Sounding Alchemy, is the name of the chunky volume recently published by music publicist Maarten Brandt (1953). It has 715 pages, including illustrations and an extensive index. In 98 articles, Brandt unfolds his views on music and music programming. He dedicated the beautifully designed book to Marius Flothuis, whom he admired and who was programmer of the Concertgebouw Orchestra for many years. His heirs received a first copy during the presentation at the NTRZaterdagMatinee on 6 October.
Kees Vlaardingerbroek, artistic director of this broadcasting series wrote the ranting foreword. He praises Brandt's "unfailing sense of quality" and his "ability to speak and write about it extremely expressively". Indeed, for Brandt, music seems to be his raison d'être, on which he expresses his unvarnished opinion, solicited and unsolicited. He advised well-known conductors and orchestras and published the acclaimed Roads to Boulez, a collection of conversations with Pierre Boulez. I asked him nine questions about Sound alchemy.
Why the title 'Sound Alchemy'?
Alchemy is traditionally a spiritual direction that derives its imagery from chemistry, but whose same imagery has a strictly metaphorical meaning. One of its tenets is the conversion or transformation of base metals into precious ones. From the lowest metal - lead - into the highest: gold. These metals represent stages of consciousness. In fact, they embody a development process from a crisis situation via catharsis (cleansing) to deeper and higher insight or enlightenment.
This developmental process applies to all great art, whether it be music, literature or visual art. In my view, enlightenment is something transcendent, because it brings man into contact with something that was previously beyond his consciousness.
Now, to limit myself to musical pieces, all those works of music history that really matter, indifferently whether composed by Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven Debussy, Boulez, Carter, Stockhausen or whoever, take those who are open to them to a higher plane. Hence the title Sounding Alchemy
In many articles, you agitate against the usual programming of symphony orchestras and concert series. What do you think is wrong with that?
Actually, with some high exceptions, everything. Mainstream programming these days tends to be less and less about combinations of pieces, but about the pieces themselves. While those different combinations determine the added value of a programme. As former artistic director of the Residentie Orkest, the late Piet Veenstra, aptly put it, "If a programme consists of three works presented in the right order, the programme as a whole is in fact the fourth piece."
A fascinating confrontation of known and unknown compositions from different eras creates surprising cross-pollinations, revealing secrets that under other circumstances would never come to light. Here the old adage applies that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Many conductors and programmers think it is enough to perform, say, three masterpieces without worrying about the order in which they are played.
I remember a concert at which a world-famous conductor and ditto orchestra successively played Debussy's La Mer, Ravel's Second Suite from Daphnis et Chloé and Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps interpreted. Well, it didn't work at all. Why? Because the pieces in question had the same 'specific weight' and cancelled each other out in terms of tension.
Tribute to Marius Flothuis
You dedicated your book to Marius Flothuis. Why him?
Marius Flothuis was a very versatile man. Composer, musicologist and also professor at the Institute of Musicology at Utrecht University. And - most importantly for me - one of the best artistic directors ever. He was a true dramatist, with an ultimate high conception of the métier. Someone who pursued integral and multicoloured programming that we nowadays really only find at the NTR Saturday Matinee.
By not only the performance, but also the statements made afterwards (and in fact to this day) by the 'Nutcrackers' (with Reinbert de Leeuw preop), his legacy has become snowed under and a generation is now growing up that has absolutely no idea of Flothuis' significance. He got Hans Rosbaud to conduct unforgettable concerts with music from Beethoven to Boulez as early as the early 1960s, as did Ernest Bour afterwards. He also managed to get Haitink to perform an unprecedentedly wide repertoire, with a huge share of Dutch music.
Flothuis also brought the then young Pierre Boulez to the Netherlands, albeit at Rosbaud's instigation. At the time, Boulez had already made a name for himself as a composer and iconoclast, but hardly ever as a conductor. Under Rosbaud, the Concertgebouw Orchestra also played his music in our country for the first time, in the form of two movements from Pli selon pli.
