George Benjamin: ‘I appreciate detail and spontaneous incursion’

Just out: ‘Een os op het dak: moderne muzizek na 1900 in vogelvlucht’. Despite VAT increase still available for € 14,95.

Amsterdam School of Architecture: Museum Het Schip (photo from own website)

In 2015 George Benjamin, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, female singers of the Dutch Chamber Choir and countertenor Bejun Mehta brought the world premiere of Dream of the Song. On 17 and 18 January this highly successful song cycle sounds again. Now it forms part of a programme around the idealistic architecture that was initiated in 1919 by Gaudí in Spain and the Amsterdam School in the Netherlands. Benjamin was kind enough to answer some questions.

What, to you, is the relationship between architecture and music – if any?

In essence, they could not be more different. Architecture works with physical materials within space, while in music intangible sound passes through time. Yet architecture is often used as a metaphor for music. And indeed, musical structures need foundations – deep rhythmic and harmonic underpinning – to function; some modern music requires something akin to scaffolding in order to be realized. If you look at it on a formal scale, the proportions in music are not far removed from those of architecture. So there are many analogies, but also vast differences.

How important is architecture in your own work? Do the structures arise intuitively or do you make a design in advance that you ‘fill in’ with notes?

For me, architecture is essential. Indeed, even the most beautiful musical invention is worthless if it is presented within a flawed global structure. I will never simply design prefabricated structures and ‘fill up’ them with music. This is an idea contrary to my nature, although several composers I highly respect have worked along these lines. The crucial concern here is what precisely the pre-designed model involves, and with what attitude (and liberty) it is applied.

Personally I appreciate too much the potential of detail, the spontaneity of invention and the element of surprise to let myself be imprisoned within too rigid a frame. Equally, I don’t simply grope my way forward into a piece, merely improvising from moment to moment. I need a fairly detailed conception of the nature of a composition – above all on a technical level – before I can actually start composing. Perhaps a good analogy to my own personal procedure is this: I invent a musical ‘organism’ without having accurately defined far in advance how it will behave.

A hundred years ago, both the Catalan Antoni Gaudí and the architects of the Amsterdam School developed a new architecture with the aim of providing workers with better living conditions. What do you think of their architecture?

I admire both schools for their eccentricity and exceptional individuality. In Gaudí’s work I’m also touched by the way the study of nature has tangibly influenced and inspired his work. When I was in Amsterdam last summer for my opera Lessons in Love & Violence, I was taken to Museum Het Schip, dedicated to the Amsterdam School. I was very charmed by the building’s sense of fantasy, both in detail and in the overall scale. Especially the brickwork exudes a capricious sense of delight, humour and charm. – Characteristics that I would not necessarily expect from a twentieth-century building with such utopian social ambitions.

Oliver Harrison designed images to be shown along with ‘Dream of the Song’. Are they related to Gaudí and/or the Amsterdam School?

No, the visuals around the Amsterdam School are tailored to Christiaan Richter’s new composition, Wendingen. Oliver Harrison’s work is related to my own piece and is in a different direction altogether. Harrison plays with calligraphy in highly imaginative and playful ways. He deconstructs and multiplies individual letters, exploiting them as mere particles and regrouping them in ways that evoke figurative images in a semi-abstract way. This relates in particular to the first song in my score, ‘The Pen’, which is about calligraphy.

What do you expect from the interaction between the images and the music?

It simply depends on how it is done. Music that sounds simultaneously with song, dance and play has achieved universal acclaim over centuries, so why not music with animation? It remains such a fresh and fascinating art form – as it happens my passion for classical music was triggered when I saw the film Fantasia as a young child.

In Dream of the Song the animation functions as a frame. The visuals only appear in the interstices between movements, announcing the titles of the individual songs with a flourish of intricate calligraphy. Except for one single moment, the images never coincide with the singing. So hopefully they will not detract from the rapport between our great soloist Bejun Mehta and the audience.

On Friday 18 January I’ll give a pre concert talk from 7.15-7.50 pm, in which I’ll also speak with Christiaan Richter, whose commissioned piece ‘Wendingen’ will be premiered, and to Blai Soler, whose ‘Sol’ will be performed in Holland for the first time. Info and tickets via this link.

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Early work of Galina Ustvolskaya in Concertgebouw: no ‘lady with the hammer’

Galina Ustvolskaya (c) Leendert Jansen

On Saturday 12 January Vasily Petrenko conducts the Dutch Radio Philharnonic Orchestra in three works by Brahms, Shostakovich and Ustvolskaya as part of the NTRZaterdagMatinee series in Concertgebouw Amsterdam. Despite their very different backgrounds, there are some similarities. The two Russian composers suffered under the repressive regime of the communists, the German Brahms was accused of writing old-fashioned music that lacked Beethoven’s ‘social-forming’ power.

‘Lady with the hammer’

Galina Ustvolskaya was dubbed ‘the lady with the hammer’ because of her relentless style, but she did not always compose drastic music that excels in extremes. Under the wings of Dmitri Shostakovich she first trod more traditional paths as a composer. She destroyed most of her early works, but spared the symphonic poem The Dream of Stepan Razin for baritone and orchestra that will get a rare performance in NTRZaterdagMatinee.

Ustvolskaya was born in Petrograd in 1919, two years after the Russian Revolution. In the same year Dmitri Shostakovich started studying piano and composition there. Ustvolskaya would remain in the city all her life, which was renamed Leningrad in 1924 in memory of the hero of the revolution and only regained its original name St. Petersburg in 1992.

Just like Shostakovich, she was confronted with an increasingly strict and repressive Soviet regime. Nevertheless – or precisely because of this – Ustvolskaya developed into one of the most elusive and idiosyncratic composers of our time. She studied composition at the Leningrad Conservatoire, being the only female student admitted to Shostakovich’s composition class in 1939.

He soon recognised her exceptional qualities and predicted her ‘worldwide recognition of everyone who is concerned with truthfulness in music’. Bravely he defended her music in the Composers’ Union, and it is rumoured he even proposed marriage to her. He asked her to review his own scores and incorporated one of her themes in his Fifth String Quartet and the Michelangelo Suite.


Shostakovich courteously wrote to her: ‘You are not influenced by me, it is rather the other way round.’ It is all the more distressing to read how fiercely Ustvolskaya later rejected her mentor and former friend. In a letter to her publishers she wrote: ‘Then, just like now, I resolutely rejected his music. (….) One thing is certain: a seemingly eminent figure like Shostakovich is not at all eminent to me; on the contrary, he burdened my life and killed my best feelings.

In any case, just like Shostakovich, Ustvolskaya was accused of writing ‘formalist’ music. In order to earn a living she composed film scores and ‘music for the people’. This resulted in a number of works in the prescribed ‘social-realistic’ style, which she later withdrew. An exception is The Dream of Stepan Razin, which she composed in 1949 on a text from Russian folk poetry. This is an ode to the Cossack leader Stenka Razin (1630-1671) who rebelled against the Russian landed gentry that exploited and repressed the common people.

‘Truly national art’

This early work is full of lyrical melodies, heroic fanfares and rousing Cossack rhythms. To top it off there’s a soaring solo part sung by a baritone, who gives a lively description of how Stepan Razin envisions his impending execution. The apparatchiks were so pleased that the piece was chosen for the opening of the new season of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra in 1949.

Tichon Chrennikov, secretary of the Composers’ Union, even recommended The Dream of Stepan Razin to other composers, as ‘an ideal example of a truly national art’. The composition was even nominated for a Stalin Prize. The hyper-romantic music is a far cry from the radicalism of Ustvolskaya’s later compositions. Thus it fits well with Brahms’s First Symphony and Shostakovich’s Second Violin Concerto that are also on the programme. The concert is broadcast live on Radio4.

NTR ZaterdagMatinee, 12 January 2 pm Concertgebouw Amsterdam
Radio Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasili Petrenko; Alina Ibragimova, violin; Anatoli Sivko, baritone
Ustvolskaya (1919-2006): The Dream of Stepan Razin (1949)
Shostakovich (1906-1975): Violin concert no. 2 in c-sharp minor op.129 (1967)
Brahms (1833-1897): Symphony no. 1 in c minor op.68 (1876)
More info and tickets via this link
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Rozalie Hirs: ‘A song is no longer poetry, it is music’

Just out: Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht:
Rozalie Hirs (1965) is multi-talented. She has made a name for herself as a poet and as a composer. For her cycle Dreams of Airs she wrote the poems as well as the instrumental and electronic music. It is inspired by the physical phenomenon of binaural beating: when your left and right ears are offered two almost identical tones, your brain creates a third (phantom) tone that consists of the difference in frequency between the two. This creates an ultra-low tone, which can evoke different moods. Dreams of Airs was premiered in November Music in 2018, and will be again performed in TivoliVredenburg on Sunday 6 January.

Hirs was born in Gouda and studied chemistry at the University of Twente and composition at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, with a.o. Louis Andriessen. In New York she continued her studies with the French spectralist Tristan Murail at Columbia University. In 2007 she obtained the ‘Doctor of Musical Arts’ title there with her dissertation on spectral composition techniques and the composition Platonic ID.

She published six collections of poems, verses from which were included in several anthologies of best Dutch poetry. She also write in English and German, and in 2017 her multilingual collection gestammelte werke appeared at the German publisher KOOKbooks. Her poetry and music are both lyrical and experimental. She often combines traditional instruments with electronic sounds and collaborates with visual artists and graphic designers.

Though Hirs regularly recites her own poems, whether or not embedded in music, Dreams of Airs is her first full-length poetry/music cycle. The title has an ambiguous meaning. “When Irish people pronounce my surname, it sounds like ‘airs’, so it’s about ‘dreams of Hirs’. On the other hand ‘air’ is the English word for song or melody, so at the same time it concerns ‘dreams of melodies’. This refers to the memory of melodies, of which only the text and the rhythm remain. For me, a song is no longer poetry, it has become music because of the composer’s interpretation. With spoken language you stay closer to the original poetry. You show the rhythm of language, which has not yet become singing.

This time Hirs does not speak her verses herself, they are recited by Nora Fischer. “In the thirty years that I have been reciting poetry, I have developed my own speech melody. It has taken me years to translate my typical intonation and speech rhythm into a notation, so that my piece can be performed even when I am no longer around. The funny thing is that at the premiere my mother had the feeling  I was on stage myself, so the notation has truly captured the essence of my voice.”

The speech melody, the rhythm and the intonation are all fully composed. “But because I didn’t want to force Nora to imitate my voice, I indicate the pitcheswith crosses. It sounds natural and simple, but at the same time it is very specific, because I have my own conception of tonality. All tones are connected to each other and are always present to a greater or lesser extent, only the centres of gravity shift. Nora must stay true to the overall form – the Gestalt – but may transpose it to her own root tone. The dreaming from the title refers not only to the meditative, contemplative way in which the poems are expressed, but also to their content and the way they are treated musically.

Most of the texts are in Dutch, but there are also German and English verses. “The libretto begins with an emerging day and ends with an apotheosis, a philosophical reflection on love, based on an idea of Erasmus. I see Dreams of Airs as a Manifesto for Europe, for expressing oneself in different languages is a first step in communication. It is humanistic and idealistic, it is about the freedom of imagination, about inner seeing and hearing. I look at it from the individual’s perspective. You can reach out to another person by speaking their language. This includes not only the melody and the meaning, but also the sound itself. – Speaking that is, not singing.

The binaural beatings function as sound spaces that bring the listener into a certain state of mind. The left and right loudspeakers have slightly different tones. If there are also differences in timing, you get a spatial sound. In my piece, both an electronic spatiality and a feeling of pulse are created. To enhance the latter effect I insert extra electronic pulses. My intention is that as soon as your brain creates such a binaural beating, this frequency evokes states of mind such as meditation, alertness, creativity, dreams or flow.

The cycle has seven movements, in which only a few times the full ensemble plays. “I built the piece from the fifth movement, Infinity Stairs, a trio for flute, bass clarinet and electric guitar. That’s the only movement in which the voice doesn’t participate, so the listener gets some rest. This trio is about ascending and descending, just like the infinite ascending and descending steps in the famous etching of Maurits Escher. I have tried to translate this optical illusion into an auditory illusion – tones you think you hear but that don’t actually sound.

The other movements were shaped around this. “It opens with bird twittering, a solo flute and solo voice, in the second movement the voice comes together with a number of instruments. The third is a tutti about an encounter with death, it is an ode to life. The fourth movement is for solo voice and describes the physical desire. Part six is about the sea, and the concluding poem is a hymn to love, in which all instruments come together with the voice. In essence, Dreams of Airs is one big daydream about imagination, how language arises, while speaking and dreaming.”

6 January 2019, 8 pm: Rozalie Hirs Dreams of Airs, TivoliVredenburg Spectra Enaemble & Nora Fischer / Filip Rathé; visuals by Boris Tellegen and  Geert Jan Mulder. I’ll moderate an interactive talk with Hirs after the concert.

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Petra Stump-Linshalm advocates contrabass clarinet on ‘Fantasy Studies’

Just out: Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht:

The bass clarinet is no longer the odd one out as a solo instrument. The Dutch pioneer Harry Sparnaay convinced many a composer of its versatility, immense variation of colours and expression. The merits of the contrabass clarinet, however, are a completely different matter. On her cd Fantasy Studies the Austrian clarinettist and composer Petra Stump-Linshalm puts it in the limelight in her cycle Uisge Beatha – A Guide to Flavours.

From the first prototype developed at the beginning of the 19th century the contrabass clarinet didn’t find its final form until the turn of the 20th century. In 1909 Schoenberg put its dark, resonant sound to good use in his Five Orchestral Pieces, discarding the contrabass clarinet however in the revised version he made forty years later. Messiaen used the instrument in his opera St. François and his orchestral piece Eclairs sur l’Au-Delà, Varèse employed it in his ground breaking Amériques.

Thus the contrabass clarinet was mainly used to add extra colour and poignancy to the overall texture. The only famous solo performer is the jazz musician Anthony Braxton, and contemporary composers such as Franco Donatoni, Gérard Grisey and Gerard Brophy wrote solo works for it. Stump-Linshalm seems to challenge both composers and performers worldwide by opening her cd with a cycle of eight studies entirely dedicated to the contrabass clarinet, performed by her husband Heinz-Peter Linshalm.

Uisge Beatha is the Irish word for whiskey, meaning ‘water of life’. In the cd-booklet Stump-Linshalm explains that in her piece ‘different whiskey aromas are described in sounds, and the taste experience of liquid gold is transformed into a listening experience. I recommend enjoying an appropriately selected whiskey with each movement!’ –  Since eight glasses of alcohol might somewhat hamper an impartial opinion, I decided to listen to the music with a clear head.

Stump-Linshalm takes her time and only gradually unveils the possibilities of the contrabass clarinet. In the first movements of Uisge Beatha we hear long held notes, soft murmurings and breathy pulsating sounds in the lowest registers, creating a meditative atmosphere. The music becomes more lively when small flourishes and burgeoning melodies are interspersed with the odd shriek in the highest registers. Almost unnoticed Stump-Linshalm moves forward into bolder territory, rattling the keys and firing loud slaps that sound like gunshots.

In Peat Monster, the final and longest movement, darkly grumbling sounds and hoarse whisperings vie with tormented outcries, ominous harmonics, percussive hootings and hesitant melodies that are roughly broken off before coming to bloom. The music becomes more and more lively and varied, and the textures grow so complex we seem to be hearing at least two instruments at once. Is Linshalm using circular breathing here, is he playing along with a pre-recorded tape?

The cd also features music for other instruments, ending with the cycle Fantasy Studies after which it is named. This is scored for flute (piccolo and alto flute), clarinet (E-flat and bass clarinet), soprano saxophone and spring drum, recorder (soprano, tenor, bass recorder), triangle, and violoncello. In seven movements the studies become ever more rhythmical, with elaborate lines developing into intricate, virtuoso patterns, though the music never loses its transparency.

