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World premieres by MacMillan and Roukens at Vredenburg's Friday

After years of concerts at the 'Red Box' on the A2, Vredenburg Friday by AVROTROS on Radio 4 returned to the centre of Utrecht last summer. The new TivoliVredenburg was built entirely around Vredenburg's former Great Hall, renowned worldwide for its fabulous acoustics. Many a tear was shed at the reopening.

With a new hall comes new music, programmer Astrid in 't Veld thought, and she asked two composers to write a new work. Both compositions will have their world premiere next. The Scottish composer James MacMillan will hold its Percussion Concerto No. 2 for baptism, in a performance by the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and British percussionist Colin Currie under the direction of James Gaffigan.

On 28 November, the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, the Great Broadcasting Choir and conductor Markus Stenz Rising Phenix from Joey Roukens, whose title refers to the Great Hall resurrected from its ashes. MacMillan wrote his concerto on the body of percussionist Colin Currie, Roukens composes for the first time for a combination of symphony orchestra and large choir.

In his music, James MacMillan (1959) strives to communicate directly with the audience, often drawing inspiration from his Catholic faith. He made his name with works such as The World's Ransoming for alto oboe and orchestra, two large-scale Passions and his first percussion concerto, Veni, Veni Emmanuel. He composed this in 1992 for British percussionist Evelyn Glennie. The monumental yet lively and varied concerto marked his international breakthrough and it has been performed over three hundred times.

MacMillan wrote his new concerto for the also British percussionist Colin Currie. MacMillan: 'I have known Colin since he was a teenager and we have performed the first percussion concerto together an awful lot. I am impressed by the conviction and commitment with which he plays my music, and know his interpretation inside out. We have become friends and when he asked me for a new percussion concerto, I seized the opportunity with both hands.'

The Scot did not want to repeat himself: 'I was looking for new ways, not only in terms of theme and structure, but also in terms of instrumentation. Colin played me a lot of percussion instruments that I did not yet know. For example, the recently developed alufone, an instrument consisting of a long tube on which aluminium caps are mounted in the arrangement of piano keys. It is somewhere between glockenspiel and vibraphone and can sound bright and metallic, but also lovely - exciting to write for such a new instrument.'

Unlike his Advent-inspired first percussion concerto, Percussion Concerto No. 2 no religious background: 'This is a completely abstract piece, based on the sound of metal percussion instruments. Besides the soloist, there are two orchestral percussionists, and together they sometimes form a trio, for instance in the beginning. Then all three of them play marimba, but in different octaves and with different material, creating a kind of meta-marimba.'

Also noteworthy is the use of a steel-drum, which often evokes associations with Surinamese music. MacMillan: 'I deliberately avoided that. The steel-drum has an unprecedented wealth of timbres and can sound very sensitive. I am mainly concerned with the latter quality, because the core of this piece is lyrical. But it's still a percussion concerto, so I also pack a lot of rhythmic punch and the soloist has to work hard. He often changes instruments quickly, so the audience sees him running back and forth across the stage. It is a spectacle not only musically, but also visually, which adds an extra dimension.' [Tweet ""James MacMillan: My Percussion Concerto No.2 is also a visual spectacle, that adds an extra dimension"]


Communication with the audience is also important for the one generation younger Joey Roukens (1982). He refuses to adhere to imposed mores and uses without any embarrassment euphonious harmonies and rousing rhythms that were "forbidden" for a long time. With great flair, he mixes all kinds of musical styles into one: from pop to jazz and from film music to Mahler or Charles Ives. His work has an infectious energy and cheerful tone. Well-known works include the children's opera Mr Finney, the orchestral work Out of control and Scenes from an Old Memory Box for ensemble.

Today's Rising Phenix is Roukens' first composition for orchestra and large choir. A godsend, he thinks: 'After all, these are two powerful monsters at your disposal, with which you can make a grand emotional gesture. Moreover, this is also the setting for a number of works from music history that are very dear to me, such as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the Symphony of Psalms by Stravinsky and Coro by Berio. James MacMillan also wrote for this combination.'

Roukens speaks with appreciation of his elder colleague: 'I like the directness of his musical language, his work is never cerebral and comes across as very intuitive to me. As a composer myself, I don't emphasise system or construction either; I feel akin to him. We both move on the plane of what I call "stylistic pluralism" - not because we can't make choices, but because we look for connections between different musical styles, which are part of our musical dna.'

With the resurrection of Vredenburg in the back of his mind, Roukens started looking for suitable lyrics: 'I soon found the poem The Building of the Temple by Victorian poet Henry Newbolt, about the rebuilding of the Temple of Solomon. I intersected those with Latin verses from Tabula emeraldina of the mythical figure Hermes Trismegistus on alchemy and hermetics. They are both about transformation.'

Rising Phenix has two parts: 'The first can be listened to as one big, gradual transformation from slow-moving, mysterious music to a vital, elated atmosphere. The second begins reflective and resigned, becoming darker in tone on words like terror, pain and doom and works towards a dissonant climax. The piece ends with a euphoric jubilation in D major and E major, to which a certain bombast is no stranger. I even wonder if it doesn't go too far, but I deliberately seek the kitsch boundary. I loved composing that musical bling-bling.'

7 November TivoliVredenburg Grote Zaal 8.15 pm: Radio Philharmonic Orchestra / James Gaffigan: James MacMillan: Percussion Concerto No. 2, world premiere
28 NovemberTivoliVredenburg Grote Zaal 8.15 pm: Radio Philharmonic Orchestra + Groot Omroepkoor / Markus Stenz: Joey Roukens: Rising Phenix, world premiere

Special promotion:
Readers of this blog get a discount on both premieres:
For the concerts on 7 and 28 November together, you pay only €45 instead of €64.
For a separate concert, you pay €25 instead of €32 
To do so, please send an e-mail with your address details to subject to 'Blog Culture Press', or call the box office 030 231 45 44

Thea Derks

Thea Derks studied English and Musicology. In 1996, she completed her studies in musicology cum laude at the University of Amsterdam. She specialises in contemporary music and in 2014 published the critically acclaimed biography 'Reinbert de Leeuw: man or melody'. Four years on, she completed 'An ox on the roof: modern music in vogevlucht', aimed especially at the interested layperson. You buy it here: In 2020, the 3rd edition of the Reinbertbio appeared,with 2 additional chapters describing the period 2014-2020. These also appeared separately as Final Chord.View Author posts

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