The Holland Festival has always celebrated and promoted new work – Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, Pina Bausch and Romeo Castellucci among the creators – and takes its 70th anniversary to both look forward, with plenty of world premières, but also to reflect on its past. Festival director Ruth Mackenzie has curated a packed month of music, theatre, dance and film as challenging as it is diverse.

Margaret Leng Tan © Yvonne Tan
Margaret Leng Tan
© Yvonne Tan

The theme of Democracy is a major focus, explored on film and in theatre events, including My Country, the UK National Theatre’s listening project, drawing on the words of the British people post-referendum vote to create a new work. Indonesia is another focus, of which Temple of Time by Dutch-Indonesian composer Sinta Wullur promises to be a highlight. 84 bowl gongs will be installed into Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, into which performers and audience enter together to explore Javanese mysticism.

But classical music and dance are our main interests here and the festival has plenty to offer. Radicals and revolutionaries have always been feted in Amsterdam and this year George Crumb is the composer in focus. An all-Crumb programme includes Black Angels, probably his best known work. It was written during the Vietnam War for an ‘electric string quartet’. The Ragazze Quartet performs it accompanied by a freshly commissioned video installation. Metamorphoses (2017) is Crumb’s much anticipated new work for amplified piano, composed for Margaret Leng Tan, whom he once described as “a sorceress of the piano” for her ability to use his unusual sound palette.

Orphanage of the Holland Festival takes a dip into the past with a trio of concerts where works premiered in previous festivals are given a second outing. These include works by Hendrik Andriessen, Jan van Vlijman, Louis Andriessen and Willem Breuker. Intriguingly, each work will get performed twice, with a talk in between to aid your second listening.

Stockhausen is another festival hero. Octophonic surround sound is promised in the Muziekgebouw for a performance of NEBADON, his work for horns and electronics. It is paired in concert with ORCHESTER-FINALISTEN (written for Holland Festival in 1996) which is part of his opera cycle LICHT, which is being performed at the 2019 festival. Stockhausen’s Mantra – for two pianos, electronics and percussion – is performed in the Concertgebouw. Written for pianist brothers Alfons and Aloys Kontarsky, it is now performed by an ensemble led by young Dutch brothers Lucas and Arthur Jussen.

Jörg Widmann © Marco Borggreve
Jörg Widmann
© Marco Borggreve
György Kurtág and Pierre Boulez have had a long association with the Holland Festival. Petite musique solennelle was Kurtág’s tribute to Boulez on his 90th birthday. It features prominent roles for French horns and percussion and is given its Dutch première by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen in a programme which also includes Bartók’s colourful Concerto for Orchestra.

Heading the opera programme, Pierre Audi, former festival director, presents a new interpretation of Monteverdi’s Marian Vespers in Amsterdam’s Gashouder in collaboration with Belgian visual artist Berlinde De Bruyckere. Raphaël Pichon leads his splendid Baroque ensemble Pygmalion in this magnificent music.

When Richard Strauss’ Salome had its Austrian première in Graz in 1905, composers Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Giacomo Puccini and Alban Berg were in the audience. Salome rocked the operatic world in 1905 and it retains the power to shock. Salome, the biblical princess of Judea, performs the Dance of the Seven Veils for her stepfather, Herod, then demands the head of John the Baptist, who has rejected her advances, as her bloodthirsty reward. Dutch National Opera’s new staging is by Ivo van Hove. Salome is a tour de force for the orchestra and Daniele Gatti leads the world-renowned Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Swedish soprano Malin Byström sings (and dances?) Salome, while Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin is John the Baptist.  

Jonas Kaufmann © Julian Hargreaves | Sony Classical
Jonas Kaufmann
© Julian Hargreaves | Sony Classical
If the severed head of John the Baptist isn't enough for you, consider Dmitri Kourliandski’s new opera Octavia. Treoanation. The composer and director Boris Yukhananov alarmingly describe their new work as “an opera-operation”. In the centenary of the Russian Revolution, the nature of tyranny is the focus. A giant replica of Lenin’s skull is trepanned on stage to the sound of socialist hymns, stretched out with texts by Leon Trotsky and exceprts from Octavia, Seneca’s play about the Emperor Nero.

One of the most eagerly awaited operas is a concert performance of Jörg Widmann’s second opera Babylon, which caused a sensation when it premiered in 2012 in Munich. Marcus Stenz is at the helm for what is promised to be “a Babylonian polyphony of styles and sounds”.

Tenor Jonas Kaufmann has never performed a solo concert in the Netherlands before, so the announcement of his arrival has been greeted with a flurry of excitement. He is joined by local favourite Eva-Maria Westbroek in a programme of Verdi and Wagner, including the love duet from Otello (a sneak preview at a new role to be unveiled at Covent Garden later in the summer).

<i>Rito de primavera</i> © Fabian Cambero
Rito de primavera
© Fabian Cambero
In the world of dance, there’s plenty of contemporary choreography to enjoy. A new Rite of Spring takes to the Westgasfabriek, created by Chilean choreographer José Vidal for fifty dancers to a new electronic arrangement of Stravinsky’s score. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, Boris Charmatz’s danse de nuit explores what we do when confronted by brutal violence.

Dutch National Ballet presents Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy – the first time these works have been performed together in Europe after performances in New York and San Francisco. Shostakovich lived in fear through Stalin’s iron grip on the Soviet Union and Ratmansky picks three scores from different periods of the composer’s life in what the choreographer has described as “my most personal work”.

If these highlights have whetted your appetite, there’s plenty more to discover in our festival listings. There are plenty of free events and festival passes for the under-30s, not forgetting the Holland Festival Proms – five concerts costing just €10 each. For innovation and diversity, Amsterdam is a key destination this June.


Article sponsored by Holland Festival.