Tuesday, 29 March 2016

14 hours in the Concertgebouw

And I'll treasure every minute, from checking in for Orkestival 2016 to watching Daniel Harding walk down the great red-carpeted steps for the last time following an amazingly good concert of Bach and Brahms. That, by the way, was my first experience of THE orchestra in its own hall - I'd previously heard the Netherlands Philharmonic here under Hartmut Haenchen in the original version of Mahler's Das klagende Lied. But the main reason I was here turned out to be only my second adjudication (the first, for ENO, was only a couple of months earlier). Through the vivacious Machteld (Max to us) Hopperus Buma, wife of J's old Glyndebourne chorus pal Nick Hills and the mother of his (J's) godson Frankie and brother Charlie, I was invited to be one of a three-strong panel judging the 14 Dutch school orchestras and ensembles of Orkestival. Love the poster, by the way, designed by a classmate of Frankie.

It's thanks to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra's dedicated education programme that Orkestival gets to inhabit the hall for the whole day. My very distinguished colleagues for the day were Kees Olthuis - bassoonist of that great ensemble from 1970 to 2005, composer and good friend of Haitink  - and Jeroen de Groot, 11 years violinist in the Concertgebouw and now a soloist who's just recorded the solo sonatas of Bach on a Dutch Record Company Super Audio CD (waiting to hear it). Here they are, Jeroen on the left and Kees on the right, with Max holding the cup just before presentation.

Kees, as you might expect, has a knack of going straight to the point, while Jeroen was humorous - we got on instantly and, I think, agreed on all points. The presenter was Karel Baracs, 'the story-teller of Amsterdam' by virtue of his narrative of the fates of Jewish relatives during the Nazi occupation.

Let me start with the day itself, in which everything had a sense of wonder about it. Not least stepping out of the Buma-Hills residence overlooking the Sarphatipark in south Amsterdam and seeing everyone going to work or school on bicycles, children often in buggies attached. Only a distant bike in this photo, but I like the mum in the hat and coat.

One stretch of water to be negotiated en route, the Boerenwetering, looking towards the Rijksmuseum; on the way back, the waterfront houses were lit up by red framed windows, prostitutes posing like gaudy mannequins within.

And so alongside the tram route to the Concertgebouw itself

and Max on the front desk.

I think it might be helpful for all participants if I sketch from memory, without looking back on copious notes, what I remember of each. The criticisms are supposed to be positive, of course. This is in order of performance. They were heard in groups of three or four, impressive in itself as you would see the various orchestras sharing the platform - nothing, of course, as compared to the 300-strong performance of Musorgsky's 'Great Gate of Kiev' from Pictures at an Exhibition at the end, but I jump ahead.

Group 1 Barlaeus Gymnasium, Amsterdam  Very tentative at the start of each piece; impressive how the spirit was finally there in the recaps of the Grieg Peer Gynt numbers and Shostakovich's Second (Jazz Suite) Waltz (don't know why this piece is so popular - it's repetitive. There are better waltzes out there).

Murmellius Gymnasium, Alkmaar  We wanted to award the prize for the enthusiastic mastery of complex rhythms in Geert Rubingh's Clap Trap. The orchestral pieces, though, left less of an impression. No doubt the prize for most resourceful teacher/conductor should go to Jos Meijer. He was one of the five to give us the music, too.

Vossius Gymnasium, Amsterdam  One of the Netherlands' best schools - this is only one ensemble of three (all main schools are free and state-run, incidentally - though there's a division between top-layer, sending students to university, from which I believe all the participants were drawn; second-division, like the first but not university-oriented; and technically-minded, training kids for apprenticeships in practical work. This, of course, is equally valuable, and I wish we had something like it here). The most polished orchestra under expert clarinettist-conductor Coen Stuit, pictured below with Max at tea later; the Beethoven First opening movement undoubtedly the most accomplished single performance. Admirable, too, to choose Soifer's Amstel Suite, with a chance for the wind to shine; but it was all a little sober. We were looking for spirit above all.