Flothuis' programming was averse to indifferent segmentation and was typified by a seamless blending of all genres, stylistic areas, centuries and types of music. Something that is almost completely unthinkable today, again with the high exception of the Saturday Matinee.
In your opinion, the performance practice of symphonic music is under pressure. To what do you attribute this and do you see a solution?
First and foremost, of course, to political circumstances, although it is unfair to blame this on that alone. Symphony orchestras in general, with a few exceptions, have for far too long been unconcerned about their artistic legitimacy. And what is more: they have let the innovations - necessary in themselves - in the field of historicising performance practice and ensemble culture cut too much grass in front of their feet.
Again, those innovations were necessary in themselves, but at the same time this led to a segmentation of the repertoire areas and thus to numerous sub-publics: one for early music, another for classical music and yet another for contemporary music. As if these were separate worlds! Nothing could be further from the truth. Tradition is a steady development within which everything is connected to everything else. Therefore, it is basically wrong to hear only Beethoven, Kurtág, Mozart, Andriessen or Mahler on the same evening.
Which brings me back to aforementioned combinations. For what is the case? By the Sacre Is Beethoven's Seventh symphony become another piece, by Schoenberg's Erwartung we listen with new ears to Bruckner's Ninth, by Hartmanns Sixth and Seventh symphony Bach's Third Brandenburg concerto suddenly another piece, and so on and so forth. That realisation must return to the artistic leaderships of our symphony orchestras if the symphonic sector is not to fall into a death-house construct. - Which we are already not far from.
More than ever, we are prey to neo-liberal fundamentalism, with former state secretary Halbe Zijlstra as the ultimate exponent. He harboured the dogma that demand should be all-determining and that therefore only demand should be met. Whereas art, in this case classical music, in the broadest sense of the word, is precisely there to challenge people to ask questions.
Questions intrinsically rooted in the great existential problems of our existence and this far beyond the delusion of the day. In that respect, great art and therefore music touches on the transcendent, the religious (the latter not to be understood in the limited religious but broadest sense of the word, so in terms of the 'religare', connecting). Not for nothing, then, do I refer to the ideal dramatist in the epilogue of my book as a kind of pastoral caregiver.
Classical music in general actually seems to be flourishing, given the numerous new festivals and concert series. And a TV programme like Podium Witteman is extremely popular.
What is flourishing? Yes, famous works are in the spotlight, but through a presentation that can rightly be called populist. I remember like yesterday an interview by Witteman with Ed Spanjaard about Boulez. In the previous interview, he had praised Shostakovich because, unlike Boulez, he wrote music that was easy on the ear.
Classical music as entertainment
That tone, that tendentiousness, that absolute hostility towards anything of anything appeals to the listener to make an effort! I hate that. It's a tendency that goes so far that even those classical music programmes essentially boil down to little more than mere entertainment.
In saying this, I am by no means implying that it would not be a good thing to make difficult subjects like Boulez, Andriessen, Schoenberg, Lutoslawski and you name it accessible, but that is different from making the subject suspicious not to say ridiculous. What is needed instead, and this is seriously lacking, is to challenge the listener to open up to what is further from his or her mind. Knowing that making an effort to do so makes life richer, deeper and more meaningful. The latter is further to seek than ever in our country.
This is unlike before. I am thinking here of Ton Hartsuiker's radio programme Musica Nova and the TV programme Traveller in music. Not to mention, one of today's scarce exceptions, the interviews you conduct yourself, Thea. One of the few other good exceptions is the Friday night concert series in TivoliVredenburg, characterised by accessible yet surprising programming. With - very importantly - a focus on Dutch music, which is otherwise conspicuous by its absence from most orchestras. I already mentioned the Saturday Matinee.
Dutch music unloved
How do you explain this little love for Dutch music? Is it perhaps not simply due to its quality?
