constellation. The percussionist stands in the centre with two kick drums, and is flanked left and right by the two bass clarinettists. Their part moves from the lowest to the very highest regions. Together with the percussion, this creates a wonderful spectrum of sounds, expressive and unpredictable.’

Once Schouten had arrived in the galaxy, she felt the journey was not yet complete. ‘The five pieces form a nice coherent whole, but I felt that something was missing. I decided to add a bonus track and called Michael Finnissy. He had composed a quartet for the 2018 Bass Clarinet Festival in which two bass clarinets engage in a kind of conversation, like two monks chanting to each other.’ ‘

Those recitative-like lines appealed to me, and I asked Michael to create something small on the theme of nature. He wrote the 3-minute Mankind Remix, a contemplative piece that reflects on the previous; it fits perfectly after Aperghis’ exuberant trio – and to my character. I love to be expressive, but then I need reflection. After Mankind Remix I could start all over again at once with the first piece on the CD, it comes full circle.’

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Groot Omroepkoor sings Kate Moore’s Eclipsed Vision: ‘I hope to unite people from every walk of life, male and female’

On the initiative of their new chief Benjamin Goodson the Dutch Groot Omroepkoor introduces a new variation on the now almost obligatory live stream, In the living room. Designed for the radio series AVROTROSVrijdagconcert, the concerts will be broadcast semi live from TivoliVredenburg Utrecht. – Because of the curfew the actual performance takes place in the afternoon and is aired from 8.15 pm. The kick-off on Friday 19 September, is focussed around Stravinsky. On the roster is also Kate Moore’s Eclipsed Vision.

TivoliVredenburg floridly introduces In the living room on their website: ‘We are invited into the living room of the Groot Omroepkoor. A special concert and webcast, where we can get to know the choir in a very different, much more intimate way. An important role is played by director Jorinde Keesmaat and choreographer Kalpana Raghuraman: through arm and hand gestures the singers contribute to a deepening of the music for both the viewer/listener and the choir itself.’

Sunset over Shoalhaven river, view from Bundanon

The concert opens with Eclipsed Vision – living sound sculpture that Kate Moore composed in 2006.‘Jorinde Keesmaat asked me if I had a piece that would reflect the ritual nature of the works of Stravinsky in a pandemic proof situation for choir’, says the Australian-Dutch composer. ‘I immediately thought of Eclipsed Vision, which has a strong ritual character itself, reflecting the resonance, duration and gradual evolving colours in a sunset. It may sound very different from Stravinsky’s sonic world, but I learned so much about rhythm, metre and duration from studying his music. I consider Stravinsky to be my most important teacher – which is also why I was drawn to study composition with Louis Andriessen.’

Moore wrote Eclipsed Vision in 2006, for amateur and professional singers who each only sing one single note, jointly creating a living sound sculpture. ‘I composed it with the idea that it could be performed in any environment, wherein the place and number of singers is determined by the situation. I envisioned silhouettes of people in slow procession, pitted against the twilight mid-summer sky, emitting expanding harmonies in gradual transformation. The duration and resonance of the melodies emerge as rivulets and streams of notes.’

Whence the title Eclipsed Vision? ‘In late October 2006 I was artist in residence at Bundanon, a Trust in New South Wales Australia that supports the arts. Every evening I was witness to an extraordinary light show: the sinking sun was eclipsed by the mountain peaks on the far side of the river, revealing vivid bright colours slowly changing from pinks and purples to reds and oranges, gold and finally a shimmer of green before the cool blue of twilight.’

‘I had a vision-like dream’, Moore continues, ‘where a procession of people walking along the line of the horizon were singing, each person producing their own note, different from all the others but simultaneously in perfect harmony with them. So there is no text – it is solely about tone and resonance. Each tone is taken for a walk through the acoustic space, followed by a stream of tones following the same path in two directions.’

Kate Moore (c) Renske Vrolijk

Though written in pre corona times Eclipsed Vision could perfectly be incorporated in the pandemic proof line-up of the choir, says Moore. ‘Normally the tones would be taken for a walk by the singers but since they are not allowed to walk or face each other and must stand 1.5 metres apart, they pass on the tone from one to the next, so that it is still taken for a walk.’

For practical reasons the tenor Georgi Sztojanov devised a method for the singers to communicate with each other using hand gestures. ‘This proved to be very effective’, says Moore. ‘The tones are transmitted through the line from first to last singer. There are two lines, one for higher voices, and one for lower voices. During rehearsals Georgi very quickly became nicknamed “patient zero”, for he is the one to initiate the stream of notes both to the left and to the right. He is like the wellspring.’

Moore likes writing for choir: ‘I find it fascinating that all the singers are both individuals and part of the whole. Eclipsed Vision is no exception. It is very much about the individual and the way a single person is part of the whole. Each singer must be carefully attuned to their personal rhythm of breathing and concentration but must at the same time listen closely to everyone else. The notes and the musical lines follow their own path like the tides and currents of rivers, like water that is always moving though the people stand still.’

Listening to Eclipsed Vision on Moore’s website associations pop up with the Sonic Meditations Pauline Oliveros developed in the seventies. ‘I am a fan of Pauline Oliveros’, says Moore, ‘but she wasn’t on my mind while composing. Apart from the breath-taking colour scheme of the Bundanon sunset I was inspired by medieval philosophy and science, and by Yves Klein’s Monotone Symphony. My aim was to unite people from every walk of life, male and female, by making them create a communal living sound sculpture.’

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Friday 19 February 2021 8.15 pm, AVROTROSVrijdagconcert
In the Living Room, broadcast and webcam
Groot Omroepkoor / Benjamin Goodson
Jorinde Keesmaat, director / Kalpana Raghuraman, choreography
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NTRZaterdagMatinee presents Zimmermann’s gripping ‘Ecclesiastical Action’

Five days before his voluntary death in 1970, Bernd Alois Zimmerman completed his ‘Ecclesiastical Action’ Ich wandte mich um und sah an alles Unrecht das geschah unter der Sonne. Significantly, this moving piece for 2 speakers, bass and orchestra ends with a quotation from Bach’s chorale Ich habe genug. The cynical libretto is based on the Bible book Ecclesiastes and the legend of the Grand Inquisitor from Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov.

Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970) is best known for his pioneering 1965 opera Die Soldaten (The Soldiers), a multimedia spectacle avant la lettre. Simultaneous scenes in different times and on different stages are the more layered through the addition of film and sound fragments form tape. The collage technique was groundbreaking as well.

Zimmermann spiced up an expressionistic atonal idiom with a good dash of jazz, pop and quotes from classical music. The libretto, inspired by Jakob Lenz’s book of the same name, is also far from easy reading. It sketches a pitch-black world view: injustice reigns everywhere and man is defenceless against it.

This fatalistic message fits in seamlessly with the ‘Ecclesiastical Action’ composed shortly before his death in 1970. Zimmermann’s attitude to life is marked by his background. Born eight months before the end of the First World War, as a child he experienced the repression of the Nazis, who unleashed the Second World War in 1939.

He grew up in a Catholic rural community near Cologne; his father was a farmer and railway official. At the age of 11, he went to a monastery boarding school, but when the Nazis closed all private schools in 1936, he was forced to complete the grammar school at a public institute in Cologne.

After a compulsory enlistment in the Reichsarbeitsdienst, Zimmermann studied musicology and composition, but was drafted into the Wehrmacht in 1940. Two years later, he received a dishonourable discharge due to a serious skin disease; because of the war, he couldn’t complete his studies until 1947.

Zimmermann worked as a freelance composer for radio and attended the newly established Ferienkurse für neue Musik in Darmstadt. There he was taught by modernists such as Wolfgang Fortner and René Leibowitz, but he was too antidogmatic to make a radical break with musical tradition. Drawing from all possible periods and styles, he developed the pluralistic Klangkomposition that became his trademark.

In 1970 he composed his gloomy ‘Ecclesiastical Action’for bass, two speakers and orchestra. The title description refers to the azione sacra, a hybrid form between opera and oratorio. Zimmermann derived the texts from the Bible book Ecclesiastes and the legend of the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov.

The selected verses of Solomon describe the impossibility of human happiness: there is only injustice, hate and envy, death is preferable to life. Dostoyevsky describes how the Grand Inquisitor reproaches Christ, who has returned to earth, for offering people freedom because they are far too weak to handle this. He would have been better off listening to Satan, whom the Inquisitor himself serves ‘in the name of Jesus’.

One speaker recites the texts of Solomon, the other those of Dostoyevsky; the singer draws from both. Beforehand, reciters and conductor sit ‘in meditative posture’ on the stage while the singer stands; the conductor covers his face with his hands. The speakers may recite texts at random until the conductor stands up and starts the piece.

A blast of clarion from three trombones introduces the first speaker: ‘Ich wandte mich um und sah an alles Unrecht das geschah unter der Sonne’ (I turned around and saw injustice in everything that happened under the sun). Then the same text is sung by the bass, who is given much freedom of interpretation. Although he must hit the prescribed pitches, he may phrase and colour them as he pleases, using all possible vocal techniques. Provided he conveys feelings of ‘lamentation, agony, oppression, terror and desolation’.

Lonely gong beats underline the ritual atmosphere and in just under forty minutes a blood-curdling drama unfolds. The exalted-declamatory texts of the speakers find their counterpart in the tormented Sprechgesang of the bass, who rarely gets to sing a recognisable melody.

The orchestra generally keeps a low profile, but at regular intervals it cries out its impotence and anger in shrill, fortissimo dissonant harmonies that pierce the very marrow. Like when the Grand Inquisitor bites Christ: ‘Tomorrow I will execute you!’

Striking is the short quote from the Bach chorale Es ist genug near the end: ‘It is enough, Lord, if it pleases you, grant me relief.’ Although the text is performed instrumentally, it poignantly illustrates Zimmermann’s state of mind while composing. – Five days after completion he took his own life.

Saturday 20-2-2021 14.15 NTR Saturday Matinee, live on Radio 4
Radio Philharmonic Orchestra / Ingo Metzmacher / Tabea Zimmermann, viola
Bach/Webern: Ricercare from Musikalisches Opfer
Höller: Viola concerto
Zimmermann: Ich sah mich um und sah an alles Unrecht das geschah unter der Sonne

 

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Maya Verlaak presents portrait-CD: ‘I like to use subversive methods’.

Every night she fell asleep to the sounds from a music box; from the age of four she made her own melodies. In 2015 Maya Verlaak completed her master’s degree in composition, three years later she obtained her doctorate. In 2020 the British Label Another Timbre released the portrait-CD All English Music is Greensleeves.

Maya Verlaak (1990) grew up in Ghent. Her father was an artist and often took her along to exhibitions and museums. ‘The cover of my CD shows a fragment from one of his paintings’, she says enthusiastically. ‘He also had a large record collection, varying from pop and rock to opera and classical music. My mother is from Calabria and whenever we visited her family in the deep south of Italy, folk music was invariably sung and the guitar played. Those were wonderful moments.’

Maya Verlaak (c) Ana Lemnaru

Perhaps it was because of this that little Maya was so irresistibly drawn to music. She played every record in their home, but was most fascinated by the music box on the nightstand next to her bed. ‘Every night I would fall asleep to the sound of the French nursery rhyme Alouette.’ She soon started making her own tunes, which have been preserved on a series of cassettes.

A 4-year-old registering songs on a recording device seems somewhat unlikely. Was it perhaps her parents who wanted to preserve her fledgling experiments for posterity? ‘No, I did it all by myself’, responds Verlaak. ‘I have no idea how I managed, but I often spent hours recording all kinds of sounds. My own pieces usually sounded a lot like Alouette, but I also found a recording that was so experimental it makes me wonder what on earth was on my mind at the time. I found those tapes by accident, but because my parents had written dates on them I know I made them when I was between four and eight years old.’

At the age of five, she asked her parents to send her to music school, but children were only admitted there from the age of seven. ‘Fortunately I could attend the theatre class, so I did that first.’ The moment she is finally admitted to the music school proves pivotal. She learns to play the piano and later the classical guitar and at thirteen she is assigned a new mentor, Marc Maes. This turns out to be a pure stroke of luck: ‘He asked me to write harmonic accompaniments to the most diverse music styles. Sometimes he gave me only half finished scores, which I had to complete creatively. Noticing how seriously and inventively I carried out such assignments, he started teaching me composition.’

Maes himself played in the Stockhausen Trio: ‘I remember attending one of their concerts. It was such a confusing experience that I had to think about it for a year! When I then asked Marc for more information, he offered it with a meaningful smile. Thanks to my piano teacher Alfonso Medinilla I learned to perform the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, but I also played works by John Cage and other modernists.’

On Maes’ advice, Verlaak enrols at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague to study composition. Its open climate perfectly suits her experimental streak. Together with fellow students Robert Blatt and David Pocknee, she starts the Acid Police Noise Ensemble in 2009. ‘We did all kinds of projects and later also Leo Svirsky and Ana Lemnaru joined the group. Whenever one of us had a crazy, hard-to-implement idea, we’d help carry it out together. Nothing was considered out of bounds; sometimes I would spend days realizing someone else’s dream. I learned a lot from that.’

She also cherishes good memories of her various teachers. ‘I still have a lot of contact with Peter Adriaansz, but Gilius van Bergeijk perhaps understood my work best. Once he reacted very dismissively to a new composition: “Something like that doesn’t fit in with your method.” That was an eye-opener: even though I was only in my second year, he already considered me to have my own style. I thought about that a lot over the years. What is my style, my way of working?’

The answer turns out to be complex. Verlaak reveals that she likes to use ‘subversive’ methods: ‘Subversion has mostly negative connotations, but it can also mean that you question a system by turning around established patterns.’ On the website of Another Timbre she tells a revealing anecdote: ‘When I was 11 years old, the Minister of Transport decided to cycle through Ghent along with my primary school. He wanted to underline that to him the availability of safe cycle paths was important. In my childish innocence, I asked why he didn’t simply make the cars use the small path alongside the road and the cyclists on the much wider lane itself.’

But how does this translate into music? ‘I am not so much interested in overturning existing norms as in challenging performers to discard their customary role of simply reproducing notes. By giving them insight into the compositional process, I hope they become aware of the questions I ask myself while composing. This ideally leads to a committed, open-minded performance practice and stimulates the musician not to sail on autopilot. Some people love to be challenged thus; others discuss it, which in turn makes me think. I enjoy such dialectic processes.’

