Clara Schumann: after 200 years still overshadowed by Robert

Clara Schumann in 1878, drawing by Franz von Lehnbach (c) Wikipedia

Two hundred years ago, on 13 September 1819, Clara Schumann was born in Leipzig, as Clara Wieck. She ranks as one of the greatest pianists of the nineteenth century. Against her father’s will she married Robert Schumann, whose work she fervently promoted. She also wrote well-received compositions herself, and was more famous than her husband.

Still, she was largely forgotten after her death, and even her 200th birthday did not unleash a tsunami of tributes. On Sunday 15 September there will be two memorial concerts in the Oude Jan in Velp and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

Clara Schumann was brought up with music. Her father, Friedrich Wieck, was a music publisher, singing teacher, pianist and piano teacher. Her mother Marianne Tromlitz was a singer and pianist who performed in important venues such as the Gewandhaus in Leipzig. Her father was city cantor of Plauen, her grandfather was a well-known flutist and composer.

Although Clara’s parents shared their passion for music and soon had five children, their marriage was unhappy. Marianne was a strong and independent person, who could not cope with her husband’s many outbursts of anger. After eight years she divorced him, Wieck getting the custody of the children; Clara was only five years old. Later on she’d confess having missed her mother dearly, no matter how much love her father lavished on her.

Speechless but musical

Clara suffered from the tense atmosphere at home, and at the age of four she was still unable to talk. Only when she was of eight years old did she finally speak at the level of her age. Musically, on the other hand, she developed rapidly. Daddy may have been hot-tempered, but he was a gifted pedagogue. He taught in a playful way, adapting to the character of his students. Hearing and finger training exercises thus became pleasant activities. He moreover stimulated his daughter to develop her own feelings.

Soon Clara was able to play scores from scratch, while at the same time she was a great improviser. ‘Her scales swayed from high to low over the keyboard, like the waves of the sea’, her daughter Eugénie wrote years later. Clara attended concerts with her father and played in soirées he organised in their home. This developed into a hotspot avant la lettre: everyone who mattered in the cultural and musical world came to visit. Thus Clara learned to play for an interested but critical audience.

When she was nine years old, the violinist Niccolò Paganini praised her ‘sensitive playing’ and predicted a glorious future. That same year she played in the famous Gewandhaus for the first time, making her official debut there two years later. She performed works by Carl Czerny and herself, among others. This concert was an enormous success and launched an international career that would only end 61 years later.

Child prodigy with depth

Clara Schumann and her father toured all over Germany, where performances in smaller cities severely tested their stamina. Not only did they have to deal with rickety, out of tune pianos, but also they were often forced to stay in bad lodgings. In one of them, Clara’s precious concert dress was eaten by spiders. After this, father Wieck decided to limit concerts in the province as much as possible.

He kneaded his daughter’s career carefully; after all, she was not the only child prodigy. Clara had a dizzying technique, but Frederick understood that the audience would soon weary of empty, virtuoso performances. Her programmes therefore placed showy popular works alongside more profound compositions by herself, Chopin, Liszt and Mendelssohn. At the age of fifteen she wrote her sparkling Piano Concerto. Though this compares very favourably to Robert’s, it is rarely performed.

Rascal Robert

The success of their tours contrasted sharply with their concerns in everyday life. During one of the soirées Clara had met the composer and pianist Robert Schumann, who was nine years her senior. When she was eleven years old he enrolled as a piano student with Wieck and came to live with the family. Robert and Clara fell deeply in love – to her father’s annoyance. Wieck did acknowledge Robert Schumann’s talent, but found him a rascal, who smoked and drank too much and had too little discipline.

Wieck’s attempts to curb the burgeoning love between his daughter and Robert Schumann failed miserably. In November 1835 they gave each other their ‘first kiss’, after which Wieck threatened to ‘shoot Robert if he ever tried to meet Clara again’. Clara and Robert secretly wrote each other love letters, which were delivered by a mutual friend. At a concert in Leipzig on 13 August she played three of Robert’s Etudes symphoniques. The next day the couple got engaged and Robert officially asked permission from her father to marry Clara.

This was followed by an unsavoury period of harsh confrontations. It took a lawsuit for Robert and Clara to finally be able to get married, on 12 September 1840. Thus ‘all those nights of care, insomniac thinking of you, and all this miserable sorrow, came to an end’, wrote Clara in her diary. The couple moved into an apartment in Leipzig. – It was not until three years later that Clara’s father reconciled with this marriage, mainly because he noted she kept composing and continued her intensive concert practice.

‘Are you musical, too?’

At that time Clara was much better known than Robert. She had travelled as a concert pianist all over Europe and was placed on an equal footing with such greats as Liszt, Thalberg and Rubinstein. Lovingly she was dubbed ‘Queen of the Piano’. She played with an extremely lyrical tone and a glowing expression. She would grab the audience’s  attention with a popular virtuoso piece, then feeding them serious works by herself and composers such as Mendelssohn and her husband. Thanks to Clara, Robert Schumann became known throughout Europe: she performed the premieres of almost all of his pieces.

The extent to which she surpassed her husband in fame is illustrated by an anecdote about the Dutch King William II. During a Clara Schumann concert in The Hague he asked Robert: ‘Sind Sie auch musikalisch, Herr Schumann?’ (Are you musical, too?)

Depression taken out on Clara

Clara had grown up in a family full of tensions, but her own marriage was not easy either. Robert may have loved her very much, even paying tribute to her compositions in his own works, but he suffered from depressions, which he took out on her. When he was not happy with something, he would start picking on her, making her feel insecure. In 1853, she wrote in her diary: ‘What good is the applause of others if I can’t please him in any way?’

However, this year was generally a happy one: Clara enjoyed having her own room in the Düsseldorf apartment they had just moved into: ‘If I can study so much, I really feel in my element. It’s as if I’m in a completely different mood, lighter and freer, and everything seems happier and happier.’ That same year she composed her beautiful Sechs Lieder aus Jucunde opus 23.

Johannes Brahms

In 1853 the violinist Joseph Joachim introduced his friend Brahms in Schumann’s home. The cheerful young composer was a bright spot for Clara at a time when her husband was getting ever sicker. Robert attempted suicide and was admitted to a sanatorium in Endenich in 1854. To her desperation Clara was not allowed to visit him, after which she sought solace from Brahms. This has led to wild speculations about a possible love affair. According to Clara herself, she only had maternal and friendly feelings for her young admirer. She was his muse and Brahms would submit all his compositions for her to review.

Despite her grief and the effort it took to support herself and her seven children – and shoulder the cost of the sanatorium – Clara Schumann continued to compose. In 1855 she published her Three Romances opus 22, which she dedicated to Joseph Joachim. It would be one of her last compositions. When her husband died in 1856, Clara Schumann stopped composing, it’s not quite clear why. She remained active as a pianist and pedagogue until the end of her life. In March 1896 Clara Schumann suffered two strokes shortly after each other, succumbing on 20 May; she was 77 years old.

Her compositions were forgotten, but thanks to the efforts of feminist musicians and musicologists, these are gradually gaining more appreciation. Nonetheless, on her 200th birthday, Clara still stands in the shadow of Robert. – May the next hundred years bring the recognition she is due.

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Whoever said modern music is humourless and cerebral? Kelley Sheehan wins Gaudeamus Award 2019

Kelley Sheehan, photo Anna van Kooij

For a moment the envelope doesn’t seem to open, but then Ingrid van Engelshoven conjures up the redeeming piece of paper. ‘The winner of the Gaudeamus Award 2019 is Kelley Sheehan!’ The small American composer is visibly surprised, she hasn’t seen this coming. Probably not entirely coincidentally, the organisation for new music has positioned her right in the middle of her four fellow candidates. – She herself would have divided the prize equally among them, she tells me afterwards.

Sheehan’s surprised reaction is heartwarming, as is the presence of the Dutch Minister of Cultural Affairs. It is a message to up-and-coming composers and other artists: you matter! Thus the award ceremony on 8 September was a nice icing on the cake of a varied festival. A range of cross-border productions spread across the city of Utrecht. – From festival centre TivoliVredenburg to Kunstruimte Kuub and from Theater Kikker to Centraal Museum and Nicolaïkerk. There were also free outdoor performances on the Neude and Weerdsluis.


The fact that young composers no longer exclusively focus on black and white dots on paper is a given. Collaborations with other disciplines such as dance, visual arts and technology are a matter of course. What did strike me in this year’s festival however, was the desire for collectivity on the part of the five nominees, their bent towards joint creation. – A reassuring feeling in times of polarisation and excessive individualism.

The most pronounced in this are the American Scott Rubin and the Canadian Remy Siu. Rubin creates his pieces together with dancers equipped with movement sensors, in direct interaction with the performing musicians. Siu develops music projects with his own Hong Kong Collective, for which he writes software inspired by video games. In our pre-concert talk he even challenged the fundamental concept of a composer. The Canadian Stefan Maier, the British composer Nicholas Morrish and prizewinner Sheehan also regard the performer as a kind of co-composer.

Strapped violins, crackling cactus

Jurors Clara Ianotta, Yannis Kyriakides and Gerhard Stäbler describe Sheehan as ‘a true explorer of sound’. She ‘works with objects that are stretched in their function’ and creates ‘an unusual noise world’. This certainly applies to Four Sharp Corners for string quartet, performed on Thursday by the Utrecht based ensemble Insomnio. Four string instruments ensnared by fishing wires lie on as many tables. While the musicians try to free their instruments, screaming electronic sounds emerge. With their bows the four string players elicit crunching sounds from their music stands. Two players compete for who can raise or lower his stand with the loudest bang. Whoever said modern music is dry and cerebral?

The Traces that Remain by Nicholas Morrish also has a fresh, humorous slant. Conductor Ulrich Pöhl dribbles back and forth between three old-fashioned gramophones that are prominently placed on stage. He winds up the mechanism and places shellac discs made by Morrish himself. These contain the ticks and splutters inherent in their manufacturing process. The drummer grates a metal comb over the needles of a cactus. According to Morrish, cactus needles were once used to pick up the sound of the records. The ensemble plays fragments of the romantic music we expect to hear from these analogue discs.

Stifling depression, drowning bodies

But it’s not just lightheartedness that sets the tone. In the theatrical DisOrders, Petra Strahovnik makes various forms of depression oppressively palpable. The musicians of Modelo’62 breathe in and out obsessively, writhing over the floor while banging the sound boxes of their instruments, dipping the cup of their clarinet in water and producing an orgy of noise on drums and thunder plates. After about an hour the heavy breathing returns while the musicians are being wrapped in translucent plastic foil. Clearly, there’s no escape from this stifling universe.

The performance Nocturne in EUropean Waters by the Spanish-Dutch composer Jonás Bisquert is downright poignant. Musicians from the New European Ensemble and singers of Consorte are positioned on either side of the Weerdsluis. Gracefully undulating melodies travel from musicians to singers and from quay to quay. Poet Randa Awad recites her poem The Long European Nights, standing on the parapet in the middle of the lock, partly in Arabic, partly in English. Four singers join her, but she abruptly pushes them into the water: ‘Now dead, you oscillate!’ It is a crushing image of the refugees we leave to their fate in the Mediterranean Sea.

Marimba wall

The festival opened on Wednesday, September 4 with the world premiere of W.A.L.L. by Aart Strootman, performed by Slagwerk Den Haag and Temko. Strootman thus fulfilled the composition assignment associated with the Gaudeamus Award, which he won in 2017. He personally built a wall-filling 60-tone marimba, which had been announced with a great deal of fuss. We were even offered a preview of a documentary about its creation. Unfortunately this was rather uninformative. We see Strootman frantically sawing, sanding and fretting, but must learn from the programme booklet that he has divided the octave into 60 instead of 12 tones.

Slagwerk Den Haag playing the marimba wall, photo Anna van Kooij

The promised ‘wall of sound’ also failed to materialise. W.A.L.L. is rather more a study in softly echoing, microtonal guitar arpeggios, sparsely larded with lovely patterns played on the marimba wall. The percussionists – veering upwards from their stools to ‘climb’ the wall – create some beautiful, buzzing passages, but on the whole the wall is subservient to the guitars and the other percussion instruments. Only rarely the percussionists are allowed to indulge themselves in noisy thunderclaps on metal tubes placed between the marimba wall. All in all, the musical material failed to hold our attention over the duration of an hour.

Trumpet concert in disguise

More interesting was Bird, the new piece that Sebastian Hilli, winner of the 2018 Gaudeamus Award, composed for Asko|Schönberg. It is a cheerful amalgam of loud staccato blasts from the ensemble, intersected with sudden silences. Hilli creates a lively question-and-answer game that bounces from jazzy percussion and big-band brass to cheery marching band sounds and exhilarating poppy dance music. The percussionist plays a brilliant solo on bass drum and hi-hat, the pianist pounds out roaring chords on her grand piano.

A star role is reserved for the solo trumpeter, Bird turning out to be a sort of trumpet concert in disguise. Trumpeter Bas Duister has an unprecedentedly beautiful tone full of colour shades, and effortlessly produces the highest notes in virtuoso melodies. The work ends with a parody of the endlessly repeated chords with which classical composers like Beethoven conclude their pieces. Every time you think it’s over, a squeaking piccolo screams for attention. A wonderful piece that sends you home with a cheerful feeling. Gaudeamus could not have wished for a better finale to its 69th edition.

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Gaudeamus nominee Remy Siu: ‘I got fed up with the notion of being a composer’

On Wednesday 4 September the 69th Gaudeamus Music Week kicked off with W.A.L.L. that Aart Strootman composed for a self-designed 60-tone marimba, four percussionists and four guitarists. – He won the Gaudeamus Award in 2017. Before its première I moderated a pre concert talk with this year’s nominees. Remy Siu (1990) admitted having gotten fed up with being the typical composer, writing notes on paper that others have to interpret on the stage.

Instead, he prefers to collaborate with other artists, writing software for them to react and respond to. As with fellow nominee Scott Rubin, this makes each project a communal endeavour rather than an individual achievement.

For the Gaudeamus Award Siu submitted three works in his Foxconn Frequency series. ‘I had just finished Foxconn Frequency nr. 3 and the series spans my output for the last seven or so years. Thus it showcases how I eventually developed a focus on real-time game mechanics as a compositional tool, and also how I implement them.’

Each work was made some years apart with the Hong Kong Collective, in Siu’s studio in Vancouver. ‘I haven’t written a traditional score in many years because I am tired of the relationship between performer and composer implied by that process. Moreover some of my friends are very interesting performers but cannot read music, I work in a lot of interdisciplinary environments. Our studio is occupied by dancers, theatre people, music people, and new media artists.’

‘Since I work with friends, I try to find interesting ways for them to exist inside my works. The Foxconn Frequency originates in my relationship with people who perform them, cultivated over multiple years. My hope is for them to make real-time decisions on stage that are interesting. Also I hope they are present/have presence, and that there are some stakes in the performance. That’s one of the reasons I create these works with software/hardware, to reconfigure the “play-space”, as e.g. in Foxconn Frequency nr. 3.