All the works are excellently performed. It is the cycle for contrabass clarinet however that lingers longest in one’s mind. Stump-Linshalm proves to be a strong and convincing advocate of this somewhat disregarded instrument. Surely this cd will help other clarinettists to discover its many qualities. The cd appeared on Orlando Records and can be ordered here.

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Why it is good that Nederlandse Reisopera tours with Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt

Die tote Stadt (c) Marco Borggreve

In 1920 Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) triumphed with his psychological opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City). At the time the work was performed in more than eighty cities, and the reviews were unanimously positive. The opera then disappeared from the stage for a long time, but is nowadays sporadically performed again. So it’s good that the Dutch Reisopera is bringing this almost forgotten piece back on stage. I wonder why we have ignored this flamboyant score full of scorching notes for so long.

For a long time we knew Korngold mainly as a composer of film music. He won Oscars with his scores for Robin Hood and Anthony Adverse, but his orchestral works were dismissed as kitsch. Over the last decade, however, his music has been rediscovered and he has received the appreciation he lacked for so long. His Violin Concerto in particular is frequently performed, almost to the point of being annoying. Beautiful piece, but there is danger in excess.

Mahler’s blessing

At the beginning of the previous century Erich Wolfgang Korngold was the acclaimed heir of Mozart, to whom he owes one of his first names. Just like his predecessor, he was strongly promoted by his father. Rumour even had it that his genius music was written by others. Born in 1897 in Brno, the capital of Moravia, he initially had everything going for him. His parents descended fom a Viennese family of wealthy wine merchants, and his father Julius was one of the most powerful music critics of his time.

Although Julius had studied with Anton Bruckner, he had not become a composer. – Perhaps that is why he so fervently promoted the talent of his son, who composed his first pieces at the age of six. With unceasing zeal daddy brought these to the attention of his many illustrious friends. When Erich Wolfgang played his cantata Gold to Gustav Mahler at the age of nine(!), this sparked his enthusiasm. Mahler called the precocious youngster a ‘genius’ and advised his father not to send him to the conservatory, but to the influential Alexander von Zemlinsky. Soon after, Korngold’s compositions were widely performed and published by the prestigious publishing house Universal.

From child prodigy to ‘kitsch composer’

The star of Korngold continued to rise uncessantly. At the age of nineteen he drew the attention with two one-acters, Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta, staged in Munich and Vienna. But Korngold experienced his greatest triumph with Die tote Stadt, which he completed in 1920. The sizzling, late-Romantic score took the world by storm. Within a short period of time the opera was performed in in over eighty cities, including New York.

Critics wrote rave reviews. One of them noted: ‘The music flows so powerfully from the text that it determines the meaning of the work and makes it one of the most important operas written over a long period of time.’ But the times, they were a-changing. Gradually Korngold’s late-romanticism was eclipsed by Arnold Schönberg’s twelve-tone music and the ‘Gebrauchsmusik’ of Hindemith and Weill.

There were also major social upheavals. In 1934 the Jewish Korngold left for America, where he began a new career as a film composer. After the war his independent orchestral works were dismissed as ‘filmic kitsch’; in 1957 he died disillusioned in Hollywood. Unfortunately, he has not been able to witness the renewed interest in his Violin Concerto and the opera Die tote Stadt.

Together with his father Korngold wrote the libretto of Die tote Stadt, which takes place in Bruges. This city breathes a deadly atmosphere ‘because of its grey buildings, quiet waters and sombre churches’, Korngold opined. He based his libretto on the novel Bruges-la-morte by the Wallonian author Georges Rodenbach.

Sinister mourning process

The young Paul cherishes the memory of his deceased wife Marie in a sombre room, filled with memorabilia. When the dancer Marietta comes into his life, he recognizes his former wife in her. To his dismay, however, she has a completely different character, with which he cannot cope. Eventually he strangles her with Marie’s braid.

Only then does he awaken from his sinister mourning process and realize that you cannot live in the past. The music brims with compelling vocal lines and heartrending orchestral sounds, reminiscent of both early Schönberg and late Strauss. Moreover, the psychological drama perfectly suited the spirit of the times, which also contributed to the success of Die tote Stadt.

The opera was released on CD/DVD several times by renowned ensembles and singers, yet is rarely heard live in our country. Most recently in 2005, in a well received production by Dutch National Opera. Now the Nederlandse Reisopera is venturing into a new interpretation by director Jakob Peters-Messer, in a coproduction with Theater Magdeburg Germany.

Those who were interested had to travel to Amsterdam in 2005, but now ‘the Reisopera will bring Die tote Stadt to you’, as artistic director Nicolas Manfield subtly remarked during his presentation of the new season. – And, indeed, we can count ourselves lucky with this initiative.

Korngold: Die tote Stadt, 8 December 2018 through 9 April 2019, info and tickets here.

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‘Alsof het er in de muziek om gaat wie het verste kan plassen’ – interview over Een os op het dak

De Os bij Albersen Muziek Den Haag

Muziekpublicist Maarten Brandt interviewde mij over Een os op het dak voor de website Opusklassiek.

“Een naslagwerk over eigentijdse muziek. Het is een schaars artikel. Zeker in Nederland. Dit in tegenstelling tot publicaties over de alom geaccepteerde klassieke muziek uit de canon van weleer. Maar daar is onlangs verandering in gekomen door het verschijnen van het zeer toegankelijke Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht van musicoloog Thea Derks, indertijd veel in het nieuws vanwege haar spraakmakende biografie van Reinbert de Leeuw. De titel van het boekje is geïnspireerd op het ballet Le boeuf sur le toit van Darius Milhaud. Een gesprek met een auteur die er geen doekjes om windt wat haar tot het vervaardigen van deze uitgave heeft aangezet. Lees verder… Continue reading

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Composer Nana Forte: ‘The human voice has an immense ability to express emotions’

Just out: Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht

Nana Forte, Photo Miran Mišo Hochstätter

The Netherlands Radio Choir will première a new piece by the Slovenian composer Nana Forte (1981) on 30 November in Jacobikerk Utrecht. Te Deum laudamus was commissioned by AVROTROSVrijdagconcert, and will be broadcast live on Radio 4. The programme is conducted by Peter Dijkstra, the choir’s first guest conductor, and also features music by Arvo Pärt, Alfred Schnittke and Krysztof Penderecki.

Nana Forte graduated in composition from the Music Academy in Ljubljana in 2005, and continued her postgraduate studies at Hochschule für Musik Carl Maria von Weber in Dresden and at Universität der Künste in Berlin. She often writes for choirs, winning many awards.

In 2009 Libera me for two mixed choirs was the obligatory piece at the finals of the 5th International Competition for Young Choral Conductors Europa Cantat in Ljubljana. It was recently performed by the Netherlands Chamber Choir. Nana Forte will be my guest in a pre-concert talk before the world première of Te Deum laudamus, but she already answered some questions. 

Earlier this month the Netherlands Chamber Choir toured with ‘Libera me’. What kind of work is this?

I wrote it in 2003, when I was still studying at the Music Academy in Ljubljana. At the time, I was singing in the Academic Choir Tone Tomšič University of Ljubljana. This amateur choir performs very challenging music, and for me it was a great opportunity to study and perform some of the classics of the 20th century. Composers such as Alfred Schnittke, Einojuhani Rautavaara, György Ligeti, Luigi Dallapiccola and many others.

Our conductor, Urša Lah, commissioned me to write a new piece for our annual concert, which became Libera me. Though this was only my third piece for choir it became quite popular in the choral world, and it is still regularly performed.

‘Libera me’ was conducted by Peter Dijkstra, who will also lead the world première of ‘Te Deum laudamus’ with the Netherlands Radio Choir. What is your connection?

Actually we have never met yet, our only exchange up to now has been via email, concerning the commission from AVROTROSVrijdagconcert. We’ll meet personally for the first time during the rehearsals of my new piece in Utrecht – but I do feel a connection through music.

I am impressed by Mr. Dijkstra’s ability to get into the composer’s mind and make an unimaginable interpretation of newly composed music. It sounds just as I had envisioned it, or even better – which is not always the case.

I feel very fortunate that Peter Dijkstra somehow discovered my music and is including it in his concert programmes. When he proposed I’d make a new setting of Te Deum laudamus for AVROTROSVrijdagconcert I was thrilled, because this text is very inspirational for me.

How have you approached the text?

The same way I always proceed. First I try to fathom the feeling, character and content of a text. Then I ask myself, what is its message, and what story do I want to tell with the music? I make a rough draft of the musical development and split the text into sections. While composing, I try to transmit to music a rhythmical flow and the character of the words and verses.

Most effort goes into creating a musical form that is in harmony with the pre-existing form of the text. During the compositional process I tried not to listen or think of any other settings. There are quite a few beautiful ones, but if I were to compare my own version of Te Deum laudamus to these masterpieces, I would have a really difficult mission ahead of me.

There are four soloists from the choir. What is their role?

In my case, many things come totally unplanned, driven by musical instinct, subconsciously. This also goes for the decision to use four soloists. I sensed a bright, unearthly energy in one part of the text and then this idea sprang up. With the four solo voices I can create a parallel divine dimension, which complements the reality we see.

You write a lot of choral music, what is its appeal?

Since as long as I can remember, I was a singer in a choir. I am no longer,  but choral singing played a very important role in my musical development and education. Therefore I’m happy Schnittke’s Concert for Choir is on the programme, too, for this has been a great inspiration ever since I first listened to it many years ago.

I simply love the sound of many human voices singing together – creating colourful sound palettes through vowels and consonants, using different words from various languages. I like the idea of connecting text and music, and value the immense ability of the human voice to express emotions.

30 November 8.15 pm, Jacobikerk, Utrecht
7.30 pm, concert introduction by Thea Derks
Netherlands Radio Choir / Peter Dijkstra
Leo van Doeselaar, organ
Pärt Dopo la vittoria
Nana Forte Te Deum Laudamus (world première)
Kodály Laudes organi (soloist Leo van Doeselaar)
Pärt Which was the son of …
Penderecki Agnus Dei
Kurtág Movements from Játékok VI
Rachmaninov Two movements from All-Night Vigil: Svete Tikhi & Bogoroditse Devo
Schnittke Movement 4 from Concert for Choir
More info and tickets
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Eerste Wereldoorlog – een slachtpartij die prachtige muziek opleverde

Zojuist verschenen: Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht

Matthijs Vermeulen, 1920 (bron Website Matthijs Vermeulen)

Het zal niemand ontgaan zijn dat de Eerste Wereldoorlog honderd jaar geleden eindigde. Wrang genoeg leverde de grootste slachtpartij in de geschiedenis de meest schitterende composities op. Zo klonk onlangs het monumentale War Requiem van Benjamin Britten in het Concertgebouw, met inkervende poëzie van Wilfred Owen, die een week voor het einde sneuvelde.

Op 2 november presenteert het Radio Filharmonisch Orkest ‘Tijden van Oorlog’. Naast het bekende Pianoconcert voor de linkerhand van Ravel staat de door Alphons Diepenbrock georkestreerde Berceuse héroique van Debussy. Ook klinkt het veel te zelden uitgevoerde orkestlied La veille van Matthijs Vermeulen.

Heroïsch slaapliedje

Toen de Eerste Wereldoorlog eind juli 1914 uitbrak zat Claude Debussy in Londen. Hij vluchtte naar Angers maar keerde later terug naar Parijs. De Britse krant The Daily Telegraph vroeg hem een bijdrage te leveren aan hun King Albert’s Book. Met de opbrengst hiervan wilden zij het Belgische volk ondersteunen dat zojuist in de oorlog betrokken was geraakt. Debussy dacht meteen aan een ‘marche héroïque’, maar verwierp dat idee. Hij vond het ‘belachelijk heldhaftigheid te bezingen in de rust van een muziekkamer ’.

Daarom schreef  hij zijn Berceuse héroïque voor piano solo, een ‘heroïsch slaapliedje’. Hoe paradoxaal de titel ook is, Debussy droeg zijn stuk op aan Koning Albert I en diens soldaten. In zijn muziek verwerkte hij bovendien  referenties aan het Belgische volkslied. Een jaar later maakte hij een orkestratie, die volgens tijdgenoten ‘meer een gevoel van nostalgie dan van heroïsme’ oproept. Het Radio Filharmonisch Orkest speelt een orkestbewerking die de Nederlandse componist Alphons Diepenbrock in 1916 maakte.

Diepenbrock was een Francofiel, die vanuit het neutrale Nederland nauwlettend de oorlogperikelen in Frankrijk volgde. Zijn landgenoot Matthijs Vermeulen was eveneens een verklaard bewonderaar van de Franse muziek en zou jarenlang als muziekcorrespondent in Parijs wonen. Toen de Eerste Wereldoorlog uitbrak meldde hij zich onmiddellijk bij De Tijd als oorlogscorrespondent.

Beklemmend wiegelied

Hij vertrok naar België, waar hij diep geraakt werd door de gruwelen van de oorlog en zich kwaad maakte over de desinteresse in Nederland. Woedend schreef hij: ‘Een volk, dat onze taal spreekt, wordt geplunderd, uitgemoord, vernietigd achter prikkeldraad onzer grenzen, zonder dat ik een kreet hoor van sympathie.’

In 1917 vertaalde hij zijn ontzetting muzikaal in La Veille, een lied voor mezzosopraan en piano op een beklemmende tekst van François Porché. Een moeder mijmert aan de wieg van haar kind over de oorlog die al wat haar lief is bedreigt.

Vermeulens zetting is zeer aangrijpend. Het lied opent met duistere, spaarzame akkoorden van de piano en een reciterende stem vol ingehouden woede. Gaandeweg wordt de pianopartij geagiteerder en zingt de soliste steeds wanhopiger lijnen, die uiteindelijk wegebben in melancholieke berusting.

In 1932, toen hij met zijn gezin in Frankrijk woonde en de Tweede Wereldoorlog al in de lucht hing, bewerkte Vermeulen La veille voor orkest. Deze versie is zo mogelijk nog huiveringwekkender dan het pianolied, maar wordt bijna nooit uitgevoerd. Het werd in 1994 wel op cd gezet door Jard van Nes en het Utrechts Symfonie Orkest onder leiding van Otto Ketting. Een buitenkans om dit stuk eens live uitgevoerd te horen!

Grimmige wals

Op het programma staat ook La Valse van Maurice Ravel, dat hij direct na de Eerste Wereldoorlog componeerde. Hierin verwordt de wufte Weense walse tot een grimmige klankorgie die de gruwelen van de oorlog lijkt te weerspiegelen. Lichtvoetiger is het Pianoconcert voor de linkerhand dat Ravel in 1929 componeerde voor Paul Wittgenstein, die in de oorlog zijn rechterarm verloren had. De partij is zo spetterend en virtuoos dat je nauwelijks hoort dat deze met maar één hand gespeeld wordt. Elke zichzelf respecterende pianist zet het daarom vroeg of laat op zijn repertoire.

Minder bekend is Rudi Stephan, die in 1887 in Worms werd geboren en gold als een van de meest veelbelovende talenten van zijn generatie. Zijn laatromantische stijl is verwant aan die van Richard Strauss en de vroege Arnold Schönberg. In 1913 brak hij door met zijn twintig minuten durende Musik für Orchester. In dit schuimende stuk wordt heroïsch klaroengeschal afgewisseld met intieme soli van houtblazers en verfijnde arabesken van de strijkers.

