Monique Krüs: ‘The story always comes first’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love is never selfless

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

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

Sultry music

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

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

Stifling universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does Crimp have that other librettists don’t?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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Maya Fridman: Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel with hardrock attitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waarom dit boek?

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

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

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

Introductie voor de leek, vademecum voor de kenner

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

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

Arnold Schönberg, ets van Guus Glass

Motivatie – Wie ben ik?

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

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

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

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

Waarvoor zijn die € 3500,-?

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


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

Hans Abrahamsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More info and tickets here

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

Claron McFadden & Bertrand Belin (c) Bruno Ansellem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you appreciate in Belin’s voice?

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

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

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

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

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

But your music is not at all violent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karina Canellakis conducting © Chris Christodoulou

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

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

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

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

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

You can listen to our interview here:



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

Paula Murrihy & Florian Schuele (c) Ruth Walz

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

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

Music offers compassion and hope

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

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

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

Suicide bomber

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

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

Updated version

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

Dynamic nuances

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

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

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

Paula Murrihy is the true star

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

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

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

Duet between clarinet and soprano

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

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

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

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


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Teodor Currentzis: Music to die for

Teodor Currentzis (c) Anton Zavyalov

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

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

Creating spaces in music

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

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

Natural harmony

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

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


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

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

Renewing listening practice

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

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

Unconditional dedication

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

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

Mozart: contemporary composer

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

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

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

Mayke Nas (c) Maurice Haak

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

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

Knellend korset

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

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

Kratje bier voor nieuwe compositie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not war but love

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

Trapped angel

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

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

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

From first spark to extinguishing relationship

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

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

Claude Vivier and Pointer Sisters

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

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

No traditional play

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

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

More info and tickets here.


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

Maya Fridman, photo Brendon Heinst

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

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

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


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

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

Trembling cello

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

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

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

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

Todesfuge Paul Celan

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

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

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

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

More info and tickets here.

Maya Fridman plays La voce Louis Andriessen

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Sedje Hémon wrought music from painting

Sedje Hémon, pfoto Max Koot, Paris 1956

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

Violinist in Auschwitz

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

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

Music from painting

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

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

Reprogramming of the body

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

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

Website as an interactive score

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

H.P. Lovecraft: lush use of adjectives

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

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

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



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City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra brings Raminta Šerkšnytė to TivoliVredenburg

Raminta Šerkšnytė, Photo Music Information Centre Lithuania

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 More information and tickets here

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

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Ligeti festival – ode to an adventurous and idiosyncratic composer

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

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

Love for Bartók

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

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

‘Formalistic tendencies’

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

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

From communist to musical dictatorship

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

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

Music from metronomes

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

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

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

Car horns & Rossini aria’s

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

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

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

Caribbean rhythms

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

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

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

Microtones versus perfect pitch

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

More information and tickets here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sofia Gubaidulina © F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd.

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

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

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

No small-talk

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

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

Music in the basement circuit

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

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

Doors and windows swing open

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

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

A house with a tree

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Elsbeth Moser

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

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

Dark orchestral sound

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

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

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

We’ll find out on Friday 23 March!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remarkably the role of Death is sung by a woman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walkyrien (c) Emil Doepler, via Wikipedia Media

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

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

Perotinus & Leoninus

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

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

Smyth ‘influenced’ by unborn Britten

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

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

Netherlands’ Men’s Days and Bosmans Prize

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

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

Modern music world forms an exception

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

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

Bright spots

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

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

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

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

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

Cappella Amsterdam

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

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

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

Stabat Mater: the text of texts

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

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

Personal resonance

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

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

Text dictates form

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

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

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

Journey into light

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

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

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

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

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Fanny Mendelssohn: in the shadow of Felix

Fanny Mendelssohn, drawing by her later husband Wilhelm Hensel

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

 Queen Victoria sings a song by Felix, oops Fanny

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

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

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

Bach-fugue fingers

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

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

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

Playing ‘like a man’

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

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

Composing as ‘ornament’ rather than profession

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

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

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

Marriage with Wilhelm Hensel

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

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

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

Symbiotic relationship

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

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

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

Unforgettable Italy

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

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

Piano cycle and Song without Words

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

January, from ‘Das Jahr’

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

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

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

First publications

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

Positive review on dying day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whence the title ‘Written on Skin’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Matthias Pintscher makes debut with Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julia Bullock (c) Christian Steiner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#Grammy for Barbara Hannigan & Ludwig Orchestra

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a list of all the winners


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Composer Marie Jaëll: French flair, Russian pathos

Marie Jaëll, photo credit Wikipedia

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Hello concert organizers out there, are you listening?!

