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

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

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

Sunset over Shoalhaven river, view from Bundanon

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

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

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

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

Kate Moore (c) Renske Vrolijk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Maya Verlaak (c) Ana Lemnaru

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Page from Song & Dance

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

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

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Ritratto Willem Jeths: a luscious soundworld that vies with Puccini

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

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

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

Verity Wingate as Luisa Casati (c) Ruth Waltz

Amsterdam, 7 October 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Petra Cini (c) Anca Barjovanu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenza Koutchoukali (c) Ben Kortman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you decide on Bethge?

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

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

What form did you give the five songs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And how is the health of your mother now?

I’d rather keep that to myself.

What do you hope to bring about in the listener?


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

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

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Aida goes Black Lives Matter

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

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

In Proximity (c) DNO/Kim Krijnen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin de Raaff (c) Teo Krijgsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lera Auerbach (c). F. Reinhold

Lera Auerbach (c) F. Reinhold

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

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

Leon Theremin playing his instrument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arvo Pärt (c) Kauko Kikkas

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

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

‘Western decadence’

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

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

Collage

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

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

Tintinnabuli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeroen Elfferich, piano’s

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

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

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

Ook Suzanne Weusten betoonde zich in De Pianist enthousiast:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘May’ Louis Andriessen: impressive swan song

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ekaterina Levental (c) Richard Smit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blazon tainted

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

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

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

Man and musician

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Online shaming and fake news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you ask them to compose in his style?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Western-oriented

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

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

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

Catholic Korea

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

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

Korean death ritual

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

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

Latin Requiem Mass

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

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

Ritual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kaija Saariaho central composer at November Music: ink-black scenario in subtle timbres

Kaija Saariaho (c) Andrew Campbell

Although I had known the music of Kaija Saariaho (1952) for years, I first heard it live in 2005. The Holland Festival presented the Dutch premiere of her opera L’Amour de loin (Love from afar) in the not yet officially opened Muziekgebouw aan het IJ in Amsterdam. It describes a young troubadour who sings the praise of a woman he has never even met. At the first actual meeting he dies in her arms. – Upon which she decides to become a nun.

Ethereal

Saariaho managed to capture this improbable story in dazzling sounds. ‘The music is ethereal in the best sense of the word and pregnant with unfulfilled desires’, I wrote at the time. ‘It is as if it encompasses you lovingly. The overall sound resembles an abstract carpet composed of countless pastel-coloured threads, or a water surface, that, moved by the wind, constantly changes colour because of the changing incidence of light.’ I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed it, considering the worldwide success of L’Amour de loin. Since its premiere in 2000, the opera has been performed many times and has developed into a modern classic.

After this, Saariaho composed three more operas, of which Émilie (2008) and Only the Sound Remains (2015) were also performed in the Netherlands. The premiere of her fifth opera Innocence was planned for last summer, but fell prey to corona. Fortunately November Music presents a cross-section of almost 20 works from her versatile oeuvre. The selection includes classics such as the string quartet Nymphéa, the violin concerto Grail Théâtre and the cello concerto Notes on Light. There are also more recent works. Such as Light & Matter for piano trio and Light Still & Moving for flute and kantele (a Finnish dulcimer).

Pièce de résistance will be the brand new Reconnaissance (Rusty Mirror Madrigal) for choir, percussion and double bass. Saariaho composed it for November Music and the Donaueschinger Musiktage. The first performance was scheduled in October in the German festival, which was also cancelled. – A blessing in disguise for November Music, for a world premiere by one of the world’s leading living composers provides extra prestige. Corona permitting, Saariaho will come in person from Paris for a free interview on November 13th.

No cultural background

Although Saariaho received numerous international awards and is firmly rooted in the repertoire of famous orchestras, ensembles and soloists, a career as a composer was by no means self-evident. She was born in Helsinki in 1952 as Kaija Laakkonen (later she took the name of her first husband). In her own words she grew up ‘in a family without any cultural background’. Her father worked in the metal industry, her mother took care of the three children. They did have an old-fashioned radio in the house, however, to which the young Kaija listened a lot. This triggered her interest in classical music.

Some music frightened her, other music appealed to her very much. As the sensitive and imaginative girl she was, she even ‘heard’ music when the radio was off. At night she sometimes couldn’t sleep because of the many sounds resounding in her head. Then she would ask her mother to ‘turn off the pillow’. Her parents sent her to a Rudolf Steiner School, where her artistic and musical talents were further encouraged and developed for thirteen years. This may explain her later focus on interdisciplinarity: she often kneads visual, literary and musical elements into one coherent whole.

‘Pretty girl’

A second hurdle existed in her being a woman. As a baby boomer Saariaho experienced that the phenomenon of female composer was still relatively unknown in the early 70s. When she applied for Paavo Heininen’s composition class, he told her it was full. However, she did not allow herself to be fobbed off. ‘I had decided that I would not leave the room until he had taken me’, she told the British music journalist Tom Service in 2012. ‘I was crazy, but I knew I could not leave the room. He tried to say many times there was no room for me – but finally he had no choice. I became his pupil.’ 

She turned out to be the only female composition student. Some teachers actually thought it was a waste of time to teach her. ‘You’re a beautiful girl, what are you doing here?’, they asked rhetorically. Shameless, certainly. But even in 2020, female composers are still underrepresented on the concert stage.