Helaas sneuvelde Stephan in 1915 aan het Oekraïense front en kon hij zijn grote belofte voor de muziek niet inlossen. – Zo leverde WOI weliswaar schitterende muziek op, maar heeft deze ook veel moois in de knop gebroken

2-11-2018 AVROTROSVrijdagconcert 20.15 uur
RFO / Kevin John Edusei; Severin von Eckardstein, piano; Ève-Maud Hubeaux, mezzosopraan
Het concert wordt live uitgezonden op Radio 4. Info en kaarten hier


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Meriç Artaç addresses feelings of suspicion and fear in her opera Madam Koo

Zojuist verschenen: Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht

Ekaterina Levental as Madam Koo

The Turkish-Dutch composer Meriç Artaç (Istanbul, 1990) often writes music for theatre projects and opera. In 2016 she addressed the topical theme of asylum seekers in Zonderland, now she zooms in on feelings of suspicion and fear in Madam Koo. The production will be premiered on 3 November in CC Amstel by the AKOM Ensemble, with the Uzbek-Dutch mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Levental in the title role.

On Thursday 1 November I will moderate a meet & greet with Artaç and director Ingrid Askvik after the first try-out in CC Amstel. Though extremely busy with rehearsals the composer was kind enough to answer some questions.

In 2016 you and Ingrid Askvik created ‘Zonderland’,  about asylum seekers who are being crushed in bureaucracy. ‘Madam Koo’ deals with suspicion and fear, what is the link?

This lies mostly in certain words that trigger Ingrid and me, making us curious to explore them. In Zonderland the concept of ‘waiting’ was a starting point, in particular the idea of individuals not knowing how long they would find themselves in this waiting position. In Madam Koo the focal word is ‘suspicion’. Feelings of suspicion and fear are very much interrelated.

I created the character of Madam Koo two years ago and when I told Ingrid about it she was at once interested. We started exploring the meaning and implications of the word ‘suspicion’ in our present world. We found it interesting that once you start feeling suspicion it is really difficult to control, and it easily unbalances you, developing more and more into feelings of fear.

We try to show this in the way Koo tries to keep her balance in her home, where she has developed several rituals. From a deep need to stay in control she counts her pearls, her belongings, preciously putting them into place, organizing them meticulously so she can feel safe with them and maintain her inner balance.

House like a see-saw

Madam Koo and her neighbour Mr. Oak live in the same building, but are each others’ opposites. It’s as if they are on a see-saw, therefore we call it a ‘balance house’. Mr. Oak lives underneath Madam Koo, in the basement. He is an inventor and has big dreams. He is building ‘a staircase that goes to a place, a place where there is nobody yet, for a clear horizon’. We don’t know much about his background. He says he witnessed everything, saw ‘all the legs during the war, they were taken one by one’. Perhaps he was a persecuted Jew, perhaps he simply feels guilty for not doing anything. Most important however is that he is motivated to create a better world.

Both characters have their own motivations and are completely different. Mr. Oak is extremely noisy with his inventions and his apartment is an unorganized mess, Madam Koo is very organized. They are trapped in their own world, within their own thoughts, in their apartment which they never leave, it’s their safe zone. Mr. Oak builds up fear over many years: fear of the street, of the unknown. Last time he went out was so many years ago he only has recollections of the war.

Meriç Artaç

There’s also a third character, the child Miku. She is a friend of Mr. Oak and wants to become friends with Madam Koo, too. I call her ‘Big Question Mark’ because she only asks questions, as children will. The way grown-ups see her changes throughout the piece, Miku is their trigger point.

Who wrote the libretto?

I did. Ingrid and I developed the concept together and then I started writing the libretto and developing the other characters. In that sense the piece is really different from Zonderland, for this time there was no input from the performers. I like to write my own texts for my music theatre/opera productions, but I got supervisory support from Ingrid. This helped to create smooth scene connections and a good flow. Flow is very important for the piece. Because I really wanted Ingrid to be involved from the beginning I sent her my drafts every week.

Who is Madam Koo and what is her story?

Madam Koo is a character I drew some years ago. I always first sketch my protagonists and then give them voice with my composition. When I first imagined Madam Koo, she had huge suspicions about her husband, who she feared was cheating on her; it was the only thing she could think of. Then I dug more deeply into her character and tried to find out what caused these feelings. Gradually our direction changed to a rather more general concept of suspicion, and how this influences Madam Koo and others – though not Miku. Madam Koo’s intense relationship with her cat Pitsi could be a sort of subcutaneous jealousy of her husband.

The press text calls your play absurdist and humorous. What can we expect?

In a sense this is not a truly dramatic opera. We wanted to approach it in the style of opera buffa, talking about serious things with humour and lightness. The subject is quite charged, so we use symbolic ways of expressing the terror and fear. Absurdist elements are Madam Koo’s exaggerations and misunderstandings. We place the wide-ranging topic in a small environment, because said feelings start at our own place and spread out into the world.

Basically the character of Miku is the absurd element in the play. Miku’s only interest is to become friends with Koo, who however sees her as a potential terrorist, somebody who might destroy her home. Thus the word ‘perspective’ comes into play: what we interpret as good or bad may differ when viewed from different perspectives.

How have you chosen the instruments and why?

I tend to choose colours for each character and for the overall sound. I also like to create contrast within the composition and its relation to the stage. The flute and bass clarinet represent the contrast between Koo and Mr. Oak. Miku is light and playful, therefore her part is doubled by piccolo and vibraphone. Strings represent the balance house. Each time something happens they create a glissando or some other effect, to reflect what is happening on stage.

Gongs represent time and the seasons. Each time a season changes this is marked by three beats on the gongs. Thus they are really connected to the story and are in dialogue with the play. The ensemble is part of the action, that’s why we placed them in the heart of the stage, like the singers. Mr. Oak has pitched hammers to build his inventions, Miku plays with those hammers and all kinds of toy instruments. The ensemble also sings, reacting to the scenery.

Sometimes they are even conducted by Madam Koo, as the musicians are her belongings she cares so much about!

Madam Koo is a production of Diamantfabriek
1+2+3 November, CC Amstel, Amsterdam 8.30 pm (on 1 November I’ll moderate an after talk with Artaç & Askvik)

9 November, Verkadefabriek, Den Bosch 7 pm
21 December, Toneelschuur, Haarlem 8.30 pm
Tour in 2019

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Hilda Paredes immortalises Afro-American freedom fighter in her opera ‘Harriet’.

Zojuist verschenen: Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht

On Friday 9 November Harriet by Hilda Paredes will be performed in November Music, in a production by Muziektheater Transparant. The opera is dedicated to the legendary Afro-American freedom fighter Harriet Tubman (c. 1822-1913), who escaped from slavery in the middle of the 19th century. Hereafter she liberated many fellow slaves through the so-called Underground Railroad, at the risk of her own life. After years of tug-of-war the American Treasury decided to place the portrait of Tubman on a 20-dollar note in September 2018.

Harriet was composed on a commission from the Festival Internacional Cervantino in Mexico, the Belgian Muziektheater Transparant and the Dutch Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, where it was premiered in October 2018. The charismatic soprano Claron McFadden initiated the opera and sings the leading part, the Flemish singer Naomi Beeldens is her conversational partner Alice. Harriet is directed by French Jean Lacornerie, and the Belgian Hermes Ensemble is conducted by Manoj Kamps.

Before the premiere on 3 October I talked with Hilda Paredes and Claron McFadden, who gave a moving insight in her own background in the United States. The soprano grew up in Rochester, New York, where Tubman had once had one of her safe-houses. Her great-grandmother told her about this famous abolutionist, yet she was too young to fully grasp her importance. – Her relative died when Claron was six years old.

Mexican roots

In the Netherlands, the Mexican-British Hilda Paredes (1957) is little known. Although she has lived in England since 1979, she still has strong ties with South America. In 2001 she received the prestigious J.S. Guggenheim Fellowship for her opera El Palacio Imaginado. This is based on a story by the Chilean author Isabel Allende. For the libretto she drew from modern Mexican poetry, among other things.

I met Paredes for the first time in 2010, during a concert of the Arditti Quartet. I was impressed by her second string quartet Cuerdas del destino, in which the string instruments whisper like human voices. But who is Hilda Paredes? A short portrait in three questions I asked the composer at the request of Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ.

What typifies you as a composer?

I find much inspiration in the rich cultural life of my native Mexico. I often work together with Mexican poets and artists, but I also follow other musical traditions. In terms of rhythm and structure, I am inspired by the music of North India. However, I avoid quoting or imitating traditional music. – Except when the subject asks for it, as in the case of Harriet. I like to put poetry to music and address psychological, political, gender and humanitarian issues in my operas.

Moreover, over the past fifteen years I have worked a lot with electronics. This has not only drastically changed my way of listening but also my way of composing. I often make instruments sound different than we are used to, using alternative playing techniques that I develop myself. Fortunately, most musicians today are familiar with such ‘extended techniques’.

Hilda Paredes, foto Graciela Iturbide

What can we expect from your opera ‘Harriet’?

It is a portrait of the African-American freedom fighter and former slave Harriet Tubman. Harriet tells her life story to her young protégé Alice. In the first act we hear about her youth as a slave and about a violent injury to her head. This gave her religious visions that eventually showed her the way to escape.

She became known as the Moses of her people, a leader who freed many slaves. To this end she used the Underground Railroad, a network of anti-slavery activists. Via smuggling routes slaves could flee from the southern to the northern states of America, and later to Canada. Like most of her peers, Tubman was illiterate, so she used music to guide runaways. Encrypted messages were packaged in simple tunes, some of which you hear in the second act.

Once she had acquired a property as a free woman, Tubman took in an eight-year-old, light-coloured girl, Margaret. The third act is about the unanswered question of whether Margaret was her daughter, because the two had an unusually strong bond. In her old age Harriet often told stories to Margaret’s youngest daughter Alice.

The fourth act describes the battles Harriet led during the Civil War. She also reminisces about Nelson Davies, a young soldier who became her second husband. We get to know her thoughts as recorded by various sources. Finally she states her message to President Lincoln. The epilogue is a message of hope and continuity in her struggle against slavery and racism.

How did you set up your composition?

Harriet is a chamber opera for two voices, percussion, violin, guitar and electronics. The original idea was for a monodrama, to be told by Harriet. But during our research we came across her strong bond with Alice, Margaret’s youngest daughter. In the new set-up Harriet tells her story to Alice, who also acts as a third-party narrator. That’s why in the final version there are two singers.

Mayra Santos-Febres has written beautiful and well documented poems, based on Harriet’s life. Lex Bohlmeijer wrote most of the dialogues and made a storyline. Because I had only limited means at my disposal, I also use electronics. The electronics create an extra, but very subtle extra layer to the performance. Thus I was able to unfold a wide sound spectrum that does justice to the dramatic development of Harriet’s life.

9 November, Theater aan de Parade, Den Bosch, 9 pm: Harriet by Muziektheater Transparant. More info and tickets here.

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Nederlandse Reisopera: Tosca als reality-soap

Tosca Nederlandse Reisopera (c) Marco Borggreve

De thematiek van Puccini’s opera Tosca uit 1900 is van alle tijden. Een cocktail van hartstochtelijke liefde, politieke rebellie, wellust en verraad is geconcentreerd rond de persoon van Floria Tosca. Regisseur Harry Fehr presenteert dit verhaal als een reality-soap, met impliciet commentaar op onze selfie-cultuur. Een aardige vondst, maar het is de vraag of deze het drama tot leven kan wekken. Gelukkig wordt er prachtig gezongen en gemusiceerd.

Het toneel toont een claustrofobische controlekamer. Van hieruit houden agenten iedereen via enorme monitoren in de gaten: de schermen dubbelen de beelden op het toneel. Niets ontsnapt aan de blikken van politiechef Scarpio, die een schrikbewind voert over Rome. De kale ruimte fungeert tevens als de kapel waar Mario Cavaradossi werkt aan zijn portret van Maria Magdalena. – Ogenschijnlijk, want in werkelijkheid stond Gravin Attavanti hiervoor model, de zus van politieke rebel Cesare Angelotti. Wanneer deze uit de gevangenis ontsnapt, biedt Cavaradossi hem een schuilplaats aan bij zijn villa.


Scarpia verdenkt hem onmiddellijk en pookt de jaloezie op van Floria Tosca, de geliefde van Cavaradossi. Ongewild leidt zij de politiechef naar diens huis, waar hij onmiddellijk gearresteerd en ter dood veroordeeld wordt. Scarpia biedt aan Cavaradossi te redden met een schijnexecutie indien Tosca met hem slaapt. Een puur gevalletje #MeToo. Eerder heeft de geile en corrupte politiechef zich in zijn aria ‘Ella verra’ al verkneukeld op zijn zoveelste verovering. Op het moment suprème steekt Tosca hem dood, waarna zij hoopt met Cavaradossi te kunnen vluchten. Die is echter wel degelijk gefusilleerd, waarop Tosca van een toren springt.

Puccini schreef bij dit bloedstollende verhaal uiterst dramatische muziek, gloedvol vertolkt door het Orkest van het Oosten. Dirigent David Parry voerde zijn man/vrouwschappen met soepele hand door de gevarieerde partituur. Angstaanjagende, dissonante klankvulkanen en spookachtige strijkerswolken worden afgewisseld met volkse melodietjes en heldhaftig klaroengeschal. Het was een genot te horen hoe vloeiend het orkest de lijnen van de zangers volgde en omspeelde, met prachtige soli van vooral de houtblazers.

Ideale Scarpia

Ook de zangerscast is van hoog niveau. Kari Postma is een soevereine Tosca, die van begin tot eind overtuigt. Ze geeft een intense vertolking van de aria ‘Vissi d’arte’, maar durft ook lelijk te zingen als het moet. Haar met rauwe stem uitgespuugde ‘sterf, vervloekte’ tegen de stuiptrekkende Scarpia gaat door merg en been. Noah Stewart zingt de rol van Cavaradossi. Hij heeft een mooie tenorstem, die echter in de hoogte vaak wat kelig klonk, wellicht door premièrezenuwen. Phillip Rhodes is de ideale Scarpia. Hij is dé belichaming van de cynische machstwellusteling die alles en iedereen offert voor eigen lust en gewin. Groot acteur met een dijk van een stem.


In de bijrollen steelt Bernadeta Astari de show als poetsvrouw die het lijk van Scarpia vindt. Hilarisch is het moment waarop ze na haar aanvankelijke schrik de volgende prullenbak leegt, het lichtje uitknipt en het bureau verlaat. Alexander de Jong geeft mooi gestalte aan de hebzuchtige Kerkermeester, Roman Ialcic overtuigt als politiek vluchteling Angelotti. Michael J. Scott is een adequate Spoletta en Oleksandr Pushniak een dito koster. Het Tosca-kinderkoor is aandoenlijk en Concencus Vocalis schittert in het Te Deum.

Toch komt het drama niet werkelijk tot leven. Er wil maar geen vonk overspringen tussen Cavaradossi en Tosca, met onhandige omarmingen en frontaal richting publiek gezongen liefdesaria’s. De statische enscenering en eenvormige belichting creëren een afstandelijke sfeer waarin weinig ruimte is voor hartstocht.

De immer op de achtergrond getoonde beelden voegen weinig toe en gaan uiteindelijk vervelen. Uitzondering is het tweede bedrijf. Terwijl Scarpia wacht op het concert van Tosca klinkt een trio van viool, fluit en harp, prominent in beeld op het achtergrondscherm. ‘Live’  lezen we in de rechterbovenhoek. Zodra de muziek een andere weg inslaat verschijnt een doorgestreept luidsprekerikoontje.

Er zijn meer geestige momenten, die je als toeschouwer bij de les houden. Samen met de muziek maken zij deze Tosca een gang naar de schouwburg meer dan waard.