Take Formation de Sarah for violin and computer, for example. She especially composed it for the CD, in close collaboration with violinist Sarah Saviet. ‘We wanted to accentuate the performer’s involvement with the musical material. Sarah plays from a computer, but her part is an element in a larger, labyrinthine score. There is a way out of the maze, but she doesn’t know it. After every note she plays, the computer offers her 2 or 3 new possible routes. Each choice she makes can either bring her closer to her goal, or set her back a few steps. Then she has to choose a new route again. A French computer voice says “Non” every time she takes a wrong turn.’

The effect is as hallucinatory as it is witty. Saviet tries to fuse the icy tones of a spiked violin – literally a plank with four nails – with the overtones of her own instrument. The inexorable “Non” sounds constantly, upon which Saviet starts all over again. In Formation de Mark for piano and computer, the maze consists of the jarring voice of un untrained performer who sings names of notes without knowing their relevant pitch. The computer names the note she actually produces and interrupts the pianist’s frantic attempts to bring her closer to the intended pitch.’

For the ensemble piece Song and Dance Verlaak used a different procedure. ‘The concept of this piece is “justification”. As a composer, you’re always analysing your work in order to justify it, as it were. Instead of a written score, I only give the musicians my justification, in the form of very precise instructions. In order to perform them well, they must listen and respond to each other really attentively. If one of them makes a mistake, the music gets stuck on one note. In this way, the musicians gain insight into the composition. While playing, they discover the musical relationships and the structure of the material, which makes them play with a different kind of concentration. That is exactly what I aim for.’

Page from Song & Dance

Verlaak uses yet another method in the title track All English Music is Greensleeves. ‘I wanted to turn things around: what if the pitches in the score do not serve to produce music, but to stop it? I asked all the musicians to play variations on the well-known Scottish folksong. I wrote these down, recorded them and fed them into the computer as samples. When they play their notes, the musicians turn these pre-recorded fragments on or off through speakers on their instrument. This creates two sound layers, one of the recordings, the other of the sounds played live.’

The title is intriguing. ‘It refers to a statement by Gilius van Bergeijk’, Verlaak laughs. ‘He once suggested that English music always sounds like Greensleeves. When I was studying in Birmingham, I once told this joke to my teacher Howard Skempton. During a concert featuring British composers, he suddenly remarked: ‘It really does sound like Greensleeves.’

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Ritratto Willem Jeths: a luscious soundworld that vies with Puccini

On 11 March 2020 the Dutch government decreed a lockdown to curb the spreading of the Covid-19 virus: all theatres were to be closed as of the next day. Tough luck for Willem Jeths, the premiere of whose opera Ritratto was scheduled for 13 March. Dutch National Opera quickly hired extra cameramen to capture the dress rehearsal, and the production was premiered online a week later.

Along with some 76,000 other viewers worldwide I was glued to my computer screen. I was enchanted by the enchanting music, the atmospheric staging and the intense performance of the singers and Amsterdam Sinfonietta under the baton of Geoffrey Paterson. When in October the premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s new opera was cancelled, too, Ritratto could be seamlessly slotted in, be it that now Paterson conducted the Residentie Orkest.

I wrote a review for the Dutch blog Theaterkrant, underneath you find my English translation.

Verity Wingate as Luisa Casati (c) Ruth Waltz

Amsterdam, 7 October 2020

Dazzling costumes by Jan Taminiau. Check. Ear-busting music by Willem Jeths. Check. Fascinating stage design and ditto lighting by Marc Warning and Alex Brok. Check. Spiritually stimulating direction by Marcel Sijm. Check. Breathtaking performance of Verity Wingate as main character Luisa Casati. Check. Ingenious libretto by Frank Siera. Check. Paired with a subtle choreography by Zino Ainsley Schat and a cast of top singers, Ritratto by Willem Jeths has all it takes to become a world hit.

At first glance, little seems to be different from the video premiere. The fairytale-like grey-blue stage setting with strings of soap bubbles dangling from the ceiling and the extravagant costumes of the characters have remained. Through the clever use of perspective, it is hardly noticeable that, other than in the original production, they keep a covid-proof distance from each other.

In fact this even reinforces the message: Luisa Casati emphatically and constantly puts herself centre stage, but avoids emotional involvement. When Romaine Brooks paints her portrait and describes Luisa’s eyes, breasts and femininity in a subdued whisper, the former lovers do not touch for a second, unlike in the video production. – A poignant representation of the gap between reality and art.

Because what is truth? That is the key question in Ritratto. Luisa Casati – based on the society figure of the same name who lived from 1881 to1957 – regards herself as a living work of art and thus as the embodiment of truth. She wants this recorded for posterity, and has herself portrayed by such greats as Kees van Dongen and Man Ray. Her lover Gabriele D’Annunzio seeks the truth in war, Romaine Brooks opts for true love. ‘You never loved Luisa’, she snaps at the poet.

In vain Romaine holds up a mirror to Luisa: ‘Do you want to be an object or a subject, Dorian Gray or Joan of Arc?’ Yet Luisa refuses to look in the mirror and even considers the recent outbreak of World War I secondary to her ambition. When D’Annunzio writes in a letter that he has lost an eye on the battlegrounds and has thus gained deeper insights, she stabs out her own eyes in order to make Brooks’ painting more ‘lifelike’.

Two dull blows in the percussion make this gruesome moment palpable; on the second blow, the lights suddenly snap off and we are bathed in the same darkness Luisa has incurred on herself. With such seemingly banal but effective means, Ritratto connects the popular with the sublime, placing the opera in the best Italian tradition. Jeths presents a colourful palette of sweet-voiced choral parts, rich arias with Puccini-allure and dramatically dissonant instrumental exclamations, alternating with restrained orchestral passages, pounding marches, ballroom music and Johann Strauss-style waltzes.

The score is a perfect match for Frank Siera’s clever libretto. Recurring harmonies and melodies in a predominantly tonal idiom give the listener a pleasant sense of orientation. The avid opera lover will discern echoes to Wagner, Strauss, Verdi and other predesessors. Jeths has a deep understanding of how to write for the human voice. The vocal lines are extremely graceful and are often linked to equally sensuous melodies from solo instruments such as clarinet and bassoon.

The cast of mostly young singers is superb. The South African baritone Martin Mkhize shines as Garbi, Luisa’s faithful servant. In a gold-coloured Roman suit he welcomes us to the party at the Venetian villa of his mistress, where the story is set. He has a warm timbre and impeccable diction, and can be understood verbatim.

With his steely tenor voice Paride Cataldo is the ideal macho D’Annunzio, his sturdy pose wittily emphasised by the prominent leather pouch in front of his sexual apparatus. The British mezzo-soprano Polly Leech is no less convincing in her role of Romaine Brooks. As the voice of the outside world/the conscience, she is the only one not clad in extravagant outfit but in a simple suit and top hat.

Unsurpassed star of the evening is the soprano Verity Wingate, who performs on stage from start to finish. Seemingly effortlessly she performs her demanding part. She switches smoothly from the highest to the lowest registers without missing a single note. Her dynamics are breathtaking: even in the very highest regions, she still dares to decrescendo, while her voice remains flawless and audible.

Deeply moving is the moment when she realises she has always lived a lie: art is not the truth, it is only art. Her barely audible, fading sighs ‘it is art, art, art, art…’ pierces the marrow of one’s bone. Luisa Casati may realize that there is no such thing as a living work of art, but her interpreter Wingate comes pretty close.

Geoffrey Paterson also conducted the video premiere of Ritratto and steers his singers and musicians through the score with a sure hand. Yet the live performance lacks the profound eloquence of the online original. Of course, that was created with a ‘now or never’ feeling, but the musicians of the Residentie Orkest are audibly less familiar with modern notes than Amsterdam Sinfonietta. – Fortunately the ‘all or nothing’ performance of 12 March 2020 has just been released on CD.

On Sunday 7 February between 5-6 pm CET I will broadcast the duet between Luisa Casati and Romaine Brooks in my radio programme ‘An Ox on the Roof’ on Concertzender.

Due to the pandemic, my income has dwindled to virtually zero. A donation, however small, is welcome through PayPal, or direct transfer to my bank account: T. Derks, Amsterdam, NL82 INGB 0004 2616 94. A heartfelt thank you for your support!

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Petra Cini writes one-minute symphony for Residentie Orkest: ‘I hope it will bring a smile to people’s faces’

One man’s loss is another man’s gain, it is a trite but true saying. The North Netherlands Orchestra had to cancel its concert because of the covid-19 measuers, and the Residentie Orkest steps in. They will present an adapted programme in AVROTROSVrijdagconcert on 29 January in TivoliVredenburg Utrecht, conducted by Jun Märkl and with Hannes Minnaar in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto.

The concert also offers the young Italian composition student Petra Cini an exceptional opportunity. It opens with the world premiere of her one-minute symphony The Rite of the Way?, which was cancelled last summer. Who is she and how did she approach her mini-composition for full symphony orchestra?

Petra Cini (c) Anca Barjovanu

Petra Cini was born in Florence in 1995 and studied classical piano at the Luigi Cherubini Conservatory, completing her bachelor’s degree at 19. She then moved to The Hague to study composition at the Royal Conservatoire. ‘The teaching in Italy was of high quality, but also very conservative’, she says. ‘To broaden my musical experience and horizon, I chose the Royal Conservatoire, because it offers a much wider variety of musical conceptions.’

When Residentie Orkest asked her to write a piece for their One Minute Symphony series, she immediately jumped at the chance. I was happy to be selected and have the opportunity to gain experience working with a professional symphony orchestra.’ The orchestra left her quite free in her approach. ‘Apart from the limited time span they only asked me not to use a soloist or exceed the instrumentation of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, which comes next.’

For inspiration, Cini visited a primary school in The Hague, where she met pupils from grades 6 and 7. ‘This was proposed by the organisation, and it seemed refreshing to come into contact with a reality that  I’m not usually exposed to.’ It worked out well: ‘The children were between 8 and 11 years old and I enquired after their ideas about the future, their inspiration and their ambitions. We had fun together, my energy excited theirs and vice versa. It was inspiring for a shared sense of play, imagination and determination.’

‘Young people have two luxuries: having spent little time living and having a lot of time still lying sahead. This is evidenced by their immense energy and zest for life. Adults have already experienced more disappointment and disenchantment, so they often lack this vigour and excitement.’

‘On the other hand, a lot of older people have mastered the art of resilience and have reached a more fulfilling and stable optimism than that of youngsters. It is like a sheltered and intimate fireplace that warms themselves and others around. In the words of Emily Dickinson: “Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul / And sings the tune without the words / And never stops – at all –.”

Cini wondered how she could channel the energy she received from the children. Percussion plays an important role in her mini-symphony, but she is reluctant to say more about this: ‘I don’t want to give everything away, it is only one minute long after all. But I will say that it is a driving force used strategically to emphasize the impetus of certain passages.’

The title The Rite of Way? is intriguing. ‘It refers to two opposite ways of approaching life’, explains Cini. ‘A deductive, ritualistic one, expressed in “The Rite”, versus a more intuitive, fluid approach, “The Way”. These two concepts merge into the understanding that perhaps they should coexist. The question mark then calls this into question. Personally, I think that the alternation of these two perspectives can help us move forward: enough structure to build, enough flexibility to change.’

Her piece has an optimistic tone. ‘I have always been an optimistic realist. I think we still have much to be grateful for. Despite the problems of these historic times, I look to the future with wonder, hope and, above all, resilience.’

‘It would be wonderful if my energetic piece could put a smile on people’s faces and instill a refreshing desire to go on. Especially in difficult circumstances, we must continue to cherish hope.’

The concert will be broadcast on NPO Radio 4 on 29 January from 8 pm CET, but due to the curfew the actual performance will take place in the afternoon (without audience), so the musicians can get back home in time.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, my income has dwindled to virtually zero. A donation, however small, is welcome through PayPal, or direct money transfer to my bank account: T. Derks, Amsterdam, NL82 INGB 0004 2616 94. A heartfelt thank you for your support!

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Alma Mahler: Memories of Gustav Mahler in the preamble of World War II

With the publication of Briefwechsel Alma Mahler – Allert de Lange Verlag (Correspondence Alma Mahler – Allert de Lange Publishers) the Gustav Mahler Foundation shows true spunk. The full correspondence concerning the process of writing a book does not bring the average reader on the edge of their seat.

In German at that! A bold endeavour in the Netherlands, for hardly anyone still speaks or reads the language of our eastern neighbours. Young people generally only master English, but many older people are uneasy with German as well, as evidenced by the abundant errors against the declinations in quotations. Speaking German may have been common practice once, but today it is simply no longer cool.

This at once touches upon the book the correspondence is about: Gustav Mahler: Erinnerungen und Briefe (Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters). This was written by Alma Mahler and published in March 1940 by the Amsterdam publishing house Allert de Lange. ‘Times are unfavourable for this publication’, sighs Walter Landauer, head of the German department, in one of his letters to Alma Mahler. The increasingly open anti-Semitism of the Nazis and the resultant flood of immigrants is causing anti-German sentiment.

It is a small miracle that the book could appear at all in 1940 – and even receive jubilant reviews. Also in newspaper De Telegraaf, that soon befriended the Nazis after Hitler invaded our country on 10 May. The extensive  correspondence between Alma Mahler and Walter Landauer begins in December 1938 and ends on 3 May 1940, one week before the invasion.

In between the lines we get a glimpse of the ominous times. The postal delivery is becoming more and more difficult; books get stuck at French customs; editor-in-chief Ernst Polak begs for extra assignments from exile in London because he cannot access his bank account in Vienna; Alma expresses her concern about the future and scoffs at conductor Willem Mengelberg for having the ‘Aryan habit’ never to answer letters. 

Together with her then husband Franz Werfel Alma has sought refuge in Sanary-sur-mer, a place on the Côte d’Azur where a community of artists in exile has arisen. Yet the fashionable Alma is bored to death there, as she complains in her letters to Landauer. Apart from the beautiful weather the town has little to offer, and she yearns for their sparse trips to Paris.

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Alma is grateful to Landauer for enabling the publication of her book, but is also business-like and resolute. In early 1939, she unequivocally voices her displeasure with his proposed title. It is only after endless discussion that they finally settle on Gustav Mahler: Erinnerungen und Briefe, with ‘Alma Mahler’ as the author’s name. This obviously was against Werfel’s grain, for Alma remarks she had to work on her husband quite a bit in order to pull this through.