No second Sibelius or Ferneyhough

Be that as it may, Saariaho studied along with people like Esa-Pekka Salonen, Magnus Lindberg and Jouni Kaipainen. They were annoyed by the  conservative climate at the conservatoire in Helsinki. In a sense they were trained to become a second Sibelius, its namesake. Dissatisfied with the curriculum they founded ‘Korvat Auki’ (open ears) in 1977. Instead of staring at the past, they looked at the latest developments in Germany and France, organizing concerts and seminars to draw attention to these in Finland.

After attending the renowned summer courses in Darmstadt, Saariaho moved to Freiburg to study composition with Brian Ferneyhough. The Brit was the figurehead of the ‘new complexity’, a kind of runaway form of atonality. Just about anything that is even remotely recognizable to the human ear was forbidden.

Saariaho rebelled against this as well. She had not refused to become a second Sibelius in order to leave behind all the achievements of the past. Annoyed, she remarked: ‘You were not allowed to create a pulse, nor tonally oriented harmonies or melodies. But I don’t want to write music based on negatives. Anything is allowed, as long as it is done with taste.’

Unheard of timbres

When she hears music from the so-called ‘spectralists’ Tristan Murail and Gérard Grisey this is an eye-opener. Their orientation on the inner life of sounds appeals to her and in 1982 she leaves for Paris, where she enrols at the IRCAM. At this Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique she researches the possibilities of electronics in relation to music, analysing the spectrum of sounds with the help of computers. On the basis of her findings she develops the unprecedented sensitivity to unheard-of timbres that has become her trademark.

Often electronics play an important role in this. As early as 1984 she broke through with Verblendungen, in which she builds a whole ‘string orchestra’ out of two electronically manipulated violin sounds. Two years later she composes the equally successful Lichtbogen, in which she manipulates the sound of seven instruments with live electronics. This creates an iridescent sound image, inspired by the phenomenon of Nordic Light.

Saariaho is fascinated by light anyway, as evidenced by the many titles in which this word appears. And that is no coincidence: just as light can constantly change colour and atmosphere, she enchants our ears with ever-changing timbres. That is why she is sometimes – to her slight displeasure – compared with Debussy.

Man and creation

These two breakthrough pieces are not on the programme, but still there is a lot of beautiful stuff to be heard. Along the already mentioned classics, there are less frequently performed pieces. The student ensemble fc Jongbloed, led by guitarist Aart Strootman, will perform two works for soprano and ensemble. Die Aussicht (1996) is based on the text of the same name by Friedrich Hölderlin, Changing Light, composed in 2002, is set on a poem by the American rabbi Jules Harlow. Both describe the insignificance of man in the face of creation. The two miniatures are a good illustration of how subtly Saariaho succeeds in translating philosophical insights into atmospheric and powerful music.

Another concert to look out for is Dominique Vleeshouwers performance of Six Japanese Gardens on November 13. Saariaho wrote this piece for percussion and electronics in 1994 after a visit to the gardens of Kyoto. In addition to the sounds played live, the performer triggers recordings of nature sounds, ritual singing and Japanese percussion instruments via a computer. The twenty-minute piece offers a plethora of different rhythms and timbres.

For the electronic part Saariaho collaborated with the French composer and multimedia specialist Jean-Baptiste Barrière whom she met at the IRCAM and married in 1984. Since 2007 she has also worked regularly with their son Aleksi, who was born in 1989.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (c) NASA

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

Aleksi Barrière wrote the texts for various of her choral works. He also supplied the libretto of Reconnaissance (Rusty Mirror Madrigal) which will be premiere on 14 November. Saariaho composed it for the French chamber choir Accentus, which is well-versed in both early and modern music. The title seems to refer to this background, but Saariaho denies this: ‘I did not have these kinds of references in mind. Rather, I regard the choir as people who tell the story of their history. Aleksi came up with the title. It refers to various things, but especially to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.’ This NASA spacecraft has been circling around Mars for fifteen years, sending detailed photographs to Earth.

Earth and Mars: rusty mirrors

Barrière zooms in on the relationship between the two planets. In five parts he sketches how man suffocates in his own waste gases and seeks salvation on Mars. In the concluding ‘Requiem’ both Mars and Earth appear to have been destroyed. ‘Both worlds have returned to wilderness/ Two rusty mirrors face to face’, we read.

Saariaho is reluctant in answering the question how she translated such an ink-black, science-fiction like libretto into music. ‘I have worked closely with Aleksi, who knows my music well. We discuss our ideas, loosely define form and content and he offers me new perspectives.’ She does send me a sketch of the piece, though.

The five movements seem to mirror each other in an A-B-C-B-A form, which fits the text nicely. Movement I and V have a slow pace, movements II and IV are almost twice as fast and bear indications such as ‘energico’ and ‘ostinato’. The time signature is even higher in III, ‘Green House’, that must be performed ‘espressivo’.

But, Saariaho emphasizes: ‘Don’t take these sketches too seriously, because during the process of composing things still change all the time.’

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

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Composer Hanna Kulenty: ‘I assemble emotions’

The Polish-Dutch Hanna Kulenty (Białystok, 1961) writes music that gets under your skin. Whether it concerns early works such as Fourth Circle for violin and piano (1994), the opera Mother of Black-Winged Dreams on the multiple personality syndrome (1995), or more recent compositions such as the Viola Concerto (2015) and her Flute Concerto No.3 (2018), you are irrevocably carried along on an exciting journey with inescapable emotional power. For the upcoming Bass clarinet festival of Fie Schouten she composed Tap-Blow-Dance4, for two bass clarinets, cello and vibraphone. It will be premiered on 3 November in Grand Theatre Groningen.

