In spite of continuous cuts in funding over recent years, musical life is still flourishing in the Netherlands. Even though it entails performing for hardly or no fee at all, musicians and composers continue to stage performances and reach out to the public. Many of the most interesting things are happening in less obvious venues than Concertgebouw and Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ.
On Monday 3 October I attended the one night festival After the Silence: New Sounds in the Uilenburgersjoel (former synagogue) in Amsterdam. It was staged by the Greek-Australian-Dutch composer Konstantin Koukias. Undaunted by practical obstacles, he presented no less than three concerts, featuring a plethora of composers and performers, many of them employing electronics.
One of the main roles was reserved for Nadia Ratsimandresy, who played the Ondes-Martenot. This early electronic keyboard was designed by Maurice Martenot in 1928. It was made famous by Olivier Messiaen, who used its eerily wailing voice to great effect, for instance in his popular Turangalîla-Symphonie.
Ratsimandresy’s command of the instrument is overwhelming, yet it was a shame its striking voice was not exploited by any of the featured composers. They seemed rather more concerned to stress its similarity with the piano, an unfortunate comparison. The sound was often dark and muffled, as in Alain Louvier’s Raga and in Ratsimandresy’s own improvisation Urban Yawk. At other moments it was tinkling away like a cranky pianola, as in the first movement of Charpentier’s Suite Karnatique.
But it was exciting to hear the Ondes-Martenot live, a rather rare occasion. After the concert Ratsimandresy enthusiastically demonstrated its possibilities to a crowd of interested listeners.
At the first concert Thorwald Jørgensen played an even earlier electronic instrument, the theremin, developed by Lev Theremin in 1919, It is operated by radio waves, the musician never touching the instrument itself.
Jørgensen presented his own Distant Shores, a charmingly romantic piece in which the mewing of sea-gulls and his own breath mingle with delicate melodic lines to create a soundscape of a deserted beach under a heavily blowing wind. Like Ratsimandresy he is a highly accomplished player, operating his difficult instrument with admirable concentration and accuracy.
The countertenor Perretta Anggerek won over the audience with a hilarious performance of Désir by George Aperghis. This Dadaesque piece has only one line of text, the singer swiftly moving between virtuoso coloratura, halting recitation and angst-ridden panting.
Anggerek also shone in Prayer 2 by Koukias, a striking arrangement of a Bible text that forms part of a larger choral piece. Its intensely sensuous melodies made my skin crawl, and made me long to hear the complete piece.
The quality of the musicians was striking. The tongue-in-cheek Capriccio for cello solo by Krzysztof Penderecki was performed with contagious gusto by Brendan Conroy. The high-energy Syneasthesia Suite for violin and tape by Kate Moore was superbly played by Joe Puglia; his colleague Vera van der Bie dug deep into the strings in Desires Ingrained by Brian Howard.
Anne Veinberg shone in the catchy Chromotoy I for toy piano, tines, sound wheel and electronics by Christina Viola Oorebeek, while trombone player Sebastian Kemner played marvellously fluid lines against a tape running havoc in Beowulf’s Lament by Michael Sydney Jones. Alan Maurtiz Swanson’s Away for viola, dancer and chair was performed immaculately by violist Anna Smith and dancer Rex Clementia.
After the Silence presents a refreshing selection of new sounds. No doubt unintentionally it also illustrated the power of expression of live music: none of the purely electronic works was convincing. I couldn’t help thinking of Ton Bruynel, Dutch grandmaster of electro-acoustic music. He drily remarked that a tape composition played during a concert means “you’re looking at your shoe-laces for 20 minutes”.
Nevertheless: WE WANT MORE!