Mahler’s widow proves to have quite some commercial instinct and a flair for pr. ‘The cover must be attractive’, she advises Landauer, and she constantly stresses the importance of translations into French and English. Along the way she provides tips as to which people to approach for promotion. At the last instant she includes conductor Otto Klemperer in her preface, ‘so that in America we may have a great friend, or else a dangerous enemy’.

At other times she displays an endearing modesty: when Mahler describes her as ‘an apparition of light’ in one of his letters, she – unsuccessfully – asks Landauer to scrap this eulogy; neither has she ever bothered to have her portrait taken.

Unfortunately her business-like instinct is not matched by her understanding of logistics. Even after the final proofs have been meticulously corrected by Ernst Polak from London, she still asks for adjustments – even though the faulty postal service has already caused several instances of confusion.

What’s more, Alma involves Werfel and others in the editing process without consulting Landauer or Polak, which causes even more misunderstandings. One can’t help feeling for Landauer, whose patience seems to know no bounds; after her umpteenth demand for adjustments, one would like to personally shake Alma vicariously. Indeed, towards the end of the correspondence even the ever accommodating Landauer can’t hide a slight trace of despair.

In their drudgery and perseverance, the authors Matthijs Boumans and Eveline Nikkels compare to Landauer. With the patience of saints they have arranged and annotated all 134 letters and provided them with additional comments. The book is cleverly designed, as well: through the use of different colours it is immediately clear who is writing. At the back of the book there are handy descriptions of all the people that are mentioned in the correspondence.

Briefwechsel Alma Mahler – Allert de Lange Verlag is a must-have for every Mahler fan. The wait is now for an English translation…

Boumans, Matthijs and Eveline Nikkels (2020)
Briefwechsel Alma Mahler – Allert de Lange Verlag
Edition Gustav Mahler Foundation Netherlands
Paperback, 208 pages
ISBN 9789081858830
Price: € 25

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Kenza Koutchoukali: ‘Corona made me feel the more intensely that my passion lies in directing’

The financial damage caused by the corona crisis is immense, and the end is not yet in sight. The website Theaterkrant assembles the stories behind the figures in their series ‘corona practices’. How do freelancers manage? Do they still have work and income? For this series I interviewed director Kenza Koutchoukali, here’s my English translation.

During her studies at the Utrecht School of the Arts, Kenza Koutchoukali (Utrecht, 1988) already had the opportunity to gain practical experience at Dutch National Opera (DNO). For the education department she made an adaptation of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd with and for young people. From that moment she shifted her focus to opera, and in 2015 she started working as a freelance director.

Kenza Koutchoukali (c) Ben Kortman

A year later she directed her first contemporary opera, All Rise! by Jan-Peter de Graaff. In a talent trajectory of DNO in Amsterdam and Paris, she then assisted greats such as Pierre Audi, Claus Guth and Lotte de Beer. In 2018 she was assistant director to Romeo Castellucci in DNO’s production Das Floss der Medusa. The next year she joined the young makers of KASKO, where she can continue her development for two years. Her first project was a staging of the song cycle This is not a fairy tale by composer Anne-Maartje Lemereis.

When Rutte announced the closure of the theatres on 11 March 2020, Koutchoukali was working on a project for the 4th of May, when the Netherlands commemorate the end of World War II. ‘It was a production with a large choir and orchestra in Railway Museum in Utrecht, and it was clear straightaway this couldn’t go ahead’, says Koutchoukali. At the same time, I was preparing for my trajectory as master’s apprentice to Barrie Kosky at the Komische Oper Berlin. When that was cancelled as well, I was actually relieved: I didn’t think it was sensible to travel to Germany when the situation was still so unclear.’

But the uncertainty weighed heavily, Koutchoukali admits. ‘Especially during the first month I worried about whether projects that were still in the development phase would ever take place. It felt pointless to keep working on them. On the other hand, I became restless because I felt the need to make things, but didn’t know how. After all, as a director I am always dependent on others; I cannot make an opera on my own. I can identify with the singer who wondered: ‘Do you still have a voice if you can no longer let it be heard?’

Like many people in the cultural sector, Koutchoukali considered seeking other employment: ‘In March I immediately started applying for jobs outside the performing arts. I even undertook an online course in digital marketing, and considered applying as a music teacher at a secondary school. But the point is: I want to direct, that’s where my full commitment lies. I would give up any job immediately as soon as Covid-19 was over, but then I would be letting a lot of people down.’

Although all productions were rescheduled, Koutchoukali did not immediately run into financial problems. ‘I had a small buffer, because just before corona erupted, I had assisted Monique Wagemakers in a production of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo at Nederlandse Reisopera (Dutch Travelling Opera). The initiators of the 4 May project were kind enough to reimburse 1/3 of the fee of €5000. I didn’t get paid for the trajectory with the Komische Oper, but the costs I had already made – purchased scores, train journeys and such – were compensated.’

In April, a month after the outbreak of corona, she got a phone call from composer Jan-Peter de Graaff. ‘He told me that Opera Zuid (Opera South) had accepted his proposal to create eight online miniature operas as documentation of our times. Their intendant Waut Koeken had more or less given him carte blanche to realize them and Jan-Peter asked me to direct them. I was overjoyed. Now I had something to focus all my attention on in April and May.’

With this project, Bonsai Garden, she was able to safeguard a third of her monthly income. ‘But it yielded something more important than money, namely the chance to direct Goud! (Gold!). This new co-production of Opera Zuid and Dutch National Opera was planned for a later point in the season and would be directed by Waut. Because of the pandemic, Opera Zuid and DNO decided to move the production forward and I was asked to take over the direction. So in the middle of the corona measures I suddenly had a new production to prepare.’

Koutchoukali applied successfully for the compensation package offered by the Dutch government. ‘This certainly offered some relief, but I stopped the benefit after a month. My partner’s internet business had started to grow considerably precisely because of the pandemic, and it didn’t feel right to keep claiming something I no longer really needed. – I wouldn’t have been eligible for the consecutive benefits anyway.’

Koutchoukali is very aware of her fortunate situation: ‘Even before corona, I often realized how comfortable it is to work in the arts while being able to share your fixed expenses with someone who has a steady income. Thanks mainly to my boyfriend, I was able to continue to meet my monthly obligations while dedicating all my attention on directing. – In case the proverbial washing machine were to break down, he would simply buy a new one.’

Although a staging of Mozart’s Requiem with De Nederlandse Bachvereniging and a production with dance company MANIICO fell prey to the pandemic as well, Koutchoukali experiences the vicissitude concerning Goud! as the most disappointing. ‘The opera was to have its premiere in October for thirty people and an x number of children. But a week before the first performance our government decreed that only thirty visitors in total would be allowed to attend. The production was rescheduled for December, but on the 14th of that month Prime Minister Rutte decided to close theatres entirely. It’s incredibly frustrating, for a while I didn’t know where to direct my energy.’

The continuous uncertainty is not even the worst thing about the ever-changing measures, says Koutchoukali. ‘As a freelance director, I’m used to working with uncertainties, but I’m struggling with a dilemma. Before, I used to invite the whole world to everything I made, but lately I haven’t. I don’t want people to travel unnecessarily or take undue risks. A poignant paradox, because in doing so I am labelling my own work as “unnecessary”. I make things for an audience which I don’t dare invite, while deep down I’m convinced there’s no safer place than the theatre.’

Despite everything, she discerns a small spark of hope in the crisis: ‘Staying at home and missing the theatre intensely has made me feel more clearly than ever that directing is really what I want. When last summer I was able to rehearse once more I simply got high. In addition, I’ve had more time to pursue ideas. I am now going to concentrate full time on developing new projects, such as the Balcony Scenes subsidized by the Fonds Podiumkunsten (Foundation for performing arts).’

With a coy smile Koutchoukali concludes: ‘The good thing is, I notice that my plans get better with time.’

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Theo Verbey Foundation launched online: ‘A composer is primarily a songwriter’

On 13 October 2019 the Dutch composer Theo Verbey (1959-2019) died prematurely, after a long history of depression. Barely one and a half years later the Theo Verbey Foundation will be launched, on Tuesday 12 January 2021 at 3 pm Central European Time. The event can be attended online via the recently renewed website www.theoverbey.com

Some board members and a former colleague of Theo Verbey will present the plans of the foundation and discuss the meaning of Verbey’s work. Martín Alvarez, master student cello at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, will play fragments from Verbey’s Five Pieces for Violoncello Solo (2006).

The aim of the Theo Verbey Foundation is to keep his legacy alive by organizing concerts, stimulating scientific research into his work, and perhaps even initiate a Theo Verbey Composition prize for students.

A welcome inititative, for Verbey’s music is far too seldom heard these days.

In 2015 he composed Traurig wie der Tod, an extensive choral-orchestral song cycle for Netherlands Radio Choir and Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, commissioned by the radio series De vrijdag van Vredenburg. I interviewed him prior to the premiere, for an article in Dutch. Here’s my English translation.

Theo Verbey on Traurig wie der Tod: ‘A composer is primarily a songwriter’
Amsterdam, 22 May 2015

The Dutch composer Theo Verbey (Delft 1959) writes music with a sumptuous beauty of sound, in which the achievements of centuries of musical tradition resound. He made a name for himself with works such as Triad (1991) for orchestra and Expulsion (1988) for large ensemble, and with orchestrations of pieces by composers such as Modest Mussorgsky and Alban Berg. For the final concert of the radio concert series De Vrijdag van Vredenburg he wrote Traurig Wie der Tod, for the Netherlands Radio Choir and Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. It was will be premiered on Friday 29 May in TivoliVredenburg. Six questions to Theo Verbey.

In the annual brochure of the series your new work is announced as ‘Elysium’, why did you change the title?

I had been planning to compose a piece of considerable length for large choir and orchestra for some years, envisioning a ‘large space in sound’. The opportunity to realize my plans arose when programmer Astrid in ‘t Veld asked me to write a piece for the Netherlands Radio Choir and Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.

Originally I had the title Elysium in mind, named for the Greek god’s residence in the hereafter. I had already made a number of sketches, but when I was ready to turn my ideas into music in the summer of 2014, I was confronted by several disconcerting events. The health of my mother was deteriorating, and on 17 July 2014 the MH17 of Malaysia Airlines crashed, killing its entire crew and all its passengers. Shaken, I decided to throw away my sketches and begin anew.

For Elysium I had had a number Latin and German texts in mind, from various classical poets, including Virgil and Goethe. However, I did not get around to a setting – the verses I had selected turned out to be unsuitable for a musical form, due to their complicated style and choice of words. The poems by Hans Bethge I have now chosen are direct and accessible.

How did you decide on Bethge?

The search for suitable poetry took a lot of time and effort. The choice of texts is very important, because for me a composer is primarily a songwriter, also within the context of classical music. So the verses must dovetail with my vision of the final result, otherwise there would be no point in composing. At some point I had placed all the volumes of German poetry from my bookcase side by side, and Bethge stood out.

I had acquired his collection The Chinese Flute [German-language reinterpretations of ancient Chinese poems, 1907] long ago in an antiquarian music store. His poems are characterised by simple imagery, but above all by sombre content. The final selection was relatively simple, as was determining the order of the poems. I chose five of them, which fit within the set-up of a continuous cycle; the actual composition process took approximately half a year.

What form did you give the five songs?

Each song has its own character, which originates from the text and is reflected in a separate motif and key. Sorrow is eulogized in each instance from a different perspective. In the first song, ‘Mond und Menschen’ (Moon and people) nature is presented as stable and unchanging, while human beings are confused and restless. Towards the end the music accelerates, leading into a first orchestral interlude.

The next song, ‘Die Einsame’(The lonely one), is about the sorrow and pain of someone who is separated from her loved one. After an orchestral eruption, the third song, ‘Ein junger Dichter denkt an die Geliebte’(A young poet thinks of his beloved), is reduced to just one stanza, in a highly contrasting idiom.

After another orchestral break follows the fourth song, ‘Verzweiflung’ (Despair). This mirrors the second and describes the sadness of boredom in seclusion. It is immediately followed by the final song, ‘Das Los des Menschen’ (Man’s fate), about the uniqueness of human existence. It is like a sigh of the wind and results in a decayed hill on which weeds grow. Both lyrics and music reflect the first song.

Thus the cycle has the structure of a palindrome: ABCBA, the end is a recurrence of the beginning. It appeals to me how Bethge puts time – which only flows in one direction – into perspective. When composing a cycle, the use of a circular form is an obvious choice, of course. I chose not only the poems themselves, but also their order according to this principle.

The palindrome returns in the musical style as well, for I want to match form and content. The first song references the achievements of the twentieth century, after which we modulate back in jolts to the 19th century, to eventually end up in an archaic, early eighteenth-century musical style. Then the route is taken in the opposite direction.

By the way, for me ‘style’ simply refers to common characteristics determined by time and place, such as the German Baroque, French Impressionism or the English Renaissance. I would not want to imply individual composers lacked a personal style.

The victims of MH17 all perished; can ‘Traurig wie der Tod’ be seen as a requiem?

No, I would not dream of appropriating the grief of the bereaved. However I do try to articulate certain aspects of our times, such as the combination of mere chance with criminal behaviour. In the case of MH17: a random flight falls prey to the immoral behaviour of soldiers and administrators. Another aspect I address is the slippage towards very large differences in civilisation and human manners.

And how is the health of your mother now?

I’d rather keep that to myself.

What do you hope to bring about in the listener?


There is no such thing as the, of course. The only one who understands all the intentions I put into the piece is myself. But naturally I hope that Traurig wie der Tod will give the listener a meaningful experience.

Underneath is the video of the online launch of the Theo Verbey Foundation

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Aida goes Black Lives Matter

It is night. Behind the windows of an immense hall, some scanty cars and cyclists pass by. The deserted space is filled with what seem to be rows of beds waiting for patients. An improvised covid-19 hospital? Then the camera zooms in and we see the contours of design tables.

Against a soundtrack of departing underground trains, fragments from Aida and a cacophony of interplaying instruments, the rest of the building is also explored. Our gaze skims past stacked chairs, steel tubes, wooden palisades, technology rooms and clothing racks. The penny drops: we are in a decor studio.

In Proximity (c) DNO/Kim Krijnen

With this opening of In nabijheid (In proximity) the artistic team hits the bull’s eye in this fourth production of OFFspring, a project of Dutch National Opera (DNO) in which the latest generation of theatre makers responds to performances that were cancelled due to corona. After all, in this bleak-industrial setting the sets and costumes are made that take us into the artificial world displayed in performances.

