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.’

Miserere

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
Tickets via this link

 

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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.’

Belcanto

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.”

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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.

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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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