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

Silvia Colasanti, photo Barbara Rigon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You seem to have a preference for melodious music.

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

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

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

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

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

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

More info and tickets for the concert here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More info and tickets here.
CD available here.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What were the differences?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

More info and tickets here.

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

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Zara Levina Piano Concertos: Rachmaninoff meets Shostakovich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Opslaan en vernietigen: aanklacht tegen verkwanseling cultureel erfgoed

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

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

Niet sexy

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

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


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

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

Functioneel geheugen

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

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

Van verheffingsideaal naar rendementsdenken

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Was streben Sie als Komponist an?

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

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

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

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

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

Wie haben Sie die Arbeit aufgebaut?

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

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

Angst für Verlockung

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

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

Erfolgreiche Uraufführung

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

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


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

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

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

Nederlands geluid

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

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

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

Publiek ‘bouwt’ zelf het klankbeeld op

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Impressionist splashings

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

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

Loving portrait

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

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

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

Vanessa Lann (c) Teo Krijgsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate Moore, ©Marco Giugliarelli for the Civitella Ranieri Foundation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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How Franz Schubert led Klaas de Vries to neotonal heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asko|Schönberg, foto Gerrit Schreurs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whence the title Mirror Palace?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doesn’t this thwart your own creativity?

No, because I simply can’t stop composing.

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

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

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

What characterizes you as a composer?

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

How did your new composition come about?

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

Arthur (above) and Lucas Jussen, foto Dirk Kikstra

How have you shaped this double concerto?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More info and tickets.

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

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

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

Lili boulanger, foto credit Wikipedia

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

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

Ill but resilient

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

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

Gift for melody

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

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

Socially involved

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

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

Composing with death on her heels

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

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

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

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

More info and tickets via this link.

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

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

Raden Adjeng Kartini, fotocredit Wikipedia, uit Collectie Tropenmuseum

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

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

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

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

Acculturatie Oost-West

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

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

Betekenisvolle ontbrekende R

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

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

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

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

Kloof wel of niet overbrugd

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

Meer info en speellijst:

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





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

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

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

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

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



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Goeyvaerts en Oestvolskaja – man en vrouw met een hamer

Spectra Ensemble

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

Muzikale pionier

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

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


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

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

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

Zum Wassermann

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

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

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

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

Verlate première

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

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

*In 2009 maakte ik hiervan een reportage voor Cultura.




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Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ: Revolutie, Russen, Reinbert

Alexander Khubeev

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

Sofia Goebaidoelina: sjamanistische klankwereld

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

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

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

Galina Oestvolskaja: beukende ‘Goddelijke genade’

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

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

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

Dmitri Kourliandski: maatschappijkritisch

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

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

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

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

Valery Voronov: verwaaide citaten van eenzame gevangenen

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

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

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

Alexander Khubeev: straf op gedachten

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

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

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

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

Meer info en kaarten


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

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

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

Colourful tapestries

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

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

Extravagant narrative

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

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

Sensually intertwined

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Jean Radel

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Heike Matthiesen features lyrical music on CD ‘Guitar Ladies’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Website Heike Matthiesen
Buy CD 

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

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

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

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

More info and tickets via this link

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Van Baerle Trio speelt ‘Tombeau pour Ton de Leeuw’

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

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

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

Ton de Leeuw (c) Muziekencyclopedie

Ton de Leeuw (c) Muziekencyclopedie

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

Waarom wilde je bij Ton de Leeuw studeren?

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

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

Daan Manneke (c)

Daan Manneke (c)

Heeft je eigen muziek raakvlakken met die van De Leeuw?

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

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

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

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

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