The exhortation that Foxconn Frequency nr. 3 must be performed by ‘three visibly Chinese performers’ may evoke raised eyebrows. However, the pianists occasionally recite Chinese poetry, and Siu also winks at the lack of ethnic diversity in the classical music world. On another level he addresses the abominable working conditions in Chinese factories by setting his performers almost impossible tasks in a series of mini-games. These are projected live for the audience, to see if they succeed or fail.

While the keyboardists are playing, 3D-printers ‘portray’ their skills, translating these into a physical cube for each performer. This cube usually comes out quite warped, because they can’t fulfil all commands they get from the software. However, when no mistake whatsoever is made, a perfect cube will appear.

Siu: ‘This has never occurred yet, but who knows  the concert coming Friday will yield a flawless specimen after all.’

I interviewed the five nominees on 4 September in TivoliVredenburg. (Remy Siu is last, picture by Co Broerse).I  

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Gaudeamus nominee Scott Rubin: ‘All performance is to an extent composition’

Scott Rubin 2019

Scott Rubin (1989) is one of the five nominees for the Gaudeamus Music Award 2019. The prize is intended for composers under 30, but the Chicago based Rubin defies a strict interpretation of the concept of  composer. – Or of the performer for that matter.

He plays the viola himself, but develops his works in close collaboration with dancers and movement artists. What we see and hear onstage is rather more the outcome of a communal process than the achievement of one particular person. ‘I often act as a performer myself, but I wouldn’t like to use labels that privilege one activity over another.’

All three works he submitted for the Gaudeamus Award involve dancers and motion-sensitive live electronics. Naked to the Sky (2016) calls for 5 performers (4 musicians + movement artist) and was written for/with the Toronto based Thin Edge New Music Collective. Ironic erratic erotic (2017) was composed for/with Jack Adler-McKean, Adam Goodwin and Yuri Shimaoka for a project in Berlin.

In tensions (2018) was developed in collaboration with the cellist Polina Streltsova and movement artist Marie Albert, and was premiered in Paris earlier this year. It will be performed by the fearless cellist Maya Fridman and Emma Evelein in Theater Kikker on Saturday 7 September.

Rubin admits having hesitated to apply for the Gaudeamus Award: ‘I rarely take part in competitions because so few new music institutions support works with dancers. However, Gaudeamus seemed open minded. I’ve been following the festival for years now and have many friends and colleagues who participated in the past. I applied because I thought I had something unique to say and this competition would provide the platform to say it.’

‘I thought that sending a family of interdisciplinary works would convey a cohesive message that contemporary music festivals aren’t just about who writes the best scores for the best musicians. They are about the total collaborative process and audio-visual performance, what the audience sees and hears, and the psychological and theatrical states of the performers.’

‘To me the relation between performer/composer is fluid, non-binary, and intensively collaborative. Everyone creates, it’s just a matter of when. In my honest opinion, all performance is to an extent composition – it’s a question of how far in advance you plan, your relationship to the material and those you created it with, and your attitudes towards flexibility and expressivity.’

‘In my compositional work, I rely a lot on performers to be sensitive and improvise to the best of their abilities at any given moment. They are as much responsible for the success of the project as I am. During the creation process, their material often helps me create structure, so it’s not beneficial to discuss it with regards to ownership or authorship. I often think of myself more as a director or large-scale decision-maker rather than a composer.’

In the Gaudeamus festival he will not be playing his viola on stage. ‘But since all of my works feature live electronics I’m required to perform live from the tech table, often improvising and balancing the marriage between audio and motion data generated by what the performers are doing.’

‘I’ll bring my viola to Utrecht for rehearsal purposes, though. Hopefully I can find some people to jam with…’

I interviewed the five nominees on 4 September in TivoliVredenburg (picture by Co Broerse).

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Gaudeamus nominee Stefan Maier: ‘I embrace the unpredictability of sound’

Stefan Maier

Stefan Maier

For its 69th edition Gaudeamus Music Week again nominated five composers under 30 for its coveted Award. Some 300 scores were submitted by 95 composers from 29 different countries. The jury (Gerhard Stäbler, Yannis Kyriakides and Clara Ianotta) selected Nicholas Morrish (1989) from Great Britain; Scott Rubin (1989) and Kelley Sheehan (1989) from the United States, and Remy Siu (1990) and Stefan Maier (1990) from Canada. Remarkably all five nominees have an Anglo-Saxon background. Were there no aspiring composers from other parts of the world, one wonders.

Anyway, the festival offers a diverse range of music, music installations and music theatre, ranging from the multimedia project Zamenhof: Breaking the Codes by the Polish artist in residence Jerzy Bielski through the performative sound installation Senses Working Overtime to the world première of Bird, that the Finnish composer Sebastian Hilli wrote for Asko|Schönberg – fulfilling the commission attached to the Gaudeamus Award 2018.

Many of today’s composers move freely between genres, styles and disciplines, not seldom blurring the boundaries between composer and performer. This holds definitely for Stefan Maier, whose compositions, installations, and performances ‘examine emergent and historical sound technologies’, to use his own words. He likes to ‘highlight material instability and unruliness’, to ‘explore the flows of sonic matter through sound systems, instruments, software, and bodies’. He seeks to ‘uncover alternate modes of authorship and listening possible within specific technologically-mediated situations’.

Maier applied for the Gaudeamus Award 2019 with Bellows, Territories III and Thicket; the first two will actually be performed. ‘I guess I’ve always followed the Gaudeamus competition since I got into composition’, he says. ‘It’s always exposed me to exciting new voices, so I thought I’d see if I could do it myself. I hope and expect to hear a lot of great music and to meet interesting people. I look forward to meeting my co-nominees, getting acquainted with their music, but also to seeing and performing alongside friends.’

How do you see the relationship between performer/composer?

‘That’s a complex question for  me — and it has changed significantly over the past years. I have always been interested in the intrinsic dynamism of the performance of classical music — the fact that interpretation, ensemble dynamics, and even the acoustic signatures of the performance space transform and enliven works.’

‘So I don’t really believe in a straight through-line from composer to interpreter: it’s always a complex trajectory, muddied by instruments, technology, individual agency, material resistance, it’s totally non-linear. This has always been central in my work, especially with the use of extremely chaotic sounds/hyper-specific extended-techniques. I’m drawn towards contingency within the inner-life of materials — materials that have certain “infinity” properties, such that the sounds are always changing and are unpredictable for performers.’

‘The performer is encouraged to engage this unpredictability and, indeed, revel in it. My attention to this has opened more and more over the years — especially since working with feedback systems, as e.g. in Bellows and in my live-electronics work.’

‘With Bellows, basically the entire structure is determined by acoustic feedback in the performance space. Its acoustic signature literally determines most parameters of the work. For example, there’s a listening score for the ensemble so that when the feedback generates a certain tone, then the ensemble imitates it, etcetera. It’s super open and contingent, way more so than in my more traditional ensemble writing. And that’s precisely what I find to be most interesting about it!’

‘With works like Bellows, the traditional relationship between composer and performer is destabilized. — Yes, I’m making a ton of decisions to facilitate ensemble dynamics and form and other composerly concerns, so I’m still in the picture — but it’s also about highlighting the “material intelligence” of the sounds taking on the role of the composer in a way.’

‘Sometimes that results in stuff that I’m not happy with, but now that my practice has evolved to include a studio/electronic music/improvisation practice, I feel that if I want a super specific thing, I can just work on it in my studio. Live performance, then, becomes something else for me – something far more indeterminate!’

In the festival Maier will perform with pianist Vicky Chow in a new work called Rare Earth. ‘I’ll be playing modular synthesizer. I will also be playing organ/electronics for Bellows, alongside my collaborator Ragnhild May, who co-authored that work.’

I interviewed the five nominees on 4 September in TivoliVredenburg.

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Gaudeamus nominee Kelley Sheehan: ‘I enjoy an open dialogue with the performers’

Kelley Sheehan

From 4 to 8 September the Gaudeamus Music Week presents state of the art contemporary music, performed by a plethora of ensembles and musicians. Five composers compete for the coveted Gaudeamus Award 2019: Stefan Maier (CA, 1990); Nicholas Morrish (GB, 1989); Scott Rubin (US, 1989); Remy Siu (CA, 1990), and Kelley Sheehan (US, 1989).

The festival will be opened on Wednesday 4 September in TivoliVredenburg, with the world première of W.A.L.L. by Aart Strootman, winner of the Gaudeamus Award 2017. He composed this for his own ensemble Temko and Slagwerk Den Haag.

Prior to the concert I’ll interview the five young contestors about their music and expectations for the festival. Kelley Sheehan already provided some answers.

Sheehan is a composer and computer musician moving between acoustic, electronic, electro-acoustic, and performance art works. In any medium, her work centres on noise, performance, and interaction. Her music has been described as “Full of discovery, collaboration, and unpredictability” (Gaudeamus Foundation), and was lauded for its “woozy electronics” (LA Weekly).

Her music was performed at prestigious venues such as Disney Hall (LA), Experimental Sound Studios (Chicago), and The Banff Center for the Arts (Alberta). She was awarded residencies and fellowships to MISE-EN Place Bushwick, the National Composers Intensive with the LA Phil, Nief Norf, wasteLAnd Summer Academy, and the Banff Center for the Arts.

Sheehan regularly performs with The Plucky Plunkers, an improvisational duo focusing on works for toy piano and multimedia collaborations. Her work and research has led her to study composition with composers of various interest and background such as Sivan Cohen Elias, Marcos Balter, and Fredrick Gifford. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Composition at Harvard University, studying with Chaya Czernowin and Hans Tutsku.

How did you know about the Gaudeamus competition?

A teacher of mine had recommended looking into the festival so I’ve kept tabs on the competition, but this was my first year applying. I wanted to experience the concerts and witness everything the festival and a competition like this has to offer.

What do you expect from the Gaudeamus Music Week?

I’m really looking forward to hearing new exciting music, hearing all the new works that will be premiered, as well as meeting a ton of people with whom I share the love for contemporary music – that’s very exciting for me.

Of course I also look forward to hearing the premiere of my new piece, which I developed in close collabaration with the Nadar Ensemble. Naturally I’m also curious to hear the interpretations of my other works that are being played over the course of the festival.
You are not only a composer but also a performer, how do you see the relationship between the two?

Being an improviser myself, I see the relationship between performer and composer within myself as two sides of the same coin. In regards to working with other performers when I am strictly in the composer role, then I really enjoy having a close relationship that involves a lot of exchange of ideas and an open dialogue. I won’t be performing myself at the Gaudeamus Music Week.
With which pieces of yourself are you most satisfied?

I’m very happy with the three works I submitted for the competition: Talk Circus; Four Sharp Corners, and 3 Movements.I

I interviewed the five nominees on 4 September, prior to the opening concert in TivoliVredenburg. 

On 8 September 2019 the Gaudeamus Music Award 2019 was won by Kelley Sheehan, very much to her own surprise…

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Fifty years of Raschèr Saxophone Quartet: ‘Stay upright!’

Raschèr Quartet in 2014: Elliott Riley, Christine Rall, Kenneth Coon, Andreas van Zoelen (c) Felix Broede

On 22 September the Raschèr Saxophone Quartet will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary with a gala concert in Freiburg. This is a sample of their versatility, with works by such diverse composers as Bach, Xenakis and Auerbach, and with the collaboration of a choir and a chamber orchestra. The concert is dedicated to baritone saxophonist Kenneth Coon, who died last May. I interviewed the Dutch tenor saxophonist Andreas van Zoelen, who joined the quartet five years ago.

Wish come true

In 1969 alto saxophonist Sigurd Raschèr (1907-2001) ended his solo career and founded the saxophone quartet named after him. Although the New York Saxophone Quartet Club was already active in the nineteenth century (1873-1885), this type of ensemble was far from self-evident. For a long time the instrument was mainly associated with jazz and Raschèr had fought tirelessly for acceptance of the saxophone in the classical music world. With the founding of his quartet a long cherished wish came true.

Members of the first hour were Raschèr’s daughter Carina (soprano saxophone) and two of his students: Bruce Weinberger, (tenor) and Linda Bangs (baritone). The ensemble quickly gained fame through its adventurous programming and collaborations with orchestras and even choirs. Once again, Raschèr was doing pioneering work. As the repertoire for the saxophone quartet consisted mainly of arrangements, he bombarded friendly composers with requests for new pieces.

Raschèr Quartet in 1977: Linda Bangs, Bruce Weinberger, Carina Raschèr, Sigurd Raschèr (c) Hugo Kocher

New ensemble, new repertoire

‘Now there are about four hundred of them,’ says Andreas van Zoelen, who succeeded Bruce Weinberger as tenor saxophonist in 2014. Many of these compositions are now among the cornerstones of the repertoire, such as XAS by Iannis Xenakis and the quartets by Tristan Keuris and Philip Glass. He considers it a great honour to follow in the footsteps of the last co-founder: ‘Bruce was full of ideas and constantly came up with different repertoire combinations, for which he succeeded to engage such greats as Luciano Berio’.

For Van Zoelen, these interrelationships largely determine the attraction of the Raschèr. ‘Recently we played Music for Saxophones by Tristan Keuris with the Badische Staatskapelle. In the combination of quartet and orchestra I find this piece the absolute highlight, because of its incredible eloquence, depth and colour. But also Water Music by Brett Dean is fantastic, because Dean asks us to explore our limits.’

Exploring boundaries

The latter is also an essential characteristic of the quartet: ‘Thanks to Adolphe Sax’ design strategy, our instrument has an immense range of possibilities. We see it as our task to fully explore this, together with the composer. As performers, we are the connection between the spiritual world in which he or she conceives the work and the audience, who get to experience a completely new landscape of sounds and colours. However, we are averse to empty virtuoso display, it is always about the content, which is why we choose our composers carefully.

This certainly applies to the Russian-American Lera Auerbach (1973), who in 2016 composed the full-length 72 Angels for the Raschèr and the Nederlands Kamerkoor. Van Zoelen: ‘The premiere in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in Amsterdam was one of the most profound experiences of my career. We have performed the piece many times since then and recorded it on CD last February.’

He finds it difficult to explain what precisely moves him so deeply and rather quotes Auerbach’s words from an interview I had with her for this blog. ‘She called it “a long, intense prayer of passion and hope” and said that “a saxophone quartet can ignite the fire, but at the same time can transcend its flame”. For me, that’s exactly what lies at the heart of this work.’

Distinctive sound

In addition to the special repertoire, Van Zoelen also praises the distinctive sound of the Raschèr. ‘We play on Buescher saxophones from the 1930s. Characteristic is the mouthpiece which, with its so-called ‘large chamber’, differs substantially from modern examples. In combination with the specific construction of these old instruments, this results in a sound that is faithful to the original intentions of Adolphe Sax.’

‘With his self-designed instrument Sax wanted to bridge the gap between the strings and wind instruments of a symphony orchestra, but also between the wood and brass instruments of a military marching band. This chameleonic character explains its overwhelming richness of colour.’

For Van Zoelen this pertains especially to the altissimo register, in which tones are played that are considerably higher than would be possible with the usual grip technique. ‘These are realized by a form of overblowing, using the natural overtones of the tube,’ he explains. ‘Sigurd Raschèr, pioneer of the classical saxophone and founder of our quartet, continued to elaborate on this technique, but even Adolphe Sax himself already managed to conjure up almost four octaves from his instrument!’

