Westergasfabriek Gashouder © Holland Festival
Westergasfabriek Gashouder
© Holland Festival

“Caminantes, no hay caminos, hay que caminar” – “Travellers, there are no roads, there’s only travelling”. This phrase, etched on a monastery wall in Toledo, inspired a number of the Italian avant-garde composer Luigi Nono’s final works, and it aptly captures something of his character. Though he was a colleague in the 1950s of Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen – he was even the person who coined the now-infamous term “Darmstadt School” – his music is not easily categorized. A member of the Communist Party from 1952, Nono strove to imbue his music with a political conscience not so explicit in the work of his serialist colleagues. He followed no conventional road in his own career. The fact that his music is hard to pigeonhole is perhaps one reason why Nono’s music is less often performed than some of his peers’, and the focus on his important work that this year’s Holland Festival provides is therefore very welcome.

Alongside an exhibition curated by the composer’s widow Nuria Schoenberg-Nono and a series of lunchtime concerts, three major events from 19–22 June this year will honour Nono, presenting several of his most important compositions in the remarkable Westergasfabriek Gashouder, a vast former gasholder in Amsterdam.

Luigi Nono
Luigi Nono

First to be performed, on 19 June, is his 1980s magnum opus Prometeo, widely considered a masterpiece, which was premièred thirty years ago by the late Claudio Abbado. This piece – a “tragedia dell’ascolto”, or tragedy for listening, in Nono’s words – uses texts by numerous writers through history concerning the story of Prometheus, the stealer of fire from the gods in Greek mythology. The Gashouder is the perfect setting, as the musicians and electronics can surround the audience, creating a surround effect as Nono originally desired.

On 22 June, the third day of Nono performances, two of Nono’s late works inspired by the Toledo etching likewise make use of the Gashouder’s shape: Caminantes… Ayacucho and No hay caminos, hay que caminar… Andrej Tarkovskij both space their performers out around the audience, encircling listeners in an ever-changing haze of sound. These pieces will be interspersed by music from the 16th century composer and fellow Venetian Giovanni Gabrieli, an early pioneer of spatially separated performance.

Appropriately sitting at the heart of the celebration is a programme on 21 June focussing on some of his most overtly political works, including the early masterpiece Il canto sospeso, whose text is made up of farewell letters written from political prisoners, just before they were executed. All the Nono concerts are to be conducted by Ingo Metzmacher, hugely experienced in this repertory, and a stellar selection of performers includes violinist Irvine Arditti and the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg.

Holland Festival in the Gashouder © Ada Nieuwendijk
Holland Festival in the Gashouder
© Ada Nieuwendijk

The focus on Nono is just one part of this year’s Holland Festival, which as ever looks bold and brilliant. Those interested in Nono may also be drawn towards Vortex Temporum, in which spectralist composer Gérard Grisey’s masterpiece is the score to a dance performance by Flemish choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s company Rosas. Theatre director Robert Lepage will provide something typically bold and inventive with Playing Cards: SPADES, set in Las Vegas at the time of the invasion of Iraq. A world première from Het Nationale Ballet is another eye-catching proposition: choreographer Krzysztof Pastor has created a full-length piece on The Tempest.

Other musical highlights will include a brace of appearances from Nico Muhly and the world première of his new Spiral Mass; George Benjamin conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; and electronic wizard Matthew Herbert’s Twenty Pianos, which takes 20 historic pianos and turns them into a beguiling virtual performance. Springtime is looking bright in Amsterdam.


This article is sponsored by the Holland Festival.