New Year’s Day falls at the end of August in Utrecht! We gather, we drink, we kiss, we wish each other well at the opening concert of the Festival of Early Music, now in its 33rd year. Literally a generation of early music lovers have now descended yearly on Utrecht, an elegant, historic and stately university city just down the tracks a bit from the bustling and obvious tourist destination, Amsterdam.

Last evening’s concert was especially celebratory as it was held in the festival’s birthplace, architect Herman Hertzberger’s famed concert hall, recently reopened after a gruelling eight years of city planners scratching their heads, renovators juggling building codes and politicians searching for auxiliary funding. And just like Alice when she tumbled down the hole, we walked back into the future through glass doors that separate the new TivoliVredenburg concert complex from the old large hall itself, carefully closed and preserved from demolition amidst construction work.

This year’s festival theme, royal with a hint of historic war, is dedicated to the Habsburg Empire: ten centuries of music from Vienna and Prague. One of the Artists in Residence is Václav Luks, a young conductor and ensemble founder of Collegium 1704 and Collegium Vocale 1704 from Bohemia. His passion for the unsung heroes of his region is already legend and last evening he quite launched himself up the stairs to the stage to grasp his programme of Fux, Tůma and Zelenka by the horns. A Te Deum followed by a Stabat Mater and a Mass was not only royal, it was a heavenly blessing for this new year.

Luks leads a lovely group: all its individuals are very good at what they do; theirs is a consistent quality. Special mention must be made however of the elegant soprano solo, Hana Blažíková as well as of the crystal clear and confident brass instrumentalists.

František Ignác Antonin Tůma was the surprise of the evening, a student’s of Fux and a discovery of Luks. His Stabat Mater dolorosa is an exquisite and sensitive piece, one that could easily become a true Baroque block buster. An aria for alto with an obbligato trombone was sublime.

Beautiful and enriching repertoire, a festive occasion and a truly enthusiastic audience. All that was missing last evening was a bit of urgency and panache in the performance. Dissonances were never wrenching; fugues were a tad vertical and staid. Even in Jan Dismas Zelenka’s now beloved bustling business – another relatively recent discovery of the authentic performance practice community – Collegium 1704 and their choir consorts sounded slightly run of the mill, all this despite a nearly acrobatic Luks who poured his entire body into his direction. Having said that, his ensemble’s potential is a clear given. Adding a bit more bravura to the hard work and impassioned sense of discovery that Luks and co exude would quickly do the trick.

The early music festival year lasts a mere ten days. Yet with some new repertoire, a soothing return to home base and a creative programme of beautiful repertoire, we can already safely conclude that it will be a very Happy New Year.