Under the direction of their regular guest conductor Etienne Siebens, Asko|Schönberg presented a varied programme in Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ, for a distressingly small audience of some 200. The ensemble played two new works that had been premiered the night before in the Doelen Hall in Rotterdam: Figures in a Landscape by Peter-Jan Wagemans, and Viola-Viva by Hanna Kulenty. These evoked enthusiastic applause and cat-calls from the people who had taken the trouble to turn up for this animated concert, that was broadcast live on Radio 4.

Hanna Kulenty © Hanna Kulenty
Hanna Kulenty
© Hanna Kulenty

Peter-Jan Wagemans is a representative of the so called “Rotterdam School”, a style of composing assumed to be typical of Rotterdam, where he’s head of the composition department at the conservatory. Ironically enough, he studied at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, where Louis Andriessen founded the famous “Hague School”.

Where Andriessen and co create a radical type of music, coupling repetitive rhythms and jazzy chords to monumental, loud walls of sound, the Rotterdam school around Klaas de Vries seeks to develop new ways within the classical music tradition. The Doelen concert - repeated tonight in Arnhem – also featured De Vries’ Second Piano Concerto.

In his new work, Wagemans creates a magical soundscape, employing not only the physical instruments, but also electronics. Two groups of musicians are juxtaposed, one consisting of percussion, harp and electric guitar – both detuned by a quarter tone - the other made up of trumpet, clarinet and soprano saxophone.

Figures in a Landscape opens with quiet rumblings of a marimba, the solo clarinet playing vibrant, seemingly improvised lines that evoke bird song, somewhat in the tradition of Messiaen. Gradually, harp and electric guitar throw in false flourishes, while the trumpet plays languishing tunes that are echoed by a horn from the tape. A beautiful semitone-duet between soprano saxophone and clarinet is supported by a drone from the double bass. The piece builds up to a gigantic climax abruptly ending in silence, after which two percussionists lash their whips and place a full stop after the composition.

The Polish-Dutch Hanna Kulenty presents a quite different sound world in Viola-Viva. It was commissioned by Asko|Schönberg, with the French violist Geneviève Strosser playing the solo part. As in most of her music, Kulenty grabs her audience by the throat directly, Strosser setting off with long-held, emphatically repeated notes in the darkly resonating low register. Only very slowly the ambitus is widened, from a second to a third and more, and hesitantly develops into a very simple melody. The atmosphere is intoxicating and threatening, the viola taking the lead in a primordial ritual from which nobody can escape.

The piece heaves and breathes in obsessive crescendos and decrescendos, the ensemble playing upward and downward scales that echo the viola part. It’s almost as if the soloist has the other musicians on a string, like a regular shaman. The rhythm becomes quicker and more intense, and is interspersed with sudden silences - the musicians seemingly stumbling over their own quick notes. The viola moves on into its higher register, producing fearful, whining tremolos, as if it’s losing control. The wonderfully assured Strosser then plays a lament, accompanied by woodblocks and piano arpeggios and the piece dies away with softly tinkling bells.

The concert opened with DaDoRimGil by the Korean-Dutch Seung-Ah Oh, played without conductor by Slagwerkgroep Den Haag. Inspired by the traditional communal laundering of Korean women, it’s an exciting piece, based on percussionists beating a granite surface with wooden sticks, in swinging hocket technique. At the end of the concert, the audience was treated to the joyful and energetic Scenes from an old Memory Box of Joey Roukens. It’s a roller coaster of rhythmic, melodic and harmonic motifs all trying to draw the audience’s attention at the same time. His cocktail of oompa-oompa, jazz, folk and film music is quite exciting, but proved to be so overwhelming it left the audience somewhat aghast in their seats.