Demise of Kenneth Coon

The fiftieth anniversary is overshadowed by the absence of baritone saxophonist Kenneth Coon (1967-2019), who succumbed to cancer after months of struggle. However, there is no question of stopping, says Van Zoelen. ‘When we recorded the CD with 72 Angels, Ken was already seriously ill, and we asked Oscar Trompenaars to play the baritone part.’

All planned concerts were performed with various replacements, for the three musicians didn’t want to make a hasty decision about Coon’s succession. ‘It was all too fresh for that’, says Van Zoelen, ‘but after ample consideration we have decided to invite Oscar to take his place in our quartet. – Which will be fifty percent Dutch from now on.’

Coon had emphatically asked his colleagues to continue playing after his death. ‘The last thing he said to me was: “Stay upright!”. – We have taken this to heart, and will dedicate our new CD to honour his memory.’

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Violinist Monica Germino plays MUTED: ‘I feel like the cat Mehitabel, on the threshold of a new career’

Monica Germino with selection of mutes (c) Anna Reinke

Monica Germino with selection of mutes (c) Anna Reinke

On Sunday 21 July Monica Germino will play MUTED in the festival Wonderfeel. This piece was composed for her by Louis Andriessen and the composers of Bang on a Can when she was diagnosed with hyperacusis, a hearing disorder that makes her oversensitive to sound. In May Monica Germino also played MUTED in the festival dedicated to Louis Andriessen’s 80th birthday in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. I then interviewed her about her relationship with Andriessen and about her new ‘whisper violin’ for the Dutch music magazine Luister.

The first time Monica Germino played music by Louis Andriessen was in 1994, during the premiere of his opera Rosa in the Muziektheater in Amsterdam. A year earlier she had met him personally when she came to the Netherlands with a scholarship. ‘But in the spirit I had met him before’, says the violinist in her living room with a view of the Amstel river. ‘This was during my master’s degree at Yale. He had been a guest lecturer there a few years earlier and the students couldn’t stop talking about it. One of them said: are you going to the Netherlands? Then you must visit Louis Andriessen! And gave me his phone number.’

Something like that seemed a trifle too cheeky to her, because Andriessen was an icon to her. ‘I had heard a performance of De Staat at Yale and was blown off my socks. I was a Stravinsky fanatic and had played almost all his works for violin, from the Violin Concerto to the string quartet and In memoriam Dylan Thomas, and suddenly I heard the sound that comes after Stravinsky. I thought: this is it! This is the music I’ve been looking for, this is necessary music.’

Once in the Netherlands to investigate study possibilities, it quickly started to itch: ‘I just needed to know more about modern music in this country. I called Louis and he immediately invited me to come to café De Jaren that same evening. There I also met some of his former students, including Calliope Tsoupaki, Ron Ford and David Dramm. They were very nice and gave a lot of tips. Louis advised me to study with Vera Beths at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague.’

She eagerly followed all advice and a year later she moved to Amsterdam. When she happened to meet Andriessen at a concert and greeted him enthusiastically he looked at her somewhat mystified. ‘He had no idea who I was, while making his acquaintance had been life changing for me.’ She heartily laughs about it now. ‘At our next meeting he proposed to play Bach Sonatas together.’

‘As a typical American, ambitious student I immediately bought all the scores, listened to authentic recordings and studied baroque embellishment. But when a month and a half later I announced that I was ready, he reacted with a bit of surprise.’ Rehearsing together turned out to be a hit: ‘Louis played the piano beautifully and in the meantime shouted instructions: here comes a beautiful bass note! I learned as much from this as from listening to those recordings of early music.’

When Andriessen worked on Passeggiata in America in 1998 in tram e ritorno for voice, violin and ensemble, however, he did not think of Germino. He asked Rosita Wouda of the Schönberg Ensemble for advice, in which I occasionally played. She replied: why don’t you ask Monica? – I had already developed a fanaticism to produce the typical Andriessen sound, which I describe as a super-legato. A pure, vibration-free sound, without swelling or letting go of the bow, as if there were glue on the strings. I was overjoyed when I received a phone call to premiere Passeggiata.’

This also introduces her to the Italian voice artist Cristina Zavalloni, for whom Andriessen had composed the vocal part. ‘We rehearsed in Louis’ attic and it clicked immediately. It was as if we were one person, we even used the same body language. Cristina became a dear friend, who many years later would be our witness when Louis and I married.’ The 1999 premiere was a success and inspired Andriessen to produce the large-scale double concerto La Passione, which was also performed in the festival dedicated to him.

Unfortunately no longer with a solo role for Germino, who now suffers from hyperacusis, a hypersensitivity to sound. A personal drama, because Germino, who often works with electronics and was once known as the ‘loudest violinist in the Netherlands’, now has to drastically reduce the decibels.

When she was diagnosed at the end of 2015, she considered giving up playing entirely, but the composers of Bang on a Can put a stop to that. ‘No way’, Michael Gordon decided, ‘I’m going to write the softest piece ever for you.’ Julia Wolfe reacted dryly when Germino told her she had said goodbye to her violin: ‘Then say hello again!’ David Lang looked her piercingly in the eye: ‘I see this as a huge opportunity!’

The three of them proposed to make a joint composition with their mentor Louis Andriessen. Neil Wallace, then programmer at De Doelen, came to the rescue. He organised a composition assignment together with four other organisations, which led to the four-part MUTED. In a combination of mutes and four different instruments, the limits of audibility are explored. Germino premiered it to great acclaim in October 2018 as part of of the New York Philharmonic’s festival The Art of Andriessen,

One of the instruments is a ‘whisper violin’ that Marcel Wanders and Bas Maas specially designed and built for Germino. This is inspired by the so-called pochette violin by baroque dance masters. The neck has the shape of a raised finger: shush! The sound is naturally ultra-soft, but can be further muffled by placing stops in the sound box.

In this way, Germino turns her handicap into a virtue. ‘I am very grateful. So many people have helped me on this difficult road. I feel like the cat Mehitabel from the movement that Louis composed for MUTED. She had a bad life, always fell in love with the wrong males but still stayed afloat, like a Grande Dame. Thus I’m on the threshold of a new career myself.’

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Zomernieuwsbrief: Holland Festival en meer

Markus Stenz + Thea Derks + Os, 7-6-2019 TivoliVredenburg

Ook zo aan het genieten (of balen) van de aanhoudende hitte? Hierbij wat verstrooiend lees- en luistervoer. Enjoy!

Op vrijdag 7 juni nam het Radio Filharmonisch Orkest afscheid van chef-dirigent Markus Stenz. Ik interviewde hem voor het Avondconcert op Radio 4 en vroeg hem naar zijn achtergrond (Engelstalig).

Als dank voor de vele mooie concerten schonk ik Stenz Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht. Hij toonde zich aangenaam verrast en noemde het een ‘ideaal vakantieboek’. Als onverwachte bonus kreeg de Os ondertussen een prachtrecensie van Michaja Langelaan in het weekblad Argus. Dus grijp je kans: koop de Os voor jezelf of geef hem cadeau, het is tenslotte volgens velen ‘een must have voor elke muziekliefhebber’.

Ik gaf zondag 18 mei twee lezingen over mijn Os in het gloednieuwe Eratofestival in Meppel, waar ik twee dagen daarvoor tevens het openingsconcert had afgetrapt met een inleiding op het concert van Miranda van Kralingen.

Een week later ging de Os alweer mee naar het Oranjewoudfestival, waar ik twee lezingen mocht geven in het gelijknamige landgoed. Ik verzorgde daarnaast inleidingen bij How to Play the Triangle van Tatiana Koleva en ‘8’ van David Lang met Cello8tet Amsterdam.

Ongeveer tegelijkertijd barstte het Holland Festival los, met als hoogtepunt de driedaagse voorstellingen van Aus Lichteen belevenis!

Stockhausen was uiteraard niet de enige attractie van het Holland Festival. Ik bezocht ook de mixed-media-installatie Eight van Michel van der Aa en de opera Pelléas et Mélisande van Debussy. Deze productie van De Nationale Opera kreeg maar 2 sterren van verschillende collega’s, ik vond het prachtig.

Minder overtuigd was ik door Mitra over de Iraanse psychoanalytica Mitra Kadivar en Triptych, een ode aan de fotograaf Robert Mapplethorpe.

Afgelopen vrijdag toog ik naar Fort Rijnauwen voor de première van King Lear, de opera die Verdi nooit schreef maar die Holland Opera alsnog realiseerde.

Ik wens u een fijne vakantie!!

Thea Derks

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Four reasons to attend Pelléas et Mélisande at Dutch National Opera #HF19

Due to its wide range of events the Holland Festival is at times its own competitor. I missed Turan Dokht and the premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande because I attended aus LICHT. To visit a performance of Debussy’s first and only opera, I had to skip the concert by the French rapper/writer Abd Al Malik on 12 June. – Cultural ‘choice-stress’, frustrating on the one hand, but a wealth on the other. Was it worth it, you ask? I can’t judge what I missed, but I can sum up four reasons why you should visit the production of Pelléas et Mélisande in the Amsterdam Muziektheater.

Enchanting staging

A wickerwork of hanging steel pipes suggests the impenetrable forest in which Golaud runs into the lost Mélisande. As soon as the music starts, the rods start to lazily rock together, lit up like a nightly magic forest. They make way for a triangular staircase that functions as the castle of King Arkel. In ever-changing formations the stands also serve as Golaud’s castle, a cave, a pond and the secret meeting place for Pelléas and Mélisande.

Set designer Pierre-André Weitz consistently employs the triangular shape. A simple and effective reference to the difficult relationship between Golaud, his half-brother Pelléas and Mélisande. The mobile, multifunctional scaffolding works rival the breath-taking set design in Stockhausen’s aus LICHT.

The gigantic trapezoidal panels sliding down to form yet another triangle are oppressive. They resemble the axe of a guillotine and presage the tragedy to come. Lighting designer Bertrand Killy makes the suffocating atmosphere even more palpable with bright light accents on an otherwise dark stage. Thus the staging perfectly mirrors the enigmatic atmosphere of Maurice Maeterlinck’s libretto.

Stylish costumes

In this gloomy setting the protagonists move about in black or grey custom-made costumes. The elegant cut of their three-piece suits is reminiscent of the early twentieth century, when Debussy composed his opera. Mélisande’s virginal white outfits form a sharp contrast with this. Weitz seems to cry out to us that she is innocence incarnate. But when she appears on stage for the first time, she wears a sensual, transparent robe, her nipples and thong visible to all. Perhaps the mysterious girl is less innocent than she seems? Golaud’s son Yniold is also dressed in white, as if he, too, were merely a victim of the circumstances.

Formidable singers

The Dutch National Opera has engaged a top cast for this production. The Russian soprano Elena Tsallagova is the ideal Mélisande with her pure, unadorned voice and girlish appearance. She moves one’s heart to the core as a frightened adolescent who is besieged by the older Golaud, as his depressed wife, as a teeny-bopper in love and as a delirious woman who dies in childbirth.

The Irish-American baritone Brian Mulligan is impressive as Golaud. With his sonorous voice and impressive appearance, he gives shape to the diverse aspects of his character. – From a cautious yet horny old buck harassing Mélisande in a #MeToo type of action, to a barish landowner who lets his subjects starve to death. He is as convincing as the jealous husband who kills Pelléas, drags Mélisande by the hair and even on her deathbed interrogates her about possible adultery.

The British bass Peter Rose shines in his role as the half-blind King Arkel. He shows remarkable insight into the troubled relationships between his grandsons Golaud and Pelléas. His compassion and concern for Mélisande are deeply moving. The sovereign tone in which he accepts the fate that deprives him of both her and Pelléas grabs you by the throat. Unfortunately Paul Appleby is a rather bland Pelléas.

Absolutely stunning is Maximilian Leicher of the Tölzer Knabenchor in his role of Yniold. In the first two acts he lovingly leads his great-grandfather Arkel by the arm. Next he obeys his father’s orders to spy on Pelléas and Mélisande with apparent reluctance, nevertheless answering his envious questions in a flawless soprano voice.

In the fourth act he sings a poignant solo full of ominous references to the imminent tragedy. Leicher is a gifted actor and his French is immaculate. The ostentatious boredom with which he hears out the lengthy discussions of the adults in the fifth and final act is contagious.

Debussy’s magical music

‘Prima la musica, dopo le parole’ (first the music, then the words), is the age-old adage for opera. For Debussy, however, they are inextricably linked. Without exception, the vocal lines are syllabic and follow the French accent closely. The absence of coloratura and other typical opera ornamentation creates a pleasant naturalness, the melodic lines are distinctly flowing. This approach is also beneficial to the intelligibility of the text.

Debussy excelled in creating ‘vague, impressionistic’ orchestral and choral parts. Sharply framed melodic contours and strong rhythmic pulses are absent, the harmonies are not based on traditional tonality. Instead of a propelling sense of purpose, Debussy writes music that is in a sense immobile. We can wallow in a bath full of brilliant timbres, larded with beautiful arabesques of woodwinds and brass instruments. When Mélisande sings, we often hear a subtle motif from a harp, traditionally the instrument that symbolises innocence.

This does mean to say that Pelléas et Mélisande is a sugary kind of kitsch. On the contrary, as a true master Debussy creates a magical, elusive atmosphere that wonderfully matches the symbolist story. Under the picturesque surface, disaster is ominously brewing, in low growling bassoons and double basses and softly rumbling timpani. Sudden silences, muted horns and hair-raising brass fanfares intensify the atmosphere of doom and inevitability.

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is audibly familiar with Debussy’s sound world, the musicians intoning their many short solo motifs beautifully and with care. Too bad the orchestra sometimes drowned out the singers. And to my taste, conductor Stéphane Denève could have added just a trifle more French perfume. But these are just minimal comments on an otherwise exemplary production.

Pelléas et Mélisande runs through 27 June. Info and tickets here.

If you wish to express your appreciation for this post, you can buy me a tea or coffee – or more – via PayPal.  Any amount, however small, is welcome! Thanks for your support!

On 5 June I played Debussy’s (un)finished opera La chute de la maison Usher in my programme ‘Een os op het dak’ on Concertzender. Listen here.

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Conductor Markus Stenz: ‘Sometimes I feel: now it’s music’.

Markus Stenz (c) Josep Molina

In 2012 Markus Stenz was appointed chief conductor of the Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, based in Hilversum. He conducted both classical masterworks, world premières and lesser known repertoire by Dutch composers, in NTRZaterdagMatinee in Concertgebouw Amsterdam and AVROTROSVrijdagconcert in TivoliVredenburg Utrecht.

On 7 June he takes his leave as chief conductor with Szenen aus Goethes Faust Robert Schumann. We know Stenz as a passionate and well-informed conductor, who always strives for the best result. But what is his background, and how did he end up in music?

