Saturday, 6 May 2017

Orkestival 2017: back to the Concertgebouw

I was delighted to be asked back to serve on the jury of this annual Dutch school orchestras festival - only nominally a competition - and as chairman, no less. Slightly overparted, I feel, as my colleagues this year were not only, once again, the brilliant violinist Jeroen de Groot - how brilliant has become clearer in the interim from hearing his Bach CDs - but also two other high-level instrumentalists: international cellist Larissa Groeneveld, whose disc of Zemlinsky, von Brucken Fock (no, me neither) and Dohnányi with pianist Frank van de Laar I look forward to hearing, and Royal Concertgebouw trombonist Nico Schippers, who also rewarded me with two splendid discs featuring the orchestra's brass ensemble.

We were very happy to be joined in our backstage discussions by the genial and obviously very hard-working Gerda Hoekstra, director of the Stichting het Zelfstandig Gymnasium. The title should explain that though the Netherlands is without what we'd call public or private schools, in national terms at any rate, the participants drawn from the 40 top schools tend to be among the high achievers. The mix consequently isn't that representative of multi-kulti Holland. Well, that's the way it is, being under such auspices at any rate. The musical standard, even so, varies, as do the types of ensembles featured. I set most of this up in last year's account, so, with a preliminary shot of myself with (left to right) Gerda, Larissa, Nico and Jeroen,

let's follow the same format I used in 2016 and give what I hope will be helpful notes about each of the orchestras. We actually did this between the three of us in the summing-up speeches up, but as that was divided, these are my personal opinions - though we were mostly in agreement. Not least about the clear winner, which has to come first -

Aulos, Praedinius Gymnasium, Groningen And what a difference a year makes. In 2016 they were, to be honest, the least inspired of the bunch - though the most charming afterwards, when they asked me about their Handel 'if we had let off real fireworks, would we have got more points?' To which I answered with that assumed sagacity of someone appointed judge, 'the point is to put more fireworks in your playing'. Last year's messages about communication - with the proviso I made this year, that I know it's difficult to show you're enjoying yourselves if you have to concentrate on playing the notes - seem to have paid off. Aulos's programme was perfect. It started with an ideal novelty act, Leroy Anderson's The Typewriter (why aren't more of this witty tunesmith's pieces played by youth orchestras?) A boy who was clearly a born actor operated an invention which neither he nor any of his contemporaries are likely to have used before (I stopped using my electric typewriter in 1986). Another rang the bell. The cross rhythms and hiccoughs aren't easy, but they all did it perfectly. Then there was a really lovely piece composed by the horn-player, Danl Apol, who I snapped in the finale (that's him on the left below).

Not only was Apol's Romance a gem, but we also suddenly heard real phrasing - not common in Orkestival. Full marks to the music teacher/conductor, Jorien Elout. She also had the inspired idea of bringing in players from the other orchestra in that segment of the day, Mercator et Musica from the splendid town of 's-Hertogenbosch - more on them below - in a wittily compiled fantasia on Bizet's Carmen by Eijk Suzuki: unexpected, concise and taking a leaf out of Shchedrin's Carmen ballet in its use of tuned percussion. So all told, a winning formula: wit, lyricism, originality, panache and collegiality.

Taking the rest chronologically, let's go back to the beginning with Group 1, kicking off with Coornhert Gymnasium, Gouda. The teacher needed to conduct with a bit more spirit, and it was a shame the lively percussion used in an Abba medley weren't engaged for the Radetzky March. The revelation here was 17-year-old soprano Annecke de Hoop singing Pamina's 'Ach,ich fühl's' from Die Zauberflöte. A polished technique already, though the pace should have been set faster for her and while I know the conductor had to keep his eye on his players, once he realised his singer was likely to come in early or late, he needed to cue here. But no doubt about it, she was the individual standout of the day. Unfortunately Coornhert outstayed their time and welcome - should have dropped the Grease selection; 'Dancing Queen' had already left us happy enough.

Murmellius Gymnasium, Alkmaar made a mistake by starting with Fauré's Pavane, and those loud string passages in the middle are really tricky. Again it was the teacher's job to set it flowing, and to hell with the wrong notes. Can't say I remember much about the other two pieces. They seem to have lost the inspirational music master who helped them to win the 'promising' category last year with a clapping piece.

Vossius Gymnasium, Amsterdam always has the biggest advantage in terms of size and training; they gave the strongest purely classical programme last year and had won several times before that. Coen Stuit got a terrific performance from them, overall the most polished, of songs and dances (not the symphonic ones) from Bernstein's West Side Story. Quite an impressive string sound here, I think you'll agree, since Vossius has been quick off the mark to put up a film on YouTube (not in the same league as the professional one excerpted for the Ode to Joy below, which I think covered everything, but this will do).

Less good was Haydn's Overture to Lo Speziale: much too heavy for an curtainraiser to an opera buffa. But still, an ambitious choice. And wonderful to watch the enthusiasm not just in performing but also in reacting when he wasn't playing of timpanist Omar Beganovic - I think I've got the right name there, but in summing up I simple called him 'cool dude'. That's him on the drumkit for the Bernstein.

Group 2 Aulos followed Mercator et Musica, Stedelijk Gymnasium, 's-Hertogenbosch. They could have done with more contrast, and the repetitive theme of Jacob de Haan's Concerto d'amore was really rather boring. There were some fine solos in Alexis Ciesla's Balkan Groove, though, even if not enough was made of the groove itself.  M&M can also share part of the prize, too, for fielding soloists in Aulos's Carmen selection.

