As the longest-running performing arts festival in the Netherlands, one wouldn’t expect Amsterdam’s Holland Festival to have kept up with its tradition of presenting challenging, delightfully impure programmes for as long as it has. But this year’s edition revels in that principle of intermixture, with strands dedicated to cultural crossover, technology and contemporary opera interweaving everywhere.

Anyone with an interest in spirituality will find much to explore in this year’s focus on traditional music of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. The Moroccan Ensemble Rhoum El Bakkali, an all-female vocal group from the famous “blue city” of Chefchaouen present two concerts of music with roots in their region’s brand of Sufism. In the first, they’ll perform devotional music connected to the hadra ritual, while in the second they’ll team up with Amsterdam’s own Andalusian Orchestra and the Moroccan Orchestre Temsamani for a night of music written especially for the performance by oud master Mohamed Amin El Akrami. Fans of Keith Jarrett may be familiar with the Armenian mystic and occasional composer G.I. Gurdjieff, but they are less likely to have heard the esoteric thinker’s works performed in “ethnographically authentic” settings by the folk-centric Gurdjieff Ensemble. They’ll present an evening of music largely from their own country, including Gurdjieff, the contemporary film and concert music composer Tigran Mansurian and Komitas, a priest and ethnomusicologist who was persecuted in the Armenian genocide. Joining the Gurdjieff Ensemble will be Syrian oud specialist Issam Rafea’s group Hewar, which mixes traditional Syrian and Jazz modes. A similar cross-genre collaboration will see Hilversum’s Metropole Orkest team up with members of the Syrian Big Band – a group which does exactly what it says on the tin, enfusing big band Jazz with a Syrian flavour. Though the group was forced to disband at the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, they are now for the most part reunited and living in Europe. At Holland Festival they’ll be presenting works by some of their key members.

Anyone who follows the Kronos Quartet will know that teaming up with musicians from around the world is part of their modus operandi, and last year’s well-received collaborative album with the Malian griot troupe Trio da Kali is no exception. The two groups will be presenting works from 2017’s Ladilikan in concert – part of a day-long “Kronos Sessions” event featuring a series of concerts and masterclasses by members of the quartet. Other collaborators in the Kronos Sessions include Iranian folk singer Mahsa Vahdat, US composer-songwriter Jherek Bischoff and Vietnamese-American musician Vân-Ánh Võ, who plays a kind of traditional zither called a đàn tranh. Meanwhile, there are concessions made for adventurous opera-goers in the form of Trojan Women, created by Singaporean director Ong Keng Sen in collaboration with the National Changgeuk Company of Korea. Taking Euripides’s play dealing with the fallout of the Trojan War as its narrative material, the opera employs traditional modes of Korean musical storytelling – the minimal folk style of pansori and the more elaborate changgeuk – as well as the country’s hyper-saccharine K-pop.  

Too often discussions around technology are used as shorthand for intellectual profundity in the arts, but some genuinely interesting areas of technology are being probed at Holland Festival. Trevor Paglen is an artist and sometime investigative journalist concerned with mass surveillance and artificial intelligence, and in Sight Machine he’ll be exploring how the world is seen through data. While the Kronos Quartet perform music by longtime collaborators like Reich, Terry Riley and Laurie Anderson, he will project a digitised view of their performance above the ensemble, contrasting human and algorithmic perception. Anyone who got freaked out by the DeepDream software a few years back will be interested in this. Elsewhere, filmmaker Corinna Belz will be using the work of abstract artist Gerhard Richter to create a visual narrative to music composed by the electronic artist Marcus Schmickler and performed by the Cologne-based cross-disciplinary group Ensemble Musikfabrik.

If your technological itch still isn’t scratched, you might check out the two events which link video games and music performance. Oikospiel II: Heat Cantata, billed as “a dog opera in the form of a computer game”, features an experimental video game by the composer and designer David Kanaga with live music by the contemporary ensemble MAZE, while Dear Esther features live play of the titular narrative-based game along with music by the video game composer Jessica Curry. Who knows how these will work out in practice, but in theory they suggest an interesting confluence between video games and musical theatre.

There are more conventional elements of the programme to counteract the technological experiments. Opera fans will have plenty of chances to catch Dutch National Opera’s new production of Offenbach’s fantastical Les Contes d’Hoffmann under the helm of young German director Tobias Krazter, which runs through the entirety of the festival and features the American tenor John Osborn in the title role. Meanwhile, the festival’s focus on composer George Benjamin presents plenty of contemporary opera opportunities. His 2012 work Written on Skin is a 21st-century update on the story of the medieval troubadour Guillem de Cabestany, its high drama has been compared favourably to Wozzeck, and it will be presented in a semi-staged performance in the Muziekgebouw. The performance of Benjamin’s most recent work, Lessons in Love and Violence, follows hot on the heels of its world première in May, and the influence of Elizabethan drama and a libretto dealing with the breakdown of both political and familial units are said to be the work’s standout characteristics.   

As if the eclectic stew detailed above isn’t enough, there are plenty of works in sound and film art, contemporary dance and amorphous “other” categories to fill out the packed programme. When it comes to genre, the Holland Festival organisers seem to enjoy keeping you on your toes.


This article was sponsored by Holland Festival.

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