Tosca is nog te zien tot en met 13 november in verschillende steden te zien. Speellijst en info hier

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Met de Os in vogelvlucht naar Muziekbiënnale Venetië

Vrijdag 28 september 2018 stap ik, samen met ‘mijn Os’ op het vliegtuig naar Venetië. – Welke Os? Nou, die van mijn nieuwste boekje, Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht. Ik schreef deze beknopte introductie van 20e en 21e eeuwse gecomponeerde muziek voor de geïnteresseerde leek. Twee weken geleden werd de Os ten doop gehouden in Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ en sindsdien gaat hij ter promotie mee naar elk concert met eigentijdse muziek.

Dus reist hij ook mee naar ‘La serenissima’, om het openingsweekend bij te wonen van de 62e editie van de Muziekbiënnale van Venetië. Dit werd in 1930 gestart als tweejaarlijks festival voor moderne muziek, maar vindt sinds 1999 elk jaar plaats. Hier beleefden meesterwerken hun wereldpremière als de opera The Rake’s Progress van Stravinsky en de eenakter Intolleranza van Luigi Nono.

Het is een stralende dag en tijdens de vlucht had ik een adembenemend uitzicht op de Alpen. – Ik moest onmiddellijk denken aan de geestig-weemoedige opera In the Alps van Richard Ayres, de componist die ik het eerste exemplaar van mijn boekje heb mogen aanbieden.

Het is dertig jaar geleden dat ik voor het laatst in Venetië was, maar het is en blijft een prachtige stad met haar smalle, kronkelige straatjes, trapgevelbruggetjes en pittoreske oude gebouwen. De Anton-Pieck-sfeer wordt versterkt door het ontbreken van reclameborden en auto’s, maar terwijl ik van het busstation naar mijn hotel loop transformeert ‘La serenissima’ langzaam in een toeristenhel waar je over de koppen kunt lopen.

Voor de San Marco staat een minstens honderd meter lange rij wachtenden, destijds kon ik er nog zomaar binnenstappen. Gelukkig heeft de Biënnale een fraai hotel voor mij geboekt aan een rustig pleintje om de hoek. Met zijn krullerige meubilair en donkerrood stoffen behang ademt mijn kamer een weldadige, luxueuze sfeer. De Os en ik voelen ons onmiddellijk thuis.

Het hoofdkantoor van La Biennale ligt eveneens vlakbij, direct aan het Canal Grande. De perskamer, waar vier laptops klaarstaan voor gebruik, biedt een schitterend uitzicht op het eiland San Giorgio. Alles ademt hier rijkdom en grandeur.

’s Avonds ga ik naar het openingsconcert, met The Yellow Shark van Frank Zappa. Zijn stuk past in het thema ‘Crossing the Atlantic’, waarmee het festival inzoomt op beide Amerika’s en het oude continent. Zappa componeerde het in 1993 voor het Duitse Ensemble Modern, maar het beleeft pas nu zijn eerste integrale uitvoering in Italië.

Na enig gezoek bereiken we Teatro Goldoni, waar een – grotendeels ouder – publiek zich verdringt voor de ingang. De vergulde balkons, rode zetels en dito wandtapijten lijken in eerste instantie nogal incongruent. Maar met subtiele belichting wordt deze klassieke bonbonnière toch omgetoverd tot een moderne setting.

Terwijl ik worstel met de telkens inklappende zitting van mijn stoel, leven de musici van het Parco della Musica Contemporanea Ensemble (PMCE) en dirigent Tonino Battista zich helemaal uit in de tegendraadse noten van The Yellow Shark.

PMCE – Antonio Battista – David Moss Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia – photo A. Avezzu

Het gaat van hoempa-pa-jazz tot Weberniaanse aforismen en van Varèse-achtige koperpassages tot Stravinskyaans stampende ritmiek. Tot ontstentenis van mijn Os laat stemkunstenaar David Moss een gele haai over het podium ‘zwemmen’.

Tijdens diens hilarische interpretatie van ‘Welcome to the United States’ hoesten de musici verwoed en beschieten elkaar met plastic pistolen. In het afsluitende ‘G-Spot Tornado’ vormt Moss met een van de musici een polonaise, waar zich ondanks zijn oproep verder niemand bij aansluit. De Os en ik duiken gegeneerd weg in de nog altijd klapperende stoel.

De Venetianen vinden het geweldig, maar wij vragen ons af of Zappa deze carnavaleske aanpak zou hebben gewaardeerd. Met gemengde gevoelens verlaten we de zaal. Gewend aan uitvoeringen door topensembles uit binnen- en buitenland in eigen land zijn we wellicht te kritisch. Is het niet geweldig dat een ensemble met zoveel overgave het publiek weet te winnen voor moderne muziek?

Maar ook de Italiaanse en buitenlandse collega’s zijn niet overtuigd. ‘Zappa zou zich in zijn graf omdraaien’, concludeert een Sloveense journalist. De Os gromt instemmend. We gaan terug de zwoele Venetiaanse nacht in, hopend dat de overige concerten ons meer zullen kunnen bekoren.

De Muziekbiënnale loopt nog tot en met 7 oktober. Kaarten en info hier.

Ik schreef een recensie van het openingsweekend voor I Care If You Listen.

De Os koop je zo:

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Liza Lim extends double-bass technique

Florentin Ginot plays Table of Knowledge Liza Lim
Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia (c) A. Avezzu

On Saturday 29 September the French double-bass player Florentin Ginot gave the Italian premiere of Table of Knowledge that Liza Lim composed for him. It was one of four pieces in his theatrical concert Not Here, the other composers on the programme were Rebecca Saunders, Georges Aperghis and Sebastian Rivas.

The adventurous Lim extends the expressive range of the double bass using a simple yet effective Vietnamese technique. This enables the performer to produce overtones using his mouth as a resonator, while simultaneously playing his instrument.

It was exciting and a bit eery to hear Ginot create a kind of ghost choir that enveloped the regular sounds of the bass like a halo. He performed Table of Knowledge to great effect at Teatro alle Tese, the audience was thrilled.

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Een os op het dak: “Een must voor muziekliefhebber en onderwijs”

Donderdag 13 september werd Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht gelanceerd in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ.

Ik overhandigde het officiële eerste exemplaar aan componist Richard Ayres, wiens muziektheatrale werk The Garden zijn Amsterdamse première beleefde in een uitvoering door Asko Schönberg en de bas Joshua Bloom.

Ik schreef deze inleiding in hedendaagse muziek op verzoek van geïnteresseerden die de gangbare geschiedenisboeken te omslachtig en ondoorgrondelijk vinden.

Want moderne muziek. Wat is dat eigenlijk? Waar begint die, waar eindigt die?

In korte, heldere teksten beschrijf ik de belangrijkste ontwikkelingen vanaf begin twintigste eeuw. Van de atonaliteit van Schönberg tot het serialisme van Stockhausen en Boulez en van het impressionisme van Debussy tot het minimalisme van Reich en het multimediale werk van Michel van der Aa.

Enne…, vrouwen schitteren nu eens niet door afwezigheid…

Richard Ayres + Thea Derks MGIJ 13-9-2018

Richard Ayres + Thea Derks MGIJ 13-9-2018, foto Eric van Balkum

“Derks slaagt erin om in minder dan 100 pagina’s de vele stromingen in de nieuwe muziek in treffende zinnen neer te zetten. Het is een van de eerste boekjes waarin ook de vrouwen die betrokken waren bij de vernieuwingen worden meegenomen. Onmisbaar naslagwerk voor muziekstudenten, luisteraars en musicologen!” (Lezersreactie op

“Compact, goed geschreven, en een basis voor verdere studie. Van harte aanbevolen voor hen, die hun muzikale horizon willen verbreden.” (Lezersreactie op

“Derks slaagt erin een overzicht te bieden over een van de roerigste periodes uit de muziekgeschiedenis, zonder te vervallen in oeverloos technisch gebral. Nergens worden concessies gedaan aan de inhoud. (…) Helder, handzaam en inspirerend. Een uitstekende aanwinst.” (Lezersreactie op

“Het handzame boekje past in de tas van elke leerling die zich wil en moet verdiepen in de 20ste-eeuwsw muziek! Geschikt voor alle muziekdocenten, alle muziekscholen, alle conservatoria en een must voor iedereen die een helder overzicht wil over de moderne muziek. Van harte en ten zeerste aanbevolen!” (Lezersreactie op

Thea signeert de os MGIJ 13-9-2018 foto Eric van Balkum

Thea signeert de os MGIJ 13-9-2018 foto Eric van Balkum

Na de presentatie vormde zich een rij voor de signeersessie. Kon je er niet bij zijn? Je bestelt ‘de os’ zo:

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Me, Peer Gynt: What does it mean to be oneself?

Pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama descends to the lowest registers of her instrument with some powerful bangs, then keeps the keys pressed down. She attentively watches Maya Fridman, whose fingers slowly creep up the A-string close to the bridge of her cello. The Winter Garden of Hotel Krasnapolsky Amsterdam is saturated with eerily abrasive flageolets. Half a step higher, and yet another half tone higher the cello mixes in with the angelic choral sounds in the background. The tension becomes almost unbearable, until Fridman throws back her head ecstatically while her last sounds seem to dissolve into nothingness.

Thus ends the Epilogue of Alfred Schnittke’s ballet Peer Gynt. With this haunting movement Fridman concludes her arrangement for cello and piano of some 30 minutes from Schnittke’s two-hour-long orchestral score, titled Me, Peer Gynt. At the premiere on Monday 13 August in the Amsterdam Grachtenfestival the audience is overwhelmed by her intense performance and striking musicianship. Fridman plays the entire score by heart.

Maya Fridman, born in Moscow in 1989, is quite dauntless. Earlier this year the young cellist presented a cd with an adaptation of Prokofiev’s opera The Fiery Angel. No wonder she was nominated for this year’s Grachtenfestival Award and is one of four finalists of Dutch Classical Talent. She is also music pioneer in residence with Gaudeamus, where she will perform Me, Peer Gynt in a multimedia version.  I asked her some questions about this production.

When & why did you decide to make an adaptation of Schnittke’s ballet Peer Gynt?

This work has always had a very special meaning for me. While I was studying at the music college named after Schnittke in Moscow, I could access his archives and had the opportunity to delve into his scores. The idea to create a dramatic multimedia performance based on Peer Gynt came to me gradually, and took off after I met Tomoko Mukaiyama.

Schnittke wrote Peer Gynt for John Neumeier’s adaptation of Ibsen’s play, and it is undoubtedly one of his masterpieces. Schnittke’s music is being rediscovered and widely performed today, but there are a few works that still remain in obscurity. Unfortunately this goes for Peer Gynt, too, for in my opinion it deserves to be much better known to a general audience. I hope our production Me, Peer Gynt can give this wonderful piece a new life.

Was Schnittke’s own version of the Epilogue for cello, piano and tape an inspiration?

It was a big help to have Schnittke’s arrangement of the Epilogue in front of me all the time. I am not sure if I would have considered re-working Peer Gynt for cello and piano if this version hadn’t existed. Schnittke’s arrangement is extremely refined and minimalistic. The insane intensity is transmitted through the unending cello line, while the piano part seems to live its own life, at the same time serving as a perfect accompaniment.

I learnt a lot from analysing it, but in my arrangement I decided to focus on creating a storyline and introducing the main characters and their drama. It became a sort of a counterpart for the Epilogue where all the themes return, but ‘as incessantly shifting, unstable forms’, as a sort of afterlife of the main character.

What do you consider the core theme of Peer Gynt and what is its relevance today?

Peer Gynt symbolizes a person who has lost himself in the world of appearances. Ibsen poses one of the most crucial questions in life: What does it mean – to be oneself? The subject of Peer Gynt is relevant today as a metaphor of a man who identifies himself through the mirror of the outside world. He loses his connection with his inner core. In the end of his life journey he realizes that he is nothing but an ‘onion’ deprived of individuality – therefore he must dissolve into nothingness.

Of course this is a simplified way of describing such a philosophical parable. Nevertheless it allows me to draw a parallel between Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and many of us who, as Peer Gynt, are absorbed in phantasmagoric adventures and are swamped in social media realities. For me Peer Gynt embodies our constant attempts to identify ourselves as something we are not.

In truth we are nothing, and no knowledge can redeem us from understanding this very emptiness. The inner pain and frustration that drove Peer Gynt so far away from his beloved Solveig is something that touches me deeply in Ibsen’s story. Schnittke’s music is so descriptive and theatrical that it expresses this much more profound and pungent than words can ever do.

Schnittke composed for a ‘continuo’ of two groups of instruments: bells, glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba on the one hand; piano, harpsichord, celesta, and harp on the other. Have you tried to capture these contrasting sound worlds?

In my first version I employed snare drums, timpani, cymbals, glockenspiel, and even tubular bells. Tomoko and I were preparing to surround ourselves with all these instruments and switch in between to create sonorities close to the original ones. But as our work progressed, our perception of the music changed and we dismissed this idea.

In this regard, Schnittke’s arrangement of the Epilogue was my best teacher and guidance: it doesn’t sound any less intense than the densely scored original version. Cello and piano tell the story in their own language, which naturally differs in colours and dynamics. But this is ultimately the goal of any arrangement: to translate the narration into a new form while staying true to its essence, preserving its melodic details and musical monumentality.

How did your collaboration with Tomoko Mukaiyama come about?

For a long time I have been much inspired by the works of Tomoko Mukaiyama. Since the idea to arrange Peer Gynt popped up, I couldn’t have conceived of realizing my project without her. She has a unique ability to create an utterly stunning music performance in which the visual medium becomes an extension of the music while retaining its own presence and reality. I am deeply grateful and honoured that she warmed to my idea enthusiastically.

We met for the first time in April 2017, at her house. Two months later we played our first concert together, during the Japanese Erotica Film Festival at the EYE museum. It is a great joy to play together with Tomoko and I sincerely enjoy our working process.

From the start we decided to split tasks. Tomoko would be responsible for the visual part and direction, I would be responsible for the musical part (arrangement). Naturally we would discuss all our decisions and I am super grateful to Tomoko for all her insightful and wise comments on the arrangement.

Tomoko made an installation/stage design using large pieces of fabric. She worked together closely with Ting Gong, with whom she realized several projects before, and with light designer Pavla Beranova and technical director Yutaka Endo.

I am deeply grateful to Gaudeamus for supporting me in this project and look forward to our performances of Me, Peer Gynt in September, when music, light and installation will unite into a whole.

Me, Peer Gynt, 6 September Korzo Theater, The Hague; 7 September Gaudeamus, Utrecht


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Monique Krüs: ‘The story always comes first’

Monique Krüs (1959) gathered fame as a soprano excelling in ultra-modern repertoire, then started composing and has since taken up conducting as well. ‘Everything I do is about communication, I want to move people, tell a story.’ This summer she composed new works for both cultural capitals of Europe: for Leeuwarden she wrote Gloria ad Isidea choral composition inspired by Verdi’s triumphal march from Aida; for Valetta she wrote the opera Corto Maltese

Although Krüs was already singing and writing songs as a child, it didn’t occur to her to pursue a career as a musician. This only started to germinate when she became a member of a student association during her psychology studies. She took singing lessons and within six months she was enrolled at the Utrecht Conservatory. ‘Until then I had been a fan of Ella Fitzgerald and Joni Mitchell, but as soon as I sang opera I felt this was my destination. I love the large gesture, communicating with the public, conveying emotions.’

She learnt composing without the help of a teacher. In 2007 she presented her highly acclaimed first large-scale opera, God’s Videotheque, composed on commission for Opera Spanga, which she had co-founded. Seven other operas followed in rapid succession, culminating in 2015 in Anne & Zef, a youth opera inspired by Anne Frank. This was an international success, and has since been translated into German, English and Italian. It was the only Dutch entry to be selected for performance at the renowned ISCM World Music Days in Beijing in 2018.

In addition to singing and composing, Krüs took up conducting. In 2013 she led the world premiere of her chamber opera The Tsar, his Wife, her Lover and his Head, a commission from the Peter the Great Festival. That tasted of more: ‘By conducting my own music I can get my message across optimally. From my experience as a soprano I can give practical tips to the singers, as a composer I have learned to write down my musical ideas clearly, so that as a conductor you don’t get lost in the tracks.’

