MaNOj Kamps conducted his own carte blanche concert with Cappella Amsterdam at the Muziekgebouw in Amsterdam yesterday. If anything, he can’t be accused of an excess of modesty: an inlay in the programme book stated the second paragraph of his biography wasn’t up to date. The corrected version proved to be a matter of ‘spot the differences’. From a careful perusal of the new text it appeared that A: Kamps was not only assistant conductor of the Netherlands Chamber Choir, but has conducted it himself, and B: he not only leads regular concerts, but also ‘scenic and semi-scenic’ ones. Ah, well.

MaNOj Kamps © Chantal Bekker
MaNOj Kamps
© Chantal Bekker

Kamps centred the programme on his beloved composer Claude Vivier (1948-1983), whose almost hour-long Journal for four singers, mixed choir and percussion was performed after the interval. Before the break he presented four of Vivier’s Cinq chansons pour percussion, interwoven with works from Olivier Messiaen (Jesus, erbarme Dich and Oh sacrum convivium) and Pascal Dusapin (Umbrae mortis). Being a Sri Lankan living in the Netherlands, Kamps recognizes a kindred spirit in Vivier, who was born in Montreal but was adopted without ever getting to know his parents. The Canadian composer longed for love and a secure home all his life. He eventually found (or rather created) these in his compositions, which are inspired by Asian music. Often he uses a self-designed nonsense language.

Vivier studied in Canada (with Gilles Tremblay), Cologne (with Karlheinz Stockhausen) and the Netherlands (at the Institute of Technology in Utrecht). More importantly, he undertook a journey through Asia in 1976, spending time in Japan, Bali and Iran. This experience was the catalyst for the development of his musical style, that shows a preference for the human voice, Asian percussion instruments and a preoccupation with death. One of the first works in this new style was the four part Journal (1977), based on texts from Lewis Carroll, the Bible, Novalis and Vivier himself. 

Kamps places the percussionist (Vitaly Medvedev) centre stage, the female and male choirs standing on his right and left hand side. The percussionist functions as a kind of high priest, marking the different sections – Childhood – Love – Death – After Death – with subtle, spatial sounds from Thai gongs, Balinese bonangs (kettle gongs), Japanese singing bowls and tubular bells. The singers make a solemn bow before each new episode, thus strengthening the atmosphere of a sacred ritual.

Typically, Vivier offers us a wide variety of vocal techniques in Journal. “Childhood” is based on a fragment from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The singers chatter happily like excited children, modifying their sounds by waving their hands in front of their mouths Indian style. In “Love” the solo soprano sings stretched, rising glissandi on the names of love couples such as Romeo and Juliet, and Tristan and Isolde. The female choir produces evocative sighs, the male choir sings dissonant drones. This evolves into an orgy of drunken cat-calls and fervent hiccupping.

Cappella Amsterdam and Daniel Reuss © Anne Bonthuis
Cappella Amsterdam and Daniel Reuss
© Anne Bonthuis

In “Death” a Novalis poem on transcendence is recited to murmuring prayers evoking Gregorian chant, cut through with fierce lamentations. In “After Death” the female choir seems to lure us into the afterworld with soothing harmonies. A sudden unison seems to provide a flash-like image of heaven, and while the lights are gradually extinguished the solo tenor and soprano ecstatically decide to leave the terrestrial world.

Journal is a compelling piece, yet the singers were a trifle insecure under the somewhat inexperienced hands of MaNOj Kamps. Never actually out of tune, they didn’t display the overwhelming command with which they tackled Krenek’s Lamentatio Jeremiae prophetae in March 2014 under chief conductor Daniel Reuss. The same lack of confidence was heard before the interval. Many entries were slightly out of sync, nor did Kamps manage to mould the choir into its famed homogeneous sound.

The programme may have been a trifle too ambitious for this young conductor, but is wonderfully coherent and convincing. With a little more training and experience, Kamps may develop into a conductor that can rise to the level of his mentor Reuss.