In this case the Egypt of Aida, the opera Verdi composed in 1871 for the opera house of Cairo without ever setting foot in Egypt. Although the libretto recounts the rapprochement between an Ethiopian princess and an Egyptian soldier, the music remains stuck in ‘orientalism’, composed as it is from a typically Western, colonial view.

We can do better, opined the artistic team commissioned to formulate a response to Verdi’s classic. While demonstrating in the Nelson Mandela park in the context of Black Lives Matter, the four up-and-coming talents became even more acutely aware of Aida’s ‘imperialist discourse’. When, during the demonstration, they heard a performance by the men’s choir Black Harmony, they immediately decided to enter into dialogue with them and their different, unfamiliar world.

As a matter of course they strove to work on the basis of equality and mutual respect. Five singers of Black Harmony find their match in as many men of the choir of DNO. The two groups meet in territory that is both familiar and unknown. Like DNO’s set design studio, Black Harmony is based in Bijlmer, but has no experience with opera; DNO singers normally rehearse in the Music Theatre in the centre of Amsterdam, but now commuted to this district in the Southeast of town.  

The composer Sílvia Lanao Aregay uses the sound of underground trains to connect both worlds. The metro also appears in Gershwin Bonevacia’s poem about a man who describes how he is going to explore the world via the underground railway. ‘Hope you want to help me find my way’ says a voice on tape (Danny Westerweel), while a lonely dancer (Dan Radulescu) meanders through the different spaces. Some singers sing excerpts from the same poem, embedded in polyphonic, sustained tones of the others.

While singing, the ten men form intermingling geometric patterns, always respecting social distancing and dressed in black gala costumes. They don striking accents of costume designer Allysia van Duijn: the men of DNO wear a white cummerbund, the members of Black Harmony have white lace collars. These are reminiscent of the portraits that painters such as Frans Hals and Rembrandt made of the ruling class. A witty reversal, since the elite portrayed largely owed their wealth to slavery.

Director Stijn Dijkema and scenographer Han Ruiz Buhrs cross-cut the images with earlier shots of duos of one black and one white singer facing each other in casual attire. Contemplative, level-headed, challenging, sometimes dismissive, but gradually more trusting, culminating in a liberating smile at the end.

While the white singers continue walking their patterns, larding their polyphonic singing with muttered lyrics, Orlando Ceder, leader of Black Harmony, starts an Afro-Surinamese song, now answered with polyphonic singing by the other members of Black Harmony. Their colourful tunics refer to African clothing.

Even if you don’t understand a word of Sranontongo, their interpretation is compelling. They perform a melancholic, orally transmitted song from their ancestors, who worked on the plantations of Dutch rulers. The DNO singers gradually join in. Lanao Aregay manages to forge the two essentially different singing styles into a wonderfully coherent whole.

After the liberating smiles of the duos have broken through, the ten gentlemen form a queue. While singing they traverse the building, in the swaying pass we know from funeral rites in St. Louis; the dancer makes exuberant whirls in the empty hall. The singing dies away and the electronic music returns, including the underground sounds. These now carry a hopeful message: no matter how great a distance may seem, it can always be bridged.

With In Proximity the four young makers and their team powerfully illustrate the social relevance of opera. This fourth production within the framework of OFFspring definitely tastes like more.

This review was originally written for the Dutch blog Theaterkrant. The production can be viewed online until 30 January.

 

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Atlantis by Robin de Raaff on CD: ‘It’s not a doomsday scenario, the world keeps on turning’

It’s become a good tradition: the AVROTROSVrijdagconcert series opens each new season with a composition from a Dutch composer for the combined forces of the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and the Groot Omroepkoor. – This year their ranks had to be cut back considerably, but in 2016 covid-19 was nowhere yet in sight, so Robin de Raaff was not hampered by impeding corona-measures.

His oratorio Atlantis, inspired by the dilapidated Tropicana swimming paradise in Rotterdam, made a deep impression on both public and press. Recently the ambitious work for large choir, orchestra, soprano, baritone and two solo harps appeared on CD.

After its premiere in 2016, the newspaper NRC wrote: ‘The pulsating, swelling, seething and hissing sound brews created a fabulous glow.’ Four years later the live recording was again received enthusiastically. ‘An impressive piece […] like a gigantic fresco’, judged Bas van Putten in the weekly magazine De Groene; ‘a kind of elaborate and layered Lied von der Erde opined Maarten Brandt on the weblog Opusklassiek; ‘an orchestration that is both rich and colourful’ concluded the French reviewer Thierry Vagne.

‘As a public broadcaster, we have a duty to be distinctive’, says programmer Astrid in ‘t Veld. ‘Dutch, lesser-known and adventurous repertoire are of paramount importance anyway. The festive opening of the season is the ideal opportunity to surprise the audience with a brand new composition for our two house ensembles. Earlier, composers such as Theo Verbey, Rob Zuidam and Joey Roukens wrote memorable opening pieces for the AVROTROSVrijdag concert.’

The question which criteria she uses when choosing a composer generates the brief and powerful reply: ‘Quality!’ Robin de Raaff therefore came into the picture as a matter of course: ‘Robin already had an impressive career as a composer, but a piece for large symphonic choir and orchestra was not yet on his worklist. He found it extraordinarily interesting to be able to write for such a large ensemble; it was the realisation of a dream.’

De Raaff agrees: ‘I loved being able to employ the maximum line-up of the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and the Groot Omroepkoor. I used six horns! Once I had opted for Atlantis, the final part of Hart Crane’s collection of poems The bridge, I decided to bring the orchestral harps forward as soloists as well. They represent the Pillars of Hercules, which had supposedly formed the entrance to this mythical island. Crane describes them as “twin monoliths, two frosted capes”. This immediately evoked images of two imposing harps.’

The reason he chose Crane’s poem is rooted in his love of the music of the Dutch composer Tristan Keuris. ‘Tristan had based his orchestral work Brooklyn Bridge on the first movement from Crane’s collection and I was so impressed that I bought his collected poems.’ However, he did not want to make a one-on-one setting of the verses. ‘I turned the poem inside out, as it were. Crane wrote it in 1930 and draws an almost idyllic picture of Atlantis. I gradually flood this vision with reflections from our time about rising sea levels and the impact this has on our life on earth. Like a kind of yesterday’s future.’

In addition to verses by Crane, De Raaff also selected texts by Plato; at the end, the singers stammer statements by survivors of flood disasters. In this way my piece flashes back and forth between several time parallels. From the 1930s of the 20th century, the Greek Antiquity in which Plato describes the downfall of the once mighty Atlantis, and the 21st century with our concerns about global warming.’

In order to mould all these different, ever-changing visions into a musical form, De Raaff added two solo singers. ‘I wanted to highlight a few phrases, as moments of reflection and introspection. In the first instance this became a solo soprano, representing the voice of Gaia, the primeval mother of the earth. But soon I felt the need to place a male figure next to her, as the voice of Plato; this is embodied by the baritone.’

Robin de Raaff (c) Teo Krijgsman

Programmer Astrid in ‘t Veld left him free in his choices, De Raaff emphasises. ‘Her only request was to give the choir a prominent role. In ‘t Veld: ‘We had indeed started from the maximum occupation of the choir, so it was a bit of a fit and measure with those extra soloists. Fortunately, the commission was subsidised by the Performing Arts Fund, so that we had some leeway. Unfortunately, their support is no longer a matter of course these days.’

De Raaff: ‘I think it’s been a good choice to have the choir play an important role. In the first verse the singers stand up as one mass, as it were. That remains the case up to the very last line, in which this anonymous crowd disintegrates completely into individuals.’ But even though the singers quote fragments of text from tsunami survivors, and the first inspiration was the dilapidated Tropicana swimming pool, Atlantis does not necessarily sketch a doomsday scenario, he stresses.

‘Although my piece sinks further into the depths with each episode and ends on the very lowest A of the piano, at the same time the very highest tones of the white piano keys sound. Like twinkling stars they convey a message of hope: the world does not end, it keeps turning without ending.’

Musically, the piece has a bridge structure, built on the note A of Atlantis, he explains. ‘It begins and ends with it. Because each new verse starts a semitone lower, after thirteen steps we land again on an A, albeit an octave lower. Roughly speaking, you can say that Atlantis moves from A major to A minor, whereby the two A’s can be seen as the pillars of a bridge.’

De Raaff neither lets the world perish in Atlantis, nor does he bury modernism, as the subtitle ‘In memoriam Pierre Boulez’ seems to imply. ‘Of course not!’, he reacts somewhat upset. ‘Boulez was, in my opinion, the last great one of the first hour. Together with composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luigi Nono he created a radical break with romantic music. They banished every musical reference to the past and developed serialism, based on complex compositional methods. That radicalism is behind us, but I use stylistic elements from it, perhaps we should speak of “neo-modernism”.’

It was De Raaff’s own initiative to put Atlantis on CD, says Astrid in ‘t Veld. ‘That is quite an undertaking, because the release of a live recording requires the consent of everyone involved. Conductor, soloists, choir, orchestra, broadcaster and so on, it’s an enormous task. Fortunately, Robin himself was a great help with the final editing.’

That can’t have been easy either. At the premiere there were some balance problems, as a result of which the four soloists were sometimes drowned out by orchestra and choir. ‘That’s right,’ says De Raaff. ‘TivoliVredenburg’s stage had been expanded considerably because of the large line-up. As a result, the soloists sang up against a wall, as it were, which didn’t help the sound balance. I was allowed to remix the whole recording, which was a difficult but rewarding job.’

Astrid in ‘t Veld is also satisfied. ‘The only thing Robin didn’t stick to at the time was the specified length. The intention was that Atlantis would last thirty minutes, but it expanded into fifty. As a result, the programme became too long and rehearsal times were exceeded. All in all, it was quite a puzzle, but it was worth all the effort. Atlantis has become an impressive piece and I’m glad it’s now available on CD.’

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Lera Auerbach: ‘I love the other-worldly sound of the theremin’.

The theremin is an electronic instrument that is played without physical contact. Because of its eerie sound it is often used in soundtracks for horror movies. But classical composer Lera Auerbach also regularly writes for it. Between 1999 and 2017 she composed Ten Preludes for Theremin and Piano. They were premiered in 2019 by Thorwald Jørgensen and pianist Kamilla Bystrova, who have now released them on CD.

In 2005 the Russian-American Lera Auerbach (Chelyabinsk, 1973) used a theremin in her ballet music for The Little Mermaid by choreographer John Neumeier. A year later the instrument resurfaced in her First Symphony and in the symphonic poem Icarus distilled from it. In 2011 she included it in her ballet music Cinderella. With her predilection for the theremin, Auerbach is an exception among her fellow composers.

Lera Auerbach (c). F. Reinhold
Lera Auerbach (c) F. Reinhold

Auerbach doesn’t remember the exact time and place when she first heard a theremin. ‘Leon Theremin developed this instrument shortly after the First World War. It is the first fully electronic instrument in the world and I have heard recordings both of Theremin himself and the famous thereminist Clara Rockmore. I was immediately captivated by the other-worldly quality of its expression, and the beauty of the human body interacting with a magnetic field to produce sound.’

Although she is not only a composer but also a pianist, Auerbach never considered learning to play the theremin herself. ‘I like to leave that to professionals, but I chose to use it for the first time in my ballet music for The Little Mermaid in 2005. In this fairy-tale by Hans Christian Andersen the mermaid has the most beautiful voice and I was looking for a way to represent it best.’

Leon Theremin playing his instrument

Almost as a matter of course her choice fell upon the theremin. ‘I was fascinated by its mystical sound and the somewhat magical way in which the instrument is played. It consists of only two antennas connected to oscillators. The player never touches it, but plucks the sounds out of nowhere, as it were, by moving his or her arms. One hand controls the pitch, the other the volume. Wonderful how the instrument is played through the air and music is created by manipulation of electromagnetic fields. I found the transcendental quality of sound perfect to interpret the voice of the mermaid.’

Because of its expressiveness, she then used the instrument in other pieces as well. Contrary to what one might expect, it is not difficult to write for theremin, says Auerbach: ‘I do not approach the instrument other than a human voice or a wind instrument and use standard notation.’

She finished composing Ten Preludes for Theremin and Piano in 2017. Two years later Jørgensen premiered them with Kamilla Bystrova at the Livorno Festival in Italy. Since then they have performed the cycle many times all over the world, and have now included it on their CD Air électrique.

Yet Auerbach did not necessarily write her cycle with Jørgensen in mind, she says. ‘The occasion was a meeting with Viviana Ramos in Cuba, who is very interested in electro-acoustic music. She is involved in the Laboratorio Nacional de Música Electroacústica in Havana. In recent years she has invited foreign thereminists to perform there. I decided to create the Ten Preludes for one of her projects. Thorwald is the first one to  perform them in full and also the first to record them. He also played them in Cuba.’

They first met in person in 2016, when Jørgensen performed Icarus with the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. A pleasure, as it turned out. Auerbach: ‘Thorwald has performed many of my pieces over the years and I greatly appreciate his craftsmanship. Few musicians fully master the theremin and Thorwald is one of the world’s best. Afterwards he had many questions. This was wonderful, and enlightening for myself as well.’

In the future she hopes to expand her cycle to 24 Preludes, as she previously did for piano solo; violin and piano; viola and piano and the combination of cello and piano. What is her fascination with preludes? Large-scale works such as 72 Angels for choir and saxophone quartet and Goetia 72 for choir and string quartet also consist of a cycle of as many preludes. The first on the names of angels, the second on those of devils. Is there also a story behind the Ten preludes for Theremin and Piano? ‘No’, Auerbach laughs, ‘these are purely abstract’.

I played two preludes in An Ox on the Roof Concertzender in February 2020.

The above is an adaptation of an article I wrote for the Dutch music magazine Luister.

 

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L’enfant et les sortilèges Vopera: Enchanted world behind broken laptop screen

Covid-19 makes creative, it has almost become a cliché by now. But the British Vopera outshines them all with their debut, an online production of L’enfant et les sortilèges by Maurice Ravel. Singers from all over the world rehearsed via zoom and filmed themselves with whatever equipment they had available. Only the London Philharmonic Orchestra actually came together to record their contribution, a dazzling arrangement by Lee Reynolds for only 27 musicians. The production abounds in flashy animations and brilliant colours: a feast for both eye and ear.

