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New European Ensemble violist Emlyn Stam: 'The best is yet to come!'

November Music not only has a house composer, but also a house party, the New European Ensemble. The Hague club will naturally play in the opening concert with the Bosch Requiem by Seung-Won Oh. And, of course, they will present a portrait concert featuring greatest hits by composer-in-residence Kaija Saariaho. They additionally perform the witty Border variations by Martijn Padding and P.F. Thomesé, who himself acts as narrator. Viola player and artistic director Emlyn Stam talks about the origins and ambitions of his ensemble.

'The New European Ensemble (NEuE) started in 2009 from a small circle of friends at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague,' says Stam. 'The real initiators were Christian Karlsen, the first artistic director and conductor, and Swedish guitarist Jacob Kellerman. They wanted the beautiful 20e-century and contemporary ensemble repertoire. Christian left in 2014 to focus on his international career, Jacob is still a member. Soon myself, my brother Willem Stam and clarinetists James Meldrum and Ryanne Hofman joined as well. Then the ensemble grew further to its current 15 members.'


Initially, the intention was simply to play contemporary music at the highest possible level. But soon the itch started to grow. Stam: 'After a year, an urge arose to find ways to connect our repertoire to current social issues. For example, we collaborated with Amnesty International on a production of Voices by Hans Werner Henze. Gradually, connecting contemporary and 20e-century music to social issues the ensemble's central mission.'

NEuE began at a time when the Netherlands was already teeming with ensembles. Why yet another new company? 'We often asked ourselves that question in the beginning. We regularly ask it again to determine whether we are still following an important artistic course. Meanwhile, we notice that our mission is becoming more and more topical, now that there are so many cuts in the cultural sector.'


'To reach new audiences, we also want to develop our own projects in the future. For example, by making cross-connections with film, literature and new technologies. With such interdisciplinary connections, we hope to make music more accessible. We want to offer listeners a key to listen and experience it in their own way. What is important, however, is that the music always remains central.'

'I can also imagine us organising a sixties party with music by Stockhausen. In this way, we hope to ensure the continuity of contemporary musical life for the future. In doing so, it is important that NEuE never starts to feel like an everyday job, as is sometimes the case with symphony orchestras. The freshness, innovation and adventurousness must remain, as well as the high pressure to perform. NEuE wants to be an ensemble where you enjoy going to make music.'


NEuE came into being at a time when contemporary music ensembles were still richly subsidised. Halbe Zijlstra abruptly ended that in 2010, a year after the ensemble was founded. 'That was miserable,' Stam acknowledges, 'it gave an awful lot of uncertainty. Year after year, we didn't know whether there would be sufficient funding for our projects. We persevered and still exist.'

'When I speak to older colleagues, I find it painful to hear what utopian music culture they worked in. I think increasing our support base is the only way to secure funding for new music. - It was deeply tragic how the New Ensemble was cut and how important groups like the Ives Ensemble were firmly cut.'

But should modern music actually be subsidised, even if it attracts few audiences? 'I think subsidy for new music is an absolute necessity! Precisely because of its experimental nature and the relatively small number of fans. The government also funds research in theoretical physics, which can be understood by an even more limited number of people. Contemporary music offers innovative sounds and is a reflection of our current society. Therefore, it should be supported. Unfortunately, by far the most subsidy money goes to orchestras, opera houses and concert halls, which mainly perform historical and conservative repertoire.'

Emlyn Stam (c) Rob Overmeer

Oral tradition

The NEuE works a lot with living composers. What challenges does that bring? 'That varies a lot from one composer to another. People like Magnus Lindberg, Mark Anthony Turnage or Kaija Saariaho are very nice to work with. They notate in a clear manner, listen attentively to what is being played and give practical feedback. Other composers put their musical ideas on paper unclearly, requiring a lot of discussion to understand them. Then a kind of 'oral tradition' emerges, by which playing techniques are passed on orally, as in the case of Stefan Maier.'

'That learning of individual musical languages takes effort, but the more often you work together the better you come to understand them. The latter is essential, for example in Bright Sheng's works. If you just play the notes you miss the essence of the Chinese folk music behind it. By working with him, we learned to bring those out and sometimes even ignore the written-out details. With someone like José Maria Sánchez-Verdú is mostly about silence and noise, but noise with its own typical atmosphere. You only get the hang of that when you have performed several of his pieces more often.'

