The five reed players of Calefax and the nineteen singers of the Nederlands Kamerkoor were loudly cheered by an almost full house in the Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ for their performance of “Far from Home”. Under the direction of the British conductor Robert Hollingworth, they’d kept the audience captivated for 75 minutes, with a varied trip through music ranging from the Renaissance to the present day. In what was dubbed a “watching-and-listening-game” singers and instrumentalists followed a strict choreography, designed by Dagmar Slagmolen, and with a lighting scheme by Floriaan Ganzevoort.

Calefax Reed Quintet © Calefax Reed Quintet
Calefax Reed Quintet
© Calefax Reed Quintet

In order to avoid any possible disturbance from an audience turning pages, the hall remained dark and the song texts weren’t handed out until after the concert. Even the stage itself was hardly lit, three vertical strip lights on either side and seven horizontal ones on eye-level providing only the merest shimmer of visibility. Some of the audience complained that the horizontal lights blinded their eyes and distracted them from taking in the music, yet the majority was delighted, as was proved by their catcalls and whistling afterward.

The theme of this theatrical concert was based on an experiment by the Dutch national radio in 1971. Two writers, Godfried Bomans and Jan Wolkers stayed on an uninhabited island consecutively, their only contact with mankind being a daily broadcast of ten minutes. Bomans was intimidated by his loneliness, hearing voices and suffering terrible anxiety, Wolkers had the time of his life, moving around the birds and the bees stark naked. Bomans died only five months after his stay, Wolkers decided to spend the rest of his life on an island.

All the music Calefax and the Nederlands Kamerkoor performed was in one way or another related to the theme – the works of Sebastian de Heredia were scattered over South-America by Jesuit monks, Steve Martland describes the world from an astronaut’s perspective in Skywalk, Ockeghem laments the death of Binchois in Mort, tu as navré, and Daniél Bjarnason’s Ek ken die nag is based on a poem by the South-African Elisabeth Eybers, who lived an isolated life in Amsterdam, pining for her homeland. The concert ended with the gospel-like Woah, Lashona by the Zulu composer Bheka Dlamini.

Nederlands Kamerkoor © Aernout Overbeeke
Nederlands Kamerkoor
© Aernout Overbeeke

Director Dagmar Slagmolen dressed all the performers in black coats and bowler hats, thus stressing their lack of individuality: suffering is universal. The singers clutched dilapidated suitcases, moved in groups, and turned their backs on us when Calefax was playing. The sombre staging strongly evoked an atmosphere of Jews being put on transport to the destruction camps. Therefore it was almost shocking when Calefax suddenly burst into the jaunty Fuera, fuera! by Roque de Cahavarriá, and when the choir started swinging on the traditional African songs of Amavolovolo & Meadowlands.

The evening was strictly organized, with a constantly changing interaction between instrumentalists and singers. The pace was high, yet towards the end some inexplicable gaps halted the flow. Calefax performed at top level as ever, playing both the early music and the more jazzy and improvised parts with perfect intonation and the right feel. The Nederlands Kamerkoor kept track admirably, yet didn’t quite live up to its former reputation as to homogeneity in sound, and rhythmic perfection.

In the world première of Ek ken die nag by the Icelandic composer Daniél Bjarnason, the singers showed their affinity with contemporary music, rendering the shrieking dissonances and fortissimo yells with apparent ease and gusto. It was the most interesting piece of the evening, after which a funny act with a broom by singing conductor Hollingworth fell flat. The show ended with the Zulu song Woah Lashona, in which the choir moved down into the hall, swaying softly to the words in endless repetition, moving some of the audience to tears. Altogether it was a compelling show, that would have had even more impact without the disrupting comic interludes.