Her communicative approach speaks strongly from all her compositions, in which she does not hide her love for jazz and pop either. ‘My style is fluid and intuitive, ranging from highly dramatic to very delicate. It is my aim to incorporate a certain light-footedness, even in tragic subjects. – But only when it really suits a scene, the story always comes first.’

Anne & Zef, for example, is about two young people who died as a result of violence. Anne Frank was killed in a concentration camp, Zef Bunga became the victim of a blood feud; they meet each other in heaven. Krüs: ‘After a deeply serious aria by Anne, Zef sings a kind of Motown song. Or take God’s Videotheque, about three people who are confronted with less pleasant videos of their lives in a kind of purgatory. Unexpectedly a piece of gospel pops up, placing the scene in a different perspective. With one simple little twist you create a completely different world, giving the audience some breathing space. Thus they can experience the tragic aspects even more poignantly.’

For Krüs, singing is essential: ‘It is the basis of everything I make. Whether opera, orchestral or chamber music, my music springs from melody, from breath. Language is also important, I endlessly tinker with a text to make it fluent. In 2017 I composed the compulsory work for the International Vocalist Competition in ‘s Hertogenbosch, Lunam, ne quidem Lunam. The text is a Latin translation of a poem by Pé Hawinkels. It is inspired by the vague moon you see in ‘hell’ on the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. There are only five lines, but I have placed these in a different order to tell my own story, of hell on earth. To capture the inherent melancholy I use a typical blues chord.’

Krüs composes intuitively, often playing on a keyboard connected to the computer. She is averse to preconceived compositional methods, especially those common after the Second World War. ‘Great pieces have been written according to atonal and serial principles, but I want to move my listeners emotionally. And a story is easier to tell with tonal means. I compose in a non-linear way, always starting with the scene that appeals to me the most and continuing from there, searching for the right colours, melody lines and harmonies. I often think: this may be a line, but in the end it will be something completely different. That’s the mystery of creation: how does something come about, where does it come from?

The sometimes limited range of instruments is challenging, as in the four youth operas Krüs composed. ‘For my children’s opera Apenootje, set in a zoo, I only had one singer and six instruments, a seemingly random ragbag including trumpet and harp. For Soeraki, about a girl who dives to the bottom of the sea to find something for her beloved, I had seven instruments. It’s appealing to squeeze a panoply of orchestral colours from these limited means.’

Krüs likes composing for young people: ‘I can adapt to their world very well. I find the age group of 12 plus particularly interesting, wrestling with their identity, discovering themselves, challenging their parents. By luring them into my world, I hope to give them something valuable. I consider it an important task to open doors for them. Youngsters are the public – and the musicians – of the future, after all.’

This article was originally written for Deuss Music, publisher of Krüs’ music. 

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Lessons in Love and Violence: smouldering music fails to animate icy drama

Lessons in Love and Violence (c) Hans van den Boogaard

‘Love is poison’, Mortimer tells the king in the first scene of Lessons in Love and Violence. The military adviser denounces his relationship with Gaveston, on whom he heaps favours while his subjects are starving. ‘Don’t bore me with the price of bread’ the king retorts. He rather treats his lover to poetry and music than to care for his people. ‘Love makes us human.’ In this third opera by composer George Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp, however, there is no trace of love. It received its Dutch premiere on Monday 25 June at Dutch National Opera, as part of the Holland Festival where Benjamin is composer in focus.

Lessons in Love and Violence, loosely based on a play about Edward II by Christopher Marlowe, is a dark and chilly tragedy that knows only losers. The king forces Gaveston to swim under ice until his lungs burst and holds his hand above a flame. Conversely, Gaveston’s ‘love’ is rooted in his own self-interest. He leads a reign of terror against the people, causes Mortimer to be expelled and confiscates his property. Queen Isabel, for her part, sets up house with Mortimer, with whom she raises her son to become a puppet king. Together they pronounce the death sentence on both Gaveston and her husband. But in the end Isabel, too, is left behind empty-handed.

Love is never selfless

The cynical notion that love is never selfless runs like a thread through the performance. The pursuit of power dominates everything. – Beautifully symbolized by the illuminated royal crown that is continuously ridden on and off the stage on a trolley. As soon as the ‘young king’ is crowned, he decides to kill Mortimer and stab out his eyes. The son has learned his ‘lessons in love and violence’.

Crimp may be Benjamin’s dreamed librettist, that does not necessarily apply to the opera itself. Although his texts are poignant and musical, they are too abstract to give the characters psychological depth. Therefore you can’t identify with even one single character, they’re all equally cold and heartless. Only the little daughter – simply ‘the girl’ – manages to evoke some compassion. As a silent bystander she makes her childlike attachment to and concern for her father emotionally palpable – a brilliant performance of Ocean Barrington-Crook.

Sultry music

Benjamin juxtaposes the ghastly atmosphere on stage with sultry music full of subtle and luscious timbres. The subcutaneous tension is present from start to finish in terrifyingly dissonant sound fields, cleverly packaged in sweet-voiced harmonies. – However paradoxical this may sound. This softly smouldering fire is pierced by loudly flaring eruptions of brass and percussion. Benjamin closely follows the text and his music sometimes reminds us of the expressionism of Berg or Schoenberg. The lyrical, parlando vocal lines recall the operas of Benjamin Britten.

Wagner peeps through when the orchestra tells a different story than the singers. For instance in the brilliant duet between Isabel and the king in the fourth scene. While he bitterly shouts out his anger at the murder of Gaveston, we hear deceptively sweet and hushed strings. Beautiful are the muted hammering on a cimbalom and stately harmonies in the sixth scene. The king is dead, but Gaveston, as ‘the stranger’, lovingly embraces him one last time. Earlier, a lonely hand drum had already announced their death.

Stifling universe

It is quite obvious that Benjamin wrote his parts with these specific singers in mind. The baritone Stéphane Degout is an imposing king, Gyula Orendt convinces as Gaveston despite a small rasp in his voice. Barbara Hannigan enchants us as Isabel, her tone is full and creamy even in the highest registers. The clear and powerful tenor of Peter Hoare perfectly suits his role a Mortimer. Samuel Boden is a wonderfully pure boy/young king.

The staging of Katie Mitchel is effective. The seven scenes take place in a bedroom, viewed from different perspectives. Fish swim in a colourful illuminated aquarium at first, but after a few scenes this only contains a barren pile of stones. Windows are missing: in this bleak universe death prevails. The stifling atmosphere is emphasized by the fact that the characters often move in slow motion.

George Benjamin himself leads the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, which once again shows its class with a subtle interpretation of his smouldering music. Unfortunately, however, it can’t bring to life the icy tragedy.

The National Opera/Holland Festival
George Benjamin/Martin Crimp: Lessons in Love and Vio9lence
The opera runs until July 5th.
Info and tickets here.

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George Benjamin on Lessons in Love & Violence: ‘Martin Crimp wrings music from me’ #HF18

Lessons in Love & Violence, with Barbara Hannigan (c) ROH/Stephen Cummiskey

The world premiere of George Benjamin’s opera Lessons in Love & Violence unleashed a true flood of 4 and 5 star reviews. Martin Crimp wrote the libretto, as he had done for Benjamin’s earlier operas Into the Little Hill and Written on Skin. Crimp was the first librettist who managed to tap into Benjamin’s compositional vein. On Monday, June 25, Lessons in Love & Violence will have its Dutch premiere at Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam. The composer will conduct the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra himself, Barbara Hannigan sings the female leading role.

Because of his sensual, colourful sound tapestries, George Benjamin (1960) is often called a kindred spirit of Claude Debussy. Although he had been dreaming of becoming an opera composer since his teenage years, it was not until 2006 that he presented his first, the one-act play Into the Little Hill. Martin Crimp’s libretto was based on the saga of Hamelin’s rat-catcher. Only two singers, a mezzo-soprano and a soprano, take on all the roles. This assignment of the Paris Festival d’Automne was an instant success. A cd recording conducted by the composer won a Diapason d’Or in 2017.

In 2012 the second collaboration between Crimp and Benjamin, Written on Skin, created a sensation during its premiere at the Festival d’Aix en Provence. In the ghastly libretto, a ruler forces his adulterous wife to eat the heart of her lover. Written on Skin is considered the undisputed masterpiece of twenty-first century opera. The Dutch audience and members of the press greeted the first performance in the Netherlands with similar enthusiasm. Certainly not a matter of course for contemporary opera.

For his third opera, Lessons in Love and Violence, George Benjamin once again collaborated with librettist Martin Crimp and director Katie Mitchell. Having based Written on Skin on a folk tale from the Provence, this time Crimp sought inspiration in his homeland. The once again gruesome story full of murder and slaughter is loosely based on the life of King Edward II.

Why did you wait so long to compose your first opera?

For years, a quarter of a century to be precise, I was looking in vain for a suitable librettist. I had a list of about fifty themes and spoke to many poets, playwrights, film and theatre directors. I asked them all for advice, but simply didn’t find anyone who could tap into my creative vein. With one or two I took a minuscule step in the direction. We cautiously discussed possible projects, but that was all. Never, really never did we even come near a real cooperation.

At one point, some fifteen years ago I had given up. Not necessarily in despair, but it occurred to me that I would never find a way to write for the stage. Until a few years later I got to know Martin Crimp, who serves me better than I had ever dared to hope for. My fellow teacher Laurence Dreyfus subtly brought us together by organising a joint lunch. The moment I met Martin, I felt: this is someone I can work with!

What does Crimp have that other librettists don’t?

First of all, it is a very delicate matter to work with someone, especially when it comes to something as intense as opera. You invest a large part of your creative personality in the other, you give him access to your world. That applies to both sides. Martin is the ideal partner for me, generous and sensitive.

Moreover, he is a wizard with words. I am a great admirer of the structures he builds and the powerful emotions he expresses in his plays. His use of language is so special, original and idiosyncratic that it stimulates my imagination enormously. Since I got to know him, my creativity has increased considerably. Including Lessons in Love and Violence, this has now yielded some 4.5 hours of music.

In 2012 you told me that Crimp lifted the text off the ground, as it were. How are we to understand this?

His lyrics are essentially very simple. They are about love, hatred, power, death – in short, the essential things of life and of human interaction. He uses few long words and the sentences themselves are often short, as well. That makes them ideally suited for singing. His language is completely understandable, but at the same time there is something peculiar about it. It’s not the way people normally speak. Underneath the easily digestible surface lies something weird, something scary that I find attractive.

It’s hard to say precisely what this is, but when you read three sentences from him you know they are his. The words of the characters are part of a passionate and spontaneous drama as well as of an architectural construction, almost like a crystal. This ambivalence between comprehensibility and artificiality invites me to write music. As if you were giving electricity to a lightbulb. If his texts were normal and predictable, how and why would I set them to music? Martin’s words inevitably wring music from me.

Both Into the Little Hill and Written on Skin contain a lot of cruelty. What is the attraction of morbidity?

I fear that Lessons in Love and Violence is even more fierce, cruelty is part of our lives. This was already the case with the Greeks, who invented the theatre. I have always found opera considerably more moving than any other art form. More gripping than literature, painting or concert music. Opera – if it works – has an overwhelming emotional eloquence. You have to tap into that ability, both in the choice of subjects and in the way in which you shape the themes and stories.

When Martin and I started working together, he asked me to make a list of the reasons why people sing. I had to dig deep to think of all the possible circumstances that make people burst into song. Both in real life and on stage. You don’t sing when everything is normal, but at moments of extreme happiness or total despair. The operas that are most dear to me – Kát’a Kabanová; Boris Godunov; Pelléas et Mélisande; Wozzeck – do not shy away from the deepest and most essential events in our lives.

That also includes horrible things. If – and I really mean if – you manage to create something coherent, to see something through to the bitter end, then even the most terrible story potentially brings great joy. Because you don’t collapse under the load, but face it. It’s much less satisfying to avoid something dark because you can’t handle it. Paradoxically, the very opposite is a source of happiness.

What are the dark things in ‘Lessons in Love and Violence’?

I won’t give away too much, but it is loosely inspired by the life of the British King Edward II, his lover Gaveston and his wife Isabel. It takes place at about the same time as Written on Skin. Only this time we haven’t tried to evoke a medieval atmosphere.

In ‘Written on Skin’, the characters are simply called ‘the ruler’, ‘the boy’, only the wife has a name. Does ‘Lessons in Love and Violence’ have the same approach?

That’s something Martin does. It is not just a peculiarity, by the way, but also has real meaning. When the woman in Written on Skin sings: “My name is Agnès!”, that is a turning point in the opera, she rebels against her husband. That would not have been possible if she had been called by her name from the outset. In Lessons in Love and Violence, about half of the characters are referred to by a generic description. After our talk, for example, I will rehearse with “the stranger”.


You will work again with Katie Mitchell, who also directed ‘Written on Skin’. What do you value in her?

 She has a great deal of attention to detail and her work is very coherent. She has no vanity and can read and write with Martin, with whom she has been working for over twenty years. She gets to the heart of what she directs and is completely subservient to the text. Katie doesn’t want to impose things that are foreign to the work, but brings it to life in a powerful and clear way. I find this absolutely admirable.

I also appreciate her receptivity, her sensitivity to music and her emotional response to it. You hear so often that a director mutilates a new opera because he or she decides to go in a different direction. Intent on realizing their own Creator’s Dream, they distort the desires and dreams of the composer and librettist. That’s terrible, when a pieces has taken 4 to 5 years to create. That’s unthinkable with Katie. She’s completely, passionately loyal to the ideas behind the work, and the nature of the work. I can’t stress enough how happy I am with her.

George Benjamin: Lessons in Love & Violence, 25 June to 5 July, Dutch National Opera/Holland Festival. Info and tickets here.


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Maya Fridman: Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel with hardrock attitude

Abandoned Building. Toned Image, cd-cover The Fiery Angel.

The Russian-Dutch Maya Fridman (Moscow, 1989) plays classical and contemporary music as well as rock, jazz, folk and flamenco. Communication with the audience is her most important goal, so why limit herself to a particular style or genre? The website of the Dutch Cello Biennale rightly describes her as a ‘musical centipede’. In 2016 she was much lauded for her contribution to the music theatre production The Master & Margarita.

Recently she was selected as a finalist for the Dutch Classical Talent Award 2018-19. At Gaudeamus, Foundation for Contemporary Music, she is ‘music pioneer in residence’. As such she played and sang the premiere of Canti d’inizio e fine by Maxim Shalygin last April. The Ukrainian-Dutch composer wrote this Holocaust-inspired composition especially for her.

Fridman once more shows her versatility on her latest cd, The Fiery Angel, for cello and piano. The title refers to Prokofiev’s opera The Fiery Angel that he based on the novel of the same name by Valeri Bryusov. In five acts we follow the fate of the young Renata. As a child she fell in love with the ‘fiery angel’ Madiel, whom she thinks to recognize in Count Heinrich. After a passionate relationship Heinrich abandons her, after which Renata is tormented by demons. Knight Ruprecht tries in vain to save her; eventually she dies at the stake.

Reducing over two hours of music for orchestra and soloists to a version for cello and piano seems quite an unfeasible enterprise. Fridman acknowledges this in the cd booklet. ‘While working on the first part, it still felt like an impossible task.’ She felt trapped in the ‘delirium of Renata’, which prevented her from thinking clearly. But as time went on, the music was so compelling that she completed its arrangement like a madwoman. ‘It seemed as if the radiant image of the angel was fleeting from my hands, just as in Renata’s case’, she writes.