Markus Stenz (1965) grew up in the village of Kaltenborn in the Rhineland-Palatinate: ‘A hamlet with two farmhouses, a church, a pub and a village school of which my father was headmaster. We lived above it. It was deadly boring and my parents made music to drive away the boredom. My mother was always singing, whether she was cooking, ironing, or doing any other household chores. My father was a skilled amateur musician, who, besides piano and organ, also played wind instruments and conducted a choir. As a toddler of two, I crawled under the grand piano, that’s how beautiful I thought it was.’

Little Markus also bangs the keys himself and at the age of five his parents send him to piano lessons. ‘They chose the best teacher in the region, Mrs. Haas-Paquet in Ahrweiler. She was such a typical gnome woman: small, with bony fingers and a bun. For my first lesson I refused to go inside, because I thought she was so ugly. I clasped myself to the door of the car. When my mother told her in distress what was going on, Mrs. Haas said wittily: “You’re right, I’m ugly! And now we’re going to start.” – And then I had lessons from her for ten years.’

This wasn’t a matter of course, however. ‘It was 45 minutes’ drive and I always got sick in the car. Both on the way up and back the question arose where to stop: in Kempenich or in Ramersbach, so that I could throw up.’ Moreover Haas-Paquet proved to be a strict teacher: ‘I drove her to madness because I improvised rather more than I practiced, so when I played she often corrected me: “You missed that note again!” – But she was also very sensitive, and I learned a lot from her.’

Although he grows up in a musical environment, Stenz only visits a concert once as a child: ‘Around my tenth my father took me to the Beethovenhalle in Bonn. I don’t remember what was played, but I do remember the conductor. With his bald head he looked very much like Professor Charivari from my children’s book Raumschiff Monitor, which I liked. I suspect it was Georg Solti.’

A few years later he sees Leonard Bernstein’s Norton Lectures on television. ‘A key moment! I thought it great that he brought jazz and classical music together in a self-evident way. He was so free in his thinking and illustrated his lectures with live music, from The Beatles to Beethoven, electrifying.’ At the age of eighteen he started studying conducting with Volker Wangenheim in Cologne and after that he took a course in Tanglewood with his hero Bernstein.

Stenz enjoys working with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, where he will regularly return as a guest conductor in the coming season. ‘I like the adventurous programming and the unconditional commitment of the musicians. The repertoire ranges from the classical canon – from Haydn to Beethoven through Mahler – to Dutch composers such as Rudolf Escher, Peter Schat and Joey Roukens. We’ve also performed a lot of concertante opera, often in combination with the Radio Choir, as last week we performed Die Gezeichneten Franz Schreker, and in 2017 we played the world première of Babylon Jörg Widmann.’

‘I hardly know of an orchestra that plays with more dedication and passion. We faced hard times because of the ongoing cuts on funding in the Netherlands, but we’ve responded to this with highly motivated playing. For me it is essential that an orchestra is able to play commissioned compositions. Discovering new avenues is a basic instinct, for all musicians. The great thing is that the public here has always been very open to the very latest notes.’

The reactions of the audience are of vital importance to Stenz anyway: ‘Without an audience there is no concert, they are the determining factor! We musicians are experience artists, we create art in the moment, and hopefully the audience will be carried away. It’s great when people come and tell us from the bottom of their hearts how much they liked a concert.’

‘I drew a lot of inspiration from the book Zen in the art of archery. It describes how in the perfect case it is not the shooter or the archer who shoots, but ‘it’. It may sound a bit ethereal, but at concerts I sometimes feel: now it becomes music, not I conduct, but ‘it’. – Those are magical moments.’

I interviewed Markus Stenz on Goethes Faust and his leave as chief conductor for the live broadcast of the concert on Radio 4

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15 Stunden aus Licht von Karlheinz Stockhausen im Holland Festival

Thea Derks + Karlheinz Stockhausen 7-3-2006

Das Holland Festival, Koninklijk Conservatorium Den Haag, De Nationale Opera und die Stockhausenstiftung bringen vom 31. Mai bis 10. Juni ‘Aus LICHT’, 15 Stunden aus der wohl längsten Oper der Welt, LICHT, die sieben Tage der Woche von Karlheinz Stockhausen. Angekündigt als ‘a once in a lifetime event’, und das ist bestimmt nicht übertrieben. Ich werde selbstverständlich im Amsterdamer Gaskessel dabei sein.

Im Jahre 1977 hatte Karlheinz Stockhausen begonnen seine Oper LICHT zu komponieren. Drei Jahre später vollendete er den ersten Teil, ‘Donnerstag aus LICHT’, der 1981 uraufgeführt wurde an der Mailänder Scala. Im Jahre 2003 vollendete er den 7-teiligen Zyklus mit ‘Sonntag aus LICHT’; die Uraufführung fand erst 8 Jahre später statt, vier Jahre nach Stockhausens Tod.

Als Stockhausen 2006 in Holland war für eine Aufführung von Hoch-Zeiten (aus Sonntag, nicht Teil der Produktion ‘Aus LICHT’) erzählte er mir über die Superformel und sprach er die Hoffnung aus eine Aufführung des vollständigen Zyklus noch erleben zu dürfen.

Hier hören Sie unser Gespräch aus 2006.

Die Flötistin Kathinka Pasveer, Stockhausens Lebensgefährtin, leitet die Produktion ‘Aus LICHT’. Ich fragte sie vor welche Herausforderungen die Organisation sich gestellt sah, für den klassischen Sender SWR2. Zurückhören hier.

Auch das Helikopterstreichquartett wird aufgeführt im Rahmen des Projekts ‘Aus LICHT’. Es standen nur 2 Testflüge zur Verfügung, ich hatte am 7. Mai einen Blick hinter die Kulissen geworfen. Meinen Podcast hören Sie hier.

Vor 2 Jahren wurde Michaels Reise um die Erde (Donnerstag aus LICHT) in verschiedenen Städten in Holland aufgeführt, ich schrieb darüber auf meinem Blog.

Vor 3 Jahren versuchten ein Paar Musikjournalisten die Produktion ‘Aus LICHT’ zu stoppen, zum Glück ohne Erfolg. Ich erklärte damals auf Cultuurpers warum ich es persönlich eine tolle Idee fand.

Ich freue mich auf ‘Aus LICHT’, und hoffe Sie bei einer der Aufführungen zu treffen!

Nachschrift 7. Juni 2019: ich schrieb eine Besprechung für Cultuurpers (auf Holländisch). 

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Claude Vivier created his own life history in music

Claude Vivier

In the series of bizarre composer’s lives, the name of Claude Vivier (1948-1983) cannot be missed. On Monday 20 May the Canadian National Arts Centre Orchestra and the soprano Erin Wall will perform his Lonely Child in TivoliVredenburg Utrecht.

Vivier was born in Montreal in 1948, but never knew his parents. He grew up in an orphanage until he was adopted at the age of three by a poor French-Canadian family. When he was thirteen years old he went to a Catholic boarding school, where he was prepared for the priesthood. Yet his love for poetry and music proved to be greater than his love for God and at the age of eighteen he went to study composition at the Conservatory of Montreal.

In 1971 he went to Europe, where he studied at the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht and with Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne. After three years he returned to Canada, where he slowly began to make a name for himself as a composer. But soon the travelling itch crept upon him again and in 1978 he started a long journey through Asia, where he was inspired by the music of Japan and Bali. The timbres of these regions found their way audibly to his own music, for example in his successful opera Kopernikus.

Stabbed to death

The ever restless Vivier left for Paris in 1982, supported by a scholarship from the Canada Council. In the French capital he was stabbed to death in his hotel room a year later by someone he had picked up from the street. As a curious as well as horrifying detail is that on his desk they found the unfinished manuscript of Glaubst Du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele for choir, percussion, synthesizers and electronics, in which he describe his own death almost literally.

At a young age Vivier had accepted his homosexuality, but as an adopted child he felt somewhat displaced, so he modelled his own history in music, as it were. He said: ‘Not knowing my parents enabled me to create a magnificent dream world. I shaped my origins exactly as I wished, and pretended to speak foreign languages.’ In his vocal works he often uses a self-invented language, as in the above-mentioned opera Kopernikus and the ‘opéra-fleuve’ Rêves d’un Marco Polo. The two operas were performed here in 2000 as a double bill in the Amsterdam Gashouder as part of the Holland Festival.

Lost soul

Lonely Child is one of the six independent compositions that together form Rêves d’un Marco Polo. Vivier composed it in 1980, commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He used his own text, which switches between French and his own fantasy language. It is considered to be his spiritual and emotional self-portrait, which he himself described as ‘a long song about loneliness’. It is a 20-minute nostalgic cry from a lost soul that will leave no one unmoved.

The music has a static character, with slow progressing sound textures that are rhythmically often in sync with the singing voice. The piece opens with a resonating blow on a bronze singing bowl, after which the strings introduce descending lines and the soprano starts a melancholic melody. The instruments mainly play very high or very low notes, thus creating great spaciousness. The first violins produce clusters of closely spaced tones that envelop the singing voice in a shimmering veil of sound.


In this way Vivier evokes an archaic sound world that seems to float somewhere between heaven and earth. The recurring buzz of the singing bowls and an intermezzo of solemn blows on the large drum halfway through the piece reinforce the atmosphere of a ritual. Instead of regular chords, Vivier uses so-called spectral techniques to create music that consists purely of sound; harmony no longer seems to plays a role at all.

All the tones used are derived from the vocal part, and Vivier weaves an enchanting carpet of sound that constantly changes colour – he himself referred to as ‘beams of colour’. Gradually the vocal part becomes more exalted, with the voice rising to an ever higher register. After about twenty minutes Lonely Child ends with a few lonely strokes on the singing bowl. Seldom have I heard a more poignant expression of forlornness and of longing.

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Composer Tansy Davies explores her Dutch roots in Soul Canoe: ‘Music is a powerful carrier of messages’

Tansy Davies (c) Rikard Osterlund

Last autumn Tansy Davies lived in Amsterdam for three months, as composer in residence of the Concertgebouw. She soaked up the atmosphere and sought inspiration for a new composition for Asko|Schönberg, Soul Canoe, that will be premièred on 17 May. I interviewed Davies in December 2018, just before she returned to England.

‘Amsterdam is a true melting pot of cultures’, says Tansy Davies during our conversation in my living room. – To our surprise, her apartment turned out to be located a few houses down my street. The composer, born in Bristol in 1973, talks with a soft but lively voice that abundantly bounces from the highest to the lowest register and back, in a typically British, melodious intonation.

Often she seems almost surprised by her own observations, which are associative yet apt and well-conceived. ‘You have a centuries-long tradition of trading, of import and export, of constant travel to faraway places. Amsterdam is the incarnate cultural melting pot. I understand very well why so many overseas students come here to study. The conservatory is full of brilliant minds and teachers.’

Masses of water

Davies was moreover struck by the many canals of Amsterdam. Water is a theme that fascinates her anyway: ‘I still want to visit the Delta Works in Zeeland. The idea of enormous masses of water that are kept out is awe-inspiring. At the same time it evokes the thought of all those people who travelled from here to Indonesia and back again. I’ve watched films about that in the Maritime Museum, very instructive.’

This touches on her own background: ‘My mother’s family comes from Friesland. I have tracked down a number of relatives here, cousins of hers. They turned out to be one-eighth Indonesian, so they are connected to all those travels and the events in the colonies. Although they are all different, I feel a great affinity, they are real kindred spirits.’ Radiant: ‘We had rijsttafel!’

Travel by ship

Partly because of the acquaintance with her distant relatives, Davies became fascinated by travelling by ship. ‘While musing about the expeditions of the Dutch East India Company, I saw all those old cargo boats lying here in the canals. Former barges that serve as houses, what do you call them…, woonboten (houseboats).’ She jumps up: ‘Before I came to Amsterdam I even dreamt about this. I had visions of exactly these vessels, which are somehow connected to my inner world. They are, as it were, ships of knowledge – or power. They float around, vertically in space but also at sea.’

A nice image, but how are we to understand this, I ask as a down-to-earth Dutchwoman. ‘I have thought a lot about such vessels. They remind me of my hometown Rochester in Kent, where the sea enters the country and where you also see many boats. All this came together when I visited the exhibition Oceania at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, dedicated to works of art from areas of the Pacific Ocean. I was particularly touched by the so-called Soul Canoe from New Guinea.’

Soul Canoe

‘That canoe is a beautiful example of woodcarving, with almost the dimensions of the room in which we are now sitting, many metres long. I think it is in possession of the Tropenmuseum (Tropical Museum Amsterdam). It was made by members of the Asmat people of West Papua and houses amazing creatures: turtles, birds and humans.’

‘Strangely enough there seems to be no room for anyone to sit in the canoe, because of those carved magic figures. It was used during initiation ceremonies and funerals. That made me think about the plight of refugees, people in boats, souls in ships. All these things are now circling in my head.’

Whether and how these would find their way into her composition for Asko|Schönberg, she couldn’t say at the time of the interview, but they have materialized afterwards: in April 2019 Davies finished the score of Soul Canoe.

Topical themes

Davies regularly addresses current topics. Her opera Between Worlds (2014) was inspired by the tragic attack of 9/11. The libretto zooms in on the fate of five individuals who are imprisoned together on one of the upper floors of the Twin Towers. This won her the British Composers Award. Four years later, in the music theatre play Cave, Davies portrayed a father who tries to survive in a world devastated by climate change. In a desperate attempt to make contact with his deceased daughter, he descends into a dark underworld full of spirits.

‘I don’t consciously look for such themes, they present themselves automatically’, says Davies. ‘By reflecting on matters that are important to me and to all of us, I hope to create something of value. I don’t choose to write about certain things, but just wait for them to somehow find me.’

‘Then I try to find the key to work out that thought. In opera, this topicality is even more important, because then I work with someone who writes words, a librettist who is much more focused on the worldly element than I am. Although my music remains close to reality, it never forms a concrete analogy of facts and figures, it is, as it were, the spiritual carrier of the story. In my opinion, all artists have these urgent feelings to create something that can somehow change the world.’


Davies is definitely endowed with a touch of idealism: ‘It is about creating a kind of inspiration to improve ourselves as human beings. Not that we decide to support some cause or charity while listening to music, but it’s part of the discussion on important issues. There are so many ways of communicating that can’t be put into words, and I think we don’t appreciate them enough. That’s why I think music is so important, it’s a powerful carrier of messages.’

Does she mean that music can make people more empathetic? ‘I am convinced of that, yes. It is a matter between composer, performer and audience. If you can open your heart while listening to music, you share a collective experience. If all goes well, you will be touched in whatever way by the experience of this strange, essentially physical, phenomenon. This creates a certain openness, an exchange of energy, emotion, and thoughts.’

She enthusiastically shares various reactions to her work: ‘Sometimes visitors come to me and say: what you have done there has really made me think. On the occasion of an orchestral suite from Between Worlds, I received letters from people who wrote that they had experienced a spiritual healing as a result. One man let me know he felt as if he were floating, hanging in the air above the world, as it were, from where he saw the problems. If my work gives people a different perspective on a subject or makes them feel something different than before, that’s great for me.’

