The Koorbiënnale in Haarlem is a biannual festival, organized for the sixth time this year. The opening night consisted of four exciting modern pieces and the world premiere of a new work by the Latvian composer Ēriks Eŝenvalds. The first piece played was Daan Manneke’s Topos for chorus and harmonium. It is a song cycle set to four poems by Arthur Rimbaud. The singers have a different position on stage for each song, and although the moving around may seem unnecessarily distracting, the different positions actually did create wonderful effects. The harmonium seemed almost expendable, the melodies and harmonies of the vocals were so incredibly beautiful. Daan Manneke is often called a ‘bandmaster of space’, an appropriate name because his utilization of space and his creation of space with music are of very high quality.

Nederlands Kamerkoor © Geek Zwetsloot
Nederlands Kamerkoor
© Geek Zwetsloot

Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel is probably the most famous piece played tonight. It was written in 1971 as a homage to Mark Rothko, to be performed in the chapel he decorated. The music is very calm and serene, perhaps unlike much of Rothko’s art, but there were plenty of commonalities as well, especially the vast images the music created and its inescapable eeriness. The viola is absolutely pivotal to the piece, it is the guiding light in the slight build-up of the music and makes the work sound even more emotionally charged. The chorus has no words to sing, illustrating that sometimes words really are not needed to portray emotions. Tonight’s performance was beautiful, but one cannot help but wonder that a quiet piece like Rothko Chapel deserves a smaller space to be performed in, as opposed to a large concert hall full of shuffling people.

The only instrumental work of the evening was the world premier of Ēriks Eŝenvalds’ Moon Dogs. It starts off with a percussionist almost stroking a gong, setting the scene for a work of incredible atmospheric intensity. There are many quirks, many of them effective – playing the strings of the piano with a chain, which created an almost harpsichord-like sound, the positioning of a flute playing Stravinskean melodies on the balcony, those melodies soaring over the rest of the music – and some less so – such as the many players whirling their fingers around the edges of bowls with water. Overall the music was very fairytale-like, with joyful scenes but also loud, almost cacophonic music that could easily be the soundtrack to a chase scene in a movie.

Gubaidulina’s Jetzt immer Schnee is, like Topos, a song cycle for chorus and chamber ensemble, based around five poems by Gennadi Ali. In this work Gubaidulina utilizes the space of a concert hall in the most effective way I have ever seen. It started off with seven female singers positioned throughout the concert hall, each one of them singing a different melody which was in turn different from the melodies sung by the singer on stage. This created a canon-like effect in incredible surround-sound. In song V, several musicians playing the musical saw stood at these same places. Although unlike anything I’ve heard before in many ways, Jetz immer Schnee still sounds like a Russian piece; it has familiar bombastic moments and an overall, dark, depressing feeling. The poems speak of snow, of vast landscapes, of purity and of fear, all themes that the music portrays just as effectively.

The singers of the Nederlands Kamerkoor were more than up to the challenge the three vocal works provided them with tonight. Reinbert de Leeuw and the Asko Schönberg, a true national treasure, managed to make all the music comprehensible, while still emphasizing the nuances, dissonances and quirks that made all four pieces so extraordinary. This opening night of Haarlem’s Koorbiënnale was filled with innovative, passionate music, a true feast for the ears.