For Fridman, the essence of the story lies in the fusion of ecstasy and suffering. By her death at the stake, Renata sacrifices her own being in order to unite with the angel. Fridman has striven to capture this theme in her arrangement. ‘This music requires dissolution to exist, and faith to surrender. It is the celebration of the Symbolists’ idea that physical reality is nothing nut a distorted echo of another realm.’ High-flown words that Dutch people are wary of, but which are self-evident to Russians.

Fridman reduced the original opera to just under half an hour of music. In four ‘chapters’ she closely follows the original story. The dedication with which she shapes Renata’s obsession sparks from every note. Aggressive, percussive sounds depict her internal ordeal; lyrical, more reflective passages express her longing for love. Fridman plays with a hardrock attitude,  at times she seems to literally wish to shatter her cello. On the gothic cd-cover she poses in a black leather suit, like an angel with wings of fire.

Chapter I opens with strongly accentuated strokes of the cello and boisterous piano chords: the fiery angel knocks at the door. Renata’s anxiety is reflected in shaky flageolets and hesitant piano notes. Sultry piano chords and gently flowing lines of the cello capture the emerging love between her and Ruprecht. However, the idyll is soon disturbed by motoric rhythms and furious strokes of the bow on the cello.

When Ruprecht and Renata go in search of Heinrich, jumpy, expectant solo cello passages alternate with impressionistic piano tinkling and black despair. A loud knock on the body of the cello makes one’s hair stand on end: Heinrich does not (yet) show himself, but ominously makes himself heard. In chapter III he rejects Renata once more, whereupon she asks Ruprecht to kill him in a duel. Angry strokes and repeated, bouncing double stops of the cello are accompanied by an orgy of battering piano sounds.

In the fourth and last movement, Renata seeks refuge in a monastery. Melancholic sighing sounds from the cello and rippling piano runs create the illusion of regained peace. But instead of having been cured, Renata infects the nuns with her delusions. Fridman creates frightening whistling tones, makes her instrument sound like an accordion, and dances a short tango. A series of furious figurations of both instruments is suddenly smothered in a loud, droning cymbal: Renata ends up in the fire.

Fridman and her pianist Artem Belogurov cannot be accused of coquetry. They both play as if their lives depend on it. That Fridman’s intonation sometimes falls prey to her passionate performance is of no real consequence. Like Rostropovich she puts eloquence above perfection.

In the upcoming Gaudeamus Music Week she will present Me, Peer Gynt, a cross-disciplinary production she developed together with pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama. Something to look out for.

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Help de os aan een dak: crowdfunding introductie op moderne muziek

Op de cover ‘Europa en de stier’, ets van Guus Glass

Beste lezer. Ik voltooide onlangs Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht. Het is een beknopte inleiding op moderne muziek van na 1900 en zo goed als af. Enkel nog wat laatste puntjes op de i zetten van eindredactie en vormgeving, dan kan het naar de drukker. Ik vind het reuze spannend en hoop dat je mij wilt steunen, zodat ik mijn boek in september kan presenteren. Daartoe heb ik een crowdfundingactie opgezet bij Voordekunst.

Waarom dit boek?

Ik schreef Een os op het dak op verzoek van deelnemers aan mijn cursussen over moderne muziek in o.a. het Concertgebouw en Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. Zij hadden behoefte aan een toegankelijk geschreven introductie op de belangrijkste stromingen in de muziek van de 20e en 21e eeuw.

Net als in mijn lessen en concertinleidingen neem ik je mee op een enerverende verkenningstocht langs nieuwe klankwerelden. Ik vermijd gewichtig jargon en vertaal musicologische begrippen naar gewone-mensen-taal. Onderweg geef ik inzichtelijke handvatten om de muziek van de 20e en 21e eeuw te begrijpen én waarderen.

Een os op het dak heb ik met veel plezier geschreven. Met deze publicatie hoop ik mijn enthousiasme voor moderne muziek over te dragen op de lezer. Er is immers geen mooier avontuur dan klankspectra te ontdekken die je nog niet kende!

Introductie voor de leek, vademecum voor de kenner

De reis begint bij de atonaliteit van Arnold Schönberg, het impressionisme van Debussy en het neoclassicisme van Stravinsky, en voert via het minimalisme van Steve Reich en het neospiritualisme van Arvo Pärt naar het multimediale werk van Michel van der Aa.

Een os op het dak is een welkome introductie voor de geïnteresseerde leek en vormt tegelijkertijd een beknopt vademecum voor de kenner. Kortom: een must-have voor jong en oud met interesse in eigentijdse muziek!

Arnold Schönberg, ets van Guus Glass

Motivatie – Wie ben ik?

Ik ben muziekpublicist, gespecialiseerd in moderne muziek. In 2014 publiceerde ik de succesvolle biografie Reinbert de Leeuw: mens of melodie, over dé moderne-muziekspecialist van Nederland.

Als kind raakte ik gefascineerd door de geluiden die mijn hoorn maakte als ik met de kleppen ratelde of mijn adem gierend door de buizen blies. Die Spielerei bleken moderne componisten gewoon als muziek te beschouwen. Wat een feest!

Tijdens mijn studie musicologie leerde ik het adagium van Charles Ives waarderen: ‘Leg je oren niet lui in een leunstoel maar zet ze wijd open om ongehoorde klanken op te vangen.’

Die nieuwsgierigheid naar nieuwe muziek deel ik graag met anderen, in artikelen, op de radio en tijdens openbare gesprekken met musici en componisten.

Waarvoor zijn die € 3500,-?

Het gevraagde bedrag heb ik nodig om Een os op het dak te laten drukken. Alle bijdragen zijn welkom. Help me de os het dak op te krijgen via Voordekunst. – Je krijgt mijn eeuwige dank, maar zie ook de tegenprestaties 🙂


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Hans Abrahamsen’s Three Pieces for Orchestra: ‘Extremely charming and expressive’

Hans Abrahamsen

The music of the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen (1952) is highly poetic and often has a strong visual expressiveness. He paints with a fine brush; his work sounds transparent like a watercolour. – As e.g. in the highly successful fairytale-like Winternacht, which he composed early in his career. Often his music balances on the edge of silence.

‘What you hear are images – essentially the music is already there’, he once said. Just as Michelangelo only had to ‘liberate’ his sculptures from the stone, Abrahamsen ‘digs out’ the arrangement of sounds that form his compositions. Thus he creates a sensual and spatial sound world, in which various ideas flow organically into one another. Occasionally, however, the Arcadian peace is disturbed by bouncing rhythms and loud dissonances.

A recent highlight is the meditative song cycle let me tell you for soprano and orchestra (2013), which he composed at the request of the soprano Barbara Hannigan. The text is composed of the 481 words Ophelia speaks in Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet. Hannigan premiered this intensely lyrical piece with the Berliner Philharmonic Orchestra, who also commissioned the Three Pieces for Orchestra. They premiered it on 26 May in Philharmonie Berlin and will introduce it to the Netherlands on June 5th in Concertgebouw Amsterdam.

Three Pieces for Orchestra is an arrangement, or rather reinterpretation of three of his Ten Studies for piano solo, which he composed between 1984 and 1998. In this work he investigates ‘the soul of the piano, formed by all the music that has been composed for it since its inception’. The cycle is divided into four segments, consisting of four, three, two and one part respectively. These connect successively with the Romantic era, Afro-American music and the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel.

The concluding Le trombe del mattino refers to Italy, ‘the land of light’. The different languages are of vital importance to Abrahamsen: ‘They determine the associations of the listener. There may be a world of difference between a ‘Traum’ song, a ‘Drømmersong’ and a ‘Dream Song’. As early as 2004 he orchestrated the first, rather Schumannesque studies, simply titled Four Pieces for Orchestra.

For Three Pieces for Orchestra he arranged the next three movements, in the original cycle called ‘English Studies’. The first, ‘With a restless and painful expression’ has the characteristic angular swing of the American boogie-woogie that became popular in the 1920ies. ‘Calmly moving’ is mainly set in the higher registers, where Glockenspiel, celesta and piccolos create a naive and innocent atmosphere. In the concluding movement, ‘Heavy’, the bass register is dominant.

Abrahamsen dedicated his piece to Sir Simon Rattle, who is making his farewell tour as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. On the programme is also the completed version of Bruckner’s Symphony number 9. ‘The seven minutes of Three Pieces for Orchestra are wonderful, really wonderful music’, wrote a German critic. ‘It’s an extremely charming, very expressive work.’

More info and tickets here

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Gavin Bryars: ‘I look upon Billy the Kid with some compassion’

Claron McFadden & Bertrand Belin (c) Bruno Ansellem

In Calamity/Billy the French Théâtre de la Croix-Rousse & the Belgian Muziektheater Transparant combine two mythical heroes of the Wild West. Starting point of this double bill was Ben Johnston’s song cycle Calamity Jane to her Daughter, to which Gavin Bryars composed a companion piece, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. The production was premiered in March in Lyon, then toured through Switzerland and Belgium; it will be performed at Operadagen Rotterdam on May 25th. I visited the Belgian premiere in Concertgebouw Bruges on 28 April.

The semi-dark stage exudes the atmosphere of a Western Saloon. The soprano Claron McFadden superbly sings the sometimes stark vocal lines Johnston based upon the letters Calamity Jane allegedly wrote to her daughter. With much bravura she brings across the passages in which Jane boasts about her exploits as a gunwoman, switching to a tone of subdued sorrow when she bewails her daughter’s absence. The just intonation of keyboard, organ, violin and percussion makes for a quirky and somewhat archaic sound world that wonderfully suits the subject matter.

In Bryars’ The Collected Works of Billy the Kid McFadden sings all the female roles, clad now in sturdy trousers, then in a matronly apron, depending on who she is impersonating. The French blues star Bertrand Belin is her partner Billy the Kid. He sings with a gritty voice, clutching an inseparable microphone in his left hand. The musicians of Les Percussions Claviers de Lyon at times join in the action. A highpoint is the wild dance violinist Lyonel Schmit performs centre stage, meanwhile playing a fiddle tune at breakneck speed. Hereafter the atmosphere becomes more grim, and when Billy the Kid is finally killed the music assumes a wistful, elegiac tone.

The audience warmly applauds the performers. Bryars himself is not present in Bruges, but we speak on the telephone a week after the concert.

Did you know Johnston’s ‘Calamity Jane to her Daughter’ when you were asked to write a companion piece?

Yes I did, I even have a copy of the letters Calamity Jane wrote to her daughter. Another coincidence is that Ben Johnson and I have been friends for ages. I met him in Illinois in 1968 when I was working on a few dance projects at the university. He was one of the teachers there. I like his song cycle very much, especially so within the range of his work.

Ben has worked with microtonality from the early fifties onward, when he was studying with Harry Partch. He wrote a beautiful string quartet, but can also relate to more popular music. Like in the jazz based Ci-Git Satie, a sort of homage to Satie which he wrote for the Swingle Sisters. In Calamity Jane he also successfully integrates his microtonality into a more popular idiom. Take the piano: because of its just tuning it sounds very much like a bar room honky-tonk piano.

You based your opera on ‘The Collected works of Billy the Kid’ by Michael Ondaatje. What attracts you in this book?

Michael is a very intelligent writer, who wrote a standard book about the jazz scene in New Orleans, Coming Through Slaughter. We happen to be friends as well, and whenever I play in Toronto he comes to hear my concerts. I love his unconventional approach to literature, as in The Collected works of Billy the Kid.

It is not a straightforward novel – though some parts of it are – but rather a combination of narrative, research and poetry. Poetry written by Michael himself, but in the guise of Billy the Kid. His book is based on the story of Billy’s life and the imagined poetry from Billy himself, but it also incorporates newspaper clippings. It is very intricate, yet very cleverly done, in an original way. Jean Lacornerie, director of Théâtre de la Croix-Rousse made the libretto from the book.

In the programme book I read that Ondaatje’s language ‘screams’ to be set to music.

(Laughing out loud.) Well, it was definitely not screaming at me! It’s an interesting thought though, but screaming, no. I’d rather say the opposite: I know lots of texts that scream not to be set to music. But to be serious. This is my fifth opera, and the search for the right text often takes even longer than writing the notes themselves.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the text, reading it through and through, then I go ahead and write my score very quickly. It’s like a Zen calligrapher, who contemplates for hours on end, then sits down and writes what he has to write. I am not the type to make endless revisions, I have a strategy for the whole thing in my mind. As for Billy the Kid: I had already figured out the peaks and troughs, and knew where my music is going.

You did not use quite the same instrumentation as Ben Johnston’s. Was this your own choice?

Yes, I first worked with Gérard Lecointe in 1984, on my opera Medea at the Opera of Lyon. I threw out the entire violin section, replacing them by tuned percussion. Actually that is when Les Percussions Clavier de Lyon was founded by Gérard, so their base was a dramatic work. I have written a lot of music for their ensemble.

In Calamity Jane there’s one singer, piano/organ, violin and drums. The five members of Les Percussions Clavier de Lyon sometimes include the piano, so it was easy to fit that in. And the violin gave me even more possibilities melodically. So you have the one voice in the first part, Calamity Jane, and then in the second part, Billy the Kid, there are two voices, a male and a female one. Since the instrumentation is comparable, it feels like one big family. – Though I don’t use microtonality.

Was it your idea to compose for a blues singer and a lyrical soprano, Bertrand Belin and Claron McFadden?

We came up with that idea along the way. We decided to have a soprano who can sing both in a classical, and in a freer, nonclassical way. Jean suggested Claron McFadden, who is a remarkable singer. We worked on a preliminary sketch together, a piece of some ten minutes to make people interested in our project Billy the Kid.

You mean the fragment about Billy never using his left hand, only for shooting?

Indeed. I worked on this directly with Claron, she is extraordinary. She can sing impossibly difficult modern music, but also early music, with a very pure voice. Then again she can also sing like Sarah Vaughan, and moreover she is a great actress. So I wrote the part with her in mind. I knew what I could do, since I had been able to get acquainted with her voice in the flesh.

In December 2017 we rehearsed the first 7 out of 11 scenes in Lyon, where I got to work with Bertrand Belin as well. I had been to a concert of him and his rock band in the summer and we’d had drinks afterwards. He is a very intelligent, very funny, and very intuitive performer.

There was only one problem: he doesn’t read music. So he had to learn everything by heart, repeating his part over and over again, working with tapes, teachers and with Claron. Up to that rehearsal period I had only written solo parts for them, but in December I wrote a first duet. Their voices beautifully mingle together, so I wrote another duet. Turns out they enjoy them so much they have asked me to write a new piece for them.

What do you appreciate in Belin’s voice?

He is totally accurate, and has a quality in his voice that reminds me somewhat of Frank Sinatra. Because he doesn’t have to refer to the score he has his own phrasing, and he can’t go wrong. I love his timing, he’s completely internalized it in his physique. He also knows how to move on a stage, and understands what he is singing.

It struck me that he uses a handheld microphone, whereas McFadden is wearing a headset. Is this a direction in your score?

No, it is just a stage direction. However I do think he’s more comfortable with a handheld, because he’s used to singing rock music. And perhaps he also had an ear microphone, I’m not sure about that. The handheld microphone becomes a theatrical device as well. He always carries it with him, as if it were his pistol. At the very end, when he’s dead, Claron gently lays the microphone beside his body.

Calamity Jane/Billy is presented as a ‘Paradise Lost’. Yet it is full of killings, betrayal, it is full of blood.

Well, that may seem strange, but people often do think of the Wild West as a strangely ideal environment. I myself love Westerns such as High Noon and Rio Bravo, I think they are real masterpieces. They have a strong moral sense about them. There’s a powerful awareness of right and wrong, like in a morality play.

But your music is not at all violent.

Indeed, my portrait is partly affectionate, I look on Billy the Kid with some compassion. My score has a feeling of melancholy, the violence is rather more in the background. The violin has a continuous kind of counterpoint to all the other voices and the general, rather more meditative atmosphere.