I got to know Hanna Kulenty and her work in the 90’s, when I studied musicology at the University of Amsterdam. Because female composers were totally ignored at the institute, I went looking for them myself. That proved to be no sinecure, but thanks to the few CD’s and concerts that were available I discovered an incredible amount of beautiful music. Since then I have championed women composers through all channels that were available.

Crushing

A first opportunity arose when I started as a reporter and presenter of the Concertzender’s Radio-Dinner in 1994. For this programme on current music affairs I interviewed many female musicians and composers, whether or not live in the studio. Among them was also Kulenty who I spoke on 4 December 1996 about her opera The Mother of Black-Winged Dreams. The world premiere took place in Munich four days after. – Only twenty years later (!) it was performed in the Netherlands for the first time. (I wrote about this for a Dutch blog.) Since then Kulenty has become a fixture in Dutch and international musical life.

However, she is not the type to rest on her laurels, and she continues to look for new ways. But whatever methods of composition Kulenty employs, a constant remains the crushing intensity, which grips you by the throat. The premiere of Tap-Blow-Dance4 on November 3rd at the Grand Theatre in Groningen is something to look forward to. At this concert her overwhelming Arcus for three percussionists will also be performed. I interviewed Kulenty about her new piece for the magazine De Klarinet.

Handwritten score

‘The ink is still wet.’ It’s a common cliché when a world premiere is announced, even though today most compositions are supplied as computer files. In the case of Hanna Kulenty, however, we must take the statement literally: unlike many of her colleagues, she still writes her music by hand. At the time of our interview (towards the end of August) she has just put the last notes of Tap-Blow-Dance4 to paper. It is up to a copyist to translate her resolute but fiddly handwriting into a printed score that is legible for musicians.

Enthusiastically she tells me that she composed the piece according to her technique of ‘musique surréalistique’, developed in recent years. – Which is also the title of a composition for soprano, clarinet and piano from 2018. She used to compose in arches of recurring, ever more intense patterns, but nowadays she concentrates on the relation between time and space. ‘This has always played a role, of course’, she say, ‘but now I strive for a more perfect form.’

Musique surréalistique

Exactly how we are to understand the term ‘musique surréalistique’ is not easily put into words, as it turns out. ‘For me it is always about emotion, in that sense every new piece is a regrouping of emotions. A collage if you like. I feel intuitively what I want to say but nowadays intuition plays a less important role when composing. I’m still averse to preconceived compositional techniques, but I no longer mind rubbing up against conventions. I make use of traditional elements, but use them as I see fit.’

‘Of course the musical form is partly determined by musical parameters like proportion, balance and the like, but musique surréalistique goes further than that. It is a way of juxtaposing sound and time structures in such a way that the whole work gets a new atmosphere.’ As before, she strives to create a trance, but now the emphasis is more on the spiritual aspect. ‘I write from the realization that we are hurt beings, who nevertheless can rise above ourselves, because there is something greater than human strength.’

Unity in diversity

Can music liberate us through trance? ‘Yes, it can make us aware of something we actually know deep inside, namely that despite all the differences there is unity in diversity.’ She compares it with reading a book: ‘While reading you develop an expectation pattern. You think you know what is going to come, but are suddenly confronted with a twist that places the whole thing in a different perspective. The expected emotion can take a different form each time: it can stop, turn around, transform or remain the same. That constant tension brings you into a trance. It also occurs in Tap-Blow-Dance4.’

‘The piece will last about 10 to 12 minutes. It is written in an almost impossible tempo and consists of endless cascades of mainly descending – sometimes also ascending – figurations of the two bass clarinets and the vibraphone. The cello acts as a driving motor in the underground. The music is fast as lightning and forms one big sequence of seemingly aggressive emotions.’

Colliding worlds

‘Because of the structured build-up, you expect this motoric rhythm to continue. But then suddenly a sad melody sounds and two musical worlds collide. From that moment on, a delay sets in. The music even seems to come to a standstill, but that doesn’t happen, it “freezes”, time is stopped for a moment. The tragic motif never sounds in full, so that your expectation is partly, but never one hundred percent, honoured. You simply don’t know when which emotion will return and in what form. So the piece is always different and unexpected in its emotional “expectedness”.’

Initially the title was Underwater. ‘When in 2019 Fie Schouten asked me to write a piece for two bass clarinets, vibraphone and cello, I wondered how I could realize my ideas of musique surréalistique in this line-up. I immediately thought of water. Water offers a space that can flood us, but in which we can also immerse ourselves. Colours become brighter under water, movements slow down and sounds are muffled. At the same time contours and details are enlarged until they take on almost inhuman shapes.’ – The latter is in line with the murderous tempo: both bass clarinet players have to play motifs so fast that you get substitute cramps in your lips.

Playing while tap-dancing

The definite title refers to Tap-Blow-Dance, a solo piece she previously composed for her son, who is a trumpeter. ‘I wanted to create the same climate, with a great emphasis on rhythm.’ Kulenty asks a lot of her performers. Not only must they play their challenging, quickly repeating notes, but they are also required to tap their feet, in a strictly prescribed rhythm. Sometimes all four musicians tap simultaneously without playing, then the music consists purely of the clicking of heels.’