As a house ensemble, NEuE in November Music plays, among others, the Bosch Requiem of Seung-Won Oh. How did that collaboration work out? Stam: 'With Seung-Won Oh we wanted to work together for some time, we are happy that this is now going to happen in YeonDo. It has some surprising components. Exceptional for a Requiem are the four percussionists, who play many different gongs and also Korean instruments. The use of the Korean language is also special, which will be a big challenge for the choir. It will also be a job to maintain the tension, because of the many hushed moments. But the piece is still evolving and there are bound to be adjustments during the rehearsal process.'

Sound colour

A portrait concert by Kaija Saariaho follows on 14 November. How does her music compare to Seung-Won Oh's? 'Both work a lot with timbre. With Oh, this is often connected to Korean folk music and percussion, while Saariaho works from what is known as spectralism. She colours harmonies and sound combinations with a precision like Debussy did a century ago. Her music varies greatly in atmosphere and character and she has a great sense of drama and structure. This is well heard in our programme.'

With popular works such as the violin concerto Graal théâtre, the cello concerto Notes on Light and Solar for ensemble, this seems like a presentation of greatest hits. Why this choice? 'We have known Saariaho since 2014, when we organised a portrait festival around Saariaho in The Hague, where she was present all week. Since then, we have played almost all her ensemble and chamber music pieces and these are our favourites.'

'Solar is a ripping piece with beautiful harmonic undertones and exciting interplay between electronics and ensemble. Grail théâtre is distinctly characterful and sparkling and Notes on Light offers a rich palette of consonances, with grand gestures. All three are typical of her harmony choices and idiosyncratic use of instrumentation. Such as flageolets in the strings and multiphonics in the woodwinds.'


For now, the concerts in Den Bosch can go ahead with up to 30 visitors, but corona could throw a spanner in the works at any moment. How will Stam and his ensemble deal with this? 'That depends on November Music. We ourselves immediately started streaming living room concerts at the first lockdown in March. We kept this up for twenty weeks, through the depths of the crisis. In the beginning it was quite scary, because potentially a lot of people are watching, hearing every mistake you make. And you can't edit afterwards.'

'Moreover, you miss the live experience, the interaction with the audience and the sound in the room. Having to sit far apart by necessity is an extra challenge. This makes it harder to hear each other during rehearsals and concerts, with all its consequences. And it is unsociable to have to go home immediately afterwards instead of having a drink together. But by now we have built up a routine, with our own protocol and short lines to venues and festivals'.

'As soon as new measures are promulgated, we will enter into discussions about the possible consequences and adjustments. If we end up in a more severe lockdown, we will definitely start streaming living room concerts again. Streaming seems to me to be here to stay anyway, the only question is: how do you link a revenue model to it? We haven't found an answer to that yet, but we'll keep looking.'

Street orchestra

If all goes well, NEuE will play on 15 November Border variations by Martijn Padding and P.F. Thomesé, who himself acts as narrator. They premiered it at the Dag in de Branding festival in home base The Hague on 24 October. What kind of play is it? 'It is a curious performance in which Thomése sits in the middle of the ensemble and reads newly written stories. He mostly looks back at the past, his childhood, his deceased first child and his family history. Common threads are boundaries between life and death, between countries, between inner and outer realities.'

'Padding wrote music entirely in his own style for a five-piece ensemble consisting of flute, clarinet, trumpet, viola and harp. The music should sound like a kind of shabby street orchestra but is at the same time full of humour, spice and reflection. As musicians, we play a battery of different instruments and objects and are pushed far out of our comfort zone. Performing with Thomése is also a special experience. He speaks softly and composedly but has a lot of charisma and appeal in his own way. The beauty of his lyrics absolutely touches me. We experienced a fine interaction between how we play music and the tone and timing with which he recites.'

The best is yet to come

Border variations is one of the partnerships with other disciplines. What does Stam look back on most fondly? 'The highlight is still in the making,' he says with rock-solid confidence in the future. 'It involves a project around 1984 based on George Orwell's novel, with new music by Mihkel Kerem. We made a film with actor Boris van der Ham and re-enacted scenes from the book ourselves. These are interspersed with a video of the full performance of the play.'

But first, he keeps his fingers crossed that the November Music concerts will go ahead with live audiences. 'If that is not possible, we will definitely find another solution!'

Postscript 4 November. Unfortunately, Stam was proven wrong. Due to the new coronagraph 3 November, November Music has cancelled the entire festival. So it will not be experienced via livestreams either. An incredible bummer!

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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