A highlight of each edition of Holland Festival is the performance of the Royal Concertgebouworchestra with composers premiering their new works in the Netherlands. In past years Thomas Adès and Heinz Holliger dropped by and this year the British composer George Benjamin was invited. This isn’t the French influenced composer’s first time in front of the RCO. Before the enormous  success of his second opera, Written on Skin, Benjamin conducted the RCO a few times in works by innovative composers as Murail, Scriabin, and Benjamin’s own teacher Messiaen (who compared the young Benjamin to Mozart). Tonight’s programme included Ligeti and Ravel and kept Benjamin close to his 20th century roots.

George Benjamin © Robert Millard
George Benjamin
© Robert Millard

Benjamin opened with the Dutch première of Everyone Sang by Helen Grime. The Scottish composer wrote the ten minute work for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s 75th anniversary. It premiered during the BBC Proms, and is meant to showcase the different colourful voices of a large orchestra. This tapestry includes celesta, harp and a panoply of percussion instruments. According to Grime’s instructions, the first and second violins were divided, mirroring each other at the front line of the orchestra. This arrangement of strings provided the glue to keep the tatters of sounds by the other sections together. Benjamin conducted Grime’s piece with clarity and precision providing her music with a refreshing immediacy. Her soundscape flows from dark melancholic colours to the festively vibrating. Grime clearly feels at home in Messiaen’s world. Benjamin’s admiration for her speaks for itself after hearing his own Ringed by a Flat Horizon later that night.

Last performed by the RCO nearly 40 years ago, Ligeti’s Double Concerto for flute, oboe, and orchestra is a succinct, densely packed, yet fluid work, perfectly tailored for Benjamin’s concise taste. Both leaders in their sections, Kersten McCall on the flute and Lucas Macías Navarro on the oboe interacted effortlessly with their orchestra. Previous performances have seen Navarro performing the Strauss Oboe Concerto and McCall entertaining in Mozart. Here in Ligeti’s work, they proved themselves a great duo.

The work consists of two movements: the tender, near-erotic Calmo, con tenerezza followed by a charming and frivolous Allegro corrente. Subtle and complex, both parts require great attention from the audience to notice the challenges for each soloist. Not in the least because in Ligeti’s score they are embedded among three flutes and three oboes of the orchestra. Unfortunately, this orchestration deceptively detracts from the hard work by the soloists, but McCall and Navarro demonstrated why they are leaders in their sections. Their unique positions as soloists and members of the orchestra puts them in a perfect position to perform Ligeti’s complex score. It requires a steady hand to punctuate the nuances within the stirring piece, and Benjamin’s strict control over the orchestra proved his strength. With utmost care, his firm tempo and clear directions elucidated the microtonal subtleties in Ligeti’s rippling and trickling scoundcape.

After the intermission, Benjamin’s earlier choice for Grime became apparent when he conducted his first orchestral work Ringed by the Flat Horizon. On a trip to New Mexico, the young composer witnessed an impressive vista of a threatening thunderstorm over the desert, which he transformed into a composition for his new style. Benjamin’s primordial and explosive soundscape initially takes some getting used, but after a few minutes the percussive threats and mysterious and sustained high notes of the wind section lead to a sense of wonder and curiosity. With the clear acoustics of the Concertgebouw and Benjamin’s crisp guidance of the RCO, both the explosive and the subtle in his work resonated throughout this performance. Ms Grime’s Everyone Sang seemed inspired by this French-rooted style.

The evening ended with a feisty soundscape in Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole. After the jarring pieces that preceded Ravel, the unsettled and perhaps exhausted audience was rewarded by a vibrant Iberian soundscape. It was an excellent choice to end the evening. The meandering “Prélude à la nuit” perfectly transitioned the programme from Benjamin’s hefty footprint into Ravel’s cheerful and exciting impressions. Under the continued strict handling of the RCO by Benjamin, the “Habanera” and “Feria” closed the concert and left the audience in a state of festive excitement.

***11