Group 2 Trinitas Band, Almere  First of the 'schoolbands' - I'm allergic to the Lion King music but that was well enough done. Things looked up with an inventive symphonic take on 'I Want You Back' by the Jackson Five. They had the bad luck, though, to be followed by

Christelijk Gymnasium Beyers Naudé, Leeuwarden  One of two groups who had set off early for Amsterdam from Friesland in the north. Our firm favourite first because the brass ensemble made such a beautiful, mellow sound and second because there was so much personality from the players. We loved the way the leader sat (pictured below with Karel and the cup). A wonderful trumpet solo in Hans Zimmer's Roll Tide arranged by Jay Bocock - the best of the film music played throughout - as well as rhythmic ingenuity (7/8) in a Greek folk dance. Last two numbers too similar but both done with great, ever-accumulating spirit.

Aulos, Praedinius Gymnasium, Groningen When the delightful kids from this group flocked round me on the way out afterwards and asked me what they could have done better, I had to say that I hated the arrangements their teacher chose - claptrap Carmen Habanera and Barber of Seville Overture tune a la RPO Hooked on Classics. Why not play something authentic and original? 'If we'd let off real fireworks, would we have got more points?,' one boy asked. No - the real fireworks should have been in the playing. Look as if you're enjoying it, then the audience will too.

Coornhert Gymnasium, Gouda  Some weird cut and paste stuff going on here too - even the versions of Sibelius's Finlandia and the third movement of Brahms's Fourth Symphony were way too ambitious. And they needed to do their shouting in 'Minnie the Moocher' with much more spirit, so that we'd want to join in (which we did anyway).

First of the longer breaks here. We withdrew to the brass department's ?dressing? room (photo by Max)

having gathered our lunch from an orchestral canteen which must be envied by any musicians over here. Extremely friendly staff here as everywhere I went in Amsterdam.

Group 3  Gymnasium Haganum, The Hague Over-ambitious choices here, too. Brahms's Fifth Hungarian Dance began well, but the first movement of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony went badly. Not least because flu had been spreading in the Hague and apparently they were missing some key musicians. Not least a bassoon who never appeared to cue in the bucolic second subject - to do the exposition repeat, therefore, was a big mistake. I understand the personable Piet Raphael is not a conductor. More modest choices next time, please.

Panta Musica, Johan de Wit Gymnasium, Dordrecht A newly formed group, small and eclectic - I had a real soft spot for these players. Excellent trumpet and wind playing in an unusual arrangement of Musorgsky's Pictures Promenade, and a Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy like you never heard it before - side-drum included. The young pianist did really well here.

Group 4 Gymnasium Celeanum, Zwolle Very eclectic programme here, including a chance for the cellists to shine in James Hook's Duetto V. The stand-out was a young marimba player who provided his own introduction to 'Hava Nagila'. That's him pictured on the right below with one of the other solo stars, Casper Jeukendorp (see below)

Big Band Stedelijk Gymnasium, Nijmegen  Not enough swing here, despite spirited contributions from electric guitar and piano. They drafted in a cool oldster to sing Joe Cocker's 'Leave Your Hat On'. Faulty mikes did for the two girl singers, though it was clear Ajuna Soerjadi has real talent (the mike went off for Rebecca-Elise de Jeer with the nice lilac hair).

Mercator et Musica, Stedelijk Gymnasium, 's-Hertogenbosch Again a rep problem. Jacob de Haan's Dakota Suite was short and horrid, Marj van Gils' arrangement of highlights from Ruud Bos's Efteling interminable and horrid. Some good players, clearly, but they needed to do the circus whirligig music with much more spirit.

Euterpe, Stedelijk Gymnasium, Arnhem Loved the shirts and the programming contrasts/symmetries were excellent. Abba medley fine by me, Game of Thrones rubbish definitely not, but I wouldn't have marked them down for that. A highlight of the day was the showcasing of treble Casper Jeukendorp. Not only did he sing Mozart's 'Laudate Dominum' superbly - a bit hampered by mike which made too much of his 'oo' vowels - but presented his own composition, about a refugee child, I understand, first aired in a Dutch ensemble's annual New Year's Eve auditions of new music by teenagers. It was excellent musically, though of course I couldn't understand most of the words. Loved the way Henry VIII's 'Pastime with Good Company' evolved into another popsong.

