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A fertile repertoire landscape.

Performing arts policy greatly determines what can be seen and heard on Dutch stages. It underpins government funding of theatre and music. This policy pays a lot of attention to the quality of performances, but it hardly discusses the choice of pieces played, let alone what kind of repertoire landscape emerges from all those choices. It may be time to think more carefully about the function of repertoire choice in the performing arts, and how we treat our theatre and music heritage.

Arts and heritage

You can make a simple distinction within the cultural landscape between arts and heritage. The arts emphasise the creation of new work. Heritage focuses on making accessible and preserving previously created work. Music and theatre are often both: you have the performance that is new every night, and the text or composition that underpins it. Some pieces are centuries old (from Aeschylos to Dowland), but there is also plenty of new work being written.

Both old and new works are indispensable in the performing arts. After all, in our museums we also make space for both the master painters of the Golden Age and contemporary visual artists. For a vibrant culture, it is crucial to write new works that reflect on the present. Conversely, the canon of familiar pieces gives us insight into universal human values, and is full of beauty. Moreover, there is also a large audience for classical works. But when deciding which repertoire to play, the balance between old and new works rarely seems to be considered, and how the different choices of theatre groups and orchestras relate to each other.

One-sided repertoire landscape

As a result, those relationships can sometimes be very skewed. Look at the symphony orchestras: their task is to perform the Great Composers as well as new repertoire. In practice, most orchestras mainly play the well-known works from the canon. Performing new compositions is largely left to the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.

In theatre, I see something similar among the big companies. Among the new generation of artistic directors, Guy Weizman and Eric de Vroedt, for example, are currently giving ample attention to newly written work. But not very long ago, the bulk of major productions by city companies were based on the classics of Chekhov or Shakespeare. New Dutch texts were mostly commissioned by free producers like Hummelinck Stuurman.


I think the cultural system should safeguard both functions. It should ensure both sufficient new work and the performance of known old works. Just by explicitly naming both functions in the policy, it creates a completely different awareness of heritage and new work within the performing arts. What place do we want to give to new pieces by our composers and lyricists? Is enough happening in that area? How much space is minimally necessary for classical works?

At the moment, I am not really worried about whether there is enough Bach or Beckett being performed. It does seem right to underline that we want to keep that heritage alive and consider it important. After all, it fulfils an important and indispensable function in the landscape. Moreover, the choice of repertoire is an important part of the mutual positioning of orchestras and companies.

Since the introduction of the Basic Infrastructure, it has become customary to name certain functions that we consider essential to the cultural landscape. This is where the indispensability of heritage and new work in the performing arts could fit in just fine. Although the subsidy distribution of the Performing Arts Fund is not based on functions, it could just as easily make room for them. In the assessment criterion of 'pluralism', it could give attention to repertoire choice by default.

The Council for Culture is currently making proposals for the design of a new cultural system. This seems to me an excellent time to give the position of old and new plays and music in the performing arts the attention they deserve.

Treasury management

If we name keeping heritage alive as a function that we guarantee within the total performing arts offer, I would argue that this should immediately include a clear place for the treasury of recent Dutch work. Because when new work is presented, it usually remains a single performance. In practice, top repertoire by Dutch writers and composers of the past decades is rarely put on stage again.

Louis Andriessen's Matter is one of the most important works of recent Dutch music history. Since its world premiere in the 1980s, it has been heard only four times in a Dutch concert hall. Wonderful, all those Ibsens and Molières, but pieces by Karst Woudstra, Maria Goos, Rob de Graef or Judith Herzberg also deserve to be replayed. There is an impressive pile of compositions written for Vredenburg's Friday and Saturday Matinee. Almost always it remains at one or maybe two performances and then the work goes back into the archives. Surely there must be gems among them that can hold their own with the well-known works?

All that work, much of which has come about through investment from cultural subsidies, remains "dead capital" in this way. It doesn't get a chance to reach the canonical status of Pinter, Jellinek or Albee. That is an eternal shame.

1 thought on “Een vruchtbaar repertoirelandschap.”

  1. "I think the cultural system should safeguard both functions. It should ensure both sufficient new work and the performance of known old works."

    Agreed, and I would add that there is a third flavour, namely older works by Dutch artists (heritage, that is) that are nevertheless rarely performed. In that category, Jan van Gilse's opera Thijl cannot go unmentioned either, although a performance this summer is hard at work. Incredibly important that structural space is made for the revival of such heritage.

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Louis Reijs

Lodewijk Reijs is an independent cultural consultant on strategy and policy. In recent years, he has assisted diverse cultural institutions such as Amsterdam Arts Council, ISH, Kapok, Rast, Buma Cultuur and RRKC. He previously worked at, among others, the European Cultural Foundation and the Ministry of OCW.View Author posts

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