The violin gives me the opportunity to create melodies that are not possible on the mallet instruments. There’s also this moment when the violin comes on stage, when in the libretto it says ‘Billy the Kid starts dancing’. This is based on one of the poems in the book. Claron sings:

Up with the curtain
down with your pants
William Bonney
is going to dance…

The violinist jumps on stage and plays a frenzied solo, savagely turning about and stomping his feet. Quite a challenge for the performer, for he must not only act but also play his virtuoso pyrotechnics from memory. The music I wrote for this scene is entirely my own, but relates to fiddle tunes from the Wild West.

This wild solo breaks up the action and creates new energy. It’s a pivotal scene in the opera. Hereafter Billy the Kid is taken prisoner and, after his escape, finally killed by Pat Garret. Then the sadness sets in, the ‘Paradise Lost’ so to speak.

Calamity/Billy, Operadagen Rotterdam, 25 May, more info & tickets here.

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Karina Canellakis on women in music: ‘Just go ahead & do it!’

Karina Canellakis conducting © Chris Christodoulou

Her father was a conductor, yet it didn’t occur to her to follow in his footsteps. Karina Canellakis (New York, 1982) became a professional violinist, studying with Ida Kavafian at the Curtis Institute. She made a career in chamber music, and as soloist under renowned conductors such as Bernard Haitink, Esa-Pekka Salonen & Christian Thielemann. But she also played as an orchestral musician, notably in the Chicago Symphony and Berlin Philharmonic, whose Academy she attended from 2005-07.

It was Sir Simon Rattle who suggested she take up the conducting baton, but it took some years for this idea to sink in. After she’d finished a masters course in conducting with Alan Gilbert at Juilliard, her career gained momentum. From 2014-16 she was assistant conductor to Jaap van Zweden with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. In 2014 she stepped in for him when he couldn’t conduct Shostakovich 8 – at such short notice she didn’t even have one rehearsal. Two years later she won the Georg Solti Conducting Award.

On 16 March 2018 Canellakis made her debut with the Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, in AVRTROSVrijdagconcert, in a programme featuring musci by Britten, Shostakovich & Beethoven. I interviewed her for the live broadcast on the classical station Radio4 two days before, after her second rehearsal with the Dutch musisians. I was struck by the energy and enthusiasm with which Canellakis conducted, and by the freshness she brought to Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. The rapport between musicians and conductor was evident.

In our interview we talked about the relationship between playing the violin and conducting, about her cooperation with Jaap van Zweden and her hopes for the future. Little did we know that barely two months later Canellakis would be appointed chief conductor of the Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. This is a milestone in more respects than one. First, it doesn’t occur often that a conductor is invited to be chief after their first ever concert. Secondly, Canellakis is the first woman conductor to become chief of an orchestra in the Netherlands.

When asked about her commitment to women composers, Canellakis replied this is not really one of her priorities, though she is committed to promoting music by forgotten composers in general. Also she ‘couldn’t care less’ about male conductors making derogatory remarks about women conductors: ‘It’s 2018! We mustn’t talk about it, we must just go ahead and do it!’

You can listen to our interview here:



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La clemenza di Tito: exhilarating performance by Teodor Currentzis & musicAeterna

Paula Murrihy & Florian Schuele (c) Ruth Walz

Classical music matters again. At least judging from the protests against the Stockhausen retrospective Aus Licht and the fierce polemics about the interventions of opera directors. Thus La clemenza Di Tito by Teodor Currentzis and Peter Sellars caused controversy even before its Dutch premiere. They scrapped most of the recitatives and added music from Mozart’s Mass in c minor, among others.

‘A disgrace!’ cried opera fundamentalists without having heard a single note. Their irreconcilable attitude is at odds with Mozart’s own message: forgive even your own murderer. This co-production of Dutch National Opera, Salzburger Festspiele and Deutsche Oper Berlin received a jubilant first night at the Amsterdam Music Theatre on the 7th of May.

Music offers compassion and hope

‘Music can teach us to love, forgive, help, show pity and compassion, cherish hope’, Currentzis had previously told me. According to him, Mozart has an eye for our human weaknesses. He shows us the ‘asymmetrical beauty of our lives’ and is therefore ‘a contemporary composer’. And he is right. Our society is in great need of generosity and forgiveness.

Peter Sellers emphasizes the topicality of the libretto Caterino Mazzolà concocted for Mozart from an older model. The Roman Emperor Tito gives away his wealth to victims of a natural disaster and a fire. Sellars presents them as a group of ragged immigrants. He is often accused of seeking far-fetched connections with the present, but this staging is spot on.

In Mozart’s case, Emperor Tito had to give up his beloved Berenice because she was not a Roman citizen, but a native from Judea. In Sellars’ direction she is a Palestinian. He presents Sesto and his sister Servilia as two refugees who are invited by Tito to build a new life in Rome. He appoints the aristocrat Vitellia as their guide and mentor.

Suicide bomber

However, she was once rejected by the emperor and urges Sesto to kill him – as a suicide bomber. After an endless series of entanglements and a failed attack on his life, Tito forgives his assailants. Unlike in Mozart’s original he then dies, after which the opera ends with his Maurerische Trauermusik. Although appropriate, I would have preferred to hear the original finale here. Yet the other inserted fragments are aptly chosen.

For example, the formidable choir of musicAeterna sings ‘Benedictus qui venit’ from the Mass in c minor when Tito generously welcomes the asylum seekers. The cheerful singing fits in seamlessly with the festive atmosphere. However, this tilts when the members of the choir suddenly move into the hall. A not all too subtle but striking reference to the hordes of victims of poverty and violence that threaten to flood us. When Servilia rejects Tito’s marriage proposal and he thanks her for her honesty, we hear the exuberant ‘Laudate’.

Updated version

With such interventions, Sellars and Currentzis make the complex story recognizable. It is a mystery to me why critics would take offence at this. Mozart himself asked his librettist to drastically cut back the version of Pietro Metastasio’s 60-year-old text. Mazzolà brought the opera back from three to two acts and replaced solo recitatives with duets and trios. Why should performers not be allowed to make a revamped version over two centuries later?

Dynamic nuances

‘I only do what the composer wants’, Currentzis said in the aforementioned interview. Though, naturally, he presents his vision, I believe him. It is pure pleasure to hear how accurately and passionately he guides his own musicAeterna through Mozart’s music. Playing on authentic instruments the musicians bring the notes to life with a velvety sound and flashy accents. It sounds tingling fresh, as if the ink is still wet.

The dynamics are striking, switching from barely audible pianissimo to a deafening forte in one fell swoop. Not only the instrumentalists excel in subtle dynamic nuances, but also the choir singers. The moment when in ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’ they suddenly shift to the faintest whisper in the middle of the word ‘mundi’, is hair-raising.

Everyone hangs on Currentzis’ lip, including the soloists. From row four I could see him miming every phrase – sometimes even singing along audibly. He gives the singers all the space they need, literally breathing along with them, creating pauses whenever he deems it necessary. Even though the tempi are sometimes fast, there is no question of agitation. A few moments when not everyone is quite in sync left aside.

Paula Murrihy is the true star

The cast is of somewhat uneven quality. The tenor Russell Thomas fails to convince as Emperor Tito; his voice is insecure and his acting mediocre. When he comes on stage with his retinue, our attention is inevidently drawn towards Sir Willard White, who has a much nobler appearance. In his twenty-fifth production at The National Opera, the Jamaican-British bass baritone sings the modest role of Publio. Despite his somewhat grainy voice, White convinces with his empathic interpretation.

The soprano Ekaterina Scherbachenko is a credible Vitellia, even though her intonation in the second act is not always flawless. The soprano Janai Brugger is touching in her role of the vulnerable Servilia. Her beloved Annio is a beautiful trouser role by Jeanine De Bique. She has an impressive stage presence and sings the most difficult coloratura with admirable suppleness and flawless intonation.

But the true star of the evening is the Irish mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy as Sesto, another trouser role. More than Tito, he/she is the main character of this opera. Murrihy phenomenally impersonates the ‘asymmetrical beauty of our lives’. Awkward as the enamoured youngster who can’t resist the double-faced Vitellia. Determined once she’s donned her explosive belt in order to kill Tito, and full of remorse when she’s standing at his deathbed.

Duet between clarinet and soprano

A highpoint in the opera is Murrihy’s duet with the clarinettist Florian Schuele in the aria ‘Parto’, in which she definitively decides to carry out the attack Vitellia has incited. Like two lovers, Schuele and Murrihy circle around each other, one no less virtuoso than the other. Later on Sellars beautifully mirrors this scene, when Schuele besets the guilty Vitellia with a basset horn. Schuele delivers a top performance: he plays his rabidly difficult part by heart while moving about like an experienced actor.

Sellars’ direction is deeply human, even though one would wish for him to somewhat curb his excessive love for pathetic gestures. When choir and soloists once again desperately stretch their arms to heaven or cup their hands over their eyes or ears, the tension ebbs away. When Tito sings his final aria in his hospital bed convulsing in agony of death, this is unintentionally funny.

Nevertheless, dear opera fundamentalists, La clemenza di Tito is an excellent production. Be it only for the exhilarating interpretation of the music.

La clemenza di Tito runs until May 24th. More info and playlist here.


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Teodor Currentzis: Music to die for

Teodor Currentzis (c) Anton Zavyalov

He is praised and reviled for his idiosyncratic approach to classical masterpieces. According to Teodor Currentzis (1972) this is ‘a myth, I only do what the composer wants’. On Monday 7 May he will make his debut at Dutch National Opera with his own musicAeterna in Mozart’s  La clemenza di Tito. The production is directed by Peter Sellars and was premiered in Salzburg in August 2017.

Organizing a talk with the controversial conductor turns out to be quite a challenge. After weeks of intensive correspondence, Teodor Currentzis agrees to an interview – the following day. When I call him at the agreed time in Vienna, I am kindly asked to wait another five to ten minutes, the rehearsal with Camerata Salzburg lasts somewhat longer than planned. Two hours and many repeated calls later I finally get him on the phone. But, then then he takes all the time to answer my questions.

Creating spaces in music

He politely but resolutely parries my observation that he is apparently a perfectionist, given the ever-expanding rehearsal. ‘You can put it that way, but I would put it differently. I am dedicated to music and always try to achieve what I have in mind, that takes time. For me, music is not simply a way to fill in the empty spaces in my life. The exact opposite is true: my life is at the service of the spaces I create in music.’

How are we supposed to understand this, I can’t help asking, being a typically down-to-earth Dutchwoman. My question sparks off an enthusiastic plea from the Greek-Russian maestro about the metaphysical value of music. It represents nothing less than the Good, the True and the Beautiful, and makes us into better people. With this conviction, Currentzis fits in seamlessly with Russian composers who counterbalanced the barbarity of the Soviet dictatorship with spiritually inclined works.

Natural harmony

‘I don’t see music as a series of sounds, but as a new form of communication that brings about natural harmony’, says Currentzis. ‘Our language, which has been developed over thousands of years, can only describe everyday matters that are absolutely necessary. It is becoming increasingly poorer and clumsier, and cannot express the really important things. We are stuck to our mobile phone all day, physical contact disappears. Instead of going for a walk with friends and enjoying the sunset, we have a conversation via Skype or Facebook. But music expresses the very essence of life.’

Contrary to this spirit of the times, Currentzis founded his orchestra and choir musicAeterna in 2004, with which he initiates an ever-expanding audience into these deeper layers of meaning. In preparation for a concert, visitors are a week long immersed in public rehearsals, master classes, workshops and lectures by philosophers, musicologists and psychologists.


‘I’ve created a laboratory in which we work with sensitive people’, says the conductor. ‘They are open, willing to look for the truth within and to enter into a relationship with what is happening on stage. This gives them as much insight into the performed works as the musicians themselves.’

Starting in Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia, he moved musicAeterna to Perm in 2011, some two thousand kilometres westwards. At the time, this relatively small city presented itself as the centre of a cultural revolution and offered Currentzis the opportunity to develop his idealistic concepts in peace and quiet. All his musicians and singers followed suit. The public also keeps coming in: ‘Our concerts in Moscow and St. Petersburg are sold out months in advance, people come from all over Russia and even Europe.’

Renewing listening practice

Currentzis denies that with his approach he would preach mainly for his own parish. ‘I am not only looking for communication with intellectuals, we also play in squares, in hospitals and prisons, or for junkies. I notice that non-experts are often more open than the usual white audience, who think they already know everything.’

He is convinced that our listening practice should be renewed. ‘Listening to music is not about an opera fan who visits the same opera again and again, only with other singers, to judge how he or she takes the high note. Music is not a joke, it can transform us, it can teach us to love, forgive, help, show pity and compassion, cherish hope.’

Unconditional dedication

Too many orchestras ignore this transcendent quality, he believes. ‘They approach music as a nine-to-five job, playing as if they are office clerks. Instead of conveying emotion, they erect a wall between performer and listener.’ For him, the success of musicAeterna lies in the unconditional dedication of both musicians and singers. ‘We make music to die for, every concert anew.’

Still, he calls it a myth that his performances are contrary. ‘I do exactly what the composer asks. The usual concert practice is stuck in twentieth-century performing habits, as we know them from recordings on Deutsche Grammophon or EMI. When Mozart indicates “thunder” in his score, the strings play hushed sixteenths, so you don’t hear a thunderstorm at all. Tchaikovsky asks for ecstasy and scores six times forte, yet they play mezzoforte. They make completely different music than the composer intended.’

Mozart: contemporary composer

À propos Mozart: Currentzis once called him a contemporary composer. ‘I still think so. Historically speaking, the world has not evolved in essential matters, only in superficial things such as clothing, medicine, gadgets. But all the good and bad things we had ages ago are still the same today. Mozart does not speak in concrete terms about aesthetics, but about the asymmetrical beauty of our lives. He is contemporary because he has found the golden spot of harmony, where different energies are combined into one all-encompassing energy. Therefore he will never become old-fashioned.’

More info, tickets and playlist here.
This article is a slightly adapted version af an interview I wrote for Preludium in April 2018, when Currentzis conducted musicAeterna in Concertgebouw Amsterdam
Here’s my review of La clemenza di Tito

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Mayke Nas: ‘Je omgeving beïnvloedt je manier van componeren’

Mayke Nas (c) Maurice Haak

De immer avontuurlijke Mayke Nas, Componist des Vaderlands van 2016-18, presenteert donderdag 3 mei haar nieuwste project in Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ, Radio Rusland. Ze ontwikkelde dit theatrale concert samen met de vier dames van het Ragazze Quartet, voor wie ze in 2012 ook al het strijkkwartet In & Out componeerde. Ze gaan op zoek naar de betekenis van artistieke vrijheid, op teksten van Ilja Leonard Pfeiffer en bijgestaan door acteur Noël Keulen. Hiertoe wordt de Grote Zaal van muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ omgebouwd tot radiostudio. Na afloop spreek ik op Foyerdeck 1 met Nas en de uitvoerenden.

‘Ik wilde al langere tijd weer eens werken met het Ragazze Quartet, liefst in een avondvullend theaterproject’, vertelt Mayke Nas. Daartoe haakte ze aan bij een van hun programma’s, met kwartetten van Sjostakovitsj, Goebaidoelina en Rachmaninov. ‘Wij vroegen ons af waarom Rusland nog altijd zoveel grote talenten heeft die het land verlaten. Ik ben vervolgens gaan lezen over die drie componisten, die allemaal in een beknellende situatie moesten componeren.’

Knellend korset

Rachmaninov vluchtte uit Rusland toen de communisten in 1917 de macht overnamen. Sjostakovitsj zuchtte onder het Sovjetbewind, en werd door Stalin gedwongen in de Verenigde Staten een voorgekauwde speech voor te dragen. Goebaidoelina verliet de Sovjet-Unie pas nadat de Berlijnse muur in 1989 gevallen was. ‘Zouden ze andere muziek geschreven hebben als ze elders gewoond hadden, vroeg ik mij af. Ik ben ervan overtuigd dat elke componist beïnvloed wordt door zijn of haar omgeving.’

