For an audience of some 80 people, the Dutch Leo Smitstichting (Leo Smit Foundation) and the Serbian ensemble Barka paid homage to new music pioneer Jan Wolff (1941–2012). It was their first co-production and the programme offered a mix of works by Dutch Jewish composers who perished in World War II and Serbian composers who lived during the regime of Josip Broz Tito, the “benevolent dictator” of former Yugoslavia. As is their wont, the two ensembles also presented music by living composers, featuring a work by Sylvia Maessen, written in honour of Jan Wolff: Resilience.

Borislav Čičovački
Borislav Čičovački
Wolff was an indefatigable champion of new music, who founded the Ysbreker in 1980, the first venue in the world to focus entirely on (mainly) living composers. In spite of a cramped hall and dreadful acoustics, he managed to find an audience for music the general public despised. It was his fervent belief in the avant-garde, complex works of composers such as Stockhausen, Xenakis, Boulez and Ferneyhough that tipped the scales. Not only did he convince the audience there was more to this music than mere “plink-plonk”, but he also got the support of the Dutch government and the Amsterdam city council. In 2005 Amsterdam built the prestigious Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ, for which Wolff had bargained for over 20 years.

In view of his enormous merits and recent demise, it’s sad to learn that an attempt at crowdfunding the concert failed, a sign of the times, for society doesn’t seem to cherish the arts anymore. Fortunately Leo Smitstichting and Barka found money elsewhere. By not giving up, artistic leaders Eleonore Pameijer and Borislav Čičovački showed the spunk and perseverance that was so characteristic of Wolff. Also, they both explore music by forgotten or disregarded composers, and have an open eye for the needs of living ones.

When the Yugoslav wars commenced in the early 90s, Wolff welcomed the Serbian oboist Čičovački and his arts foundation Barka to the Ysbreker, enabling Serbian culture to flourish in the Netherlands. Composers such as Isidora Žebeljan and Ljubica Marić have almost become household names; less well-known are Dušan Radić and Draško Adžić. Žebeljan’s Simon and Anne for English horn and piano (also receiving its first performance) was very exciting, with whirling oboe themes and jittery piano chords played at death-trap speed.

Maessen’s Resilience for flute, oboe, accordion and piano contained some memorable themes for flute and oboe, but turned out to be a collection of duets rather than a proper quartet. Chiel Meijering evoked a pastoral atmosphere by pitting dissonant chords from the accordion against languishing oboe melodies. The jumpy, Groupe des Six-like music by Jewish composers Leo Smit and Ignace Lilien was echoed by the folklike tunes of Dušan Radić. They found a welcome contrast in Marić’s darkly mesmerizing Song for the Flute – pity it only lasted two minutes.