Last night’s much anticipated Rotterdam Philharmonic concert in Utrecht brought together an eclectic mix of artists: Daniil Trifonov, who is arguably one of the most exciting young pianists in the world today; André de Ridder, a conductor known for his work with pop icon Damian Albarn; American composer and DJ Mason Bates; and Joey Roukens, the popular Dutch composer who draws inspiration from not only classical music, but also pop, jazz and non-western music.  With a European and a world premiere on the bill, it was not your usual night at out at a classical music concert.

The Rotterdam Philharmonic in TivoliVredenburg
© Eduardus Lee

The evening opened with Barber's Adagio for Strings, the first note emerging from the silence like the sun rising on a misty morn, and a wonderful showcase for this finest of string sections led by Marieke Blankestijn. I loved the strong lyrical line in the violas, answered with understated pathos by the cellos. De Ridder allowed the orchestra to open their hearts and just play – it almost felt as if they were cleansing the world of all its ills and leaving hope in its wake.

Mason Bates' Piano Concerto, premiered earlier this year by the Philadelphia Orchestra, set the scene with sustained violin harmonics before the orchestra burst forth into an American/Irish folk sound world with highly syncopated drum rhythms, folk harmonies and banjo-like pizzicato strings. Trifonov played with the greatest of ease while the Wild West of cross rhythms and contrasting textures whirled around him. A fabulous contrabassoon entry gradually built towards a slightly underwhelming trumpet fanfare. Their best was yet to come.

Daniil Trifonov
© Eduardus Lee

The second movement carried us to a magical world, an ethereal world held together by two piano accordion-sounding back desk second violins playing divisi harmonics. A wonderfully rich French horn solo accompanied by marimba and chimes leading to muted tuba and trombone restored our faith in the brass. Swells in dynamics and colour in the orchestral sound left the audience transfixed as Trifonov continued to make everything look so effortless.

In the third movement however, de Ridder's rather relaxed conducting style meant that the orchestra struggled to find a musical line amongst all the repetitive layers of highly syncopated rhythms. A more lyrical moment from the piano re-established calm and musical phrasing with feather-like figures, cascading like rain. This was the most technically demanding movement as the music leapt from one end of the piano to the other in a quite dramatic fashion. 

André de Ridder
© Eduardus Lee

The concert closed with the highly anticipated premiere of Roukens' First Symphony of which the sophisticated third movement, entitled Night Flight, was already familiar to the orchestra after its premiere in June at the International Conducting Competition, Rotterdam. With its fiercely syncopated rhythms, this movement requires all on stage not just to count or conduct the beats, but to feel the rhythms in every bone of their body, to find the swing, the sway and even the groove. Nevertheless, this was one of the most exciting movements in a work which is essentially a series of montages auditioning to feature in the latest David Attenborough natural history documentary. Characterised by fabulous percussion writing, a whole series of pulsating polyrhythms evoking something akin to electronic echo and reverb, and a stunningly beautiful oboe melody, we heard great walls of rich orchestral sound juxtaposed against intensely private moments. This is a symphony in the very modern sense and the audience loved it.