The unfathomable beyond

The spiritual is familiar ground for Tansy Davies. ‘I have been interested in esoteric phenomena such as astrology, shamanism and the Tarot for over 20 years. That kind of pseudoscience is very related to music: you are dealing with codes and systems but can’t prove anything. It is often about finding a balance between the feminine and the masculine. Not in a physical sense but in a metaphorical sense, as with yin and yang.’

‘I look in the mirror and explore the deep darkness of the unknown. I ask questions, go to the bottom and rather expose problems than polish their exterior. In esoteric circles this is typically female, but don’t we all like such cosmic images, of a black sky speckled with white lights? Of staring into the unfathomable beyond?’

Spiritual helpers

Supernatural elements also play a role in composing: ‘It is true that the subjects choose me, as it were, but it always takes a long time before I can start at all. Like a hunter, I endlessly encircle such a theme, until I feel that it has matured within me. Then I perform a ritual, I burn incense and ask my spiritual helpers to send me positivity and empty my mind. I absolutely cannot compose when I am stressed.’

‘Conversely: once I am in the middle of the composition process and my ears are directed inwards, it feels wonderfully quiet, as if I am going under water. Yet that is often not enough, because an idea only has so much wingspan. It’s great fun to work that out and of course I have a lot of compositional muscle, but halfway through I often get a mini-crisis. I realize it’s not about anything yet. So then I have to tear off the carapace and see what’s underneath it, what’s really going on. That may be something extra-musical or a person who triggers something in me, but only when it takes over my body, as it were, does an idea really come to life.’

She gives an example: ‘When I was working hard on Between Worlds, I had a morning ritual. I put a bronze Tibetan bowl on my heart and made it sound. I was embraced by that buzzing sound, continuously encircling me. Thus my heart became like an ear through which my spiritual guides could sing to me. I felt like a gateway, it was a very intense experience.’ Somewhat apologetic though at the same time triumphant, she adds: ‘For some people it may sound strange, but it works!’

The concert on 17 May in Concertgebouw was recorded and posted on YouTube.
Tom Goff conducted Asko|Schönberg – Soul Canoe starts at 1:16:35
Pete Harden: At Pappa’s Altar; Louis Andriessen / Martijn Padding: Gesprek; Tansy Davies: Salt Box; Louis Andriessen: Hout; Davies – Soul Canoe (world première)

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Carola Bauckholt concocts music from sludge flakes and animal sounds

Carola Bauckholt (c) Regine Körner

On May 18 NTRZaterdagMatinee presents an adventurous programme. The German Ensemble Musikfabrik will perform two world premières and a Dutch première by five composers of the same generation, four of whom are women. I earlier wrote about the pieces of Unsuk Chin, Rebecca Saunders and Sander Germanus, today I’m zooming in on Carola Bauckholt, whose Schlammflocke (Sludge Flakes) will be performed in the Netherlands for the first time.

Born in Krefeld in 1959, Carola Bauckholt is one of the most original voices in German musical life. She studied with Mauricio Kagel at the Conservatory of Cologne and was  associated with the avant-garde Theatre am Marienplatz in her native city of Krefeld for many years. In this venue a lot of hers and Kagel’s pieces had their first run.

Bauckholt likes to draw on ‘unmusical’ sources. The rattling of a rusty sign, the terrifying howling of wolves, the squeaking of a door, or the stuttering of a faltering petrol engine, however farfetched a source may seem, Bauckholt hears music in it. She develops the most inventive playing techniques and combines a pleasant kind of alienation with a refreshing sense of humour.


In an interview she told me: ‘My motive is curiosity. When I know where something is going, I feel superfluous, even as a listener. I find it fascinating how elusive music is: people hear the same notes and textures, but have totally different thoughts and associations. I try to understand this over and over again, that’s why I experiment with sounds and connections that I’ve never heard before.’

During the concert on 18 May Bauckholt will make her debut in NTRZaterdagMatinee with Schlammflocke, which she composed in 2010 for the Cologne based Ensemble Musikfabrik. The piece for 16 musicians is inspired by the operation of water purification installations, in which so-called sludge flakes play an important role. These are microorganisms of dead and living material that are used for the biological degradation process of sewage.

Just as the sludge flakes purify our wastewater, Bauckholt wants to ‘clean’ our aural perception. For this purpose she uses a wide range of resources. The musicians not only play their own instruments but also produce all kinds of animal sounds. Bauckholt uses nose whistles, puts a saxophone mouthpiece on the tuba, and has the upper octave of the piano strings taped with adhesive paste.

Virtual zoo

The sounds she conjures up in this way are derived from CD recordings of birds, frogs, foxes, sea lions and chimpanzees, which she has translated to the instruments as faithfully as possible. Pitch, rhythm, timbre and dynamics are accurately noted, but the performer is expected to interpret them as he/she sees fit. The result is a soundworld that is as exciting as it is mysterious, and that stimulates both our ears and minds in a playful way.

In Schlammflocke Bauckholt masterfully blends technique and nature. Against a tranquil background we hear the squeaking of what sounds like a metal blade yearning for a drop of oil moving slowly through the water. The ubiquitous animal callings and bird twittering create the feeling that one finds oneself in a virtual kind of zoo.

At the same time, Bauckholt creates a striking image of the surroundings of a water purification plant. After all, such constructions are often found in solitary places in nature. After its première one critic wrote: ‘Sometimes these places even seem to concretize geographically, when the music evokes the biting cold and rigid ice formations of the polar regions.’

18 May 2.15 pm Concertgebouw Amsterdam: Musikfabrik, info and ticketsThe concert forms part of the radio series NTRZaterdagMatinee and is broadcast live on Radio4.

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Rebecca Saunders composes music like a sculptor

Saunders (c) Astrid Ackermann

Women composers invisible? Yes, they are still very much underrepresented in most concert series, though not in this season’s NTRZaterdagMatinee. Of the five compositions the German Ensemble Musikfabrik presents on 18 May, four were written by a woman. Among them the British-German Rebecca Saunders, who was recently awarded the Ernst von Siemens Prize 2019. Helen Bledsoe will play Bite for bass flute solo.

Saunders, born in London in 1967, studied violin and composition at the University of Edinburgh. In 1991 she received the German DAAD stipend, with which she studied composition with Wolfgang Rihm at the Hochschule für Musik in Karlsruhe. After three years she returned to Edinburgh, where she obtained her doctorate with Nigel Osborne in 1998. A year earlied she had moved to Berlin.

Magical physicality

Saunders has won many prizes, was a visiting professor at the renowned Ferienkurse für neue Musik in Darmstadt and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate at Huddersfield University in 2018.

She is particularly interested in timbre and likes to explore the possibilities of instruments by means of playing techniques of her own designing. ‘For me what’s really important is enabling the listener to feel the magical physicality of sound: the timbre, the colour, the mass and the weight of sound,’ she once said. She compares herself to a sculptor working with different materials.

Her scores are teeming with detailed instructions, sometimes she also employs objects such as metronomes, radios, record players and mechanical music boxes. In her music she regularly refers to artists and writers, such as James Joyce and Derek Jarman. In her recent work, she often leans towards Samuel Beckett and his fascination with shadow and silence.

This also applies to Bite for bass flute solo, which she composed in 2015 for Helen Bledsoe, Musikfabrik’s solo flute player. It is part of a series of solo pieces she has written in recent years for performers with whom she has worked together closely; in her score she explicitly thanks Bledsoe for their pleasant ‘sound sessions’.

Daunting solo

The score is quite daunting. The flutist produces quarter tones and multiphonics, plays with Flatterzunge and has to constantly – and – quickly switch between (extremely) fast and (very) slow tempi. The dynamics vary from the softest pianissimo to the loudest fortissimo. Meanwhile, Bledsoe whispers, sings or shouts texts by Beckett in her instrument, giving the physical sound a different colour and intention.

On her website Helen Bledsoe describes Bite as ‘a massive, expressive, sighing and ranting piece for bass flute with low B’. She premiered it in 2016, one critic praising it for being was ‘quite athletic’. Yet two years later Saunders made a revision in which she deleted several parts. This version will be performed for the first time in the concert on 18 May, after which Bledsoe hopes to record it for CD.

NTRZaterdagMatinee 18 May, Concertgebouw Amsterdam 2pm
Musikfabrik/Emilio Pamárico
World premières by Rozalie Hirs and Sander Germanus; further works by Rebecca Saunders, Unsuk Chin and Carola Bauckholt
More info and tickets here.
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Unsuk Chin: grinning teeth and false magic in Gougalōn

Unsuk Chin (1961) is one of the most successful composers of our time. She won the Gaudeamus Award in 1985, the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in 2004, and was recently honoured with the Bach Prize 2019 of the city of Hamburg. On Saturday 18 May the German ensemble Musikfabrik will perform her popular piece Gougalōn in NTRZaterdagMatinee in Concertgebouw Amsterdam. The concert will be broadcast live on Radio 4.

Chin was born in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, as the daughter of a minister. When she was two years old her father bought a piano for his church services. She was immediately fascinated, but there was no money for piano lessons. She learnt to play the instrument on her own account and from the age of eight she contributed to the family income as a piano accompanist for wedding ceremonies.

From Tchaikovsky to Ligeti

In high school she got to know music by composers like Brahms and Tchaikovsky and decided to start composing herself. When she heard a piece by György Ligeti at the Seoul Conservatory, she was so impressed that she asked him by letter to teach her. He agreed and in 1985 she moved to Hamburg. The acquaintance was a shock: Ligeti rejected all her previously composed pieces. According to him they were well written but lacked personality.

Ironically, it was precisely in this period that she won the Gaudeamus Music Prize with Spektra for three celli, the piece with which she graduated from Seoul Conservatory. Under Ligeti’s tutorship she developed her own style, in which beauty of sound and humour go hand in hand. In 1991 she composed the witty Akrostichon-Wortspiel for the Dutch Nieuw Ensemble and solo soprano, based on nonsense lyrics. Two years later, this piece marked her international breakthrough.

East meets West

Chin tirelessly searches for unheard sounds and timbres. She writes for common western instruments, but manages to elicit eastern sounding sonorities from them; sometimes she also uses Asian instruments. In this way she organically links her Korean background with her western education. In her frequently performed ensemble piece Gougalōn Chin once again addresses her roots.

The idea arose during a stay in China in 2008-09. In her own words she experienced a ‘Proustian moment’ when visiting cities such as Hong Kong and Guangzhou. The atmosphere of the old and poor residential neighbourhoods with their narrow, winding alleys, ambulatory food vendors, and market places reminded her of her childhood in Seoul. This evoked long forgotten images of travelling amateur musicians and actors trying to foist homemade medicines on the common man/woman by means of street theatre.

Clattering teeth and dancing barracks

The title Gougalōn derives from old High German. The word’s meanings range from ‘tampering’ and ‘fooling people with fake magic’ to ‘making ridiculous movements’ and ‘divination’. Chin emphasizes she does not directly refer to the amateurish street theatre of her youth and that the music is not intended to be illustrative; she describes her piece as ‘imaginary folk music’. Yet it is difficult to avoid associations with the subtitles of the six movements, especially since Chin paints hilarious scenes with special sound effects.

For instance, the solo violin plays seemingly completely out of tune glissandi in ‘Lament of the bald singer’, the percussionists suggestively produce rattling sounds in ‘The grinning fortune teller with the false teeth’, in ‘Dance around the shacks’ long held lines of the strings are supported by swaying brass, while in ‘The hunt for the quack’s plait’ a pandemonium bursts loose that would well suit a pursuit scene in an animated film.

Gougalōn was well received by both audience and press. ‘Vivid, extravagant and technically assured to the point of virtuosity’, opined The Guardian; ‘Chin successfully pairs a typically German love of the grotesque with an Asiatic sound world, to hilarious effect’, wrote Backtrack. 

On the programme, too are world premières by Rozalie Hirs and Sander Germanus, and works by Carola Bauckholt and Rebecca Saunders. More info and tickets here.


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Tannhäuser at DNO: no ‘director’s theatre’ but subtle view on hypocrisy around love

Daniel Kirch, Ekaterina Gubanova, Björn Bürger (c) Monika Rittershaus

Recently, a petition was launched for the restoration of Olivier Keegel’s press accreditation by Dutch National Opera. They no longer provide press tickets because he fiercely attacked Pierre Audi’s programming on the Flemish blog Operagazet and in the Dutch newspaper Het Parool. Moreover, he denounced Audi’s predilection for ‘director’s theatre’, in which to his view content falls prey to a far-fetched ‘vision’ of the director.

I often strongly disagree with Keegel. As with his ludicrous crusade against the production Aus Licht around Karlheinz Stockhausen in the coming Holland Festival. Nor do I like the harsh tone of voice in which he formulates his objections. Nevertheless, I signed the petition. Dissenting opinions are necessary for artists and art institutions, for they provide an opportunity to define one’s own mission even more sharply.

Keegel might not find fault with the new production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Director Christof Loy closely follows Wagner’s libretto. With subtle gestures he makes the hypocrisy around courtly versus sensual love poignantly perceptible. In doing so, he makes use of mirror effects, as simple as they are inventive.

Beneath the neat surface, carnal lust is rampant

First of all, there is the stage setting. For four hours we see the imposing salon of a nineteenth-century gentlemen’s club. It functions as the sultry lovers’ den of Venus and Tannhäuser, as the abode of the fraternity of singers, and even as a church.

During the overture the singers make love to extremely young ballerinas and each other – in tailcoats. Later they react with horror to Tannhäuser’s carefree laudation of sexual intercourse; only thanks to Elisabeth he is not lynched. The message is clear: beneath the neat surface, carnal lust is rampant.

Secondly, there are the costumes. Love goddess Venus (the impressive mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova) wears a voluminous black dress and a glamorous white fur coat. Her earthly rival Elisabeth (the soprano Svetlana Aksenova) is dressed in an equally flamboyant white dress. In the sinister third act she appears in a somewhat shabby black women’s suit.

Saint or sinner: two sides of the same coin

When Elisabeth sacrifices her life for Tannhäuser’s salvation, Venus watches over her for minutes. Her posture resembles the painting of Madonna and Child that Elisabeth previously clutched in her arms. In the end, Venus lovingly covers her rival with her white cloak.

Thus Loy once again pinpoints bourgeois morality. For indeed things are never simply black or white: saint or sinner, ascetic or lecher, they are two sides of the same coin. No surprise then that at the end the seductive ballerinas once again throw themselves in the arms of the gentlemen.

Loy further illustrates the ubiquitous hypocrisy in Elisabeth’s ambivalent attitude towards Wolfram (the excellent baritone Björn Bürger). Even while expressing her love for Tannhäuser, she caresses him like a lover. This is reflected in Tannhäuser’s double-hearted behaviour. He finds no satisfaction in the physical lovemaking with Venus, nor in Elisabeth’s chaste love. Unfortunately the tenor Daniel Kirch is not an ideal Tannhäuser, his voice is rather shrill.

Graceful cantilenas

Still there is much to enjoy musically. The bass Stephen Milling is an impressive father of Elisabeth, the young soprano Julietta Aleksanyan is a beautiful lyrical shepherd. The DNO Choir is deeply moving in their flawless, subdued interpretations of the Pilgrim’s Choir and the Siren Choir. Also effective are the brass fanfares blasting into the hall from the balconies; you literally imagine yourself to be in the Wartburg. Thus the strings of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra even gain extra depth.