I have no explanation for this, other than that of the attitude of a small country that believes that beyond the fence the grass is necessarily greener and that what comes from far away is always tastier. In my humble opinion, on average we certainly do not compose less well than elsewhere and with that opinion I am in good company. Read my interview with Ernest Bour in the book. He was no small authority and also a man with a gigantic knowledge of the repertoire, who by the way ranked Matthijs Vermeulen among the greatest symphonists of the 20th century.e century counted.
Incidentally, it was again Marius Flothuis who, whenever he went to lunch with a foreign conductor, invariably gave them some Dutch scores with a request to have a good look at them. Numerous foreign conductors have thus performed Dutch music with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra: Rosbaud, Boulez, Jochum, Kondrashin, Chailly and even Jansons (even if it was not a resounding success).
Does Dutch music have international stature? I would say yes, even if opinions differ on that. Certainly Alphons Diepenbrock, Willem Pijper, Matthijs Vermeulen. Or the very unfairly hugely maligned Jan van Vlijmen: his Quaterni-cycle - the greatest Dutch orchestral music since Vermeulen - definitely deserves international attention! I am also thinking of Tristan Keuris (many a time interpreted by Porcelijn far beyond our borders) and (Louis) Andriessen. And not forgetting Ton de Leeuw and Otto Ketting. Kettings Time Machine experienced a record number of international performances at the time, but now not a note of his is played.
Shostakovich: played to death
Apropos Shostakovich, you call his 'Seventh Symphony' empty-headed, among other things. Why?
There is no such thing as taste and so, as far as I am concerned, one can always argue. Shostakovich is among the most deadly composers today. His work is gratefully used by orchestras at home and abroad as an alibi for not having to perform truly innovative twentieth-century music.
The Seventh symphony is indeed the pinnacle of empty-headedness. The first part is a tasteless imitation of Ravel's Boléro and the remaining parts are not really inferior to it in terms of inanity. I have to agree with Boulez: Shostakovich is 'bad Tchaikovsky'. Some see in Shostakovich a successor to Mahler. But that is colder, because he is nowhere near that. For one note from Mahler's Ninth without the slightest hesitation, I give as a gift the complete works of Shostakovich.
Scarce share of composing ladies
Shostakovich was affiliated with Gubaidulina and Ustvolskaya. They are the only composing ladies mentioned in your book, each with a single piece. What is the reason for this?
None. As it happens, I have written little about women composers, but admire some of them greatly. They certainly include Sofia Gubaidoelina and even more so Kaija Saariaho, whom I consider to be one of the greatest composers at all today. Take alone Orion (2002), an orchestral work that is on a par with the best of, say, Henri Dutilleux and Witold Lutoslawski in both content and instrumentation.
On the other hand, I think Ustvolskaya is the most terrible thing I have heard in my life, but that is completely unrelated to her being a woman. I never understood any of the hype at the time, or it must be the sensation around her person. By the way, speaking of male or female, that discussion is also increasingly taking place in the world of conducting. In my opinion, it is rather useless. It is ultimately about only one thing and that is whether a composer or conductor is talented.
Mozart, Webern and Carter in subscription concert
The accompanying CD contains the recording of a 1970 concert by the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Featuring Mozart's 'Gran Partita' alongside Webern's 'Orchestral Variations' and Elliott Carter's 'Piano Concerto'. For you, what is the genius of this combination?
The genius, first of all, is that this was a "regular" subscription concert and therefore not a series dedicated to contemporary music. Furthermore, the orchestra gave ensemble music within this particular programme. Not only in the form of the Gran Partita before the break, but also in those of the Orchestral Variations by Webern - in which the symphony orchestra operates almost from beginning to end as a wide-ranging ensemble.
At Carters Piano Concerto moreover, in addition to the soloist, there is a symphony orchestra and a concertino (ensemble) of solo instruments. Thus, the symphony orchestra is both a source of gigantic tutti explosions and of rather ensemble-like exercises. If anywhere the criticism of the 'Nutcrackers' was parried with this programme par excellence.
Maarten Brandt: Sound alchemy
1st edition, October 2018
Publisher New Printing ISBN 9789492020260
Hardcover, 715 pages, illustrated, with index