The clarinettists are instructed to play staccato ‘if possible’. Regularly they must produce a percussive sound with a strongly blown tone. The vibraphone usually teams up with the wind instruments, only occasionally with the cello. The cellist is instructed to play the many double stops on two strings, ‘as good as possible’. About halfway through, the second bass clarinet introduces the lamento motif, which keeps returning at irregular intervals and in slightly changing forms. At the end the first bass clarinettist plays it in an ever slower tempo, in a random number of repetitions of their own choice.

Kulenty concludes: ‘Together the four musicians form one swirling organism.’

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De Pianist over 3e druk #Reinbertbio: ‘Sprankelend beeld van de muziek uit de 20e eeuw’

De mooie kritieken van de 3e druk van mijn #Reinbertbio en van Slotakkoord: Reinbert de Leeuw 2014-2020 blijven binnenstromen.

Al op 25 juni schreef Erik Voermans erover in zijn rubriek ‘Eerste hulp bij klassieke muziek in Het Parool:

‘Wie het boek herleest krijgt onmiddellijk zin alle besproken muziek opnieuw te beluisteren.’

Het Parool Erik Voermans 25-6-2020 klein

Op 12 juli publiceerde Mark van der Voort een bespreking van Slotakkoord op de website van de Concertzender:

‘Opvallend en waardevol deel van het boek zijn de ontwapenende en pakkende herinneringen van bevriende componisten als Steve Reich, John Adams en George Benjamin, en musici als sopraan Susan Narucki en musicoloog Leo Samama. Een persoonlijke en ontroerende noot die Slotakkoord zeker iets extra’s geeft.

Vier dagen later verscheen een al even mooie bespreking van Maarten Brandt op het blog Basia con fuoco

‘…door een van de moeilijkste, maar ook meest bijzondere muzikale zonen die Nederland heeft voortgebracht. Hij zal nog tot in lengte van talloze jaren in de gedachten van menige muziekliefhebber blijven voortleven of, om met Thea Derks in haar voorwoord tot Slotakkoord af te sluiten: “Reinbert is dood. Leve Reinbert!”

Op 12 augustus publiceerde Ben Taffijn een recensie van de derde druk van de #Reinbertbio op zijn blog Nieuwe Noten:

‘Derks is niet alleen uiterst respectvol over De Leeuw, maar schrijft over hem met compassie en met liefde. En ja, ze benoemt ook zijn zwakheden, die overigens ook naar voren komen in de talloze interviews die ze met zo ongeveer iedereen die de man heeft gekend, heeft gehad. Alleen al een monnikenwerk.’

Ook Suzanne Weusten betoont zich in het septembernummer van De Pianist onder de indruk:

‘Wie Slotakkoord uit heeft, snakt naar de rest van de biografie, die niet alleen de getroebleerde jeugd van de begaafde musicus beschrijft, maar hem ook in de tijdgeest plaatst. Via Reinbert de Leeuw, die zich van rebel ontpopte tot vertegenwoordiger van het culturele establishment geeft Thea Derks een sprankelend beeld van de muziek uit de twintigste eeuw.’

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Gaudeamus at 75: younger than ever

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

Or did it…?

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

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

Poor relation

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

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

Compelling personality

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

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

Chore

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

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

New Mozart

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

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

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

Utrecht

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

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

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

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

Unsuk Chin: composer with an independent mind

The music of Unsuk Chin was often performed in the Netherlands by the Nieuw Ensemble and in the radio series NTRZaterdagMatinee. On 24 and 25 September she debuts with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with Subito con sforza, a commission. I interviewed Chin for the September issue of Preludium, the magazine of Concertgebouw and Concertgebouw Orchestra. Here is the English translation.

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

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

Volcanic eruptions, extreme serenity

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

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

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

Writer’s block

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

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

Prokofiev

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

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

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

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

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

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

God is een vrouw

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

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

Liefde of avontuur?

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

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

Diabolus in musica

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

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

Audiovisuele intermezzi

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

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

De Vliegende Hollander is nog te zien t/m 13 september. 

Steun onafhankelijke muziekjournalistiek met een zelfgekozen bijdrage. Dank!

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

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

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

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

Forbidden Fruit

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

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

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

Dreamland America

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

Niloufar Nourbakhsh (c) Nosrat Tarighi

Niloufar Nourbakhsh (c) Nosrat Tarighi

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

Eye-opener

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iconoclast

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

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

Obstacles

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

Anahita Abbasi (c) Niloufar Shiri

Anahita Abbasi (c) Niloufar Shiri

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

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

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

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Scant information

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

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

Aida Shirazi (c) Qmars Kalami

Aida Shirazi (c) Qmars Kalami

Composing is a craft

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

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

Away from Iran

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

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

Old men

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

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

IFCA on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MUSIFCA Website: https://niloufarnourbakhsh.com/ifca/ Twitter: @MUSIFCA

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

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

Arnout Lems & Helmert Woudenberg (c) Bowie Verschuuren

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

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

Silent prosecutor and witness

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

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

Truncated sentences, rigid melodies

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

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

Bullied like a patsy

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

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

Food for thought

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

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

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

More info and playlist: https://www.hubadegraaff.com/lamp/

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In 2015 the 20th anniversary of the Srbrenica genocide was commemmorated with an oratorio by Pablo Escande on a libretto by Paul Kapteyn. I wrote about it for Cultuurpers. The premiere was filmed and can be viewed here.