A quick lunch in the Concertgebouw canteen, staffed by extremely pleasant people - as is the entire hall.

Group 3 Euterpe, Stedelijk Gymnasium, Arnhem fielded a star treble last year, and a good one this year, giving us the novelty of a boy as Mozart's Cherubino with 'Voi che sapete' from Le nozze di Figaro. Sang it accurately but - big ask - needed to express something of what it was about. Otherwise, a very impressive programme began superbly with Corelli's Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 8. The first violinist had professional poise, and there was a real surprise when we heard the solo tone of the young lad sitting next to her: beautiful (if I'm not mistaken this is the same who sang so amazingly as last year's star soloist, Casper Jeukendrup). Quite enjoyed Tijuana Taxi but the awkwardly filleted Capriccio Espagnol didn't have a hint of elan. In the only slight lack of agreement between us jury members, the decision was taken to give the runner-up prize to Euterpe, but as I understood it was really supposed to be for the group who showed the biggest promise, I would have unhesitatingly have given it to

Panta Musica, Johan de Wit Gymnasium, Dordrecht Last year they began virtually from scratch with a charming, oddball ensemble. How it had grown this time, enough for them to begin with a clever guide to the orchestral departments in carefully chosen snippets. And what I loved best about their engaging Dudamelesque mentor-conductor Saul de Caluwé was that he went not for a David Stone-style 'classics for schools' arrangement but the WHOLE of Saint-Saëns's Danse Macabre which, even if it was almost beyond their abilities, the group got through intact.Always happy to hear any version of Piazzolla's Libertango too.

Gymnasium Haganum, The Hague had another would-be charmer in charge, but I never quite worked out what Piet Raphael was playing at, gurning occasionally when he would have done better to keep his eye on the ball. The teacher should never become the centre of attention. And they deserved better. But we all enjoyed a 'Hey Jude' singalong at the end.

The poster, by the way, is also the result of a competition - the winning entry is by Eva Versteeg from Gymnasium Haganum. The theme - maybe it was made clear by presenters Adda van Zanden and Rikkert van Huisstede, but my Dutch isn't up to it - was 'Met een Twist', 'With a Twist', that apparently also having the connotation in the language of strife or conflict. Which some orchestras carried through, others seemingly didn't.

Group 4 Gymnasium Celeanum, Zwolle introduced a novelty in the form of bagpiper Cees Scholten, but as he wasn't one of the kids, the effect was slightly marred (and the orchestra only got to join in briefly). Good to see that the dayglo pitched thwackies known as 'boomwhackers' made a special appearance for a more aptly novel treatment of the James Bond theme. Personally I rather liked the Muppet Show tune to end, though my colleagues were a bit sniffier about it.

Big Band Stedelijk Gymnasium, Nijmegen still needed a bit more swing, as we noted last year. There was a rather interesting kid who made impressive sound effects, but the amplification went awry again for the talented vocalists. The mikes need testing, if it's possible, so that they don't scupper good intentions.

Last but certainly not least, last year's winners Christelijk Gymnasium Beyers Naudé, Leeuwarden. Even if Aulos hadn't come up with such a brilliant trio of entertainments our champions wouldn't have cut it this year simply because their programme was lacking in variety. But now that the red-headed violinist who made such an impression last year has moved on, all eyes were on Jorn Stavenga, the trumpeter who was the true leader, capping a brass sound that's absolutely gorgeous to hear (trombones shone at one point). For that we have the brass band tradition in Friesland - where nearly everyone, it seems, is blond - to thank. She spoke to me afterwards to thank me for last year, I returned the compliment for this one. Very focused, is going on to study conducting, and I'm sure she'll do well.

Final break, quick summing-up backstage and then on for the grand finale. First came the results of inspirational Mirjam van Dam's group voice coaching. They'd only allocated half an hour for the whole thing, but I still insisted that we all got to speak to give encouragement to each group. Got applause for starting with a bit of Dutch, but it all went a bit quiet when I said how good it was to be back just after the Dutch people had made the right choice in the election. Maybe you don't raise politics, but there was an important link to be made between Coen's choice of the Ode to Joy aka the European Anthem - we will be standing for it at the Europe Day concert on 9 May - and the pride we feel in being united in Europe against populist bigots like Wilders.

From then on it all went swimmingly, until I was so flustered by being pinched - I kid you not - to get on with it (I wasn't rambling, but I was determined to make the points I'd intended) that at first I announced the wrong winner. Pure Oscars moment; I think it was taken in the right spirit. Confusion absolved, there were more speeches, and then Coen conducted the Beethoven. Kudos to the superior film work here.

He's planning a Brexit concert with ironic takes on various pieces - The Lark Ascending is the UK flying away, though as a passionate fellow-European he certainly doesn't think that's a good thing.

We retired to the very characterful bar behind the Concertgebouw. Nico told me it's the favourite haunt of the brass and many of the older players - the younger ones tend to go round the corner. Anyway, the sun shone in the midst of a cold snap, we sat out, my hosts Machteld and Nick (centre back; sorry the sun has all but obliterated Coen's face) turned up along with Adda (second from the left), we moved into the shelter,

Rikkert and Adda's co-organiser Jitske joined us,  and a select party went off for supper since this time there wasn't a concert in the evening. A happy day, fired up by youthful enthusiasm and dedication. I took away a lovely bunch of tulips, but assuming they wouldn't get through airport security the following day, left them with my hosts after our lunch at Keukenhof Manor.

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