The woodwind instruments play a starring role. Many times (bass)clarinet, (alto)oboe and or flute encircle the voices of the singers with graceful cantilenas. The harp also has appealing solo passages in this romantic score by Wagner. Hats off to conductor Marc Albrecht who sustains the tension from beginning to end, keeping the textures transparent even in the loudest fortissimo passages.

In short: a successful production by Tannhäuser.  – I’d be really interested in reading Olivier Keegel’s opinion.

Tannhäuser runs through 1 May. Tickets and info


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Kate Moore’s Space Junk opens Minimal Music Festival 2019

This year’s Minimal Music Festival in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ Amsterdam opens with Space Junk that Kate Moore composed for Asko|Schönberg. The piece addresses the huge amount of debris floating through space.

Key concepts in the work of the Australian-Dutch composer are movement, pulse, direction and commitment to our physical and moral environment. For example, she plays a specially built cello by Saskia Schouten, with an inlaid peace sign in memory of the Bataclan attack in France. In 2017 she composed the large-scale oratorio Sacred Environment for the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and the Netherlands Radio Choir, a tribute to the sacred places of the original inhabitants of Australia.

Moore is not only a composer but also a visual artist and performer. She sings, plays the cello and is the founder and leader of the ensemble Herz, in which she plays the bass guitar. She often works with (sound) artists, and builds artful instruments of ceramics and other materials herself. Her ensemble piece The Dam (2015) is based on the sounds of crickets, frogs, birds, insects and other creatures living in a waterhole in the bush. She was the first woman ever to win the prestigious Matthijs Vermeulen Prize in 2017. The following year she was composer in focus at the November Music festival, for which she composed the Bosch Requiem, Lux Aeterna.

This season she is soul mate of Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, Amsterdam, because of her ‘elegant, driving and colourful post-minimal music’. In this capacity she was given carte blanche to programme five concerts at her own discretion. It is typical for Moore that she devoted one of these concerts entirely to the work of fellow composers.

Like father, like daughter

In Space Junk she again testifies of her deep concern for the world in which we live. The composition is inspired by the enormous amount of waste floating through space. Millions of fragments of spacecraft and obsolete satellites collide with each other. The fragments shoot away at great speed and in turn damage satellites that we use for communication, navigation, climate observation and safety.

Moore’s concern about this invisible but life-size problem didn’t come out of the blue. Her father Chris Moore is a physicist at the Mount Stromlo laser tracking station in Australia. For this institute he makes visual models of the data collected about the space waste. Daughter Kate translates this data into music; during the performance of Space Junk, images of the debris floating through space are projected.

‘I have selected fifty pieces of junk, which I have divided into five families’, says Kate Moore. ‘The duration of the notes is based on the time that these pieces are visible on the horizon, but then accelerated 200 times – in proportion, of course. I also calculated the pitches in this way.’

Besides the instrumental music she made a soundtrack in surround sound, also based on the data from the laser research. ‘The soundtrack has four layers, which refer to as many times at which the measurements take place. At night you can sometimes see the objects when they’re caught in the laser beams. You think they are stars, but because they make strange movements, you know that they are pieces of space grit, very scary.’


For the recording Moore cut up the famous Miserere by Gregorio Allegri in fragments of 127 syllables, which she recorded herself. In each of the four movements she recites one verse, her voice recording triggered via MIDI. When the waste makes a rising movement, the syllables sound in their normal order, when it falls they are played backwards. The Miserere was very deliberately chosen, says Moore: ‘It refers to Michelangelo’s fresco in the Sistine Chapel, in which Adam and God try to touch each other in vain.’

The Minimal Music Festival runs from Wednesday 3 to Sunday 7 April. It also features a new piano concerto that Vladimir Martynov wrote for Ralph van Raat and Noord Nederlands Orkest. This will be premiered in Muziekgebouw on 4 April. On the programme, too is Future Perfect by The America-Dutch composer Vanessa Lann, which she composed for Oranjewoud Festival 2017. ‘It was inspired by Schubert’s 8th Symphony’, says Lann. ‘It poses the question how this work from 1822 would have sounded had it been written 200 years later, in a modern, minimalistic idiom. Future Perfect lasts 10 minutes, is super rock-and-roll yet winks at the melodies and elegance of Schubert.’

Further concerts are Eklekto’s double bill featuring soundscape artist Ryoji Ikeda alongside deep listening pioneer Pauline Oliveros. Terry Riley and son Gyan play music in which Indian raga meets minimalism and jazz; Sinta Wullur presents Gamelan Clock; Cello Octet Amsterdam perform Michael Gordon’s 8; the Horizon Quartet play Incantatie IV of the Dutch minimalist Simeon ten Holt. – And as a matter of course Terry Riley’s groundbreaking In C is performed by the joined forces of Ragazze Quartet, Kapok and Slagwerk Den Haag.



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Composer Vladimir Martynov: ‘The sweetest moment is when you get a bright idea’

In April the Noord Nederlands Orkest (North Netherlands Orchestra, NNO) will present the brand new piano concerto Pastiche, composed by Vladimir Martynov at the request of Ralph van Raat. On 2 April I will talk to the composer and the pianist during a free rehearsal in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in Amsterdam, where Pastiche will be premiered on 4 april. I interviewed Martynov for the magazine of NNO, this is the English translation.

The Russian composer Vladimir Martynov (Moscow, 1946) had colourful development. He was the son of a musicologist, was taught piano as a matter of course and soon became interested in composing. He enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied piano and composition. Already during his studies he wrote his first pieces, chamber music, small-scale solo concertos and choral music, in the atonal tradition of composers such as Arnold Schönberg and Anton Webern.

From Schönberg to electronics and rock music

In 1973 he joined the electronic music studio of the Alexander Skrjabin Museum in Moscow. For Soviet composers this was a welcome meeting place for avant-garde musicians; celebrities such as Gubaidulina and Denisov also experimented with electronics here. In the same period Martynov studied musicology, with a particular interest in ethnomusicology. He specialised in the folklore of Caucasian peoples, Tajikistan and other ethnic groups in Russia, about which he published extensively.

Martynov also studied medieval Russian liturgical music and European polyphony from the Renaissance. He has published several collections of works by such composers as Guillaume de Machaut, Andrea Gabrieli, Heinrich Isaac and Guillaume Dufay. He also wrote about theology, religious philosophy and history. During this time he embraced the form of minimalism so typical of the former Eastern Bloc: a static, spiritually inspired style without the exhilarating pulse of American minimalism. With its slow pace and lack of bars, this music breathes the same timeless quality as early music.

From rock music to Gregorian chant

As if all this wasn’t adventurous enough, Martynov also formed the rock group Boomerang, for which he composed the rock opera Seraphic visions of St. Francis in 1978. Around this time he became a teacher at the Academy for Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius in Sergiev Posad, a city about 75 kilometers north of Moscow. In the eighties he wrote a lot of church music and after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 he initially continued to concentrate on Christian themes, such as in Apocalypse (1991), the Stabat Mater (1994), and the Requiem (1998).

Nowadays he composes secular music again, although his bent for spirituality floats unabated through his notes. In 2009, the London Philharmonic Orchestra premiered Vita Nuova, an opera about opera inspired by Dante’s book of the same name. In this book Dante describes the transformation from earthly to heavenly love. In his version, Martynov says he investigates the question of whether it is still possible to write ‘opera in our modern age’. From his conviction that there is nothing new to say, in Vita Nuova he combines Gregorian chant with style quotes by Mozart, Wagner, Mahler and Strauss.

La Grande Bellezza

In 2014 Martynov composed Beatitudes for the Kronos Quartet, which was used in the Academy Award winning film La Grande Bellezza. Now we have the brand new Piano Concerto Pastiche, which he composed for Ralph van Raat and the Noord Nederlands Orkest. The title refers to the opera genre of the same name, says the composer. ‘In a pastiche arias from all kinds of famous operas were glued together. According to some, this would show a lack of respect for the composers concerned, but nowadays such a method is very common. The principle of a pastiche is to give the listener a kind of déjà vu. I don’t use literal but style quotations, for example of romantic and classical music.

While composing he listened to CD recordings by Ralph van Raat: ‘I did not know him, but had been considering the idea of writing a new Piano Concerto for years. By listening a lot I tried to find out what his taste is, how he plays, what he likes and what he doesn’t like. I took his preferences and possibilities into account and tried to use the sound of the piano as authentically as possible. I have the feeling that we have in common our great love for the pure piano sound.’ There was no personal contact, composer and soloist meet for the first time in April, when rehearsals begin. Martynov: ‘Of course I did consult with the orchestra about the lineup and the duration of the piece.’

No struggle but peaceful coexistence

Martynov wrote Pastiche with the general sound of piano and symphony orchestra from the nineteenth century in mind. Yet the piece has only one movement instead of the usual three. Moreover, there is no traditional ‘struggle’ between orchestra and soloist. ‘Of course the piano and the orchestra each have their own material and function, but it is rather a question of peaceful coexistence than of mutual competition.’ In his new concerto we search in vain for elements from folklore or old liturgical chants. ‘That would not be fitting, it is performed in a concert hall intended for symphonic music.’

He finds it difficult to assess whether his piece was successful: ‘The most important moment in the composing process is when you have an incursion that you can work out further. There is nothing like this wonderful, sweet moment – not even a good performance or a nice review. When you finish a piece you are always satisfied with it, but only when it actually sounds you can ascertain if it meets what you originally had in mind. That always remains exciting.’

The public rehearsal on 2 April and the premiere of Pastiche on 4 April are part of the Minimal Music Festival in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. The concert is repeated on 5 April in Oosterpoort Groningen, and 6 April in De Doelen Rotterdam

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Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice re-interpreted

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

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra joined forces with International Theatre Amsterdam (ITA) and director Ivo van Hove for a re-interpretation of the famous novella Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann. David Robertson conducts, Nico Muhly composed new music. The production will premiere on 4 April in Theater Carré in Amsterdam and will get seven runs. Conductor and composer shared their views in a double interview I wrote for the monthly magazine of the RCO.

‘I accepted within a split second when I was asked to write music for Death in Venice’, says Nicol Muhly by phone.’ I am a big fan of Mann and read the novella when I was eighteen, a fantastic book!’ David Robertson turns out to be a great admirer of the German author, too: ‘I have read almost everything from Mann, and I find it fascinating how librettist Ramsey Nasr and Ivo van Hove combine the novella with his life. They do not only tell the story, but also portray Mann in the period when he wrote his story, as a young father, living in Munich. This makes the content less abstract and gives it more personal depth. In this way art becomes a beautiful mirror of life.’

The eternal value of beauty

Robertson praises Van Hove’s approach: ‘Ivo makes it clear that Mann did not just invent something but wrote from a deep inner source, drawing on his own experience. Death in Venice was a way to ward off his own demons.’

This is not to say he thinks Mann may have been latently homosexual. ‘That’s too simple. I think more in terms of the adage of Nietzsche     “Alle Lust will Ewigkeit”. – It’s hard to translate, because it is not about lust, but about the desire that something beautiful has eternal value. This lies at the heart of Von Aschenbach’s fascination for the beautiful boy Tadzio.’.

Muhly admires Van Hove, too: ‘I’ve been following him for years, seen almost all of his Broadway productions. His method is very poetic. In this new production the music forms a kind of parallel counterpoint to the story. Music can express things you cannot grasp in text, it can place something in a different context.’

Familiar and new

‘Compare it to lighting: if you present the same action on stage in a different light, it takes on a different meaning. This role is now fulfilled by music, which can express underlying emotions.’ Robertson fully agrees with Muhly: ‘And it is precisely someone like Nico who perfectly manages to express emotions that remain vague and elusive when you try to convey them in words.’

The production does not only present newly composed music, but also work by contemporaries of Thomas Mann such as Richard Strauss, Alban Berg, Anton Webern and Arnold Schönberg. Muhly: ‘I think this is a fine combination of the familiar and the new. My music functions as a bridge between the somewhat surrealistic world of memories from the novella and the historical time in which Mann lived.’

No Mahler, no Britten…?

Anyone who says Death in Venice immediately thinks of the film adaptation by Luchino Visconti and the opera by Benjamin Britten. Robertson: ‘I know the opera well, but unfortunately I have never conducted it, and Ivo wants to stay far from associations with Britten. Neither does he refer to the film version with Mahler’s music. I fully support both choices, because either you do Britten’s opera and then you enter that world, or you do something completely different. And if you add Mahler like Visconti did, I think you’re going to play too much on sentiment.’

For Muhly it is a bit more nuanced. In 2018 he and Thomas Bartlett released the CD Peter Pears: Balinese Gamelan Music. The title simultaneously refers to the tenor Peter Pears –  Britten’s lover – and his interest in Indonesian gamelan music. When I mention this, Muhly bursts loose in an enthusiastic argument.

‘I feel very involved with Britten’s music and am currently fascinated by the period in which he started using Balinese and Javanese harmonies. Brilliant how he characterizes Tadzio with this completely different sound world and makes him vanish in the ether as it were. The last five minutes of the opera are both time harmonically stable and unstable, masterly!’

Asian scales

‘In essence, all my music is a dialogue with Britten’, Muhly says. But he stresses he will use no direct quotes: ‘The idiom is naturally in the DNA of this piece. If you link up with music from Thomas Mann’s time, you simply cannot escape that, Claude Debussy was also inspired by Asian scales’.

The influence of the Frenchman can be heard in Death in Venice: Saint-Sébastien, which Muhly places about halfway through the piece. ‘I use similar chords as Debussy in his stage music for Le martyre de St. Sébastien by Gabriele D’Annunzio. These are built on the pentatonic scale, consisting of the five black keys of the piano. That fits in well with the period in which Mann lived, when there was a lot of fear in Europe of infectious diseases from the colonies. By distorting the simple chords of Debussy I have tried to capture the atmosphere of decay in Venice at the time when this city suffered from the plague.’

Endlessly falling

The orchestra is seated on the stage. Robertson: ‘The action takes place in two different spaces. One represents Mann’s residence in Munich, the other the place where Von Aschenbach has his adventures in Venice. The orchestra is a little smaller than usual. This is both a practical solution – a large symphony orchestra takes up too much room – and suits the situation well. The current line-up resembles the salon orchestras that played in Spas and in the Lido in Venice.’

The various compositions are linked to different scenes. Robertson: ‘Sometimes the music illustrates a state of mental torment, at other times it represents the bourgeois background against which the drama takes place.’ A recurring element is Death in Venice: Charon, which runs like a thread through the performance.

Muhly: ‘Charon stands for death and the descent into ever deeper darkness. It is a cycle of 44 chords, each of which returns in a different variation. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes played by wind instruments, sometimes by strings. It is as if you endlessly fall down, which creates a feeling of inevitability.’

Monteverdi and Strauss

Muhly also made an adaptation of the duet ‘Pur ti miro’ from the opera L’Incoronazione di Poppea by Claudio Monteverdi. Robertson: ‘Monteverdi evokes a feeling of nostalgia and desire. But how do you arrange a duet if you only have one singer at your disposal, a countertenor? ‘That’s typically a puzzle Nico likes to get his teeth into’, chuckles Robertson.

