Now that the Gaudeamus organization is nicely nestled into the Utrecht music scene and its new Walhalla, concert hall complex Tivoli Vredenburg, back to back festivities of Early Music and tomorrow’s composers are ours to enjoy. Three days after we say goodbye to 16th, 17th and 18th century treasures, we fast forward with gusto into the 21st.

Works by the five nominees of the Gaudeamus prize 2014 are a constant throughout the current Music Week festival programming, as is this edition’s ensemble-in-residence, the eclectic, young and adventurous group led by composer Yu Oda: Looptail. Four days chock full of new, classical music, much of it being heard for the very first time and happily, in a truly diverse set of locations: concert hall, church and every possible alternative.

Amstel Quartet © Elizabeth Melchior
Amstel Quartet
© Elizabeth Melchior

Admittedly, the location – high in the new concert complex and aptly named Cloud Nine – was part of the appeal of the concert last Friday evening given by the Amstel (Saxophone) Quartet. Cloud Nine, usually a no-go area for classical music lovers, has a black-on-black, hip interior where singer songwriters and DJs usually rule. Yet this location worked extremely well for the repertoire presented which included classic contemporary (John Cage), a Gaudeamus prize nominee (Hikari Kiyama), local heroes of the scene (Wilbert Bulsink and Max Knigge), a saxophonist turned composer (Sander Germanus), all topped off with a young Russian (Alexey Sysoev); all, except Cage of course, still on the good side of middle age.

The homogeneity of the quartet affords composers nearly unlimited room to experiment with sound. This programme was, thank goodness, by no means monotonous: deafeningly loud, busy or noisy as often is the case in statement moments of contemporary bravado. A well-balanced array of moods, colours and narratives was inherent in the chosen works. The Amstel Quartet programme also suited the foursome itself very well. 

Moonwalk by Sander Germanus was by far the most interesting piece of the concert and the one best suited to the sax. A well-presented introduction on the quarter tones in the work was useful in keeping us fascinated as opposed to appalled at all the unusual and delicate tuning. Both this tuning and the contrasts in register together launched Moonwalk into the stratospheres as the star of the evening.

Consistent Contradictions by Alexey Sysoev certainly lived up to its name. Not particularly enjoyable and never pleasing, the piece is a painful step backwards as it is merely experimental. In no way did it sound at all finished. The quartet worked hard and forged onward, ending the programme with the concert’s loudest and fastest piece. Hikari Kiyama’s Sax Quartet is very rhythmic, has attractive complexities, but never actually emancipates itself from that ambiguous term - slightly positive yet devastating when used in an artistic context - cute.

The Amstel Quartet is clearly dedicated to the contemporary cause. More precision and a bit more flair for contrasts within each and every separate work (in sound, timing, mood, dynamic) as well as an analytical search for the long lines in these new narratives would have given their performance more staying power. There are treasures still hidden in the works as programmed.

Germanus and to an extent, Kiyama, deserve deeper readings. A visit to the Gaudeamus Music Week is always enlightening, certainly educational. None of us regularly get the opportunity to hear sufficient new works from the next generation of classical composers to become fully appreciative of their work. For the most part, the Amstel Quartet’s concert in Cloud Nine was not merely enlightening and educational, it was also a successful performance.