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

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

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

Hannes Minnaar (c) Simon van Boxtel

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

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

Piano virtuoso

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

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

Tombeau pour Ton de Leeuw

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

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

Bach chorale

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

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

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

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

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

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Piano Quintet Amy Beach streamed with a view of Scheveningen beach

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

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

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

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

Child prodigy

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

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

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

Concert practice curbed

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

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

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

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

Classical and Irish inspiration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exploring boundaries

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

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

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

Shifting layers

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

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

Incantation

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

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

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

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

The cd was released by TRPTK

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#Corona-classics I: Le Dernier sorcier Pauline Viardot

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

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

Disturbing press releases

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

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

Bullying fairies

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

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

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

Pompousness versus light-footedness

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

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

Catchy flourishes

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

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

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

Feminist eco-fable

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

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

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

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

LIza Lim (c) Klaus Rudolph

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

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

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

Plastic waste

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

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

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

Indigenous traditions

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

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

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

 

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

Wantenaar foto Karen van Gilst

Mahtilde Wantenaar (c) Karen van Gilst

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

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

Human voice

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

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

Opera

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

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

Toon Tellegen

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

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

Cheering up the Moon

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

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

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

The power of music

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

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

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

More info and playlist here

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

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

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

Poetic background

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

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

Off the beaten tracks

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

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

Mutual exploration

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

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

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

Cold and dark

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

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

Shifting colours

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

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

Karin Rehnqvist (c) Ester Sorri

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

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

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

Human voice

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

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

#MeToo

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

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

Asking the music

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

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

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

After the catastrophe

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

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

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

Glimmer of hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zondag 5 april draai ik tussen 12.00-13.00 uur ter ere van Frans ‘Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues’ van Frederic Rzewski, een van de stukken op zijn eerste Fracu-lijstje. Terugluisteren kan direct na afloop van het programma via deze link

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lera Auerbach: Lost Paradise Regained

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grave of Reinbert de Leeuw on Zorgvliet, 21 February 2020

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

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

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

Photo of Robert Adlington

Robert Adlington

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

‘RdL’

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing could ever be more important.

 

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Reinbert is dead, long live Reinbert!

Tribute to Reinbert de Leeuw on TivoliVredenburg 14 Feb 2020

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

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

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

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

And now Reinbert is dead.

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

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

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

But now Reinbert is dead.

I still can’t quite grasp it.

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

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

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

And now Reinbert is dead.

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plea for ‘useless art’

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

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

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

Concrete shafts as a symbol for deported Jews

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

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

Latent aggression in the glorification of national character

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

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

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

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

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Tuneful melodies and subdued tragedy in Fête Galante Ethel Smyth

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

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

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

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

Exciting sounds and rhythms

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

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

March of the Women

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

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

Musical intensity

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

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

Folk instruments

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

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

Flamboyant soloists

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

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

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

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

Bart Visman (c) Gerrit Schreurs

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

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

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

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

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

What made him such a brilliant orchestrator?

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

How did you go about?

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

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

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

How did you solve this?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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An Orfeo that would make Wagner’s mouth water

L’Orfeo (c) Marco Borggreve

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

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

Looking back in resentment

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

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

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

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

‘Square’ world view

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

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

Subtle chitarrones

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

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

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

Liked my review? You can support me through PayPal, or Patreon, or make a direct transfer to NL82 INGB 0004261694, TJM Derks Amsterdam

 

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

Lera Auerbach (photo F. Reinhold)

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

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

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

No light without shadow

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

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

Pagan deities neither ‘evil’ nor ‘good’

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

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

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

Demons disturb our moral compass

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

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

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

Psalm as talisman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elim Chan (c) Willeke Machiels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where does your musical heart lie?

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

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

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

What are the pitfalls for you as a conductor?

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

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

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

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

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor james macmillan"

James MacMillan (c) Boosey & Hawkes

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

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

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

fkeu 19 dominique vleeshouwers 06-02.jpg

Dominique Vleeshouwers

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

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

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

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

IMG_20200110_085747

Aluphone as played in Percussion Concerto No.2

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

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

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

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

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

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Oudemuziekpionier Marijke Ferguson: Een leven lang oren op steeltjes

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

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

Marijke Ferguson in de stuvio van de Concertzender, 2013

Blokfluit is toch geen instrument?’

Ferguson (Buitenzorg, 1927) groeit op in Indonesië, waar ze pianoles krijgt van haar moeder. Tijdens de oorlog belandt ze in een jappenkamp, waar ze de suling leert bespelen, een Indonesische fluit. ‘Ik had mijn hart verpand aan dat instrument. Toen ik na de oorlog in Nederland kwam, besloot ik les te nemen op de blokfluit. Dat kon in die tijd alleen bij Kees Otten, die klarineles gaf aan het Muzieklyceum in Amsterdam. Toen ik me bij hem wilde inschrijven weigerde de administratrice me in eerste instantie aan te nemen. Blokfluit was toch geen instrument? Ik kon beter hobo leren spelen.’ – Ferguson krijgt haar lessen en zal later dertig jaar hoofdvakdocent blokfluit aan het conservatorium verbonden zijn.

‘Door de oorlog heb ik geen middelbare school gedaan, maar voor de blokfluit en later de kleine harp heb ik wel een grondige opleiding gevolgd. Ik deed ook cursussen bij Gustav Leonhardt, bijvoorbeeld over versieringstechnieken. Door mijn werk voor de radio en het denken en schrijven over muziek kreeg ik veel musicologisch werk te doen, hoewel ik daarvoor  niet was opgeleid. Dat is me door professionele musicologen wel verweten.’

