On August 19, the NJO Symphony Orchestra and conductor Antony Hermus ended their three-day concert tour with a bang. Their immaculate and tempestuous performance of selections from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo & Juliette evoked a stampede in Orpheus, Apeldoorn, a small city in the East of Holland. The cheering was even louder earlier that day, when the student orchestra played the same suite for a rock audience at the Lowlands festival. Once more, the NJO Summer Academy proved that classical music is not only for the old, but has a strong appeal to the young as well.
The NJO Summer Academy was founded in 2001 by Arthur van Dijk, then managing director of the Dutch Nationaal Jeugd Orkest (NJO – National Youth Orchestra), and conductor Reinbert de Leeuw. They wanted to break away from the standard repertoire and include more ambitious programs with contemporary music. De Leeuw had been director of the Contemporary Music festival in Tanglewood from 1994-1998, and dreamed of starting a similar summer school in the Netherlands.
Where Tanglewood focuses on the standard classical and contemporary repertoire, the NJO Summer Academy included early music from the start, engaging specialists such as Paul Goodwin, Philippe Herreweghe and Richard Egarr. Like in Tanglewood, there’s always a composer in residence, such as György Kurtág, Sofia Gubaidulina, Kaija Saariaho or John Adams. For this year’s edition, running from August 1-19, the Korean-born Unsuk Chin (1961) was invited. The NJO Symphony Orchestra performed her Rocaná this weekend, other concerts featuring ensemble pieces such as Xi, her recent Gougalon, and Akrostichon Wortspiel, with which she had her international breakthrough in 1993.
In one decade, the NJO Summer Academy has acquired international fame. Attracting mainly students from the Netherlands in its first season, for the present edition 700 applicants auditioned for only 100 available slots. Seventy percent of the players were recruited from other European countries, China, Korea, Cuba and Russia. Also five Americans took part—three of them making it to the NJO Symphony Orchestra. Its program was quite ambitious, presenting Rocaná by Unsuk Chin, along with the Violin Concerto of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and a selection from the suites of Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo & Juliette. It was designed by Xian Zhiang, the Chinese conductor who succeeded Reinbert de Leeuw as artistic director last year. She fell ill, however, and was replaced by the Dutch conductor Antony Hermus (1973) with very short notice. Quite a challenge, for in our pre-concert talk Hermus admitted he didn’t know any of the pieces. Yet he worked marvels with the orchestra.
Having had only three days of rehearsals, it’s amazing with what finesse and intensity the students performed Chin’s immensely difficult Rocaná, kicking off their concert tour on Friday 17 in De Vereeniging, Nijmegen. The title is Sanskrit for ‘Space of Light’, and Chin was inspired by an installation of the Icelandic artist Ólafur Elíasson. In Notion Motion he invites visitors to walk in a water basin, the ripplings of their footsteps being filmed and projected on the walls of the gallery.
Chin translated this concept into a work full of sudden contrasts. Fierce outbursts in high strings and brass lapse into mysterious murmurings in the lower registers. These are shot through with ear-splitting hammerings on an extensive range of percussion instruments, such as Javanese gongs, Japanese temple bells, metal blocks and tam-tams. One actually ‘hears’ the rays of light bouncing through the orchestra. The young players dug into their difficult bowing techniques with apparent gusto, producing immensely chromatic, yet ever lucid blocks of sound. The audience responded enthusiastically.
In our pre concert talk (intro in Dutch, conversation in German-Ed.) Unsuk Chin had confided that even after one rehearsal the NJO Symphony Orchestra gave a better interpretation than many a professional orchestra. She was impressed by the eagerness and openness of the young musicians, who lack the negative response professionals often have towards new music: “This can’t be played on the cello.” Conductor Antony Hermus added that the players had asked for extra rehearsal time, in order to grapple the many microtones.
Hermus and the orchestra proved to be subtle accompanists in Korngold’s Violin Concerto, played by Emmy Storms (1988), young artist in residence of NJO Summer Academy. Storms charmed the audience with her pure, silky tone and intense performance, evoking images of trampling hoofs in the boisterous third part. One readily forgave her some missed notes because of her unmistakable musicality, and if she works on her technique, she faces a glorious future. But she deserves better stuff than Korngold’s Hollywood pastiche—aptly dubbed “more corn than gold” by The New York Times after its premiere in 1947.
The most challenging part of the concert came after the interval, with selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet. In the first two concerts the brass players didn’t quite know how to tackle their heroic, often dissonant calls in Montagues and Capulets, but this grew better in each performance, and on the 19th both their timing and tuning were perfect. From the start, Hermus achieved a deeply resonating Russian sound in the lower strings, that grew darker and more powerful with each concert.
Thanks to the huge acclaim at the Lowlands festival, the players felt more free than ever in their final concert in Apeldoorn. I won’t easily forget the hair-raising, immaculately timed punches with which the hero is killed in Tybalt’s Death, and I don’t think I ever heard a professional orchestra render these with such energy and fire. Perhaps only the young can match the impetuosity of the two doomed lovers Shakespeare (and Prokofiev) had in mind. Let’s hope the NJO Summer Academy will not fall prey to our Government’s continuous axing of funds for the arts.
Thea Derks is a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music. She’s writing a biography of Reinbert de Leeuw, due for publication in 2013. Follow her on Twitter: @tdrks