Many a dark tone roamed inside the Muziekgebouw as lovers of daring, opinionated orchestral music gathered there one day after the Mayan calendar ended. Diverse interpretations of apocalyptic fantasies and prophecies unfolded during this night. Apocalyptic, in its literal Greek meaning: revealing, disclosing. Each piece presented a revelation of the natural world and it relation with human cultures.

Guatemalan poet Humberto Ak’abal, dressed traditionally, recited a series of his works written in the Mayan K’iche’ language. His poems reverberated like a church sermon, with some of his sounds distilled from the animal kingdom. To translate one poem: “The whole universe, like life, starts over continuously... Tomorrow is tomorrow: struggling with the unexpected, like all other days.”

Each instrument of the Radio Kamer Filharmonie operated as an essential gear in the busy symphonic mechanism of Silvestre Revueltas’ Sensemayá. The piece, composed in 1937, was inspired by Mexico in post-dictatorial times in which rituals of the citizenry were revived. Sensemayá described the tradition of “Matar la culebra” – killing the snake – an animal offering in carnival spirit. Lively instrument patterns kept rearranging the 7/8 groove, evoking an image of the ritual’s careful moments, tumultuous struggles and triumphant conclusions.

The concert hall’s roof opened up and its walls fell straight on their backs. From Ubirr, written in 1994 by Peter Sculthorpe, revealed to the public the large Australian outback. Tensed double bass drones and menacing waves of violins were stowed through the air like grim clouds. Then, as if the piece zoomed closer towards the land, Lies Beijerinck’s didgeridoo vigorously captured the power of flora and fauna. I was mesmerized by the constantly droning tone of wood, which Lies managed to gracefully double with a wide variety of animal callings, growls, screams and puffs. Sculthorpe once wrote: “Perhaps we now need to attune ourselves to this continent, to listen to the cry of the earth, as the Aborigines have done for many thousands of years”. There was a desolate beauty as the didgeridoo played alone in the large concert hall, and there was magic when it sounded in symbiosis with the waving structures of the string orchestra: the slow progression of nature versus the fast developments of culture. This piece proved that they can be majestically interwoven, if we continue to struggle for a fitting formula.

David Dramm’s Disconnect (2012) ingeniously contrasted pre-apocalyptic chaos with post-apocalyptic stillness. Bombastic orchestral stabs and zig-zagging rhythms revealed the panic of an inevitably approaching end. This bold romantic drama was pushed even further by reversed orchestral samples coming from the speakers. Then suddenly a hard cut: the end came. Or rather a new beginning. The sound of beeping telephones and out-of-service messages. “We’re sorry, your call can not be completed”, overlayed with droning, ambient string chords that sounded from the speakers. There was a sense of relief as the atmosphere was freed from chaos, until reversed orchestral samples, loud bangs on the timpani and a creeping brass section lead up to a new drama. In the end the old world gave up, leaving behind solely a super soft, soothing vibraphone chord that ringed on for minutes. Nothing of the old world was left, but it felt alright.

Jan Vriend was commissioned to musically interpret ancient Mayan culture and did so with the help of Humberto Ak’abal, from whom he requested new lyrics inspired by the Mayan calendar. These poems in Mayan K’iche’, a language closely related to ancient Mayan culture, appeared in both Ak’abal’s recitals and in the symphony, Koyopa’ – Oxlajuj Baqtun, which had its world première on this night. From close to distant, harmonic to unharmonic, soft to loud: the choir and vocal soloists engaged in a complex, vivid discussion. Vriend perhaps hinted at the (for their time) experimental classical mishmashes that Boulez, Debussy or Stravinsky shaped. The well placed percussion, with its very well executed climaxes, must definitely be mentioned as it lifted the vocals to an intenser platform, and at times added a tribal vibe to the atmosphere.

Giacinto Scelsi has become one of my favorite composers since I started to explore the darkest and heaviest side of the modern classical spectrum. Scelsi understood that traditional Western harmonic structures were somewhat distracting from the intricate details of instrument textures. In his 1959 series of compositions called Quattro Pezzi per orchestra he strove to limit the instruments to a single pitch as much as possible. In this process he pushed the envelope for textural articulations, swaying smoothly between wafer-thin fragility and wringing disturbance. In Uaxuctum (1966) Scelsi re-used elements from these “minimalist” tendencies and threw them into a pandemoniac atmosphere. Both the estranging tonality and the sudden rhythms continued to surprise me during tonight’s performance. Many textures passed by with a powerful, mysterious impact, like a group of roaring double basses, creepy up-close hissing from the amplified solo vocalists, painfully bending choir vocals and death-blow percussive climaxes. Cutting through the dark and droning madness were some almost funny elements like a jazz-textured trumpet or an electronic sweep from the ondes Martenot. Disturbingly funny – Scelsi could even do that.

Groot OmroepkoorRutger Muller2012-12-22Rutger Muller reviews Apocalyps Nu!, Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ, Amsterdam, December 22th 2012, orchestral and choral interpretations of the end of the Mayan calendar and other revelations.4