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Cello Biennale full of highlights: 'Cellists are just nice people'

It no longer hums, buzzes, sings, saws and buzzes in the Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ. The cello caravan has left. The sixth edition of the Cello Biënnale Amsterdam is over, leaving thousands of cello and music fans with a feeling of emptiness. Nowhere else does such an amazing cello festival take place in ten days, where audiences can indulge in music and musical theatre of all styles, performed by top musicians from all over the world, from early morning to late into the night.

In the words of artistic director Maarten Mostert, himself the prototype of a convivial cellist and always in for relativising jokes: 'Cellists are playing better, faster, louder and more virtuoso all the time. And more and more people are coming to listen to them. Who would ever have dared to dream that with this edition we would once again surpass the record number of visitors of 2014!'

Open mind

Credit where credit is due. The Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ would never have existed without the late Jan Wolff, who gave the then cello-student Mostert an idea in the 1980s with his horn and viola weeks in the IJsbreker. And without the Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ, where Mostert's first major international music festival ten years ago, the Cello Biennale would never have become such a roaring success. Guts, imagination and a open mind typify Mostert's approach: his festival is for everyone who loves music and cello. And as long as music is played with passion and skill, cellists, composers and other musicians from all walks of life and musical directions are welcome at his biennial, which offers audiences unprecedented musical variety in ever-surprising programming.

In the words of cellist Nicolas Altstaedt, whose hypnotic performance of Tout un Monde Lointain by Henri Dutilleux with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Joshua Weilerstein made a smashing impression: 'The special thing about this festival is the encounter with the artists. There is an atmosphere and explosive energy, which is lacking at regular concerts. There you come to play in the evening and then you leave again. That's quite lonely and anonymous. Here, it's like all the musicians become children again for a while. We are all in the same boat and cellists are just nice people'.

'At the Cello Biennale, it's not about competition. Everything is about inspiration and everyone wants to contribute to that. That also changes interpretations, in a very positive way. All those fantastic colleagues find each other in their enthusiasm for the music, even though they play so differently. That's very special and the audience feels that spontaneously.' With his instinctive and impulsive approach to Dutilleux, Altstaedt himself turned into a kind of musical Gurdjieff, sucking listeners into a spiritual séance in which the spirit of Dutilleux was demonically evoked.

Winners Cello Competition

Nevertheless, the Cello Biennale once again offered young cellists the opportunity to compete with each other. That happened at the 2016 National Cello Competition, which was won by Alexander Warenberg. This 18-year-old cellist came through with his masterful rendition of the Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat, op. 107 of Shostakovich to lead the way. He showed impressive instrumental mastery, lived-in musicality and audible experience in working with orchestra. This also earned him the Audience Award.

Anastasia Feruleva, who had greatly impressed in the preliminaries with her mature and utterly individual musical personality, was hardly inferior to Warenberg. She deservedly won the Second Prize and also the Prize for the best interpretation of Rob Zuidam's compulsory commission composition. The Third Prize went to the solidly musical Jobine Siekman and 'young dog' Kalle de Bie received both the Aanmoedigingsprijs and the Start in Splendor Prize.


That there is no shortage of cello talent in 2016 could be heard during the many master classes, where other music students and amateur musicians could also learn a lot. Anner Bijlsma couldn't stop talking about the psychology of the up and down stroke in the Cello suites by Bach. Jelena Ocic motherly made it clear to her students that a musical phrase only comes across when you believe in it completely yourself. Altstaedt pointed out the importance of intuition and empathy to connect with the flow of the music. Julian Steckel, while asking questions, tried to stimulate students to be more imaginative, curious and understanding of the score. Jean-Guihen Queyras analysed with humour and perspicacity what was lacking musically and technically in the performances during his master class.

Jelena Ocic gives master class
Jelena Ocic gives master class

For the audience, this provided life lessons again and again. Music, too, is all about stories. A score is like the skeleton of a house, whose shape, style and playing space are determined to a certain extent. But the colours and fabrics used to decorate that house ultimately always also testify to the taste and unique personality of the performing musician. The latter has to ponder and live through his or her story in every detail in order to become, in his or her own way, a master storyteller.

Heaven and hell on the cello

Apart from the musical acting talent of the cellists, this edition featured The Acting Cello (the cello as actor) at the centre of several musical theatre productions. Most remarkable was the brilliant 'translation' of Bulgakov's masterpiece The Master and Margarita by van Dagmar Slagmolen and students of the Amsterdam Conservatory of Music, with the young top talents Kian Soltani and Maya Fridman in the cello-playing lead roles. In this special performance, evil took possession of the city to sounds by composers as diverse as Gordon, Tanaka, Schnittke, Tavener, Apreleva, Giannakopoulou, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and many others, complemented by theatrically terrifying Live electronics by Leonardo Grimaudo and Xavier Boot.

