Henk Heuvelmans – Photo by ISCM

5 questions to Henk Heuvelmans, director of Gaudeamus Music Week

From Sunday, September 2 until Sunday, September 9 the Dutch city of Utrecht forms the center of the international Gaudeamus Music Week. This festival of new music is one of the main activities of Gaudeamus, an organization established by Walter Maas. Having found refuge in the Netherlands during World War II, he opened up his ‘Villa Gaudeamus’ in Bilthoven to young musicians and composers in 1945. Soon Gaudeamus not only organized concerts, lectures and discussions, but also a competition for young composers. Among the winners were Unsuk Chin and Michel van der Aa. Nowadays the winner gets € 4550 (US $ 5700) to write a work for the next edition. Director Henk Heuvelmans (1954) answers five questions…

When did you get involved with Gaudeamus Music Week?

In the early eighties, when I was studying musicology at Utrecht University, I became a frequent guest at Gaudeamus. When it appeared their librarian couldn’t tell apart a score for solo violin from one for piano and cello, I was asked to take over. This was really exciting, for new music was booming in the Netherlands: ensembles were springing up, museums featured concerts with contemporary music, Jan Wolff founded the concert hall De Ysbreker in 1982, and the government strongly supported new initiatives. Gaudeamus got to distribute most of the funding, and we worked together with over twenty organizations throughout the Netherlands, staging concerts from Maastricht and Arnhem in the South, to Groningen and Leeuwarden in the North. In 1983 we moved to Amsterdam, taking up office at the back of De Ysbreker. This was an enormous boost to our activities, for now we were in the center of the latest developments. Soon our concerts in De Ysbreker drew so many visitors that ensembles such as the Arditti’s offered to play almost for free – clearly a larger hall for modern music was needed. Thanks to Jan Wolff’s incessant fights with successive governments and city councils, this was finally realized in 2005, when Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ was opened by Queen Beatrix.

Henk Heuvelmans - Photo by ISCM

Henk Heuvelmans – Photo by ISCM


Yet Gaudeamus moved to Utrecht last year, why?

I became director in 1996, at a time when the government changed their view of funding new music. We’d always been able to guarantee performers six to seven concerts in different halls, working on a tight budget and with little overhead. Yet, for the sake of ‘improving efficiency’ the government took away most of our budget and gave it to the halls themselves. Our carefully built-up network disintegrated, and since every programmer wished to make a personal mark, concerts were often played only once – attracting less and less visitors. Things picked up when we set up office at Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in 2005. We commissioned new pieces, staged successful music installations in the Atrium, and drew larger audiences for the Music Week. In 2008 we were forced to merge into Muziekcentrum Nederland (Music Center of the Netherlands) with several other organizations. Soon the management decreed that our festival should concentrate on Dutch music. But I’m convinced it’s more beneficial to cherish international contacts, since only by exchanging ideas one can really grow. So when the city of Utrecht offered to accommodate Gaudeamus, I immediately grabbed this chance.

This is your second festival in Utrecht, what has the move meant for Gaudeamus?

For one thing, the scale of the city is smaller, so that we can easily stage three concerts on one evening: the audience can walk from one venue to the next within five minutes. We play in beautiful churches, and the concerts last less than an hour – thus we got rid of the old fashioned formula of one ensemble playing all evening, with a break in the middle. Moreover, contemporary music is so diverse now, that some pieces are better suited to one hall than to another. Since people get out in the streets between two performances, they can clear their minds and open up their ears for new sounds. Important, too, is that these churches hold 200-250 people and are usually full, whereas such numbers make for a modestly filled Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. All in all, Utrecht breathes much more a festival atmosphere.

Utrecht also harbors the Festival of Early Music – do you cooperate with them?

Yes. For this year’s edition we shared commissions: Calliope Tsoupaki wrote a piece for choir, Lucas Wiegerink composed a work for harpsichord, and our jury member Annie Gosfield made a piece for solo violin. By embedding these compositions in a concert with early music, we hope visitors will also attend their performance in Gaudeamus Music Week and get acquainted with other contemporary pieces. For next year, when the city commemorates the third centenary of the Treaty of Utrecht, we have even more elaborate plans. Just like this year, the closing of the Festival of Early Music and the opening of the Music Week are on the same day. Then the famed carillon of Utrecht cathedral will play music from Jacob van Eyk (ca 1590-1657), along with a new, electronic composition by René Uijlenhoet (1961) incorporating recordings from carillons in other cities that signed the treaty.

Gaudeamus Muziekweek 2012 Promo

How important are new media?

From day one in Utrecht I have made it an issue to embrace these. Since I was the only one moving there, I was free to form an entirely new staff, and  I employed only young people.  Nowadays a written brochure and program notes no longer suffice, so Jeroen Strijbos and Rob van Rijswijk designed a program for the ‘walk with me app’ on the iPhone. Traversing Utrecht, you will hear sounds and music at different GPS points, sometimes consisting of snatches from concerts heard last year in the venue you’re approaching. Sound installations have always played a role in the festival, but now we’re really making them part of the concerts. Some of these contraptions are triggered by the movements the audience makes. As for the competition: 99% of the entries reaches us through the internet, but some contestants still send handwritten scores. In order to judge the wide variety of compositions, we select jury members from different backgrounds. Martijn Padding represents a ‘classical’ attitude to contemporary composition, Annie Gosfield is more into performance and electronics, and Christopher Butterfield defies any imaginable label. In Utrecht, Gaudeamus is alive and kicking again!

Thea Derks is a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music. She’s writing a biography on Reinbert de Leeuw, due for publication in 2013.