Ravel composed his opera in the twenties, on a libretto by Colette. She wrote this for the amusement of her daughter, which director Rachael Hewer and designer Leanne Vandenbussche interpreted literally. Instead of the angry boy from the original, they have chosen a girl, played by Amelie Turnage and sung by the mezzo-soprano Emily Edmonds.

When the mother orders her to do her homework, the child furiously destroys everything around her, including her laptop. After which she is sucked into an enchanted world full of talking animals and furniture via its broken screen. Vandenbussche manages to capture the atmosphere of a nightmare by sticking oversized heads on the singers’ bodies and making them tower like giants above the frightened girl. – You can hardly keep up with the amazing mix of live and drawn images.

The laptop through which the girl must to take her online lessons is not the only attempt to take the story to our time. There are countless other references to corona in the staging, with quickly edited newsreels full of graphs of collapsing stock market prices, a hospital scene in which the girl is given an oxygen mask and a blackboard reminding us to wash our hands and keep our distance. The libretto has also been partly updated, with a new Chinese text for the tea ceremony.

L’enfant et les sortilèges is a succession of often witty images, culminating in a parade of multi-coloured frog frogs in the frog ballet. But because of all the visual opulence, the story itself gets a bit snowed over. It is not clear for instance why the – skilfully designed – animals and things want take revenge on the child. Other than in the original libretto the child hasn’t been harassing them.

A beautiful moment however occurs when the animals let go of their anger when they see how lovingly the girl bandages the wounded squirrel, and decide to bring her back to mummy. The end is stunning: against a cascade of filmed opera houses, the child stands on an empty stage, the lodges gradually being filled with all the characters from the story.

Unfortunately, Turnage is still a bit uncomfortable in front of the camera. The singers, on the other hand, are without exception excellent, and the orchestra excels in pointed rhythms, compelling melodies and oriental harmonies. Hats off to the ingenuity of all involved, but next time a little more attention to the content, please.

This review first appeared in Dutch on Theaterkrant, 14 December 2020.

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The music of Arvo Pärt: from fierce dissonance to euphonious bell sounds

Which titles spring to mind on hearing the name of Arvo Pärt? Sonatina opus 1; Symphony no. 1; Perpetuum mobile, or Fratres; Für Alina; Spiegel im Spiegel? My guess is the second series, for in the nineties Pärt conquered the world with pieces like these. The audience flocked in droves to immerse themselves in his euphonious sound world, though critics deprecatingly dubbed this a ‘warm tub’, full of new-age kitsch. Nowadays Pärt is one of the most performed living composers, but his road to so called ‘new simplicity’ was long and bumpy.

Arvo Pärt (c) Kauko Kikkas

Arvo Pärt (Paide, Estonia 1935) grew up in a dictatorship: in 1944, during the Second World War, Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union. For years a strong and intolerant wind blew, especially in the field of the arts. In 1948, barely three years after the victory over the Nazis and their brutal persecution of so-called “entartete Kunst” (degenerate art) great composers like Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich were publicly pilloried for their “formalistic perversions and anti-democratic tendencies”. In such a climate there was little room for experimentation.

Pärt studied composition at the Conservatory of Tallin, where he was trained in the standard classical style. The atonal music of modernists such as Arnold Schönberg was taboo. Pärt’s earliest pieces, including the above-mentioned Sonatina for piano solo, therefore have a classical character. They are completely tonal and always return to the keynote – as a listener you ‘come home’ safely. This in no way implies they are insignificant, however. Anyone listening to his Vier leichte Tanzstücke für Klavier will be immediately struck by the frisky atmosphere of these fairy-tale inspired miniatures.

‘Western decadence’

As it happens, the young Pärt was also attracted to the most strongly forbidden fruits, in his case those of the Western avant-garde. He studied smuggled-in scores and began to incorporate the new compositional techniques into his own pieces. In 1961 he caused a scandal with the orchestral work Nekrolog, the first Estonian composition written in the twelve-tone system designed by Schoenberg.

In short, in twelve-tone music all twelve semitones are equal. Each of them is placed in a tone row that must sound in its entirety before it can be used again: no longer the keynote can ‘boss’ it over the other ones. It is a tragic form of irony that intensely socialist way of composing was so despised by the Soviets. Nekrolog brought Pärt his first recognition in the West, but the apparatchiks in his own country accused him of ‘Western decadence’.

Collage

Pärt then experimented with so-called collage techniques, in which different musical styles collide as it were. In Collage über B-A-C-H a sweet theme in oboe and harpsichord by Johann Sebastian Bach is ‘assaulted’ by fierce, heavily dissonant chords of a string orchestra. In his grand Credo for choir, piano and orchestra a Bach prelude is ‘attacked’ by unusually dissonant harmonies from the orchestra. Its premiere in 1968 caused an even bigger scandal than Nekrolog. Perhaps more than the music itself its unveiled confession of faith was the stumbling block: Pärt had set Latin texts from the Gospel of Matthew. The piece opens with the sentence ‘Credo in Jesum Christum’ (I believe in Jesus Christ).

The communist regime was averse to religion and saw Credo as an open provocation. The political leaders felt personally attacked and embarked on a cat-and-mouse game with Pärt. Sometimes he was razed to the ground, at other times he was praised – similar to how Shostakovich was treated in Russia. But Pärt himself was unhappy too with the path he had taken: increasingly he felt that ‘atonal music is only suitable for writing music of conflict’, he once said. After Credo he fell into a compositional impasse that lasted for years.

Tintinnabuli

He immersed himself in early music, such as Russian Orthodox church music, Gregorian chant and Flemish polyphony from the Renaissance. He said: ‘Gregorian chant brought me a kind of cosmic secret, which reveals itself in the art of combining two or three notes.’ In 1977 this led to an explosion of pieces in Pärt’s now world-famous ‘tintinnabuli’ style, named after the bell-like sound of triads. Compositions such as Für Alina for piano solo, Fratres for wind and string quintet and Spiegel im Spiegel for violin and piano boast a typical slow rhythmic pace of melodious harmonies over which a tuneful melody unfolds step by step.

The rest is history. In 1980 Pärt moved to the West, where he began a musical triumph that has not yet come to an end. In the meantime the criticism has silenced, his music appeared on countless CDs and his eightieth and eighty-fifth birthdays were celebrated with an unprecedented number of concerts and other commemorations.

In the meantime the composer has moved back to Estonia, where he’s living in Tallin. I met him there some years ago, at a festival for new music. In all modesty he was sitting on a wobbly wooden bench in a tiny hall, next to younger colleagues such as Erkki-Sven Tüür and Helena Tulve. Concentrated, he listened to a performance of his opus 1 by a piano student. Afterwards I shook his hand and thanked him for his beautiful piece. Pärt reacted with a joyful, almost shy smile. – A memory I will always cherish.

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‘Slagwerker & pianist Jeroen Elfferich: ‘De essentie van muziek ligt in eenvoud’

Jeroen Elfferich (Delft, 1965) begon zijn carrière als slagwerker in het schoolorkest van Pierre van Hauwe. Die had gewerkt met grootheden als Carl Orff en Zoltán Kodály en bracht hem een liefde bij voor onregelmatige Balkan-ritmes. Hij speelde drums en gitaar in popgroepen, bracht met zijn jazzband The Elfferich Four vier cd’s uit met eigen repertoire en toerde als solist met een loopstation langs festivals in binnen- en buitenland. Sinds een jaar of acht schrijft hij minimalistische muziek voor twee piano’s. Onlangs verscheen zijn EP Dutch Piano Rhythms, met vijf nieuwe stukken. ‘Nog steeds heb ik niet alle mogelijkheden ontdekt.’

Zoals veel kinderen voelde ook Jeroen Elfferich zich aangetrokken tot trommels. ‘Op mijn tiende mocht ik van mijn ouders naar de muziekschool in Delft. Toen ze vroegen welk instrument ik wilde leren bespelen koos ik direct voor slagwerk.’ Die voorkeur bleek hij niet van vreemden te hebben: ‘Later ontdekte ik dat mijn vader korte tijd tamboer was geweest en een oom zelfs instructeur bij het grootste tamboerkorps van Leiden.’

Toch was het niet alleen ritme wat voor de kleine Jeroen de klok sloeg: ‘Ik heb altijd een fascinatie gehad voor klank. Als jongen liep ik steevast rond met een cassetterecorder, waarmee ik alles opnam wat los en vast zat. Huis- en tuingeluiden, maar ook het onweer, menselijke stemmen en dierengeluiden. Op een gegeven moment ging mijn vader orgel spelen en mocht ik soms ook achter zijn instrument kruipen. Zo heb ik spelenderwijs ontdekt hoe muziek in elkaar zit.’

Op de muziekschool leerde hij kleine trom en pauk spelen. ‘De kleine trom – tegenwoordig snaredrum genoemd – was het belangrijkste instrument, daarna kwamen de pauken. Mijn docent was zelf paukenist in het Rotterdams Philharmonisch Orkest.’ Al snel werd hij lid van het schoolorkest, dat werd geleid door de van oorsprong Vlaamse pedagoog Pierre van Hauwe. ‘Aanvankelijk speelde ik klein slagwerk, zoals woodblocks, maar vanaf mijn zestiende bespeelde ik de pauken. Daar was ik goed in, ik heb dat jarenlang mogen doen.’

Elfferich denkt met veel plezier terug aan deze periode: ‘Het orkest had een bijzondere bezetting, met veel blokfluiten en melodisch slagwerk, het zogenoemde Orff instrumentarium. Van Hauwe kende Carl Orff persoonlijk en was een groot promotor van diens muzikale ideeën, waarover hij ook zelf boeken schreef. Hij vond dat alle kinderen muziek moesten kunnen spelen. Iedereen die ook maar een instrument kon vasthouden mocht bij wijze van spreken lid worden van het orkest. – Hoe gek de combinatie soms ook was.’

Dit leidde haast automatisch tot bijzonder repertoire, zegt Elfferich: ‘Van Hauwe componeerde zelf de muziek die we uitvoerden en schreef voor elk instrument een speciale partij. Maar hij had wel een duidelijke voorkeur voor xylofoons, die speelden vaak een belangrijke rol. Hij had gewerkt met Zoltán Kodály en maakte veelal arrangementen van volksmuziek, met polyritmiek en asymmetrische ritmes, een soort wereldmuziek avant-la-lettre. Ik herinner me nog hoe hij trots een 4-tegen-3 maatsoort voordeed, al klappend in zijn handen en stampend met zijn voeten.’

Pierre van Hauwe groeide uit tot een belangrijk inspirator: ‘Die hinkende Balkan-ritmes vond ik razend interessant en werden dankzij hem als het ware onderdeel van mijn DNA. En omdat wij altijd zijn arrangementen speelden, sprak het vanzelf dat ik later ook mijn eigen muziek zou gaan maken.’ Maar misschien nog wel belangrijker was zijn houding jegens muziek. ‘Met ons schoolorkest traden we geregeld op in het buitenland. Zo leerde ik hoe belangrijk het is om veel mensen – vooral ook kinderen – in contact te brengen met muziek. Zelf wil ik de luisteraars ook graag haar schoonheid, betovering en kracht laten beleven.’

Na een periode als drummer en gitarist in pop- en rockbands, schreef Elfferich zich in 1988 in aan de jazzafdeling van het Conservatorium van Rotterdam. ‘Ik kreeg er les van Peter Ypma, de drummer van Pim Jacobs en Rita Reys. Het mooie van zo’n opleiding is niet eens zozeer de studie zelf, maar vooral dat je er in contact komt met medemusici. Ik speelde met studenten uit Turkijke en voormalig Joegoslavië, met wie ik alles wat Van Hauwe mij geleerd had over 5- en 7-delige maatsoorten in praktijk kon brengen. Veel spannender dan die eeuwige vierkwartsmaat van veel popmuziek.’

Op het conservatorium leerde hij ook de jazzharmoniek kennen: ‘Die ging ik toepassen in mijn eigen stukken voor de Elfferich Four. Je kunt mijn stijl in die tijd het best omschrijven als fusion, geïnspireerd op muzikale helden als Pat Metheny, John Abercombie en Michael Brecker. Daarnaast koesterde ik een grote liefde voor progrockbands als Emerson, Lake & Palmer, King Crimson en Genesis, die een ruigere sound hebben en ook vaak oneven ritmes gebruiken. Dat alles kwam samen in wat we zelf omschreven als hardpopjazz.’

In het nieuwe millennium gaat Elfferich op zoek naar nieuwe wegen: ‘Vanaf 2010 ben ik gaan toeren als solo act met een loopstation en een arsenaal aan percussie-instrumenten. Maar ik speelde ook trompet, melodica, mondharmonica, wat ik maar kon vinden. Het was een leuke uitdaging om te improviseren en mijn eigen loops te kunnen maken. De creativiteit die zo’n apparaat mogelijk maakt is oneindig. Op een gegeven moment had ik zo’n succesvolle act dat ik op televisie kwam en speelde op festivals als Lowlands en Mysteryland.’

Na een paar jaar besloot hij het roer opnieuw om te gooien: ‘Door het live loopen was ik gefascineerd geraakt door herhalende patronen en ik besloot muziek te gaan schrijven waarin de ritmes oneindig in een vast tempo voortduren. Omdat ik die niet door een machine wilde laten uitvoeren begon ik stukken voor twee piano’s te componeren in de stijl van de minimalisten. Alles wat ik als drummer had ontwikkeld ging ik toepassen op die bezetting en gaandeweg ontdekte ik dat mijn “primitieve” ritmische pianostijl in combinatie met polyritmiek voor mij spannende muziek opleverde.’

Als pianist is Elfferich autodidact: ‘Eigenlijk is wat ik schrijf voor twee piano’s ook niet echt pianistisch, eerder marimba-achtig. Maar dat vind ik juist leuk, bovendien kun je op twee piano’s al snel twaalfstemmige weefsels maken. Valkuil is wel dat je makkelijk te veel – en vaak overbodige – noten en arpeggio’s speelt, terwijl ik het juist interessant vind met weinig noten emotie en verdieping te creëren. Ik ben gaan inzien dat de essentie van muziek vraagt om eenvoud. Door een overdaad aan noten raakt een luisteraar het spoor bijster, een herhalend patroon met rust geeft ruimte voor bezinning en meditatie: de luisteraar kan de lege ruimtes immers zelf invullen.’

