Ruth Mackenzie, Holland Festival’s vivacious and invigorating new director, closed her first edition with a twelve hour Prom, reinventing it as a mini-festival at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. It was a sensationally stimulating marathon. In an impressive line-up, Dutch ensembles performed a spectrum of rarely performed musical extremes. Downstairs in the Great Hall, all chairs were removed, doors opened, allowing people to walk around with their drinks, creating an unaffected atmosphere, enjoyable for all music lovers.

Slagwerk Den Haag © Gerrit Schreurs
Slagwerk Den Haag
© Gerrit Schreurs

Opening this Prom, the exceptional Slagwerk Den Haag performed the Dutch première of John Luther Adams’ Arctic environmental soundscape Inuksuit. Composed through computational methods in which sounds of nature were processed into a unique musical score inspired by the structure of Alaska’s Inuit statues. Required for this work, the Concertgebouw adapted its environment: a panoply of percussion (timpani, bells, cymbals, various drums, and gongs) was dispersed over the entire building, while musicians moved around, providing a second spatial dimension to the music. 

Wind tubes, sea shells and other devices created the whooshing wind sounds from the Alaskan plains. Ram horns later announced haunting battle cry sounds. Syncopated drum beats reverberated imposingly throughout the building. Comparisons to John Cage and Edgard Varèse’s work seems unavoidable, but with Adams it feels as if you are actually in the vastness of Arctic nature and not listening to a representation of it. Towards the end, ten xylophones bring the audience back to a quiet, sparkling starry night. Families strolled through the building, toddlers listening wide-eyed, for the first time at the Concertgebouw, their disarming yelps, cries and giggles unintentionally complementing the spatial aspect of the work. For me, Inuksuit turned out to be one of the richest and most beautiful soundscapes I have experienced.

For the next concert, the jam-packed Great Hall had audiences standing or sitting on beanbags, listening to Eva Maria Westbroek in a rare solo-recital backed by the brilliant Amsterdam Sinfonietta. Her performance of Berlioz’s Les nuits d'été, though counteracting the chills from the Dutch rain and wind outside, did not reach any sweltering heights. Her impressive soprano voice dominated, lacking the deeply emotional nuances I later experienced during her Barber. Westbroek's Berlioz was a bit of a letdown.

After the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, elegantly led by Candida Thompson, with its burning strings, offered a lush rendition of Lekeu’s Adagio pour quartet d'orchestre, it was the diva’s deeply moving rendition of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 that utterly enchanted the audience. The fullness of her warm voice complemented her effectively dramatic phrasing, infusing the rich melancholic colours in Barber’s work.

In a radio interview, Westbroek mentioned she listened to this piece following the passing of her mother, making it a personal treasure, which was felt strongly. Without any restraint, the singer heartbreakingly conveyed Barber’s beautiful sadness, charging the song with honest emotion. The chamber-like setting with the audience right in front of the soprano provided the performance with a lovely intimacy. The disarmed audience listened intently; perhaps the most concentrated silence I have ever heard in the Great Hall, quite remarkable considering the laidback nature of this setting.

In between concerts, various singers and chamber ensembles jazzed up the festive foyers. In the Recital Hall, a digital reinvention of Tallis’ evocative Spem in alium took place. This eight-hour experience by Multiple Voices proved another digital success for the Holland Festival. One by one, 40 voices slowly were layered and filled up the hall through immersive speakers. An impressive multimedia experience.

Multiple Voices © Nicola Dal Maso
Multiple Voices
© Nicola Dal Maso

After the dinner break, Tito Ceccherini led the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic in a wild programme of Boulez and Xenakis; two composer who disliked each other’s styles intensely. They opened with Boulez’s colourful instrumentation of Ravel’s Frontispice, which transitioned the audience’s ears for the more challenging pieces later. Here, the conductor let Boulez's woodwinds perfume the air with Ravel’s melange of eastern melodies. Next, soprano Yeree Suh astonished with her pure voice singing Boulez’s transparent notes in his early work Le soleil des eaux, based on two poems by René Char – relatively easy listening compared to Boulez’s later works. The final tribute to 90 year old Frenchman is a bridge in his oeuvre: his orchestration of Notations I-IV, VII, with which the composer inventively reworked his early work into something a mature version.

The mindblowing performance of Iannis Xenakis’ heavy-handed Nekuia, a surprisingly accessible avant-garde work, belongs among the high points of this Holland Festival. While the dense orchestral passages are challenging in themselves, the choir had the seemingly insurmountable task of the Greek composer’s excess of notes; swarming, screeching, buzzing, and screaming throughout the piece. Daniel Reuss and the Groot Omroepkoor must be credited for flexibility and enormous stamina. Listening with closed eyes, on one of the flower-power beanbags was truly a wonderful experience. Hopefully Ms Mackenzie will make this epic experience an annual tradition at the Holland Festival.