Since its foundation in 1981, Nieuw Ensemble has worked together closely with composers. Not only because the musicians consider it important to explore new grounds, but also because there was – and is – no standard repertoire for its unorthodox line-up. Instruments such as mandolin, guitar and harp are seldom featured as a matter of course in one ensemble. It was therefore quite refreshing that in its programme An Evening of Today Nieuw Ensemble offered seven young composers from as many different countries a platform to present their works. Apart from composer–conductor Yoshiaki Onishi, all of them studied in the Netherlands.

Nieuw Ensemble © Kadir van Lohuizen
Nieuw Ensemble
© Kadir van Lohuizen

The young artists responded enthusiastically to Nieuw Ensemble’s encouragement to think outside the box. Thus the 250 visitors were treated to music even before the concert started: in Streets the Uzbek Igor Iofe scattered musicians over staircases, windowsills and a cloakroom. Like a veritable Pied Piper, an ambulant percussionist playing a children’s xylophone lured us into the main hall, where we were seated in a square around the stage. One single double-bass player sat plucking at his strings, unperturbed until the other musicians entered. Jofe evoked an Asian atmosphere by pitting wistful microtonal lines from a shakuhachi and double bass recorder against wind-blown strumming from the other instruments.

The Japanese Yoshiaki Onishi presented Départ dans..., with which he won the Gaudeamus Composition Prize in 2011. Two harps are seated opposite each other, the one flanked by a viola, the other by a cello, with an oboe in the middle. Again the focus is on plucked notes, though the sounds of the harp are allowed to linger, while the oboe plays long-held multiphonics. Sometimes there’s a hint of hocketing, when the two “sides” quickly echo each other’s material. This dreamlike atmosphere is also predominant in Ö by the Hungarian Mátyás Wettl, who pares a crooning jazz singer with a slowly detuning guitar, whose simple melodies remind one of Kurtág’s Grabstein für Stephan.

The instruments were treated more aggressively in No. 11, by the Turkish Emre Sihan Kaleli. The harp is “attacked” by two (!) players, who not only use their fingers and hands, but also beat the strings with mallets, or scrape them with plectrums. Heavy strokes on a big drum and barking sounds from a bass clarinet get a comic effect when a trumpet player pops out from a door, blasting one single fanfare before retreating again.

DTMF (Dual-Toil Multi-Frequent) by the Mexican Felipe Ignacio Noriega is an enticing music-theatre piece, based on the musical possibilities of old-fashioned telephones. The audience were placed around the performers, acting as – standing – witnesses in an instalment of Crime Scene Investigation. A lady is found apparently dead, her limbs awkwardly positioned over carpet and couch, a telephone ringing endlessly on a side table. She shortly comes to life, makes angry phone calls accompanied by frantic outbursts from (bass) clarinet, mandolin and guitar. In the end the “investigators” place her in her original position and leave the stage.

Also remarkable were the two pieces of “visual music” by the Dutch Flora Koene, Terri and Charlie. She manipulates video shots of her own body and makes them resemble a beating heart or a speaking mouth. An interesting idea, yet the rhythmic and visual effects were rather meagre. The most interesting piece was Mobile and Sculpture by the Australian-Dutch Kate Moore, in which wispy, long-held notes interweave with ethereal strumming. Moore cleverly builds up the tension by creating more and more different rhythmical layers and increasing the general speed of the action. At the golden section a mobile of porcelain shells is made to move by a fan. Its irregular tinkling mixes beautifully with the other instruments, and the image is very poetic.

We can’t thank the Nieuw Ensemble enough for providing a stage for these young explorers. An Evening of Today once more makes one grind one’s teeth at the decision of Fonds Podiumkunsten to deprive this adventurous ensemble of its funding. Let’s hope they will reconsider in the next round. The musicians, the composers, and the audience deserve it!

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