Kees Otten speelde op authentieke instrumenten. ‘Daarom raakte ik er zo door geboeid. We streefden ernaar de blokfluit professioneel geaccepteerd te krijgen. Kees had les gehad van zijn oom Willem van Warmerloo, die een blokfluitmethode schreef welke ik nog steeds bewonder. Hij baseerde zich op oude en zelfs etnische melodieën, dat was vlak na de oorlog ontzettend vooruitstrevend. Er heerste een gunstig klimaat voor oude muziek en wij droegen daar weer het onze aan bij. Het was fantastisch alles te ontdekken. Rutger Schouten van de VARA programmeerde bijvoorbeeld Jephte van Carissimi, dat sloeg in als een bom!’

Amsterdams Blokfluit Ensemble met piepjonge Frans Brüggen

Hun repertoire halen ze uit een drietal in Duitsland verschenen bundels. Samen met Frans Douwes en Frans Brüggen richten ze eind jaren veertig het Amsterdams Blokfluit Ensemble op. Brüggen is een leerling van Otten en zit nog op de middelbare school. ‘We waren het eerste blokfluitkwartet in Nederland en gaven schoolconcerten door het hele land. Als Frans niet kon, speelden we trio, het ging ons om de gesloten blokfluitklank.’

‘Omdat we vonden dat een instrument alleen gezond en levend wordt als het ook in de eigen tijd geworteld is, voerden we naast werk van bijvoorbeeld Lassus, Dowland of Gastoldi ook eigentijdse muziek uit. We gaven opdrachten en volgden gretig de concerten die Daniël Ruyneman in het Stedelijk Museum programmeerde. Bovendien ijverden we voor betaalbare uitgaven van hedendaagse blokfluitliteratuur. We voerden tot op het departement gesprekken om de blokfluit als hoofdvak geaccepteerd te krijgen. En het is ons gelukt!’

Muziekkring Obrecht

Als in 1951 Safford Cape met zijn ensemble voor oude muziek naar het Concertgebouw in Amsterdam komt, slaat er een vonk over bij Ferguson. ‘Ze werkten met zang, luit, vedels en blokfluiten en speelden zo prachtig Dufay en Machaut, dat konden wij met onze blokfluiten nooit benaderen. In de pauze verzuchtte ik tegen Rachel Mengelberg dat als ik een klein harpje kon bemachtigen wij ook zulke muziek konden gaan maken. Toevallig wist zij dat er net een kopie gemaakt was van een harp in het Gemeentemuseum van Den Haag. Die heb ik de volgende dag gekocht.’

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Marijke Fergsuon (c) Concertzender

Samen met Kees Otten, met wie ze inmiddels getrouwd is, richt ze Muziekkring Obrecht op, die zich uitsluitend richt op oude muziek: ‘Met dat ensemble voelden we niet de behoefte nieuw werk te spelen, het ging ons om het uitvoeren van die oude composities. We waren met drie echtparen. Joannes Collette speelde naast blokfluit vedel en luit. Zijn vrouw Folly zong. Hans van den Hombergh deed koordirectie, zijn vrouw Antoinette speelde vedel. Soms deden er zangers mee van het Nederlands Kamerkoor. Zo hebben we tien jaar gewerkt en buitengewoon veel repertoire opgespoord.’ In 1961, als het huwelijk van Kees en Marijke strandt, wordt de groep ontbonden.

Ferguson verhuist met haar twee kinderen naar Laren, waar ze ‘een soort kippenhok’ betrekt en les geeft aan de Montessorischool. ‘Ik moest geld verdienen en economisch gebonden raken aan Laren, zodat ik een fatsoenlijk huis zou kunnen krijgen.’ Daarnaast geeft ze les aan het Sweelinck Conservatorium in Amsterdam en het instituut Middeloo in Amersfoort. Ze besluit onder haar meisjesnaam verder te gaan in de muziek.

Studio Laren

Al snel wordt ze door Ab van Eyk van de NCRV gevraagd muziek te maken bij hoorspelen. ‘Cultuurhistoricus G.C. Rijnsdorp ontwierp een serie over de ontwikkeling van de mentaliteitsgeschiedenis van de oude Grieken tot de Verlichting, onder de titel Adam, wie zijt gij?. Hij had het vooruitstrevende idee daar muziek uit de betreffende periodes bij te laten horen. Hij kwam met teksten en ik zocht daar stukken bij. Daardoor groeide mijn besef dat er een relatie is tussen alle cultuuruitingen van een bepaalde periode. Ik besloot een ensemble op te richten, waarin de combinatie van die verschillende aspecten centraal zou staan. Dat werd Studio Laren.’

De eerste productie van Studio Laren In het kantelen van de tijd gaat op 21 maart 1965 in première op de Zingende Zolder in Den Haag. Hierin zet Ferguson de renaissance centraal. Ze maakt een ‘samenspel’ van tekst, beeld en muziek. Vier spreekstemmen brengen fragmenten proza en poëzie afkomstig van onder anderen Petrarca, Savonarola, Luther en Erasmus. Ondertussen worden filmbeelden getoond en dia’s geprojecteerd met werk van Michelangelo. Ook is er een geluidsmontage. Het geheel wordt gelardeerd met live uitgevoerde muziek van Josquin, Tromboncino en anonieme meesters.

