“If you haven’t heard Notations your life isn’t complete.” Ruth Mackenzie is clearly passionate about the music of Pierre Boulez, and in her new capacity as Artistic Director of the Holland Festival she is in the perfect position to share that passion with the widest possible audience. Boulez turns 90 this year, and the Festival will be celebrating with a major retrospective of his work.

The Holland Festival, which takes place in Amsterdam each June, has a long tradition of promoting the new and the radical. Contemporary music has been at the heart of its programme for each of its 68 years. Cutting-edge musical theatre is well represented too, as are performing arts from around the world. A decade under the leadership of visionary theatre director Pierre Audi has seen the Festival go from strength to strength. Ruth Mackenzie, who succeeded him to organise this year’s Festival, is equally distinguished, and is best-known in the UK for heading the Cultural Olympiad of the London Olympics, for which she was appointed CBE.

But Boulez is top of the agenda today. He’s been an obsession for Mackenzie for many years: “When I was a child I got a chance to hear Boulez rehearse his Pli selon pli. I realized he was the most brilliant artist I had ever encountered, not only as a composer but as a conductor too. The technical brilliance, but also the emotional complexity and richness are so extraordinary.”

Répons, a work as rich and emotionally complex as any by Boulez, forms the centrepiece of this year’s Festival. An unusual venue has been chosen, the Gashouder, a converted gas silo in Amsterdam. But it’s ideal, as Boulez envisaged the work to be performed in a circular space. The performers are a dream team – Ensemble intercontemporain, the new music orchestra founded by Boulez himself. Boulez is particularly interested in how acoustics and positioning affect our experience of Répons. So the work will be played twice, giving the audience the chance to hear it from two different positions.

It’s knotty, uncompromising music, so is it a hard-sell? Not at all. Ticket sales for the concert were selling rapidly, four months in advance. “It is really amazing,” says Ruth “and it is a real tribute to the Holland Festival and its commitment to innovation that one of the first big events to sell out was Boulez’s Répons.”

Don’t worry if you can’t get a ticket, there’s plenty more Boulez on offer. “One of the great things about Pierre Boulez,” Ruth continues, “is that he is so interested in other art forms, and other artists are interested in him.” One project at the Festival brings the music of Boulez together with the work of architect Frank Gehry. Beyond the Score offers an introduction to Boulez through a stage presentation, conceived by Gerard McBurney and with visual designs by Gehry. McBurney is Artistic Programming Advisor to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where he has established Beyond the Score as the orchestra’s groundbreaking multimedia education initiative. Their Boulez project will be visiting Amsterdam, and will also take in the Aldeburgh Festival as part of the tour. “Gerard McBurney is a great expert but also a great communicator” says Ruth. “He’s come up with a wonderful way to show different sides of Boulez without being simplistic or bafflingly technical. Gerard is great at opening different doors onto the subject.”

Plenty more concerts too, and not just of Boulez. A new concept for this year’s Festival is the 12-hour Prom, a series of informal concerts, over the course of a day, at Amsterdam’s famous Concertgebouw. “This is a new tradition we are setting up,” Ruth explains. “Of course, we are borrowing the brilliant idea of the BBC Proms. One of the great things about the Proms in London is the access. The other thing is the informality and the unique atmosphere. We are encouraging people to get into the spirit of the Proms. There are no rules: you can come and go, or you can just stand. You can jump up and down if you want. And you can bring your children. It is a very welcoming way for audiences to try something new.”

Boulez figures large on the Proms programme (that’s where you’ll get the chance to experience Notations), but there is also music from John Luther Adams, his atmospheric soundscape Inuksuit, a major choral work by Xenakis, Nekuia, and, in the Concertgebouw’s second hall, a sound instillation based on Thomas Tallis’s 40-part motet Spem in alium.

“I am particularly interested in artists who change the direction of art,” says Ruth. “Boulez is one of the artists of the 20th century who has changed music, changed the direction of music. We also have on the programme Robert Wilson, and he is an artist who has changed the direction of theatre. He is doing Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett, and he is performing in it himself. You are not going to see that many times!”

What else? “We haven’t talked yet about music theatre. We’ve got William Kentridge directing a new production of Berg’s Lulu. Also in the opera house we’ve got The End, which is a music theatre/opera piece by Keiichiro Shibuya from Japan, where the star is in fact not real, she is a digital pop star called Hatsune Miku. And we’ve got a fantastic collaboration between the young Dutch composer Arnoud Noordegraaf and Ai Weiwei, a piece called As Big as the Sky. It is set in China and mixes musical traditions from Western contemporary to Chinese traditional.”

A diverse programme then, and one that clearly reflects the breadth of cultural interests in Amsterdam. “I feel enormously lucky to be working in a city that is so open to culture,” says Ruth. “The Holland Festival has consistently reached out for the new, put it in context, and shared it with audiences. The result has been a huge trust locally, and that is such a gift. It is the wonderful, generous, intelligent audiences that create the fantastic festival atmosphere.”

That spirit of adventure and engagement shines through the whole of the Holland Festival programme, and no more clearly than in another of this year’s key events: Ein Tag und eine Stunde in Urbo Kune. Over the course of 25 hours, this will explore the idea of the perfect city of the future, combining music, talks and instillations in a range of immersive situations. “You get everything from established works to world premieres. You also get the Mayor of Amsterdam and several famous architects [Zaha Hadid among them]. It is a radical new way to put music in the context of how we imagine our lives in the future. How thrilling is that!”


This article was sponsored by the Holland Festival.