The hall was also invariably full for 'the cello as actor', even for a late-night concert at the Bimhuis as POE: The Tell-Tale Heart, in which soprano Claron McFadden, cellist Jörg Brinkmann and the Atvark Saxophone Quartet, directed by Sjaron Minailo, gave the audience goosebumps well into the night with the ominous tale of an old man's slow and coldly plotted murder.

Perhaps the very best concert of the Cello Biennale was the programme Heavenly Fire, in which 10 cellos, in magnificent ensemble with Capella Amsterdam led by Daniel Reuss, played the Requiem of Fauré performed. They were preceded by moving and highly atmospheric renditions of Grigorajeva's Prayer for cello and mixed choir, Ratniece's Fuco Celeste and Esenvalds In Paradisum[hints]during which, from the balcony, Saeko Oguma's beautiful viola playing also descended on the cello dance[/hints] with a different cellist in the lead role each time. This further underlined the fact that a chamber choir with so many special qualities like Capella Amsterdam can't possibly be thrown off the table by turning off the subsidy tap.


The 12 cellists of the Berliner Philharmoniker set the hall ablaze with their well-oiled cello machinery in works from Bach to Meijering and Piazolla, while cellists Alisa Weilerstein and Alexander Rudin captured the soloist imagination in Walton's Cello Concerto and Cello Concerto No. 2 in g, op. 126 by Shotakovich with the Residentie Orkest conducted by Nicholas Collon. Spectacular too was the world premiere of Nomads, composed by Joël Bons for cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and the Atlas Ensemble conducted by Ed Spanjaard, complemented by a selection of exotic instruments from around the world, played virtuosically by authentic musicians from Azerbaijan, Turkey, India, Iran and China.

In Bons' words, "In fact, you only have two ways to deal with big problems like the refugee issue. You can choose between excluding or embracing. In this music, I have done the latter.' These are just a few examples from a series of mere highlights, which ended last night in a witty 'cello potpourri' on the final concert Cello Coupé.


As always, the cello festival was once again surrounded by a host of bow makers, instrument makers, music publishers and CD sellers in the hall of the Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ. In the Glass cabin (amateur) cellists could try out new instruments and cellist Gregor Horsch showcased in the programme Sticks How different sticks on the same instrument and with exactly the same notes can elicit a completely different sound.

In the corridors, festival-goers frequently discussed their opinions about the cellists and concerts listened to with unprecedented commitment. This included topics such as the difference in the leg positions of the performing cellists. To give a few examples: Antonio Meneses gently lets his right leg creep up along the curves of the cello at most intense musical moments, Nicolas Altstaedt constantly moves not only his legs but also his whole body while playing as if he were unorthodoxly riding a thoroughbred, and Alisa Weilenstein forms such an organic unity with her cello that there seems to be only one body.

The completely different performances of Bach's 6 Cello suites - Gregor Horsch represented the good taste and integrity of the right middle, Julian Steckel proved to be the most inventive and adventurous among modern Bach interpreters-provided rewarding daily talking points. The most fanatical adherents of Baroque interpretation proved quite willing to water down for the sake of more romantic Bach approaches. In times of buttons, IPhones and computers, people quickly think they know everything and can do everything, but in music things are very different. There, as the past ten days in the Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ once again made clear, one has to work hard and lifelong to learn to speak the subtle and universal language of music at the highest level. Thus, the biennial Cello Biennale contributes in all respects to communication, to knowledge of music as a universal language and, above all, to artistic, moral and political fraternisation.

Good to know

Info: & Biennial TV on Youtube 


Wenneke Savenije

Wenneke Savenije studied Dutch and viola. She writes reviews and interviews for NRC Handelsblad (1985-2012) and numerous music magazines, and travel reports and other stories for magazines. She published 'Over Mozart Gesproken', a biography on Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, and a book on Jascha Heifetz. Together with Elger Niels, she is editor-in-chief of music magazine De Nieuwe Muze. With pianist Marietta Petkova, she published Der Dichter spricht. In 2008, she translated From East to West, the autobiography of Chinese piano virtuoso Lang Lang, and in 2011 Strijdlied van de Tijgermoeder by Amy Chua. With pianist Marietta Petkova, she published Der Dichter spricht. In 2008, she translated From East to West, the autobiography of Chinese piano virtuoso Lang Lang.View Author posts

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