Met zijn nieuwe inzichten ging Elfferich aan de slag. ‘Ik begon aan een zoektocht naar alle mogelijkheden die er zijn voor twee piano’s, wat inmiddels meer dan 200 composities heeft opgeleverd. In mijn stukken speelt elke piano zijn eigen metrum, maar na een aantal goed uitgerekende maten vallen ze weer samen. Met twee piano’s is de variatie oneindig veel groter dan met één; ik heb nog altijd niet alle mogelijkheden ontdekt.’

De herhalende patronen en over elkaar schuivende ritmische lagen roepen associaties op met componisten als Simeon ten Holt, Philip Glass en Steve Reich. Heeft Elfferich zich door hun muziek laten inspireren? ‘Niet echt’, bekent hij. ‘Ik heb er wel veel naar geluisterd maar mijn eigen stijl is wat meer recht voor zijn raap, vierkanter. Het ligt dichter bij popmuziek en techno, met als inspiratiebronnen King Crimson en andere progrockgroepen die polyritmiek gebruiken. Vanuit een kinderlijke benadering van muziek kan ik onder de indruk zijn van één aangeslagen noot. De kunst is om van zoiets simpels een heel stuk te componeren zonder die eenvoud los te laten.’

Net als componisten als Bartók en Stravinsky, benadert Elfferich de piano als slagwerkinstrument. ‘Dat is nog altijd bijzonder, want de meeste mensen beschouwen die toch vooral als een melodisch instrument. In sommige composities implementeer ik slagwerkoefeningen waarbij ik mijn twee handen gebruik alsof het twee stokken zijn. Dan sla ik bijvoorbeeld een paradiddle. De ideeën borrelen al improviserend aan de piano op. Zodra zich iets interessants voordoet noteer ik dat snel en later onderzoek ik of het de moeite waard is dat uit te werken tot een compleet stuk. Soms lukt dit, soms ook niet.’

Het startpunt van een compositie kan in veel verschillende motieven liggen. ‘Zo ontstond het eerste stuk van mijn EP, Highway, vanuit een motorisch ritme dat het voorbijrazende verkeer suggereert. Daar tegenover speelt de tweede piano een meer melodische partij. Long Distance is geïnspireerd op hoe wij in deze tijd vooral op afstand contact hebben met elkaar. Het is een melancholiek werk, gebouwd op een tot het einde doorklinkend ostinato. Side One is een typisch recht voor zijn raap stuk vanwege de knallende akkoorden zonder franje. De titel knipoogt naar kant A van een single. In Six Patterns spelen de twee pianisten elk drie, elkaar afwisselende patronen. Zo ontstaat een spannend samenspel.’

Het meest trots is hij op het laatste nummer van de EP: The First Beat. ‘Het stuk heet zo vanwege de ingewikkelde ritmiek: de beat draait steeds om, waardoor je als luisteraar constant op zoek bent naar de één, oftewel de eerste tel van de maat. The First Beat heeft twee delen. Het eerste draait er nog een beetje omheen met een continu verschuivende beat, terwijl het tweede, forte gespeelde deel, triomfantelijk en overtuigend het ritmische patroon uithamert. Ik heb het toegestuurd aan Louis Andriessen, omdat ik hem bewonder vanwege zijn gebruik van ritme. Hij vond het een geweldig stuk: ‘Het klinkt als een klok’, schreef hij in een email.

Andriessen merkte wel op dat het hem ‘hondsmoeilijk’ leek First Beat met zijn tweeën te spelen. Wat ons brengt bij de vraag of Elfferich daarom beide pianopartijen zelf voor zijn rekening neemt. ‘Dat heeft een pragmatische, droevige aanleiding’, verklaart Elfferich. ‘Ikhad eengeweldig duo met pianist Nico Moll, maar begin dit jaar is bij hem een ernstige ziekte geconstateerd. Hij is zijn gehoor bijna helemaal kwijt. Ik had al een paar andere pianisten benaderd en zelfs al een platenmaatschappij gevonden, maar toen kwam corona. Min of meer noodgedwongen heb ik zelf de hele cd ingespeeld en deze in eigen beheer uitgebracht. Hopelijk kan ik de stukken in de toekomst weer met een andere pianist gaan uitvoeren.’

Jeroen Elfferich: Dutch Piano Rhythms, uitgave eigen beheer november 2020
1. Highway 2. Long Distance 3. Side One 4. Six Patterns 5. First Beat

Jeroen Elfferich, piano’s

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Luister over #Reinbertbio: ‘De biografie van Reinbert de Leeuw waar je niet omheen kunt’

Ondanks alle jobstijdingen en afzeggingen wegens corona, krijg ik gelukkig af en toe ook goed nieuws. Zo verscheen er een mooie recensie van Slotakkoord: Reinbert de Leeuw 2014-2020 op de cultuursite Music and Books van Koen de Jager.

‘Het is een welkome aanvulling op de prachtige biografie van Derks. Dat Slotakkoord móest worden geschreven.’

Ook Suzanne Weusten betoonde zich in De Pianist enthousiast:

‘Het is jammer dat de meester dit pareltje niet meer zelf kan lezen, want behalve een nauwkeurige opsomming van zijn laatste muzikale prestaties is Slotakkoord vooral een muzikaal eerbetoon.’

‘Via Reinbert de Leeuw, die zich van rebel ontpopte tot vertegenwoordiger van het culturele establishment, geeft Thea Derks een sprankelend beeld van de muziek uit de twintigste eeuw.’

En alsof dit allemaal nog niet mooi genoeg was, wijdde ook het tijdschrift Luister er een mooie bespreking aan in het novembernummer. Recensent Gerard Scheltens wijst vooral op de aanvulling die Slotakkoord vormt bij de in 2014 verschenen biografie.

Deze biografie, geschreven vanuit een kritisch soort bewondering, is dé biografie van Reinbert de Leeuw geworden waar je niet omheen kunt.’

Als afsluiting dierbare herinneringen van personen die met De Leeuw gewerkt hebben, onder wie Steve Reich, George Benjamin, John Adams en Sonya (dochter van Oliver) Knussen. Wie het boek al heeft (wie niet?) kan Slotakkoord apart aanschaffen.’

Laat de Kerstman een dierbare verblijden met een exemplaar van de 3e druk van Reinbert de Leeuw: mens of melodie of van Slotakkoord: Reinbert de Leeuw 2014-2020. Bestel de boeken svp niet bij bol.com maar steun je lokale boekhandel! Of bestel ze direct bij mij, dan schrijf ik er een persoonlijke opdracht in! Mail naar derksthea_at_gmail.com

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‘May’ Louis Andriessen: impressive swan song

‘Essential to my way of composing is the notion that music is always about other music. (…) This attitude makes one  constantly shift one’s interests. I don’t relate to composers who only ever search in one direction, such as Schoenberg. I feel more akin to the all-rounders: the Purcells and the Stravinskys, who have a broader field of inspiration: stealing something on the right here, borrowing something on the left there.’

Thus Louis Andriessen (1939) once described his attitude towards composing. He found inspiration in sources as diverse as minimalism and jazz, and developed a percussive style based on contrasting musical blocks. His high-energy De Staat (1976) has become a modern classic. The often aggressive brass sound is described as ‘typical Andriessen’, and became known as the ‘Hague School’ when his students at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague adopted his style.

Andriessen however also incorporated lyricism, as for example in the ethereal second movement of his opera De Materie (1987). And although he once dismissed the symphony orchestra as a reactionary institution, in 2015 he composed Mysteries for the 125th anniversary of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

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On 5 December 2020 the Orchestra of the 18th Century and Cappella Amsterdam premiered May in Concertgebouw Amsterdam. Most likely this in memoriam for his former friend Frans Brüggen (1934-2014) will be Andriessen’s last new composition. He’s been suffering from Alzheimer for some time now, as his wife Monica Germino recently disclosed to the Dutch press. ‘It would be unrealistic to remain silent about it’, she said. ‘I don’t want to keep it secret, Alzheimer is a cruel disease.’

The premiere of May was part of the radio series NTRZaterdagMatinee, and streamed live. It showed that at 81, even suffering from a debilitating disease, Andriessen hasn’t lost any of his musical prowess. He created a haunting setting of some 80 verses from this epic poem Herman Gorter wrote in 1888, in an English translation by Paul Vincent.

Daniel Reuss, chief conductor of Cappella Amsterdam, realized an intense and moving performance. Sadly there wasn’t an audience in the hall to witness this historic moment.

A solo recorder (Lucie Horsch) evokes the spirit of Frans Brüggen with immensely virtuoso flourishes. After a few bars however, the soloist stops and remains silent for the rest of the piece. A simple, yet evocative reference to how dearly Brüggen is missed by both Andriessen and the members of the Orchestra of the 18th Century he founded in 1981.

May seems to have sprung from Andriessen’s more lyrical inclinations. The choir’s celestial harmonies may be spiked with spicy dissonances, but the overall sound is euphonious. The hushed atmosphere is interspersed with riotous trumpets, pounding piano and timpani, and the square rhythms so characteristic for Andriessen. The familiar references to jazz and minimal music are lacking, though.

The piece breathes an atmosphere of Arcadian quietude, with even some hints of Gregorian chant in the choir. A solo soprano sings a heartbreakingly poignant tune, a glockenspiel spills out a memento mori, tubular bells solemnly evoke a death toll. After some twenty minutes Daniel Reuss gently creates a fade-out, the sound of singers and musicians gradually dying away into nothingness.

With May Louis Andriessen has written an impressive swan song if ever there was one. Hopefully he is satisfied himself, too. He couldn’t be present in person, but Monica Germino assured the press she would watch the live stream together with her husband.

As it happens, on Sunday 6 December yet another piece of his will be performed and streamed live from Concertgebouw, Tapdance, composed in 2014, the year Frans Brüggen died. That very year Andriessen celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday and for this occasion he wrote the percussion concerto Tapdance. This will be played and streamed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and percussionist Dominique Vleeshouwers. This piece does include the saxophones, electric bass guitar and drum kit so typical of Andriessen; the strings are exhorted to play without vibrato.

Tapdance is an exhilarating work, in which the solo percussionist imitates the clicks of a tap dancer, employs rythmical patterns from charleston, plays a boisterous toccata and produces tremoli of eighth triplets. In Andriessen’s own words this creates ‘a haunting memory of the slow jazz blues of the fifties and sixties, referring in particular to the music of Horace Silver’.

The trajectory of the piece moves from energy to melancholy. It’s a kind of homage to Milhaud’s Percussion Concerto, where positive energy is gradually obscured by sadness and despair. One can imagine this might well be an apt reflection of Andriessen’s current state of mind.

Postscript 2021: Louis Andriessen passed away on 1 July 2021 and was buried at Zorgvlied cemetery Amsterdam on 8 July.

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Ekaterina Levental on corona: ‘If need be, I’ll make myself useful in other ways, without looking back in anger’

The financial damage caused by the corona crisis is enormous, and the end is not yet in sight. The Dutch website Theaterkrant assembles the stories behind the figures in their series ‘corona practices’. How do freelancers manage? Do they still have work and income? For this series I interviewed singer, harpist and theatre maker Ekaterina Levental of LEKS Company and Duo Bilitis.

Ekaterina Levental (c) Richard Smit

Ekaterina Levental (Tashkent, 1977) came to the Netherlands as a refugee in 1993. The increasingly open anti-Semitism in Uzbekistan had made her parents decide to leave the country. In Israel they were ostracized like inferior skunks, in Moscow they were deprived of their last pennies, in Sweden more humiliations followed. It was only in the Netherlands that they finally found the much hoped-for safe haven; Ekaterina was 16 years old.

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With admirable perseverance Levental made her way from her position as an underdog to the top of Dutch musical life. She sang at Dutch National Opera and formed the successful Duo Bilitis with fellow singer and harp player Eva Tebbe. Together with her partner Chris Koolmees she moreover started LEKS Company, which specialises in small-scale music theatre.

They tour along chic theatres, upgraded barns and everything in between. LEKS Company gained fame with successful one-woman productions such as the trilogy De grens (The border), De Weg (The Journey) and Schoppenvrouw (Queen of Spades), inspired by her own life, and with classics such as La voix humaine by Poulenc.

‘When Prime Minister Rutte announced the closure of the theatres on 11 March 2020, I understood that I was on the eve of an historic disaster’ recalls Ekaterina Levental. ‘I have been fascinated by epidemics since childhood. “Now the time has come!”, was my first thought when I heard about the lockdown. In practice this meant that all the performances with LEKS Company and Duo Bilitis, and my tour with Holland Opera were cancelled in one fell swoop.’

Financially, the damage initially seemed to be manageable: ‘Holland Opera paid for all fifteen cancelled performances, and some thirty concerts with our own LEKS Company were largely rescheduled. But for a considerable part of the cancellations a new date has still not been set.’

In terms of compensation, Holland Opera stands out favourably: ‘A very limited number of stages have been able to compensate us in part or in full. One offered 100 per cent, another 90, another 50, and finally there was another organisation that gave 40 per cent, the rest wasn’t able to provide any compensation at all.’

It is striking that in general not the large, richly subsidised institutions generously flashed their wallets. ‘Small venues in particular empathized with our situation and assured us of their own accord that we could come back another time. This continuity is the most important thing for us at the moment, but of course we faced a considerable loss of income.’

Levental is not the type to sit back, and immediately looked for other possibilities. ‘As early as 2017 the pianist Frank Peters and I had conceived the plan to record Nikolay Medtner’s complete song oeuvre. We were about to present our first CD in a series of five, Incantation. When that could not go ahead, we found an alternative in a well-received live stream. In the meantime we have made the second CD and the third one is on its way.’

Opera2day offered yet another opportunity: ‘At their request we made La Voix Humaine en quarantaine, a version of Poulenc’s one act opera tailored to the corona situation. They also commissioned us to make the mini-movie Lost in Isolation, based on our Queen of Spades, which can be accessed online.’

A gift from heaven came from Dick Verdult: ‘He offered me a role in his film Als uw gat maar lacht (As long as your butt smiles). That was a very special experience, which also provided some financial relief. For the rest, I threw myself into self-study and preparations for projects with LEKS Company and Duo Bilitis. – I think I worked harder than ever during the corona crisis.’

For the rest she kept her head above water thanks to her savings. ‘I’ve never had a permanent job and have never taken it for granted ever being able to earn a steady income. So for years I have been saving with the thought that worse times might lay ahead. It’s always in the back of my mind how at 16 I came to the Netherlands as a refugee. The fact that I am allowed to be on the stage and earn my money with singing and performing is still not a matter of course for me.’

