Be creative on demand? Impossible, one would think. Yet it is reality for composers and artists who work on commission. Mathilde Wantenaar (1993) suffered acute choice stress when the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra asked her for a new piece. She was just working on a commission from the National Opera. ‘I felt like a rabbit caught in the headlights, totally paralysed. But I just couldn’t turn down such an attractive offer.’ On 11 October Prélude à une nuit américaine will premiere in De Doelen Rotterdam. A day later it sounds in AVROTROSVrijdagconcert in Utrecht.
Both your parents are musicians. How has this determined your life?
‘It’s the reason I exist at all. My mother studied cabaret and worked with a theatre company for a long time. At a certain point she stopped because she wanted to make theatre herself, also on the street. Looking for an accordionist she found my father. Together they performed all over the country, also at the outdoor festival of Oerol. They fell in love and then they conceived me. My mother teaches singing nowadays, she doesn’t perform herself anymore, my father does.’
‘He comes from a farmer’s family, and grew up in Soest as the youngest of seven children. My grandfather had a small side-trade in accordions and my father eventually went to the conservatory with that instrument. At first he studied classical music, but after a year he switched to the jazz department at the Conservatory of Hilversum. As a second main subject he studied jazz piano and since then he has done many different things. For example, he played tango with the Malando Orchestra, in which he also learnt how to play the bandoneon.’
‘My father is still very active, and also accompanies my mother’s presentation concerts. Sometime I join in as well, on guitar or vocals. For as long as I can remember, people came over for singing lessons. It’s always very nice, because they don’t start practicing right away but have a cup of coffee first. There will be people of all ages, from young to old, the atmosphere in our house is very warm. Only the other day I sang a duet with one of my mother’s students.’
‘As soon as I got piano lessons I came up with my own pieces. My father wrote them down, for I didn’t know musical notation myself yet. He played what he had written down and I would tell him which notes were right or wrong, I have a good musical memory. So my father was my first performer, haha. Yet I saw composing more as my own crazy little thing, which had nothing to do with anyone else. At grammar school I initially thought about becoming a scientist.’
‘But when I was able to take part in a composition project as part of our music lessons, the fat was in the fire. Asko|Schönberg performed a selection of our pieces in the Concertgebouw. That was so great! So after my final exams I enrolled in the preparatory course at Amsterdam Conservatory. I thought: if I don’t like it, I can still study chemistry or industrial design after all.’
Since then you have graduated and the assignments are streaming in. How do you deal with that?
‘Sometimes this is difficult. At the moment I’m working on a family opera that will premiere next year at the Opera Forward Festival. Then, out of the blue came this request from the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. My first reaction was: oh no! I had just heard that the opera was definitely on, and was completely delighted. It’s been my dream to make opera for a long time, but this was exactly in the same period. I thought: now I get such a great opportunity to write for orchestra, when I actually want to concentrate on my opera. That’s going to be very stressful.’
‘I felt like the proverbial rabbit caught in the headlights, totally paralysed. Simply from a planning point of view I couldn’t accept the commission. I asked programmer Floris Don if it couldn’t be postponed, but he really wanted to present my piece in October. I was endlessly deliberating: should I do it? It was too good an opportunity to turn down. At one point Floris asked me if I didn’t have something I could reuse. A golden tip, that helped me break the deadlock.’
‘At once I thought of a piece of material that I had wanted to elaborate on for a long time. Only the possibility had never occurred before. This musical motif arose from a composition in which I experimented with a twelve-tone melody. In the end this turned into something else, but this particular fragment has a beautiful, somewhat wrenching harmony. It is euphonious and at the same time a bit jazzy.’
‘I like that harmonious world. I am an admirer of Ravel and Debussy, but also of Tchaikovsky, especially of his Fourth Symphony. My intention was to write equally beautiful, long-held string lines. I studied how to build up such an expansive arc of tension and what harmonic progressions would help me realize it. I love it when the engine rolls and you feel that you are on your way to something. When at a certain moment the brass is added, a climax is created and everything floats in the air for a while. I decided to make an unabashed grand romantic gesture and blow people away.’
‘My piece is programmed along with music by Steve Reich and John Adams. Because of its jazzy harmonies and dancing rhythms it also has a somewhat American touch. At the same time it exudes a more French, nocturnal sultriness, the atmosphere of a nocturne. I’ve been hesitating about the title for a long time, because as soon as you give a piece a name, you create expectations. I prefer to keep it abstract.’
‘Initially I had Nocturne for orchestra in mind, but my friends thought that was too boring. Then I considered Dans la nuit, a pun on “dance”, that simultaneously captures the French, nocturnal atmosphere. ‘Finally I settled on Prélude à une nuit américaine.’
With a wink: ‘This will end up being shortened to just Prélude after all.’