‘I made the most obvious choice and gave the second voice to a cor anglais’, Muhly responds. That instrument is closest to the human voice in terms of size and timbre. I have left Monteverdi’s notes intact, but have orchestrated them in such a way that they fit in with the harmonic language of Charon and Debussy. For example, one of the variations lacks a bass line, as if a kind of halo of sounds is created around the voice.

Towards the end, the countertenor sings an arrangement Theo Verbey made of two of Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder. Robertson: ‘Again a great choice. This androgynous voice gives these songs a completely different meaning. Just as Ivo van Hove’s direction will make you experience the original story of Death in Venice differently.’

RCO & ITA: Death in Venice
Theater Carré 4-13 April

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Mathilde Wantenaar: Lush harmonies in new piece for Dutch Radio Choir

Mathilde Wantenaar

This season NTRZaterdagMatinee makes up for decades of neglecting female composers, featuring well-known names such as Kaija Saariaho and Unsuk Chin next to lesser-known composers such as Calliope Tsoupaki and Kate Whitley. On Saturday 23 March the Dutch Radio Choir will present both Gubaidulina’s Canticle of the Sun and Dit zijn de bleeke, bleeklichte weken by Mathilde Wantenaar.

This piece for choir a cappella was commissioned by the renowned radio series in Concertgebouw Amsterdam. As always the concert will be aired live on Radio 4. Underneath you find the translation of my text for the programme booklet.

Mathilde Wantenaar (Amsterdam, 1993) has been steadfastly working on her development for years. In 2011 she attracted attention with her entry for the annual composition competition of the Nederlands Blazers Ensemble. Seven years later the wind players asked her for their project Bach & Sufi. “She sliced up the Hohe Messe, inclined her ears towards Persia, and arranged a musical treat that amply transcends good intentions”, opined de Volkskrant.

In 2014 she won the Alba Rosa Viëtor Composition Prize with Sprookjes 1, 2 & 3 for violin and piano, and a year later her Song of Songs for soprano, guitar and percussion won an award in the Princess Christina Composition Competition. She composed pieces for pianist Ralph van Raat, vocal ensemble Wishful Singing and soprano Johannette Zomer. In 2016 she presented the successful chamber opera p e r s o n a r for the Opera Forward Festival of Dutch National Opera. Her Octet for Strings, written for violinist Liza Ferschtman, represented the Netherlands in 2017 at the International Rostrum of Composers.

She studied composition with such diverse teachers as Willem Jeths and Wim Henderickx at the Conservatory of Amsterdam, graduating in 2016. Wantenaar does not limit herself to composing, however. During her studies she also took cello lessons and vocal training, and currently she is enrolled at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague to become a professional singer. She has a great affinity with the human voice and even her purely instrumental compositions are remarkably melodious.

Elusive atmosphere

No wonder her first commission for NTRZaterdagMatinee is a composition for the Dutch Radio Choir. For this a cappella piece she chose a poem by Herman Gorter, Dit zijn de bleeke, bleeklichte weken (which roughly translates as These are the pale, pale weeks). This is not the first time she was inspired by Gorter’s poetry. In 2017 she made a setting of De stille weg (The silent road) for chorus, piano and violin, a commission from the Festival De Muze van Zuid.

Wantenaar was attracted by ‘the stillness, the stratification, the visual, the elusive and the transient’ in Dit zijn de bleeke, bleeklichte weken. The poem evoked strong images in her: ‘In my mind’s eye I envisioned the poet sitting in a quiet room at a table next to the window. The sun is hidden behind an endless expansive cover of white clouds, it is as if the world has been drained of all colour, even though there is a lot of light.’

‘Outside there is life, but in the poet’s room everything sounds muted, it feels as if time is standing still and the sky has solidified. We sit under a bell jar, shimmering dust particles float in the air and in the meantime the world slowly passes us by. It is nice to be there, but at the same time also oppressive and lonely.’

Wantenaar translated this static, somewhat floating feeling into a 3/2 metre, which we often associate with older music. The text is sung largely homophonic and the tempo is low, time seems to stand still. Under the calm atmosphere, however a ‘mildly longing romantic undercurrent is simmering’, says the composer. Underneath this yet another layer is concealed, with a ‘darker feeling of constriction’. The play of light and dark finds its equivalent in a varied dynamic, the tranquillity is expressed in sonorous harmonies. A single dissonant chord echoes the subcutaneous tension that shimmers through the poem.

Concertgebouw 23 March 2.15 pm: NTR ZaterdagMatinee
Dutch Radio Choir /Philipp Ahmann; Ivan Monighetti, cello
Wantenaar – Dit zijn de bleeke, bleeklichte weken (commissoned by NTR ZaterdagMatinee, WP)
Tchaikovsky – Nine Sacred Pieces
Gubaidulina – Canticle of the Sun



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Lotta Wennäkoski on her Flute Concerto Soie: ‘You can hear the silkworms swarming’

Lotta Wennäkoski (c) Maarit Kytöharju

The Finnish Lotta Wennäkoski needs images to compose. Her Flute Concerto Soie is inspired by the tactile qualities of cotton, linen and silk. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and flutist Kersten McCall present the Dutch premiere in March 2019.

There is an infectious comradery between the composer and the soloist during a double interview via Skype. Almost like symbiotic twins, Lotta Wennäkoski (1970) and Kersten McCall (1973) complement each other’s answers. They vehemently express their agreement when the other person is speaking, interrupt each other without ado and show exuberant mutual admiration. Wennäkoski: ‘When I heard Kersten was willing to play my Flute Concerto for the CD recording, I was overjoyed. Wow, he agreed!’ McCall: ‘It’s such an impressive piece, the moment I heard the recording of the premiere, I was hooked!’

Wennäkoski composed Soie in 2009 for the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and its first flutist Petri Alanko. They gave the successful world premiere in the iconic Rock Church (Temppeliaukion kirkko) in Helsinki. Three years later the piece was chosen as a recommended work by the Unesco International Rostrum of Composers. But when plans were made for a CD recording, Alanko appeared to have health problems. McCall: ‘He asked me to take over and I immediately said yes, even though I did not know the piece. I trust him blindly’.

Personal interpretation

Despite the all too ample acoustics of the Rock Church, McCall recognized Soie as a masterpiece: ‘It is modern yet very accessible, without being simple.’ He also appreciates the fact that Wennäkoski attaches great importance to the performer’s own interpretation. ‘As a flutist, you are given room for expressiveness. Although everything is precisely notated, you are not forced into a straitjacket, but have a lot of freedom to unfold your own sound and express your emotional response to the music. This is characteristic of all great works: you can convey your deepest personality, speak with your own voice.

Conversely, Wennäkoski is pleased with the performance of McCall. ‘For me it is important that musicians find their own way into my music, that they do what they do best. Kersten has a unique sound, even though I find it difficult to describe exactly what attracts me. There is a kind of shine or glow over it, but it still sounds clear and brilliant. His way of playing is so characteristic that he moulds my concerto, as it were, to his personal musicality.’

Swarming silkworms

McCall adds: ‘Take the last movement, Soie. You can approach it in an aggressive way or very poetically, Lotta’s score offers these various options. ‘I will try to play it as lyrical as possible, but who knows I may discover a completely different side of my personality. After all, silk is not just soft and smooth.’ But Wennäkoski did have this softness in mind when composing: ‘I was not so much interested in its shining quality, but rather in the feeling of silk. Especially the soft rustling movement of silk bedding, which stands for subtle things and intimacy.’

She understands McCall’s remark about a possibly aggressive interpretation, however: ‘I have also included the silkworms. The thought of their swarming inspired me to give the flute ultra-short notes that follow each other quickly. By moving your tongue up and down at lightning speed, a somewhat hard, dense texture is created. That sounds like lbdlbdlbdlbd… and this in rising and falling figures. Thus you can hear the worms moving, as it were.’ McCall: ‘When listen I can imagine this well, but while playing I am too busy with the notes to think of such ideas’.

Titles and images

Wennäkoski: ‘You should not take these too literally, mind you. I wouldn’t want to force anyone to listen to it in this way. But I need such images when I compose, they bring me musical ideas. And by the way, I have to call a piece something. I could have named it Game of Galaxies or whatever, there must be a title.’ But wouldn’t her music sound different in the latter case? ‘Of course! I often have the feeling that people can relate more to concrete images, but it’s just that. It only indicates a mind-set, it doesn’t have to be metaphysics’.

The French title of her Flute Concerto springs from such a concrete image: ‘It’s a kind of word game. I had the idea of using different kinds of fabrics and was looking for material that would give me strong images. Then I realised that soie, the French word for silk, is pronounced in Finnish as soi-è. That is close to our word for ‘sound’, specifically the sound produced by an instrument.’ She not only named the last movement after this word, but also used it as the title of the whole piece.

‘For the first movement, I thought of something light that bulges up in the air, with flapping movements. That reminded me of a gauze cotton scarf. The nice thing is that voile in French indicates both that fabric and the sail of a ship.’ Graceful, swelling and again weakening upward and downward movements indeed create an illusion of billowing sails, with catchy little glissandi of the solo flute.

The second movement is named after the rough structure of coarse linen, lin gros in French. With a duration of only two minutes it is considerably shorter than the other two movements. Wennäkoski: ‘This is because it was meant to be a pivot point, in which I only wanted to use modern, so-called extended techniques. That turned out to be much more boring to write than I had expected, so I finished it soon. Moreover, it requires a lot of the flutist’s embouchure, it is very tiring. If I had made it longer, the subtle sides of the last movement might be lost.’

Nonsense words

McCall: ‘To be honest, I don’t find it that tiring. It is true, however, that because of the quickly changing ways of blowing the mouthpiece gets very wet, causing my lips to slip away. For example, I speak nonsense words while playing, making my part sound mysterious and virtuoso. The orchestra’s wind players also participate, so it seems as if you hear a crowd of people talking very quickly.’

Wennäkoski adds: ‘They may hum, whisper, hiss, talk or shout, but it must seem as if the sound is coming from their instrument’. McCall: ‘There are also many breathy sounds, Lotta enriches the orchestra palette with beautiful new sound effects. Because the second movement is so deviant, short and powerful, it works like a scherzo.’

Although Soie is considered a Flute Concerto, there is no question of the usual ‘struggle’ between soloist and orchestra. Wennäkoski: ‘Flute concertos can be very difficult, because the solo instrument threatens to drown in the overall orchestral sound. That’s why I deliberately put a lot of air into the orchestration. Because of these balance problems, the flute plays little in the middle register.

McCall: ‘Often you can hardly tell who does what. In the last movement there is a passage in which I have the same material as the tutti flutes, where we all merge. Towards the end I even play a unisono duet with the oboist. But the special thing is: even when I am embedded in the whole, I remain the soloist who tells the story.’

20, 21, 24 March Royal Concertgebouw
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Thomas Hengelbrock / Kersten McCall, flute
Lotta Wennäkoski: Soie, Dutch premiere

CD Recording available here.

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Micha Hamel on his opera Caruso a Cuba: ‘Caruso is trapped in his star status’

(c) Petrovsky & Ramone, Origithing Photography

It all started at a book market during a holiday in Berlin, with the book Wo Aida Caruso fand. This German translation of Como un mensajero tuyo (As Your Messenger) of the Cuban author Mayra Montero at once triggered Micha Hamel’s interest: ‘The title made my antenna crackle. It was clever of the publisher not to choose a literal translation but to refer to the main characters: the historical figure Caruso and the opera heroine Aida’. Hamel read the book in one go and decided to turn it into an opera, Caruso a Cuba. It will be premiered on Sunday 3 March as part of the Opera Forward Festival, Otto Tausk conducting the Nederlands Kamerorkest.

The libretto starts from a historical fact – the bomb that exploded in the theatre of Havana while Caruso sang the role of Radamès in Aida in 1920 – the rest is fiction. ‘I had been talking to Pierre Audi for quite some time about a new production and now I knew: this story is an opera. Love and fate are the themes, it’s about opera and plays in an opera house.’ Hamel decided to deepen his bond with the opera tradition and at the same time write a work about unfulfilled love. ‘A difficult subject, which I have never worked out before in music theatre.’


From a very young age Hamel was inspired by the love for the belcanto of composers such as Verdi and Puccini: ‘My parents played a lot of recordings of opera, and I started composing after seeing the film Amadeus, I was fourteen years old. When the new venue of the Dutch National Opera opened I immediately took out a subscription. I visited all productions, until I went to study at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague.’ Thanks to a Neapolitan lover he also learned to speak Italian fluently, the language of the libretto, which he wrote himself.

Act of love

The spirit of Verdi and Puccini can be heard in the score: ‘Without imitating I try to make my music sound as I hear theirs. Composing is always an act of love, an homage to the existing body of music that mankind has developed. For example, the orchestra plays a few bars from the Aida overture when the performance begins, and via audio fragments we twice hear the real Caruso as Radamès. There are also some style quotations, but with their own, contemporary colours.’

Musically, Hamel follows the story closely: ‘The protagonist Enrico Caruso arrives in Havana majestically and confidently, intent on shining as a star there. Towards the end he is completely wrecked and disillusioned, abandoned by all and every. My music starts melodiously and traditionally, but ends in grim atmospheres, with atonal fragments and radio noise.’

Baritonal tenor

The voice of Caruso still attracts admiration, also from Micha Hamel. ‘He does not really sound like a tenor but full and broad, also in the higher registers, more like a baritone. In his early years he even had trouble with the high notes, but when he mastered them technically, his career went fast. He always sings from the character, with small glissandi, sobs, accelerations and decelerations that logically sprout from the meaning of music and text, from what his character feels at that particular moment.’

In the tenor Airam Hernandez Hamel has found the ideal Caruso. ‘That role is quite a challenge because of the gigantic reputation of the historical Enrico Caruso. Also in terms of physical and appearance, the singer must be able to carry the role. As soon as I heard Hernandez sing I adapted my first sketches and I sculpted the rest of the part to his possibilities. He seems to love high notes, I love that.’

Doomed love

Hamel himself considers his chamber opera as one spun-out duet between Caruso and Aida. Their doomed love forms the dramatic core, around which the other figures circle. Aida’s mother and her godfather, the priest Calazán, try to turn fate away with rituals from their Lukumi religion. They represent the spiritual dimension. At some more distance there is Caruso’s manager Zirato, who also tries to protect him from evil.’

‘Caruso’s tragedy is that he is a world star, and is trapped in this role. He has no choice but to sing and earn money. He is obsessed with himself, he is the hero of his own life story. The explosion of the bomb may serve as a liberation: he escapes from his life and finds a great love. At the same time, raw reality knocks at the door: the mafia, his ailing health, the fact that he is married, even though his wife lives in New York.’

Caruso disrupts relationships

‘Aida’s tragedy is that she feels Caruso is her great love, but has to release him because he must return to New York. Spurred on by her love she helps him escape from the mafia, but at the same time she helps him escape Cuba – and her. She carries his child, but knows there will never be another man in her life. In a metaphorical sense, Caruso himself is a bomb: wherever he goes, he disrupts personal relationships. In this I see a similarity with Pasolini’s Teorema, in which the human is treated as a primal force that confronts us with our insignificance.’