In haar hoedanigheid als Componist des Vaderlands kijkt zij met een kritische blik naar maatschappelijke ontwikkelingen en werpt zij zich op als ambassadeur van haar collega’s. ‘Ook in het moderne Nederland zitten wij als kunstenaars in een steeds benauwender korset. Er zijn veel knelpunten, waarvan het gebrek aan financiële mogelijkheden er maar één is. Een misschien nog wel belangrijker probleem is het dédain waarmee kunstenaars tegenwoordig vaak worden bejegend.’

Kratje bier voor nieuwe compositie

Zelf werd Nas hier op pijnlijke wijze mee geconfronteerd toen ze in 2017 een nieuw belsignaal componeerde voor de Tweede Kamer. Zij maakte haar compositie geheel onbezoldigd, als geschenk aan onze volksvertegenwoordigers. In plaats van haar te bedanken maakte Klaas Dijkhoff, fractievoorzitter van de VVD, haar stuk op zijn Facebookpagina met de grond gelijk.

‘Tweede Kamer doet onderzoek naar nieuwe Kamerbel. De nieuwe variant vind ik niks & kost bovendien veel geld. Heb jij een beter geluid? Mail je eigen compositie naar Beste inzending krijgt van mij een kratje bier.’

Met dit alles in het achterhoofd maakte Nas Radio Rusland met het Ragazze Quartet, een ‘geënsceneerde, getheatraliseerde radio-uitzending’, waarvoor Pfeiffer de tekst leverde. De voorstelling speelt zich af in de ether.  Centrale gast is een componist die via de telefoon live wordt geïnterviewd in een radioprogramma. Hij komt terecht in een absurde situatie waarin hij probeert zich te verdedigen tegen niet expliciet geuite verwijten. Wat hij als componist wil zeggen en wat van hem verwacht wordt lopen mijlenver uiteen, twee werelden botsen op elkaar.

Tussendoor klinken opnames van onder anderen Stalin, Poetin en Klaas Dijkhoff, maar ook een fragment waarin Goebaidoelina vertelt hoe belangrijk Sjostakovitsj voor haar is geweest. Die drukte haar immers bij haar diplomering op het hart haar eigen ‘foute weg’ te blijven volgen. Het Ragazze Quartet speelt haar Tweede Strijkkwartet en het Tiende Strijkkwartet van Sjostakovitsj, naast enkele delen uit Rachmaninovs Eerste Strijkkwartet.

Speciaal voor de gelegenheid componeerde Mayke Nas haar Etherkwartet nr.9. Het cijfer in de titel is een schalkse knipoog naar Revolution No.9 van The Beatles – dit is pas haar derde strijkkwartet. Nas: ‘Ik ben een groot fan van The Beatles. In hun song lopen heel veel stemmen door elkaar, net als in Radio Rusland. Dus ik vond die verwijzing wel terecht.’

Meer info en tickets hier.
22-07-2018 ‘s-Graveland, Wonderfeel
28-10-2018 Asten, In de Gloria kerk
23-11-2018 Groningen, Oosterpoort
05-03-2019 Zaandam, Zaantheater

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Annelies van Parys: ‘No more beautiful symbol of love than a flower’

Annelies van Parys (l) + Gaea Schoeters, foto Trui Hanoulle

In 2014 Annelies van Parys (1975) composed her first opera, Private View, for Asko|Schönberg and Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart. Shortly afterwards this was awarded the FEDORA – Rolf Liebermann Prize for Opera. The Stuttgarter singers at once asked her to compose a new piece for them. Songs of Love and War/An Archive of Love will premiere on May 20th during the Rotterdam Opera Days.

For this full-length production of the Belgian Muziektheater Transparant Van Parys worked together with the Flemish author Gaea Schoeters and Het Geluid Maastricht. Last season they made the much acclaimed performance Het Kanaal (The Channel) about citizens who threaten to lynch a transgender and a refugee. This was inspired by a recently discovered text by Shakespeare, Van Parys now enters into a dialogue with dead and living colleagues. In addition to her own music, there is work by Claudio Monteverdi, Claude Vivier and José Maria Sánchez-Verdú.

Not war but love

‘Our piece has little to do with war’, says Van Parys in a Skype conversation. ‘Originally I wanted to compose a complete cycle named Songs of Love & War, but because I was working on a new opera I had to postpone this. I suggested editing my own Ah, cette fable which I wrote in 2017 for soprano and saxophone, on a text by Gaea. From there, we came up with the idea of doing something with a kind of archive. This explains the second part of the title, An Archive of Love. The first part refers to Monteverdi’s Madrigali Guerrieri et Amorosi Monteverdi from which we use some parts.

Trapped angel

Schoeter’s libretto was based on a poem by Gérard de Nerval, which sprang from one of his dreams/psychoses. In it he describes an imposing winged figure, trapped in a small courtyard. Schoeters also drew on The Gap of Time, a narrative by Jeannette Winterson based on De Nerval’s original.

Van Parys: ‘Winterson gives the angel human traits. He was not taken prisoner, but has dived down to earth out of love. There he’s a somewhat preoccupied. If he flies away, he will destroy the building and his beloved, but if he stays he will die himself. – For an angel who doesn’t fly is lost. Gaea gives him the ultimate human characteristic: free will. Whichever choice he makes, the outcome is fatal, he faces a diabolical dilemma.’

Van Parys adapted Ah, cette fable for the six singers of Neue Vocalsolisten, Schoeters chose the remaining music. ‘The outcome is an ingenious puzzle, in which my piece serves as a guideline. Gaea chose very diverse compositions, which she linked together in a highly associative way. She strings pieces together that no sensible person would ever place in such an order. But although she has no musical background, they wonderfully match each other. I feared that I would have to compose a lot of musical bridges, but that proved not to be the case at all.’

From first spark to extinguishing relationship

The performance opens with an integral performance of Love Songs by Claude Vivier, as a prelude to the actual archive of love. ‘We have divided this into five themes, which roughly follow the evolution of love. Spark is about the igniting first spark, the arrow of Cupid if you like. The second chapter is Courting, about the subtle game of seduction.’

‘The third movement, Love, describes the fulfillment, the attainment of love. A bit cynical perhaps’, laughs Van Parys, ‘but this is the shortest part of all. Rupture describes decay and despair, the loss of love. We don’t end up in a negative mood, though, because this is followed by Repeat, in which there is room for cherishing memories. This movement is about the realisation that everything is cyclical, and that one day a new love will present itself.’

Claude Vivier and Pointer Sisters

‘The first music that sounds in the archive are the aforementioned Madrigali Guerrieri et Amorosi of Monteverdi. I had to edit them a little because they originally included instruments. We also hear some madrigals from Scriptura Antiqua by Sánchez-Verdú and echoes from Love Songs by Vivier to which I have made no changes. The whole is enlivened with associative quotations from famous love arias and songs.’

Van Parys provides a few examples. ‘When in Vivier’s cycle the text “Tristan, Tristan” sounds, you hear a patch of Romeo & Juliette from the Pointer Sisters. In Rupture we put two arias from Mozart’s Don Giovanni next to each other. Leporello’s famous “catalogue aria” and “Ah, fuggi il traditor!” by Donna Elvira are in totally different keys, which causes a huge collision. We also pair “Un di felice” from Verdi’s La Traviata and “Ah, je vieux vivre” from Roméo et Juliette Gounod. That makes for yet another big clash!’

No traditional play

The theatrical aspect of Songs of Love and War/An Archive of Love mainly lies in the interaction with the concertgoers. ‘Gaea and I were keen that it wouldn’t be a traditional play, it’s more abstract. There are different formations of singers, who sometimes stand behind, sometimes around or even within the audience. This constantly offers different approaches, so you can interact directly with the listener.’

In addition to this spatial arrangement, flowers are used. Van Parys: ‘They can represent a lot of different aspects of love. When you court someone, you give him or her flowers. When something snaps, this can be symbolized by a broken stem or a wilting flower. What’s special about flowers is that they are always beautiful. There is no more apt symbol of love than a flower.’

More info and tickets here.


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Cellist Maya Fridman: ‘The best thing about making music is communicating with my audience’.

Maya Fridman, photo Brendon Heinst

The cellist Maya Fridman was born in 1989 in Moscow, where she developed into a child prodigy. Already while studying at the Schnittke College she won the first prize of the International Festival of Slavic Music. In 2010 she moved to the Netherlands, where she graduated Cum Laude from the Conservatory of Amsterdam six years later.

Fridman naturally juxtaposes contemporary compositions with major works from the last century, moving us with her emotionally charged playing. For two seasons she is ‘musician in residence’ at Gaudeamus. On 26 April she will present the world premiere of Canti d’inizio e fine in Kunststruimte KuuB in Utrecht.

This seven-part composition for solo cello and vocals was created in close collaboration with the Ukrainian-Dutch composer Maxim Shalygin. Fridman: ‘The title Canti d’inizio e fine refers to the cycle of birth, life and death, the underlying theme. Later Maxim also involved images of the Holocaust. That’s a tough subject, all the more so because both of my parents are Jewish. Each movement reflects on a different life situation or crisis, the music is very dramatic and psychological.’


She first heard Shalygin’s music in 2016, during a network meeting of music publisher Donemus. ‘I was immediately attracted to his ideas and asked him to compose a solo piece for me on the spot. His music is very profound and touches me deeply. It makes me think, and makes me experience my life differently. It’s hard to describe precisely, but it transforms and purifies me. It sometimes literally feels like a catharsis.’

For Canti d’inizio e fine they initially corresponded by e-mail, but in the last few months they have met regularly. ‘We work intensively together to find the right sound for every note. It’s great to be able to communicate directly with a composer.’ Despite their close cooperation, however, Fridman does not consider herself a co-composer. ‘Maxim writes the notes, I interpret them. I do sometimes make suggestions for a different interpretation, though. Sometimes he accepts these, sometimes he doesn’t, at other times we arrive at something completely different.’

Trembling cello

When I interview her a week before the premiere, they are still busy working on the finishing touches of the piece. ‘Maxim uses very varied techniques, each of the seven movements has a different approach. The first one is slow and lyrical and sounds a bit like weeping, as if something fragile comes to life.’

‘In the second movement there’s a lot of ricochet, where I bounce my bow on the strings. Here you shouldn’t actually hear a cello, it should sound like a trembling voice. That was quite a challenge, because I had to learn how to create that effect with a traditional way of playing.’

In the following section Shalygin uses Arabic tinted decorations. Fridman: ‘There are also very fast crescendi and decrescendi on one note, it reminds me a little of choral singing. In the fourth part I don’t use a bow at all, it consists only of pizzicati. It is Maxim’s intention to make the cello sound like a bass guitar here.’

In the next movement, sound researcher Shalygin uses a so-called BACH bow, that has a curve so that all four strings can be played simultaneously. I still have to practice that’, Fridman laughs. ‘But this challenge is exactly what attracts me in working with Maxim, I learn to push my own limits.’

Todesfuge Paul Celan

Also exciting is the epilogue, in which Fridman must not only play but also sing. Only this movement bears a title, Todesfuge, after Paul Celan’s poem of the same name. Fridman: ‘Although I regularly sing and play simultaneously this is a lot more challenging, because Maxim makes higher demands on my voice than, for example, Louis Andriessen in La voce.

‘Cello and voice are completely equal. Sometimes they merge, at other times there is more counterpoint. Maxim moreover looks for the extremes, my melodic lines range from extremely high to very low. I am not a trained singer and have taken vocal lessons especially for this purpose.’

In Todesfuge, Celan describes the atrocities and death in a concentration camp. Fridman: ‘Very moving, every time I practice this it makes me want to cry.’ Yet she is not afraid of being overwhelmed by her emotions during the concert. ‘I have lived with this piece for months now, I get up with it and go to bed with it, it grows inside me.’

‘It is precisely because of my personal involvement that I can get the message across even more forcefully. ‘I find this the most attractive in making music: communicating with my audience.’

More info and tickets here.

PS On 26 April only the first five movements were performed. On Sunday 9 September the integral cycle will be premièred in MerkAz at 2 pm.

Maya Fridman plays La voce Louis Andriessen

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Sedje Hémon wrought music from painting

Sedje Hémon, pfoto Max Koot, Paris 1956

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

Violinist in Auschwitz

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

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

Music from painting

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

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

Reprogramming of the body

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

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

Website as an interactive score

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

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

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

Korzo 3 May, 8.30 pm: Hidden Agreements. Info and tickets here
On 1 May, Jaïr Tchong hosted a discussion about Sedje Hémon in Stroom, The Hague, you can hear the podcast here.

On September 9 2018 “Hidden Agreements” will be performed in the Gaudeamus Music Week. 4.30 pm, Centraal Museum Utrecht.


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

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

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

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

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

H.P. Lovecraft: lush use of adjectives

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

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

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



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City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra brings Raminta Šerkšnytė to TivoliVredenburg

Raminta Šerkšnytė, Photo Music Information Centre Lithuania

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 More information and tickets here

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

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Ligeti festival – ode to an adventurous and idiosyncratic composer

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

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

Love for Bartók

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

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

‘Formalistic tendencies’

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

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

From communist to musical dictatorship

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

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

Music from metronomes

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

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

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

Car horns & Rossini aria’s

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

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

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

Caribbean rhythms

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

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

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

Microtones versus perfect pitch

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

More information and tickets here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sofia Gubaidulina © F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd.

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

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

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

No small-talk

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

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

Music in the basement circuit

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

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

Doors and windows swing open

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

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

A house with a tree

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Elsbeth Moser

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

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

Dark orchestral sound

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

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

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

We’ll find out on Friday 23 March!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remarkably the role of Death is sung by a woman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walkyrien (c) Emil Doepler, via Wikipedia Media

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

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

Perotinus & Leoninus

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

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

Smyth ‘influenced’ by unborn Britten

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

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

Netherlands’ Men’s Days and Bosmans Prize

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

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

Modern music world forms an exception

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

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

Bright spots

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

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

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

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


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

Cappella Amsterdam

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

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

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

Stabat Mater: the text of texts

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

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

Personal resonance

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

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

Text dictates form

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

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

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

Journey into light

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

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

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

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

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Fanny Mendelssohn: in the shadow of Felix

Fanny Mendelssohn, drawing by her later husband Wilhelm Hensel

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

 Queen Victoria sings a song by Felix, oops Fanny

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

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

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

Bach-fugue fingers

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

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

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

Playing ‘like a man’

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

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

Composing as ‘ornament’ rather than profession

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

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

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

Marriage with Wilhelm Hensel

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

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

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

Symbiotic relationship

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

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

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

Unforgettable Italy

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

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

Piano cycle and Song without Words

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

January, from ‘Das Jahr’

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

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

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

First publications

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

Positive review on dying day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whence the title ‘Written on Skin’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Matthias Pintscher makes debut with Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julia Bullock (c) Christian Steiner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#Grammy for Barbara Hannigan & Ludwig Orchestra

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a list of all the winners


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Composer Marie Jaëll: French flair, Russian pathos

Marie Jaëll, photo credit Wikipedia

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Hello concert organizers out there, are you listening?!

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

Silvia Colasanti, photo Barbara Rigon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You seem to have a preference for melodious music.

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

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

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

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

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

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

More info and tickets for the concert here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More info and tickets here.
CD available here.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What were the differences?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

More info and tickets here.

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

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Zara Levina Piano Concertos: Rachmaninoff meets Shostakovich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Heike Matthiesen features lyrical music on CD ‘Guitar Ladies’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Website Heike Matthiesen
Buy CD 

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

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

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

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

More info and tickets via this link

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