So much for the competitors. We didn't need much time to choose the winner (Beyers Naudé) and the 'most promising' (Murmellius). Though as I said in my speech, this is a festival and not really a competition. I also compared their enviable education system to ours, where the bulk of musicmaking for young people rests with public and private schools  (sobering statistic: did you know that when our National Youth Orchestra started out, five per cent of its members came from paying schools, and now it's 85 per cent?)The three of us divided our speechifying between the different 'sets', with Kees topping, tailing and presenting the cup, here held by our vivacious leader with Karel acclaiming her.

For me the great thrill was to walk down the red stairs to applause, an act which Artur Rubinstein wrote made him tremble with emotion. Like those great artists, you get to peek through the porthole

before making an entrance.

After all, Mahler

and Mengelberg

did the same, while Haitink and Jansons continue to do so. Here they are on the wall of fame in the upstairs main bar. Gatti will be joining them soon - not such a great appointment IMO but let's see. Chailly certainly matured over the years.

Why can't the Festival Hall and the Barbican honour their musicians past and present in this way? Below, a row of greats in bust form - Rubinstein, Ameling, Walter and Horowitz.

But I digress from the grand finale. Once seated, we were first treated to one of the events rehearsed during the day by groups of contenders while others took the stage, a mass rendition in canon style of 'Rhythm of Live' from Sweet Charity led by the vibrant Mirjam van Dam.

After the speeches and awards came the 'Great Gate' of 300 conducted by Coen, in the middle of which we were grabbed by Karel to carry boxes of free bicycle bells for all contenders with the Netherlands Philharmonic insignia on them.

Flowers all round, and then tea in the cafe with Max's elder sister Eline, friends and relatives, another gathering with Max and a bit of time to kill before the evening concert. And now I do fully understand how you haven't heard the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra until you've heard it in the Concertgebouw Hall - much improved in decor and extension since the last time we were in here.

From a distance, Harding's string group of sprang and danced along with leader Vesko Eschkenazy in Bach's A major Violin Concerto. while three oboes and three trumpets lent silvery colours to the Fourth Orchestral Suite. Harding's interpretation of Brahms Three after the interval was extremely subtle, with easy rubato and superb dynamic adjustments; and oh, the four horns, the inner string lines. I've only heard this work sound so good once before, and that was from Abbado conducting the Berlin Phil at the Proms. One solitary shot from the auditorium in the evening, just to see Harding coming down the red stairs from the famous door with 'Bach' inscribed above it.

So, good fortune all round, a happy walk back to Sarphatipark and a fun late supper with Max. Followed by a lazy morning before setting off to the airport, plans to see the new work on the Rijksmuseum abandoned, and a final glimpse of the Buma-Hills' li'l Johnny looking out on the dogs barking in the park with the poster still proudly displayed above him.


Graham said...

A friend of mine used to be involved in NYO auditions – he’d always give preference to state school applicants even if technically they weren’t so assured as their privately educated counterparts, on the grounds that they had so much more to gain from being accepted.
The announcement that all state schools are be turned into academies and taken out of local authority control won't do music education in England much good - destroy the need for a local education authority and you presumably end up destroying the LEA music service too. If you live in an area lucky enough to still have one...

David said...

Thanks, Graham: first statement is encouraging, secon just as I thought. Good to get the news from teachers - clearly some areas are thriving, others not. I only hope we've turned a corner in this country.

David Damant said...

David - you will find your reputation will bring you more and more appointments such as this

David said...

They certainly tick two of the three crucial 'P's - pleasure and prestige, not pay...

David Damant said...

A constellation of such appointments eventually shines sufficiently to add the third p

David said...

Pay, unfortunately, is increasingly less the name of the game. Not applicable in these circumstances, but we have to keep fighting to receive remuneration for text. As in all other spheres, it goes down and down. Moan over.

Andrew Morris said...

Had a very special tour of the Concertgebouw a few years ago. My wife and I, who like doing that sort of thing, were the only two who turned up for the tour and the tour guide spent a solid 2 hours showing us every corner of the deserted building, including in the roof! Alas, have yet to hear the eponymous orchestra in its own venue.

David said...

It's so much more beautiful than I remember it, Andrew - sickly green was an abiding memory. The makeover has been very much for the better.