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Driedubbel-cd met retrospectief van Studio Laren, 2000

Het publiek komt in groten getale en reageert laaiend enthousiast – de reacties in de pers variëren van uiterst positief tot welwillend kritisch. Een vaker gehoorde klacht is dat de kwaliteit van de uitvoering te wensen overlaat. Ferguson: ‘Dat probleem ben ik mijn hele loopbaan tegengekomen. Als je steeds nieuwe dingen bedenkt, moet je telkens opnieuw het wiel uitvinden. Zing je Schubert, dan trek je een smoking of een mooie jurk aan, gaat in de bocht van de vleugel staan en zingt je lied zo goed mogelijk, die presentatievorm is door de jaren heen geconsolideerd.’

Nieuwe uitdagingen

‘Wij zaten altijd met de vraag: hoe brengen we iets? Ik was bijvoorbeeld de eerste die in de Noorderkerk in Amsterdam een concert gaf. Een ronde kerk. Ik had drie voorstellingen gepland, waar het publiek in etappes naar toe kon. Dat had nog nooit iemand gedaan, nu is dat heel gewoon. Ik wilde het publiek verwelkomen met fanfares van Josquin, de musici zouden al spelend de mensen naar hun plaatsen begeleiden. Het was al moeilijk genoeg musici te vinden die deze muziek konden uitvoeren, maar het meevoeren van het publiek bleek nog problematischer. De pers ziet alleen die eerste uitvoering, terwijl de tweede en derde veel beter zijn.’

De voor de hand liggende optie zich op een bepaalde vorm te concentreren en deze tot in de perfectie uit te werken, heeft haar nooit aangesproken. ‘Het ligt nu een keer in mijn karakter steeds nieuwe dingen te willen doen. Ik ben geïnteresseerd in het experiment, het onderzoek. Trouwens, het muziekmaken zelf heb ik wel degelijk uitgewerkt, alleen de presentatie was niet altijd even sterk, dat was telkens weer een ontdekkingsreis.’

Publieksdeelname

Wat Ferguson ook uitbouwde waren de danscursussen in het Shaffy theater. ‘Mijn grondgedachte bij alles is dat je leert door te doen. Alleen zo krijg je antwoorden op vragen die je onderweg tegenkomt. Ik bladerde eens in een winkel door een boekje van musicologe Julia Sutton over oude dansvormen toen Conrad van de Wetering, een danser, binnenkwam. Hij vertelde dat hij haar geholpen had met het begrijpen van de beschreven passen. Ik zei: dan ben jij mijn man! Een maand later hadden we een cursus in het Shaffy. Dat hebben we vier jaar, elke maandagavond gedaan. Daarna is het door anderen overgenomen.’

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Marijke Ferguson (c) Concertzender

Over belangstelling van het publiek heeft ze nooit te klagen gehad. Haar radioprogramma’s, eerst Het muzikaal kabinet bij de NCRV, later Muziek uit middeleeuwen en renaissance bij de NOS, waren enorm populair en boden haar tevens de mogelijkheid publiek te werven voor haar uitvoeringen. Hoe goed haar uitzendingen beluisterd en gewaardeerd werden, bleek toen ze een oproep deed aan haar luisteraars om in Hilversum te komen musiceren.

‘Op mijn zoektochten kwam ik veel repertoire tegen voor grotere bezettingen, bijvoorbeeld voor dubbelkorige muziek uit de tijd van Praetorius. Die kon ik nooit (laten) horen omdat er alleen kleine ensembles voor oude muziek bestonden. We werden overstelpt met aanmeldingen! Met Edu Verhulst, de verantwoordelijke man van de NOS, heb ik toen besloten een samenspeeldag te organiseren. We selecteerden 185 mensen, van acht tot tachtig en van amateur tot professioneel. Het was een daverend succes!’

Nieuwe initiatieven worden gemeengoed

Hoewel Ferguson tot op de dag van vandaag een groot en trouw eigen publiek heeft, is zij in de muziekwereld nooit helemaal geaccepteerd. Vooral onder musicologen heerste veel na-ijver over haar radioprogramma’s. ‘Zij vonden dat een programma over oude muziek door een geschoolde musicoloog gemaakt moest worden. Gelukkig stond Edu Verhulst altijd pal achter mij.’

Ook het zoeken naar steeds nieuwe uitdrukkingsvormen blijkt meer nadelen te hebben dan een soms wat sceptische pers. Subsidiegevers weten niet altijd wat ze met Studio Laren aan moeten en geven schoorvoetend geld. Een ander nadeel is, dat wat Ferguson met vallen en opstaan ontwikkelt, een paar jaar later door een ander als ‘nieuw’ gebracht wordt en door pers en muziekwereld bejubeld wordt.

Thea Derks + Marijke Ferguson tijdens Festival Oude Muziek 2014
Thea Derks + Marijke Ferguson tijdens Festival Oude Muziek 2014

Naast de danscursussen oude muziek geldt dit ook voor de verhalenkelder Brandaan, die Ferguson in 1988 opzette. Een acteur of actrice vertelt verhalen uit een bepaalde periode terwijl de luisteraars worden vergast op spijs en drank uit diezelfde tijd. Inmiddels is dit een populair fenomeen, maar Ferguson moest destijds knokken voor subsidie. Geprikkeld constateerde ze in 1995 dat Stad Amsterdam haar uiteindelijk weliswaar ondersteunde, maar om de verkeerde reden. ‘Hun begrip van een literaire avond reikt niet verder dan het voorlezen van eigen werk door een auteur, ze geven een locatiesubsidie omdat ik hier met Studio Laren repeteer.’