The emergency situation also gave Levental more insight into her own personality: ‘The corona crisis taught me that I don’t want to feel sorry for myself and that in situations like this I naturally enter the survival mode with which I am so familiar from my background. – Which is very beautiful on one side, but really sad on the other. I have realized that by nature I do not assume anyone would want to support me as an “artist”, it astonishes me when colleagues dare make demands. But at the same time I suddenly understood that I can learn from this to look more realistically at the importance of me and my sector in society.’

Has she, like other freelancers in the cultural world, considered looking for a different job? Levental: ‘This question has occupied me all my life. I experience it as a miracle that all these years I have been able to support myself thanks to my performances and even save money from them. In case worst comes to worst, I won’t hesitate to take on a different job: when doors close, I look whether a window might be open. If the need really arises, I will make myself useful for society in other ways. – Without looking back in anger.’

This article appeared in Dutch on Theaterkrant on 24 November 2020.

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We’ll never let you down: tribute to legendary cellist Jacqueline Du Pré

In 1987, British cello legend Jacqueline Du Pré succumbed to multiple sclerosis at the age of 42. Although she hadn’t played any concerts for fifteen years, a wave of sadness washed over the world. In her short career she had accomplished more than many other musicians in their entire life. She played on all the famous stages, was married to Daniel Barenboim and worked with the greatest conductors and orchestras.

Stichting Cellosonate Nederland and OT rotterdam honour her memory with the opera We’ll never let you down. It was premiered online in the Cello Biennale on 28 October, and will tour the Netherlands in the coming months, corona permitting.

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With her swaying long hair and intense playing Jacqueline Du Pré enchanted everyone. According to many, she played ‘as if making love’. In the restricted period she was able to perform, she inspired none other than Prince Charles to take up the cello as well. But even though the world was at her feet, she was no diva. Not only the audience loved her, but also the people behind the scenes.

In 1983, a recording engineer said: ‘Everyone worshipped her: the musicians who played with her, the conductor, but also the recording technicians. She was the ideal artist: she never made demands and always complied with our wishes. – No matter how long it sometimes took to get a microphone right. She is one of the three musicians about whom I have never heard a word of discontent.’

Blazon tainted

This changed in 1997 on the publication of A genius in the family: an intimate memoir of Jacqueline du Pré. In this book Hilary and Piers Du Pré describe their sister’s less beautiful sides and even portray as a manipulative, sexual predator. Jacqueline allegedly claimed Hilary’s husband and shared his bed for a year and a half.

The book caused a lot of controversy, just like the film Hilary and Jackie that appeared in 1998. Brother and sister were accused of jealousy and sensationalism by musicians who had been close to Jackie. Moreover, their book turned out to contain numerous errors. Yet the blazon of the almost sanctified Jacqueline was forever tarnished.

Some two decades later, cellist Doris Hochscheid, baritone Mattijs van de Woerd and pianist Frans van Ruth defend her reputation with the mini opera We’ll never let you down. The Surinamese-Jewish composer René Samson (1948-2019) was recruited for the music but died prematurely after having finished only one act. The opera was completed by the young composers Mathilde Wantenaar and Max Knigge. Doris Hochscheid explains why this opera had to be made and why she asked René Samson to compose the music.

Man and musician

‘I discovered René Samson in the late 1990s, along with pianist Frans van Ruth and violinist Jacobien Rozemond, with whom I then formed a piano trio. At the time hardly anybody knew him as a composer, but his music immediately convinced us because of its uniqueness. After this first acquaintance Frans and I asked him to write a piece for our duo, which became the Cello Sonata. This initiated a flux of many other chamber music pieces.’

‘René was very pleasant to work with. He behaved modestly, but it was evident he had something essential to say. His music always moves me, for in it I not only hear him as a musician, but also as a human being. How he was searching, and trying to relate to the great composers of the past. At the same time he struggled with the demand for renewal, imposed by the modernists. Other living composers experienced this pressure, too, and René sought to find his own way in this issue.’

‘For instance, when we first talked about a theatrical project. He had a line-up in mind of baritone, trombone, harp and cello. When I asked him why he said: “I finally want to break away from those traditional instrumentations.” But once Jacqueline du Pré had been chosen, he came back to me. He considered the combination of only cello and piano better suited to this subject. We joked about this: “Well, shame for the trombone and harp for now, perhaps next time.” Because of his premature death, nothing ever came of this, of course.’

In We’ll never let you down you not only play the cello, but also act. Was that your own wish?

‘In recent years I’ve worked a lot in music theatre productions. I found that very enjoyable, but also really unsatisfactory. The music too often only serves to support the story. Even though the musicians wear nice costumes and sit on stage instead of in the pit, they are ultimately a kind of enhanced props. Yes, they produce sound, but they are not part of the action; actors or singers are hired for that purpose. I always thought: I want to participate myself!’

‘On top of that, I got breast cancer in 2013, and my hectic music practice suddenly came to a standstill. Fortunately, a few months later I was able to return to the stage again, but something had shifted. I realised that not everything I did always inspired me. It was as if a part of me couldn’t really come into its own. I wanted more space – for myself, my body, my emotions, also on stage. I took acting lessons. That was liberating, because acting really felt like playing. I could let my imagination run free and felt as if I had finally “landed” in my own body. Since then I’ve become more selective in my choices and make a lot of music theatre, preferably a bit experimental.’

Was it your idea to make a chamber opera together with René Samson?

No, that came about in consultation. I had received a development budget from the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts. My application contained a number of pilots to investigate whether certain collaborations would succeed. I wanted to make something with René for cello and piano in which I also had text, something theatrical. He wanted to write for singing, and suggested Mattijs van de Woerd, whom I did not yet know. Mattijs in turn mentioned Gerrit Timmers and Mirjam Koen van OT rotterdam. He had previously worked with them at the Reisopera. That turned out to be a golden team, it’s fun every day during rehearsals!

Online shaming and fake news

Gerrit and Mirjam chose to write about Jacqueline Du Pré as a matter of course. They started reading about her and were captivated by her story – all that rubbish her family poured out over her, which later returned in the film. At the time, many friends were already worried about it, as you can read in contemporary interviews. What’s more, it touches on a topical theme. Nowadays people are being ‘shamed’ online, gossip is being spread without their being able to do anything about it. Not to mention fake news, that feeds blatant lies to entire population groups.’

Do you also have a personal connection with Jacqueline Du Pré?

‘I discovered her in the ’80s, when I had just decided to become a cellist, I was still a teenager. I found her playing intense and moving. I loved the fact that she was a woman, because there weren’t that many female cellists back then. And of course she had that enormous charisma. This strongly appealed to me: someone who did exactly what she wanted on stage and visibly enjoyed it. That’s rare.’

‘When the film Hilary and Jackie was released in 1998, I studied with Melissa Phelps. She was guest-lecturing in Amsterdam and had been a student of Jackie herself. They had become friends, and she was horrified by the film. She gave me a different biography about Jackie, written by Elisabeth Wilson. This describes her development as a cellist, it was a fascinating read. I got the feeling that as a cellist she may not have received all the credits she deserves. – Maybe also because she wasn’t always taken seriously in a man’s world, with her long blond hair.’

‘Anyway, I read that she was very serious about her profession and knew exactly what she was doing on the cello and why. It really wasn’t all intuition, she worked very hard! I found that inspiring. Contrary to what people sometimes think, what we do doesn’t just come out of the blue. We work very hard, day in and day out, for years. But this kind of background information is less popular with the public. They want to be “bedazzled”.’

Gerrit Timmers and Mirjam Koen wrote the libretto, in English. How did they go about?

‘They mainly used quotes from friends and biographers. They didn’t want to make up yet another story, it had to stay close to what had already been said. The crux is: how do you behave when someone you love is the subject of gossip, do you intervene or don’t you dare? But also: if someone you are friends with is ill for a long time and dies, you may feel that you haven’t been there enough for them. For me, the opera is also about friendship and what you do to protect your friends. Mattijs and I play two people who were close to Jacqueline and who are shocked by the negative reports.’

In 2019 you played an excerpt from the piece in the presence of René Samson, who died shortly after. What did that mean for you and for the project?

‘This was a mere pilot performance at the time. René’s main concern was to try out what was possible with a cello and whether the idea would work. I’m glad we did it, otherwise this project would never have gotten off. In July 2019 he died of a cardiac arrest after a fall from his bicycle. That was deeply shocking. I remember well the moment we were informed of his passing. We were just celebrating the beginning of the holiday…’

‘Our first thought was that our project could not go ahead. But pretty soon the idea arose to have the music completed by two young composers, one act each. Thus René’s original score could still sound a number of times. We think he would have agreed to this – rather than putting his work in the closet. Mathilde Wantenaar composed the first act, Max Knigge the second; the third and last act was written by René.’

Did you ask them to compose in his style?

‘No, it was our intention for them to remain true to their own style. However, we did ask them to use some of his motifs or themes, to give the listener a little more grip. They have complied with our request brilliantly and subtly. It’s wonderful that none of the three composers shies away from tonality, even though they each deal with it in their own way.’

‘Moreover, they share a strong feeling for theatricality and for the text – again each in their own way. Mathilde really dives deep into the poetry and the meaning of what is being said. Max writes very illustrative and is incredibly virtuoso in interweaving text and music. René’s score beautifully evokes the emotions of the characters.’

Nor does Hochscheid attempt to imitate Du Pré’s playing: ‘That’s not even possible in any way! That said, I don’t specifically emphasize my individuality either, but simply play the way I feel. – Both in speaking and playing the cello. I have, however, tried to identify with her and her sister’s character. And, naturally, with my own character as a friend. I have noticed that impersonating those roles affects my cello playing. I hadn’t expected this interaction, but I think it’s fantastic!’

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Seung-Won Oh writes Bosch Requiem YeonDo: Korean death ritual in western guise

Last year the Greek-Dutch Calliope Tsoupaki composed the Bosch Requiem. This year, the Korean-Dutch Seung-Won Oh was asked to compose this traditional kick-off of November Music. Just as Tsoupaki draws inspiration from the musical traditions of her homeland, Oh harks back to her Korean roots. The title YeonDo refers to a death ritual with which Catholic Koreans bid farewell to their loved ones. The piece will have its premiere on 6 November at the Jheronimus Bosch Art Center in ‘s Hertogenbosch.

The literal translation of YeonDo is ‘Purgatory Prayer’, I learn from Seung-Won Oh a few days before its world premiere. ‘It is a group chant for the dead, whose souls are still awaiting their transfer to heaven. The text consists of Psalms and the Litany of the Saints, which is sung to Korean rhythms and tones.’ In her new piece Oh combines these with elements from the Latin Requiem Mass, once more building a bridge between East and West. 

Western-oriented

The fact that Oh (1969) seeks inspiration in the music and customs of her country of birth is less self-evident than it seems. Born in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, she grew up in a strongly western-oriented society. Like her famous predecessor Isang Yun (1917-1995), she initially composed in a western-modernist idiom.

This was developed after the Second World War during the famous/ infamous Summer courses for new music in Darmstadt. Revolutionaries such as Stockhausen and Boulez banned triads and recognizable rhythms. The so-called ‘serialism’ was henceforth considered the nec plus ultra of composing. Those who wanted to count in the new music did not escape the dictates of this composition method that entailed many inhibitions. – Whether you lived in Asia, Europe or America.

Oh studied at Ewha Womans University and continued her studies in the United States in 1996. ‘Not until I came to the Netherlands five years later to take lessons with Louis Andriessen I began to relate to my cultural background’, she says. ‘That was purely because people enquired about. I didn’t grow up with Korean music, but was educated in a completely western way.’

Catholic Korea

Once she dived into traditional Korean music, this proved to be an enriching experience. ‘It was pleasant and even comforting to look for my roots. I found I could use a lot of things in my contemporary music, though I didn’t consciously strive to bring East and West together. Nowadays this happens naturally, because I have internalised that culture.’

YeonDo relates to a Catholic Korean death ritual. But, wait a sec, Catholics in Korea? ‘Certainly’, says Oh. ‘Korea counts more Christians than Buddhists. Catholicism was introduced in the eighteenth century during the mighty Josean dynasty. It adhered to neo-Confucianism, including its strict caste system. The Christian conviction that every human being is equal before God was therefore a great threat.’ Despite attempts to eradicate the newly introduced faith, Catholicism persisted. South Korea today has 11% Catholics, the largest percentage in an Asian country.

Korean death ritual

Oh was born a Catholic herself, and is still practising. ‘In my childhood, I sang YeonDo at the annual ceremonies with which my family commemorated our ancestors. The singing is intended for the dead and their relatives. As soon as someone dies, the churchgoers gather in the house of the deceased. They stay with the family to help them through the difficult time.’

This farewell ritual lasts about three days. ‘It starts on the day of death and continues until the funeral. During this period people walk in and out and sing YeonDo, hoping that the deceased will go to heaven as soon as possible. As mentioned before, the texts are taken from the Psalms and the Litany of the Saints. Sung in Korean, that is.’

Latin Requiem Mass

The Latin Requiem Mass is named after the opening sentence: ‘Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine’, give them eternal rest, Lord. Oh: ‘I must confess that I only know the Requiem as a musical phenomenon, I have never experienced one myself. The liturgical text does appeal to me, though.’ She does not have a favourite Requiem. Nor has she listened to Requiems composed by predecessors such as Calliope Tsoupaki, Kate Moore and Anthony Fiumara for November Music. ‘I deliberately avoided that, for I did not want to be influenced.’

YeonDo was set for the New European Ensemble, the choir Cappella Pratensis and the alto Helena Rasker. There are three parts of about 20 minutes each. Do not expect swirling polyphonic passages in which choir, ensemble and soloist compete for attention. Rather, the various entities are used alternately, in a kind of call-and-response game that emphasises the ritual atmosphere. This is reinforced by a four-piece percussion ensemble that plays almost continuously.

Ritual

Visitors are led into the hall to the sound of slow blows on a jing, a large Korean gong. After this introduction, the New European Ensemble gives an instrumental interpretation of a Korean prayer, in unison and in reciting style; the Korean symbols are placed under their notes. Cappella Pratensis then sings the well-known ‘De profundus’ from Psalm 129.

The alto concludes this first movement with a prayer, together with the ensemble and the percussion quartet. Oh: ‘She begs God for mercy with a number of verses from the Requiem, sung in the Korean language. “Give them eternal rest, oh Lord, and let the eternal light illuminate them, Amen.” As the soloist, she represents the voice of us all.’