‘It remains unclear whether the story actually takes place, or only in Caruso’s feverish dreams, floating between life and death. The opera is told from his perspective, his head is full of memories. When he sings we often hear a Neapolitan mandolin, as a melancholic touch. Moreover, an out of tune piano sounds. This reminds him of his youth, but also of the rehearsal room when praciticing an opera role.’

Death in Naples

Hamel once uses an Aida trumpetthe instrument Verdi had especially built for the triumphal march of this opera. It sounds during the ritual in which Caruso is immersed in a lagoon, to alleviate the chaos that his presence in Havana has created. Hamel:  ‘This forms the centre of the piece: in a vision Caruso sees his hometown of Naples; Calazán foresees that Caruso will die there – the latter is also historical.’

Towards the end of the opera, more and more noises creep into the sound image, via percussion and electronic soundscapes. ‘At a certain point there are no longer any stable chords, everything seems to happen randomly and accidentally. Rhythms get stuck, chords only consist of two notes. Caruso a Cuba ends with a high whistling tone. Perhaps this depicts the screaming sound of the falling bomb that Caruso relives in his head, or the tinnitus that the explosion gave him. Tinnitus, the death sentence of every musician…’

Caruso a Cuba runs from 3-9 March, info and tickets here.

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Composer Kate Moore presents soulmates in Muziekgebouw

Kate Moore’s career is soaring. In 2017 she was the first woman ever to be awarded the prestigious Matthijs Vermeulenprijs, in 2018 she was composer in residence at November Music, for which she composed the grand requiem Lux Aeterna. In the season 2018-19 she is moreover ‘soulmate’ of Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. In this capacity she stages several concerts, featuring not only her own music but also that of kindred spirits.

Kate Moore + Thea Derks at a concert introduction in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, 2015

On February 7, 2019 Moore presents an adventurous concert with her own Herz Ensemble titled x gen x, in which not one note of herself will sound. This seems typical for Moore – and perhaps her generation – for rather than stressing the differences between personalities and nationalities, she prefers to focus on what we have in common. – As she powerfully illustrated in 2017 in her oratorio Sacred Environments, in which she links a virtual trip to the sacred grounds of the Australian Wonnarua and Darkinjung tribes to Western Requiem music.

For the concert x gen x Moore chose ‘connection’ as its central theme: ‘In a time of unprecedented social and technological transformation, the featured composers see possibilities instead of boundaries’ states the web text. President Trump and other alt-right leaders may wish to build walls to keep foreigners out, in the arts borders and barriers seem to have become irrelevant. Moore is of Dutch-Australian heritage and studied both in Australia and the Netherlands, where she has made her home. The same goes for her colleagues Lam Lai (Hong Kong) and Marie Guilleary (France).

The Dutch Jobina Tinnemans, on the other land, moved from Holland to a peninsula in Wales, where she has lived in self-sufficiency and isolation for ten years now. Her piece Fell was inspired by natural phenomena such as wind and the movement of tectonic plates, and how these affect our physique. The Irish Linda Buckly lives in Glasgow. In Haza she honours the Hungarian Bela Bartók, who spent the last years of his life in the United States.

The American Andrew Norman was inspired by Italian churches in The Companion Guide to Rome. Lachlan Skipworth zooms in on different conceptions of musical time, ranging from Japan to ancient Greece and the original inhabitants of Australia in his Piano Quartet. The Israeli-Dutch Karmit Fadael just finished her bachelor at the Royal Conservatoire. Her piece Blanco simply focusses on musical parameters such as colour, time and space.

I’m really curious to hear this motley collection of pieces!

The concert will be repeated in Korzo Theater The Hague on 14 February.

Aad van Nieuwkerk interviewed Kate Moore in his programme “Vrije Geluiden” on Radio 4. Listen here.


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Willem Jeths: ‘Goede muziek neemt de luisteraar bij de hand’

Thea Derks + Willem Jeths, 16-3-2015

Het zal u niet ontgaan zijn: 40 jaar geleden werd Muziekcentrum Vredenburg geopend. Edo de Waart leidde het Utrechts Symfonie Orkest in de Vierde Symfonie van Johannes Brahms. Otto Ketting dirigeerde zijn speciaal voor de gelegenheid gecomponeerde liederencyclus The Light of the Sun. Het concert werd op Hilversum 4 uitgezonden en vormde de opmaat voor vier decennia succesvolle omroepseries vanuit Utrecht.

Sindsdien is er veel veranderd. Het Utrechts Symfonie Orkest viel in 1985 ten prooi aan de bezuinigingswoede van minister van cultuur Elco Brinkman. Noodgedwongen fuseerde het met het Amsterdams Philharmonisch Orkest en het Nederlands Kamerorkest tot het huidige Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest. Ook Vredenburg bleef niet zelfstandig, maar ging samen met popcentrum Tivoli. Na een zeven jaar durende verbouwing opende het nieuwe TivoliVredenburg zijn deuren in 2014. Hilversum 4 heet tegenwoordig NPO Radio4, Otto Ketting overleed in 2012.

‘Anfang und Ende, immer fort dasselbe’ dichtte Goethe begin 19e eeuw. Want ook al zijn dingen eindig, veel blijft desondanks hetzelfde. Nog altijd vormt TivoliVredenburg het hart van het AVROTROS Vrijdagconcert, met vaste bespelers Radio Filharmonisch Orkest en Groot Omroepkoor. Edo de Waart dirigeerde het orkest op 25 januari in de Derde Symfonie van Brahms en leidt vrijdag 8 februari de wereldpremière van Du bist älter, Du bist neuer. Willem Jeths componeerde dit werk voor koor en orkest speciaal voor het 40-jarig jubileum. Uiteraard zijn de concerten (terug) te beluisteren op NPO Radio4.

‘Ik dacht onmiddellijk aan het gedicht Unbegrenzt van Goethe toen ik de opdracht kreeg’, vertelt Willem Jeths enthousiast. ‘Dat beschrijft de cyclus van leven en sterven, waarbij elk einde ook een nieuw begin betekent. Ik koos de slotzin als titel, omdat deze de thematiek van het jubileum in het hart treft: “Du bist älter, Du bist neuer”. De omroepseries bestaan tenslotte al veertig jaar – zijn dus al wat älter – maar gaan onverminderd door. Ze zijn ook neuer, want ze blijven zich vernieuwen en presenteren niet enkel het standaardrepertoire, maar ook eigentijdse muziek.’

Het verzoek om een jubileumcompositie kwam als geroepen. ‘Ik had Unbegrenzt al in mijn Eerste Symfonie gezet voor mezzosopraan en orkest, samen met Selige Sehnsucht, maar wilde die solopartij altijd al eens omwerken voor koor. Beide gedichten komen uit Goethes bundel West-östlicher Divan, die tussen 1814-19 ontstond. Hij was toen erg geïnspireerd door de Perzische dichter Hafiz, ze hebben een bespiegelend karakter. Het eerste gedicht bezingt de cyclus van het leven, het tweede is persoonlijker van toon.

Selige Sehnsucht beschrijft een vlinder die zijn vleugels verbrandt als hij te dicht bij de zon komt, het Icarusthema. Toch moet je volgens Goethe die vlucht juist wél aangaan, want wie niet streeft naar het hogere is slechts ‘ein trüber Gast auf dieser dunklen Erde’. Dan ben je een armzalig mens op een sombere, donkere aarde. Het beeld van een vlinder die hoopvol naar de zon vliegt vind ik zó ongelooflijk mooi en raak getroffen.’

Maar hoe vertaal je een mezzosopraanpartij naar een meerstemmig koor? ‘Eigenlijk moet je helemaal opnieuw beginnen’, zegt Jeths. ‘Een mezzo heeft maar één bepaalde stemomvang, nu werk je met vier verschillende stemtypes. Dat vergt een heroverweging van wat je wilt zeggen en hoe je dat aanpakt. De teneur van het origineel is overigens niet veranderd.’

Jeths zette daarbij bewust in op welluidendheid: ‘Daar rustte na de Tweede Wereldoorlog een taboe op maar we leven nu in andere tijden en hebben het modernistische juk afgeschud. Bij de koorpartijen heb ik er sterk op gelet dat alles zingbaar en toegankelijk blijft. Je kunt wel iets schrijven dat er op papier prachtig uitziet, maar je hebt niks aan Augenmusik. Zwaar dissonante samenklanken worden in een koor gauw lelijk. Alleen als zangers hun klank een zekere kwaliteit mee kunnen geven, kun je werken aan muzikaliteit. Daarom gebruik ik veel tertsen, dat geeft mooie harmonieën.’

‘Voor het orkest heb ik deels materiaal van het origineel hergebruikt. De twee liederen klinken in principe attacca, dus zonder pauze ertussen. Daar heb ik namelijk een hekel aan, want mensen gaan dan kuchen en hoesten. Ze landen even op aarde, terwijl de bedoeling is dat ze in de muziek blijven – zelfs in mijn soloconcerten gaan de delen zonder pauze in elkaar over. In Du bist älter, Du bist neuer heb ik daarom een orkestrale brug gemaakt tussen het eerste en het tweede lied. In die overgang klinken al wat motieven die ik verder uitdiep in het tweede deel.’

Het koor zingt veelal vierstemmig, behalve op de frase “Anfang und Ende, immer fort dasselbe”. Jeths: ‘Dat is een spiegelmoment in het stuk, daar heb ik de tekst letterlijk muzikaal vertaald. Ik gebruik namelijk een retrograde, de muzikale equivalent van een palindroom, waarbij een zin in omgekeerde volgorde hetzelfde blijft. Zoals in Ein Neger mit Gazelle zagt im Regen nie. Dat was trouwens een heel gepuzzel, want wat stijgend was wordt dalend en vice versa, waardoor de muziek een heel andere lading krijgt. Maar het is me gelukt! Het orkest wordt dichter en voller en zwijgt dan, waarop het koor uitwaaiert over 12 stemmen. Daarna wordt het koor langzaam weer kleiner en keert ook het orkest terug.’ Trots: ‘Ik heb niet gesjoemeld.’

Niet zomaar een opmerking, want Jeths hecht aan vakwerk. ‘Als je iets doet, moet je het goed doen. Ik zing bijvoorbeeld ook alle partijen zelf door. Mijn partner wordt daar wel eens gek van, want een goeie zanger ben ik niet.’ Hij citeert met instemming zijn docent Tristan Keuris. ‘Die zei altijd: je moet niet je muzikale neus achternalopen, maar je materiaal zo ordenen dat het familie blijft. Oftewel: je moet elke gedachte volledig uitwerken, anders overvoer je de luisteraar met informatie. Dat wordt op den duur gratuit. Goede muziek moet je bij de hand nemen, je door het stuk loodsen. Als je dat niet kunt, ben je geen goede componist.’ 

Thea Derks maakt voor de live uitzending van het AVROTROS Vrijdagconcert op 8-2-2019 een reportage van het repetitieproces.
Radio Filharmonisch Orkest + Groot Omroepkoor / Edo de Waart
Tristan Keuris: Sinfonia
Willem Jeths: Du bist älter, Du bist neuer (WP)
Anton Bruckner: Derde Mis in f
Info en kaarten voor het concert vind je hier
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De vlag uit voor ‘Een os op het dak’!

“De welhaast meest onbegrepen muziek in zo’n honderd pagina’s helder en enthousiast uitleggen? Ja dat kan.”

Dit schrijft Kees Bals op de website De leesclub van alles. Hij vervolgt:

“De vlag mag uit voor dit kort, helder en enthousiasmerend overzicht van een rumoerige en vaak te weinig gewaardeerde ruime eeuw muziekgeschiedenis.”


Maandag 28 januari ben ik om 15.00 uur te gast in het programma Springvossen van Robert van Altena. Hij interviewt mij bij Boekhandel Scheltema aan het Rokin; ons gesprek wordt live uitgezonden op AmsterdamFM.

Poster Huis de Pinto A4.jpg

Op maandag 18 februari vertel ik vanaf 20.00 uur over mijn boek in Huis de Pinto, St. Antoniesbreestraat Amsterdam. Pianist Marcel Worms speelt de muziekvoorbeelden.

Ook in 2019 kost Een os op het dak maar € 14,95. Ik neem de kosten van de BTW-verhoging voor eigen rekening.

Graag tot ziens en als je nog moet beginnen in mijn boekje, wens ik je alvast veel leesplezier! Via onderstaande button krijg je per omgaande een gesigneerd exemplaar thuisgestuurd.

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George Benjamin: ‘I appreciate detail and spontaneous incursion’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Galina Ustvolskaya (c) Leendert Jansen

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

‘Lady with the hammer’

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

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

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

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


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

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

‘Truly national art’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Die tote Stadt (c) Marco Borggreve

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

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

Mahler’s blessing

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

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

From child prodigy to ‘kitsch composer’

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

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

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

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

Sinister mourning process

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

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

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

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

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

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

De Os bij Albersen Muziek Den Haag

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

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

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

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

Nana Forte, Photo Miran Mišo Hochstätter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How have you approached the text?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthijs Vermeulen, 1920 (bron Website Matthijs Vermeulen)

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

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

Heroïsch slaapliedje

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

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

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

Beklemmend wiegelied

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

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

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

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

Grimmige wals

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

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

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

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


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

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

Ekaterina Levental as Madam Koo

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

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

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

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

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

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

House like a see-saw

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

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

Meriç Artaç

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

Who wrote the libretto?

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

Who is Madam Koo and what is her story?

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

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

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

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

How have you chosen the instruments and why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mexican roots

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

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

What typifies you as a composer?

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

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

Hilda Paredes, foto Graciela Iturbide

What can we expect from your opera ‘Harriet’?

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

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

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

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

How did you set up your composition?

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

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

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

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Nederlandse Reisopera: Tosca als reality-soap

Tosca Nederlandse Reisopera (c) Marco Borggreve

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

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


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

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

Ideale Scarpia

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


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

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

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

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

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

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Met de Os in vogelvlucht naar Muziekbiënnale Venetië

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

De Os koop je zo:

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Liza Lim extends double-bass technique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enne…, vrouwen schitteren nu eens niet door afwezigheid…

Richard Ayres + Thea Derks MGIJ 13-9-2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did your collaboration with Tomoko Mukaiyama come about?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Monique Krüs: ‘The story always comes first’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love is never selfless

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

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

Sultry music

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

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

Stifling universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does Crimp have that other librettists don’t?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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Maya Fridman: Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel with hardrock attitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waarom dit boek?

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

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

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

Introductie voor de leek, vademecum voor de kenner

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

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

Arnold Schönberg, ets van Guus Glass

Motivatie – Wie ben ik?

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

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

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

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

Waarvoor zijn die € 3500,-?

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


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

Hans Abrahamsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More info and tickets here

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

Claron McFadden & Bertrand Belin (c) Bruno Ansellem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you appreciate in Belin’s voice?

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

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

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

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

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

But your music is not at all violent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karina Canellakis conducting © Chris Christodoulou

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

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

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

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

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

You can listen to our interview here:



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