Inmiddels is zowel Studio Laren als Verhalenkelder Brandaan ter ziele, maar Ferguson presenteert nog wekelijks het Radio Muziek-essay op de Concertzender en maakt eens per maand het programma Antiqua versus Nova.

Op haar 89e heeft Marijke Ferguson nog altijd oren op steeltjes en blijft ze ons prikkelen met bijzondere muziek en onverwachte dwarsverbanden.

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Prachtmuziek uit Griekenland en Franse chansons

Het is even wennen. Na vier weken offline door Duitsland gefietst te hebben, keerde ik enkele dagen geleden weer terug op mijn stek. Tijdens mijn tochten door het fraaie Münsterland was ik geheel afgekickt van de sociale media, en het opnieuw opstarten doet mijn motortje even pruttelen.

Geheel verstoken van internet was ik al die tijd nou ook weer niet, maar slechts zeer zelden bleek een café of restaurant te beschikken over (gratis) Wi-Fi. Onze Oosterburen zijn wat meer van de oude stempel en verkiezen fysiek contact boven een virtuele werkelijkheid. Daar valt iets voor te zeggen. En eerlijk is eerlijk: wat wás het heerlijk om een praatje te maken met een willekeurige passant bij de supermarkt, of een biertje te drinken met een collega-fietser.

amstelAlleen maar luieren was er trouwens ook niet bij: halverwege mijn vakantie publiceerde ik een bespreking van de cd ‘Sax avec Elan!’ van het Amstel Quartet en de Franse chansonnier Philippe Elan. De vier saxofonisten leerden de in Nederland wonende zanger kennen dankzij de componist Ton de Kruyf, die mij zeer geholpen heeft met mijn biografie van Reinbert de Leeuw. Zoals altijd spelen de saxofonisten perfect en met veel schwung, maar de combinatie met Elan is niet helemaal mijn kopje thee: door de drukke arrangementen trekt het kwartet iets te sterk de aandacht.

nasopoulou donemus
Naast de cd met chansons gezongen door een Franse Nederlander, lagen er ook twee schijfjes in de bus van de Grieks-Nederlandse componist Aspasia Nasopoulou. Eindelijk eens goed nieuws uit Griekenland! Nasopoulou heeft grote affiniteit met oude muziek en weet deze op een vanzelfsprekende manier te koppelen aan moderne speelwijzen, zoals te horen in het op een middeleeuwse cantiga gebaseerde Lelia doura, dat door het blokfluitkwintet Seldom Sene voorbeeldig wordt uitgevoerd.

Bijzonder ook is de muziek die Nasopoulou schreef bij de zevendelige gedichtencyclus Nachtwerk van Micha Hamel, die zelf zijn verzen voordraagt. Het Doelen Kwartet tekent voor de muzikale begeleiding. Bij elke tekst weet Nasopoulou precies de juiste sfeer te treffen, met vrolijk vogelgekwetter, aarzelende staccati of geheimzinnige flageoletten. Ik schreef erover voor Cultuurpers.

Gisteren had ik een inspirerend gesprek over nieuwe muziek met Jan Vredenburg van het muziektijdschrift LuisterWe spraken onder andere over de nieuwe opera over Mariken van Nieweghen van Calliope Tsoupaki, die in oktober in première gaat en waarover ik haar voor het blad ga interviewen. Net als haar landgenote Nasopoulou koppelt Tsoupaki op organische wijze oude en nieuwe muziek aan elkaar.

Mariken in de tuin der lusten

Mariken in de tuin der lusten

De muziek van Tsoupaki heeft altijd een betoverende lyriek, of het nu de op Monteverdi geïnspireerde madrigaalreeks E guerra e morte uit 1997 betreft,  haar  Lucas Passie (2008), haar reflectie op een bewegend icoon van Maria uit 2012 of haar visie op de Griekse held Oedipus, die vorig jaar in première ging in het Holland Festival. Ik verheug mij zeer op ons gesprek en op haar opera Mariken in de tuin der lusten. 

Dit nieuwe werk wordt uitgevoerd door o.a. het Asko|Schönberg, maar niet met chef-dirigent Reinbert de Leeuw, die vanavond weer centraal staat in mijn programma ‘Panorama de Leeuw’ op de Concertzender. Ditmaal klinkt een herhaling van de eerste aflevering, waarin ik Reinbert volg in zijn kennismaking met klassieke muziek. Met o.a. werk van Chopin en Satie en van De Leeuw zelf.Persbericht lezing bij Van der Velde Drachten_1 - kopieOok tijdens mijn concertlezing Kantelend muzieklandschap op zondag 6 september om 16.00 uur in de OBA (Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam) zullen stukken klinken van deze componisten, gespeeld door de pianist Marcel Worms. Met mijn biografie als leidraad, maken we een tocht langs de ontwikkeling van de klassieke muziek, van de rotsvaste tonaliteit van Chopin in de 19e eeuw, tot  de atonaliteit van Schönberg in de vroege 20e eeuw, de toevalsmuziek van Cage in het midden van de vorige eeuw en het meedogenloze gebeuk van Oestvolskaja tegen het einde van dat tijdperk.

Ik zie uit naar deze eerste concertlezing met Marcel Worms en hoop u zondag 6 september te mogen begroeten.

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