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

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

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

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

Not war but love

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

Trapped angel

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

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

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

From first spark to extinguishing relationship

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

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

Claude Vivier and Pointer Sisters

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

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

No traditional play

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

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

More info and tickets here.


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

Maya Fridman, photo Brendon Heinst

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

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

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


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

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

Trembling cello

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

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

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

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

Todesfuge Paul Celan

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

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

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

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

More info and tickets here.

Maya Fridman plays La voce Louis Andriessen

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Sedje Hémon wrought music from painting

Sedje Hémon, pfoto Max Koot, Paris 1956

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

Violinist in Auschwitz

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

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

Music from painting

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

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

Reprogramming of the body

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

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

Website as an interactive score

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

H.P. Lovecraft: lush use of adjectives

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

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

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



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City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra brings Raminta Šerkšnytė to TivoliVredenburg

Raminta Šerkšnytė, Photo Music Information Centre Lithuania

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 More information and tickets here

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

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Ligeti festival – ode to an adventurous and idiosyncratic composer

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

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

Love for Bartók

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

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

‘Formalistic tendencies’

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

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

From communist to musical dictatorship

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

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

Music from metronomes

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

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

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

Car horns & Rossini aria’s

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

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

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

Caribbean rhythms

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

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

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

Microtones versus perfect pitch

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

More information and tickets here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sofia Gubaidulina © F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd.

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

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

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

No small-talk

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

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

Music in the basement circuit

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

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

Doors and windows swing open

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

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

A house with a tree

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Elsbeth Moser

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

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

Dark orchestral sound

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

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

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

We’ll find out on Friday 23 March!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remarkably the role of Death is sung by a woman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walkyrien (c) Emil Doepler, via Wikipedia Media

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

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

Perotinus & Leoninus

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

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

Smyth ‘influenced’ by unborn Britten

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

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

Netherlands’ Men’s Days and Bosmans Prize

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

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

Modern music world forms an exception

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

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

Bright spots

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

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

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

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

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