The percussion quartet takes us through the composition somewhat like a priest. ‘This symbolises the funeral procession’, declares Oh. Only at two moments in the middle section do the percussionists remain silent. Then the choir sings a cappella ‘Deus Deus Meus’ from Psalm 62 and ‘Averte faciam tuam’ from Psalm 50. Only in the third and last movement soloist, choir and ensemble come together, in ‘Ascension’ and ‘Lux Aeterna’.

In this part the audience is invited to participate itself. Halfway through, they are asked to rattle little bells along with the percussionists. Oh: ‘This is a moment of consolation for the dead souls.’ Participating yourself strengthens the sacred atmosphere and increases the listener’s involvement, who can commemorate his or her own loved ones. For the many who weren’t able to purchase a ticket due to the corona-measures, there’s a live stream.

YeonDo concludes with a fourth prayer and an epilogue, performed by the percussion quartet and the ensemble. Oh: ‘Here the music culminates in a sea of sounds that represent how the spirits ascend freely to heaven.’

Update 3 November: the Dutch goverment banned all concerts until November 18. Rather than revert to live streaming November Music has cancelled the entire festival.

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Oudemuziekpionier Marijke Ferguson: Een leven lang oren op steeltjes

In november 2016 werd oudemuziekpionier Marijke Ferguson 89 jaar. Ze leidde dertig jaar het avontuurlijke ensemble Studio Laren en maakt al meer dan 50 jaar radio, eerst voor Radio 4 en daarna als vrijwilliger voor de Concertzender. Zondag 11 december wordt ze door dit radiostation geëerd met een publiek toegankelijke live opname van haar programma in de Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam.

Ik sprak Marijke Ferguson in 1995 uitgebreid over haar pionierswerk voor mijn doctoraalscriptie muziekwetenschap.

Marijke Ferguson in de stuvio van de Concertzender, 2013

Blokfluit is toch geen instrument?’

Ferguson (Buitenzorg, 1927) groeit op in Indonesië, waar ze pianoles krijgt van haar moeder. Tijdens de oorlog belandt ze in een jappenkamp, waar ze de suling leert bespelen, een Indonesische fluit. ‘Ik had mijn hart verpand aan dat instrument. Toen ik na de oorlog in Nederland kwam, besloot ik les te nemen op de blokfluit. Dat kon in die tijd alleen bij Kees Otten, die klarineles gaf aan het Muzieklyceum in Amsterdam. Toen ik me bij hem wilde inschrijven weigerde de administratrice me in eerste instantie aan te nemen. Blokfluit was toch geen instrument? Ik kon beter hobo leren spelen.’ – Ferguson krijgt haar lessen en zal later dertig jaar hoofdvakdocent blokfluit aan het conservatorium verbonden zijn.

‘Door de oorlog heb ik geen middelbare school gedaan, maar voor de blokfluit en later de kleine harp heb ik wel een grondige opleiding gevolgd. Ik deed ook cursussen bij Gustav Leonhardt, bijvoorbeeld over versieringstechnieken. Door mijn werk voor de radio en het denken en schrijven over muziek kreeg ik veel musicologisch werk te doen, hoewel ik daarvoor  niet was opgeleid. Dat is me door professionele musicologen wel verweten.’

Kees Otten speelde op authentieke instrumenten. ‘Daarom raakte ik er zo door geboeid. We streefden ernaar de blokfluit professioneel geaccepteerd te krijgen. Kees had les gehad van zijn oom Willem van Warmerloo, die een blokfluitmethode schreef welke ik nog steeds bewonder. Hij baseerde zich op oude en zelfs etnische melodieën, dat was vlak na de oorlog ontzettend vooruitstrevend. Er heerste een gunstig klimaat voor oude muziek en wij droegen daar weer het onze aan bij. Het was fantastisch alles te ontdekken. Rutger Schouten van de VARA programmeerde bijvoorbeeld Jephte van Carissimi, dat sloeg in als een bom!’

Amsterdams Blokfluit Ensemble met piepjonge Frans Brüggen

Hun repertoire halen ze uit een drietal in Duitsland verschenen bundels. Samen met Frans Douwes en Frans Brüggen richten ze eind jaren veertig het Amsterdams Blokfluit Ensemble op. Brüggen is een leerling van Otten en zit nog op de middelbare school. ‘We waren het eerste blokfluitkwartet in Nederland en gaven schoolconcerten door het hele land. Als Frans niet kon, speelden we trio, het ging ons om de gesloten blokfluitklank.’

‘Omdat we vonden dat een instrument alleen gezond en levend wordt als het ook in de eigen tijd geworteld is, voerden we naast werk van bijvoorbeeld Lassus, Dowland of Gastoldi ook eigentijdse muziek uit. We gaven opdrachten en volgden gretig de concerten die Daniël Ruyneman in het Stedelijk Museum programmeerde. Bovendien ijverden we voor betaalbare uitgaven van hedendaagse blokfluitliteratuur. We voerden tot op het departement gesprekken om de blokfluit als hoofdvak geaccepteerd te krijgen. En het is ons gelukt!’

Muziekkring Obrecht

Als in 1951 Safford Cape met zijn ensemble voor oude muziek naar het Concertgebouw in Amsterdam komt, slaat er een vonk over bij Ferguson. ‘Ze werkten met zang, luit, vedels en blokfluiten en speelden zo prachtig Dufay en Machaut, dat konden wij met onze blokfluiten nooit benaderen. In de pauze verzuchtte ik tegen Rachel Mengelberg dat als ik een klein harpje kon bemachtigen wij ook zulke muziek konden gaan maken. Toevallig wist zij dat er net een kopie gemaakt was van een harp in het Gemeentemuseum van Den Haag. Die heb ik de volgende dag gekocht.’

marijke-ferguson-op-harp-jong
Marijke Fergsuon (c) Concertzender

Samen met Kees Otten, met wie ze inmiddels getrouwd is, richt ze Muziekkring Obrecht op, die zich uitsluitend richt op oude muziek: ‘Met dat ensemble voelden we niet de behoefte nieuw werk te spelen, het ging ons om het uitvoeren van die oude composities. We waren met drie echtparen. Joannes Collette speelde naast blokfluit vedel en luit. Zijn vrouw Folly zong. Hans van den Hombergh deed koordirectie, zijn vrouw Antoinette speelde vedel. Soms deden er zangers mee van het Nederlands Kamerkoor. Zo hebben we tien jaar gewerkt en buitengewoon veel repertoire opgespoord.’ In 1961, als het huwelijk van Kees en Marijke strandt, wordt de groep ontbonden.

Ferguson verhuist met haar twee kinderen naar Laren, waar ze ‘een soort kippenhok’ betrekt en les geeft aan de Montessorischool. ‘Ik moest geld verdienen en economisch gebonden raken aan Laren, zodat ik een fatsoenlijk huis zou kunnen krijgen.’ Daarnaast geeft ze les aan het Sweelinck Conservatorium in Amsterdam en het instituut Middeloo in Amersfoort. Ze besluit onder haar meisjesnaam verder te gaan in de muziek.

Studio Laren

Al snel wordt ze door Ab van Eyk van de NCRV gevraagd muziek te maken bij hoorspelen. ‘Cultuurhistoricus G.C. Rijnsdorp ontwierp een serie over de ontwikkeling van de mentaliteitsgeschiedenis van de oude Grieken tot de Verlichting, onder de titel Adam, wie zijt gij?. Hij had het vooruitstrevende idee daar muziek uit de betreffende periodes bij te laten horen. Hij kwam met teksten en ik zocht daar stukken bij. Daardoor groeide mijn besef dat er een relatie is tussen alle cultuuruitingen van een bepaalde periode. Ik besloot een ensemble op te richten, waarin de combinatie van die verschillende aspecten centraal zou staan. Dat werd Studio Laren.’

De eerste productie van Studio Laren In het kantelen van de tijd gaat op 21 maart 1965 in première op de Zingende Zolder in Den Haag. Hierin zet Ferguson de renaissance centraal. Ze maakt een ‘samenspel’ van tekst, beeld en muziek. Vier spreekstemmen brengen fragmenten proza en poëzie afkomstig van onder anderen Petrarca, Savonarola, Luther en Erasmus. Ondertussen worden filmbeelden getoond en dia’s geprojecteerd met werk van Michelangelo. Ook is er een geluidsmontage. Het geheel wordt gelardeerd met live uitgevoerde muziek van Josquin, Tromboncino en anonieme meesters.

img_20161128_125711
Driedubbel-cd met retrospectief van Studio Laren, 2000

Het publiek komt in groten getale en reageert laaiend enthousiast – de reacties in de pers variëren van uiterst positief tot welwillend kritisch. Een vaker gehoorde klacht is dat de kwaliteit van de uitvoering te wensen overlaat. Ferguson: ‘Dat probleem ben ik mijn hele loopbaan tegengekomen. Als je steeds nieuwe dingen bedenkt, moet je telkens opnieuw het wiel uitvinden. Zing je Schubert, dan trek je een smoking of een mooie jurk aan, gaat in de bocht van de vleugel staan en zingt je lied zo goed mogelijk, die presentatievorm is door de jaren heen geconsolideerd.’

Nieuwe uitdagingen

‘Wij zaten altijd met de vraag: hoe brengen we iets? Ik was bijvoorbeeld de eerste die in de Noorderkerk in Amsterdam een concert gaf. Een ronde kerk. Ik had drie voorstellingen gepland, waar het publiek in etappes naar toe kon. Dat had nog nooit iemand gedaan, nu is dat heel gewoon. Ik wilde het publiek verwelkomen met fanfares van Josquin, de musici zouden al spelend de mensen naar hun plaatsen begeleiden. Het was al moeilijk genoeg musici te vinden die deze muziek konden uitvoeren, maar het meevoeren van het publiek bleek nog problematischer. De pers ziet alleen die eerste uitvoering, terwijl de tweede en derde veel beter zijn.’

De voor de hand liggende optie zich op een bepaalde vorm te concentreren en deze tot in de perfectie uit te werken, heeft haar nooit aangesproken. ‘Het ligt nu een keer in mijn karakter steeds nieuwe dingen te willen doen. Ik ben geïnteresseerd in het experiment, het onderzoek. Trouwens, het muziekmaken zelf heb ik wel degelijk uitgewerkt, alleen de presentatie was niet altijd even sterk, dat was telkens weer een ontdekkingsreis.’

Publieksdeelname

Wat Ferguson ook uitbouwde waren de danscursussen in het Shaffy theater. ‘Mijn grondgedachte bij alles is dat je leert door te doen. Alleen zo krijg je antwoorden op vragen die je onderweg tegenkomt. Ik bladerde eens in een winkel door een boekje van musicologe Julia Sutton over oude dansvormen toen Conrad van de Wetering, een danser, binnenkwam. Hij vertelde dat hij haar geholpen had met het begrijpen van de beschreven passen. Ik zei: dan ben jij mijn man! Een maand later hadden we een cursus in het Shaffy. Dat hebben we vier jaar, elke maandagavond gedaan. Daarna is het door anderen overgenomen.’

marijke_ferguson-harp-oud
Marijke Ferguson (c) Concertzender

Over belangstelling van het publiek heeft ze nooit te klagen gehad. Haar radioprogramma’s, eerst Het muzikaal kabinet bij de NCRV, later Muziek uit middeleeuwen en renaissance bij de NOS, waren enorm populair en boden haar tevens de mogelijkheid publiek te werven voor haar uitvoeringen. Hoe goed haar uitzendingen beluisterd en gewaardeerd werden, bleek toen ze een oproep deed aan haar luisteraars om in Hilversum te komen musiceren.

‘Op mijn zoektochten kwam ik veel repertoire tegen voor grotere bezettingen, bijvoorbeeld voor dubbelkorige muziek uit de tijd van Praetorius. Die kon ik nooit (laten) horen omdat er alleen kleine ensembles voor oude muziek bestonden. We werden overstelpt met aanmeldingen! Met Edu Verhulst, de verantwoordelijke man van de NOS, heb ik toen besloten een samenspeeldag te organiseren. We selecteerden 185 mensen, van acht tot tachtig en van amateur tot professioneel. Het was een daverend succes!’

Nieuwe initiatieven worden gemeengoed

Hoewel Ferguson tot op de dag van vandaag een groot en trouw eigen publiek heeft, is zij in de muziekwereld nooit helemaal geaccepteerd. Vooral onder musicologen heerste veel na-ijver over haar radioprogramma’s. ‘Zij vonden dat een programma over oude muziek door een geschoolde musicoloog gemaakt moest worden. Gelukkig stond Edu Verhulst altijd pal achter mij.’

Ook het zoeken naar steeds nieuwe uitdrukkingsvormen blijkt meer nadelen te hebben dan een soms wat sceptische pers. Subsidiegevers weten niet altijd wat ze met Studio Laren aan moeten en geven schoorvoetend geld. Een ander nadeel is, dat wat Ferguson met vallen en opstaan ontwikkelt, een paar jaar later door een ander als ‘nieuw’ gebracht wordt en door pers en muziekwereld bejubeld wordt.

Thea Derks + Marijke Ferguson tijdens Festival Oude Muziek 2014
Thea Derks + Marijke Ferguson tijdens Festival Oude Muziek 2014

Naast de danscursussen oude muziek geldt dit ook voor de verhalenkelder Brandaan, die Ferguson in 1988 opzette. Een acteur of actrice vertelt verhalen uit een bepaalde periode terwijl de luisteraars worden vergast op spijs en drank uit diezelfde tijd. Inmiddels is dit een populair fenomeen, maar Ferguson moest destijds knokken voor subsidie. Geprikkeld constateerde ze in 1995 dat Stad Amsterdam haar uiteindelijk weliswaar ondersteunde, maar om de verkeerde reden. ‘Hun begrip van een literaire avond reikt niet verder dan het voorlezen van eigen werk door een auteur, ze geven een locatiesubsidie omdat ik hier met Studio Laren repeteer.’

Inmiddels is zowel Studio Laren als Verhalenkelder Brandaan ter ziele, maar Ferguson presenteert nog wekelijks het Radio Muziek-essay op de Concertzender en maakt eens per maand het programma Antiqua versus Nova.

Op haar 89e heeft Marijke Ferguson nog altijd oren op steeltjes en blijft ze ons prikkelen met bijzondere muziek en onverwachte dwarsverbanden.

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