Send It to Amsterdam

[Ed. Note: Composer Christopher Trapani, currently en route from Istanbul to Paris, has stopped off in Amsterdam to attend the 2008 Gaudeamus Music Week. This New Orleans-native, who was the winner of the 2007 Gaudeamus Prize, seemed a natural choice to blog for us this week on this new music version of the Olympics. —FJO]

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Christopher Trapani

So you’ve written a piece for twelves melodicas. Or amplified triangle. How about four bass clarinets and two music boxes? Send it to Amsterdam. These are just a few of the highlights from the past few years at the Gaudeamus Music Week, a festival that perfectly embodies the offbeat, quirky spirit of the city that hosts it.

Held annually in the first week of September, the Music Week showcases emerging talent and innovative work, pairing young composers from around the world with top-notch performers of the Netherlands. This marks my third visit to Amsterdam for the festival, and it’s become something of a end-of-summer ritual: two or three concerts a day filled with premiere performances, discussions with the jury and other participants in the afternoons, then nighttime waterside drinks on the dock of the stellar new Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ.

The festival is centered around the annual competition for the Gaudeamus Prize, open to composers of any nationality under the age of 30. Here’s how it works: After sifting through about 400 entries from over 50 countries, a three-person jury settles on a selection of up to 20 pieces. These jury selections are performed throughout the week-long festival, at the end of which the judges select a winner (or in some years, a couple of winners) and honorable mentions. The winner receives a commission for a large-scale work, usually premiered at the following year’s festival.

What sets the Gaudeamus Prize apart from most other competitions is that there are no restrictions on instrumentation. Orchestral works (in most years, but not the current edition), chamber pieces (up to 15 instruments), electronic, and improvisational compositions compete on equal footing. The end result seems to be that works for unconventional forces, harder to program at a typical music festival, nearly always end up on the shortlist. In addition to the jury selections, the program is filled out with pieces by the judges, by former winners, and by other young composers. The leading new music ensembles of the Netherlands (the Nieuw Ensemble, the Asko Ensemble, the Schönberg Ensemble, the Ives Ensemble, to name a few) all routinely take part.

This year’s festival has a strong American presence, including two American jury members (Michael Daugherty and David Dramm, who currently lives in the Netherlands) and two American composers amongst the jury selections. Huck Hodge is nominated for his chamber orchestra piece Parallaxes, and Jenny Olivia Johnson for her chamber opera Leaving Santa Monica. Both are slated for Wednesday evening, performed by the newly-merged Asko/Schönberg Ensemble.

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The festivities opened Monday evening with a reception in the Gaudeamus Foundation’s new headquarters at Music Center the Netherlands. MCN is a newly-formed umbrella organization which promotes contemporary Dutch pop, classical, contemporary, jazz, and world music. This year’s Gaudeamus Music Week is being presented for the first time by MCN.

Later, at the Muziekgebouw, the Insomnio ensemble had the honor of giving the festival’s opening concert. This relatively young Dutch sinfonietta-sized ensemble, founded in 1997 and based in Utrecht, has accomplished a lot in its ten years, notably being named the ISCM ensemble-in-residence for 2007. They offered two jury selections: Landscape of diffracted colours for ensemble and electronics by Peter McNamara of Australia, and Tracce della Luna for soprano and seven instruents by the Italian composer Eric Maestri.

The highlight of the Insomnio program was an astonishing concerto for quarter-tone accordion, composed by the 2004 Gaudeamus Prize winner, the Finnish composer Sampo Haapamäki, currently a DMA student at Columbia University. Veli Jujala, the work’s soloist, developed the modified accordion himself with the help of the Italian maker Pigini; this performance marked the instrument’s public debut. The program concluded with Kaija Saariaho’s Graal Théâtre for violin and ensemble, which aside from complementing Sampo’s piece with another Finnish perspective, seemed a little out of place in a festival devoted mainly to less-established composers.

Tuesday’s midday concert offered more eclectic fare, featuring two Dutch duos. The Duo Bosgraaf and Elias performed two pieces specifically written for their unorthodox combination of recorder and guitar. The first came from Tomi Räisänen, a co-winner of the 2007 Irino Prize and also from Finland: STHENO, an energetic piece completely free of any distinguishable pitches. The recorder player blows, speaks, and hisses into the recorder tubes (minus the mouthpieces), while the guitarist plays scordatura with a glass slide, often slapping percussively the side of his instrument. In addition, both players wore tap shoes, occasionally stomping and clapping on cue. Next, Panayiotis Kokoras of Thessaloniki, Greece had the recorder player double on slide whistle and treated both instruments with live electronics in his polished piece Soundboarding.

The Pianoduo Post and Mulder (composed of new music veterans Pauline Post and Nora Mulder) then took the stage with their project (un)prepared piano(duo). For their upcoming season, the duo asked several composers to write pieces for two pianos with one special request: one pianist would play exclusively at the keyboard, and the second only inside the piano. They presented a preview of the resulting works this morning, including a short but lovely piece by Montana-born Chad Langford, which incorporated an electronic component: a spoken text about whale calls. Jasna Velickovic, a Serbian composer now living in the Netherlands (and another co-winner of the Irino Prize), contributed Shadow Study #1, a piece entirely composed of the delicate and ethereal sounds produced by using electromagnetic coils to vibrate the strings of an amplified piano. Tonight the festival continues with a Dutch big band/multimedia concert in the Muziekgebouw. More on that tomorrow.

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