Utrecht has endured a long wait for its new concert hall complex, Tivoli Vredenburg. The official opening is still a few months away but we were afforded a sneak preview on Saturday evening in one of the smaller halls aptly named Hertz, a play on words combining the musical term for pitch and Vredenburg’s famed architect, Herman Hertzberger. Entering the complex is overwhelming: large open spaces and long, silver escalators – you might think you had wandered into a Swiss airport. In contrast, Hertz is warm and intimate. Wood lined walls and straight backed dark grey seating is welcoming and comfortable. There are two, steep balconies which, together with the semi-circular staging, bring the musicians quite close to their public. But how does it sound? In a word: wonderful! As policy has dictated for the new complex, all manner of repertoire will be programmed here so more testing has been scheduled to make sure that music other than the contemporary ensemble pieces we heard will also work well in Hertz.

Harrison Birtwistle © Hanya Chala
Harrison Birtwistle
© Hanya Chala

The honour of performing the hall’s first concert was appropriately afforded to Insomnio, a local ensemble for contemporary repertoire led by Ulrich Pöhl. Entitled Happy Birthday Harry, two Birtwistle works (Silbury Air and Secret Theatre) framed a new percussion concerto by Dutchman Robin de Raaff and The Parliament of Angels by James Wood.

De Raaff’s concerto is an intelligent and well-constructed piece: it inspires a committed conversation between soloist and ensemble players. However, it does need a true soloist and this performance was given by one of Insomnio’s own, Diego Espinosa. Certainly a good instrumentalist, Espinosa’s solo lines lacked the personality of a true, experienced soloist, someone accustomed to taking the lead, risks and limelight.

Pöhl has an organic conducting style and is a trusted captain of his ensemble. There are fine players involved, some finer than others. Birtwistle’s complexities were handled well by all, but were at the same time clearly hard work from start to finish. The performances never truly transcended the score. The acoustic in the hall was the true star. The future looks extremely bright for programming classic 20th century repertoire here (and as the hall is suspended above ground and well separated from the others, one could imagine this becoming prime recording ground).

Highpoint of the evening was, ironically, outside the hall. There, Insomnio performed James Wood’s The Parliament of Angels for 18 instruments (1995) at the heart of the new complex, where bars and merchandizing stalls are flexible to accommodate the complete range of repertoire Tivoli Vredenburg will present. We sat on steps and gazed down upon the ensemble (admittedly with wine glass in hand). Wood’s instrumentation, surprising registers and lines, and especially his sound effects (church bells chiming) was perfectly placed: we could hear church tower bells inside as we could looked out over Utrecht’s skyline including, of course, its famous carillons and bells.

Giving stars to reviews can be tricky business; performances are rarely on just one level from start to finish. For the new Hertz hall in Utrecht however, this is easy. It’s a five star for sure.

***11