Global Issues, Diverse Perspectives Set Edge On 75th Holland Fest

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The Holland Festival performed Heiner Goebbels’ ‘A House of Call,’ shown here at its world premiere in Berlin in August 2021 with Ensemble Modern Orchestra and conductor Vimbayi Kaziboni.

AMSTERDAM — The 75th-anniversary Holland Festival, under the direction of Emily Ansenk, vibrated with issues of the day­ and acted as a compass for the creative currents at play across Europe.

The concerns of our times were prominent in the programming. Ansenk and her team of specialist programmers gave space to artists and their voices on the environment, migration, water, prejudice, inequality, and borders. The festival was stacked with multilateral co-productions and commissions from festivals and venues such as Festival Musica Strasbourg, Opéra National du Rhin, Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, and Festspsiele/Musikfest Berlin. Names such as Nobel Prize-winning Austrian playwright and novelist Elfriede Jelinek, French composer Philippe Manoury, director Kirill Serebrennikov, and iconic choreographer Hans van Manen lit the marquee, while associate artists-in-residence Angélique Kidjo and theater director Nicolas Stemann provided an alternative but integral curatorial perspective.

Heiner Goebbels

This heady mix of artists and viewpoints afforded the pre-eminent Dutch performing arts festival a program that related both to purists and progressives.

For the intrepid, Heiner Goebbels’ Mahler-esque proportioned symphonic tour-de-force A House of Call captivated and mesmerized the full house at the Concertgebouw for an hour and forty-five minutes. No intermission. No breaks between movements. Just a completely immersive drama without an actor or video in sight.

Goebbels’ title is derived from the James Joyce novel Finnegan’s Wake. However, the inspiration of the work refers to the composer’s own journeys, encounters, memories, and conversations in his life and travels from Central Asia to South America. Hence, the subtitle My Imaginary Notebook. In actuality, there are few discernible words or literal diary entries. With recorded voices from various cultures utilized, we experienced a vivid, multi-layered narrative that offers an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of colors and textures, as if Goebbels is providing a sensorial catalogue of his notebooks.

In A House of Call, Goebbels has written a work that reinvigorates the orchestration manual. With Frankfurt’s incomparable Ensemble Modern Orchestra as masterful interpreters, his orchestrations create a series of aural tableaux that offer superimposed sound worlds of the ancient and the modern. Take, for instance, the moments where he combines recorded Eastern chants with harp, cimbalom, thunder sheets, and piano, or the few bars where he cross-pollinates a chorus of French horns with electric guitar. In isolation, these pairings may seem unremarkable, but when you consider that this epic piece releases layer upon layer of intriguing sound palettes, you might soon appreciate why the audience was transfixed. The cool precision of conductor Vimabayi Kaziboni contributed to the success.

If you can’t imagine sitting in a theater for more than two hours straight, then this festival may not have convinced you. This was a festival for the willing, and perhaps suited to an audience still hung over from Netflix and binge viewing during the pandemic. The Nationale Theater/Holland Festival co-production of The Nation, a thriller that was first performed in 2017, added its final chapter for the 2022 festival, transforming a night in the theater into a day in the theater. Snack required. Conceived, written, and directed by Eric de Vroedt, the piece looks at the hierarchies of police and state, prejudice, and religion through the incident of a young Muslim boy who is apprehended by police and then mysteriously goes missing. The technical fluidity between the screen and live performance elements and the dexterity of the ensemble cast offered an experience that asked questions. Am I watching television on stage? Is this the new hybrid experience of theater that awaits us as a permanent fixture? Like a good television drama, it was riveting.

Kora player Tunde Jegede

More art-form-defying moments materialized in Kein Licht — not a singspiel but a “thinkspiel,” a darkish, sometimes black comedy set in an imagined post-nuclear world. Directed by Nicolas Stemann and composed by Philippe Manoury as an opera based on texts by Jelinek, it is concerned with the lack of power of the individual. The tone is quirky, and the interrogation is beguiling in an eccentric sort of way. The technical virtuosity of the staging was equaled by the performances of the cast of opera singers Mélanie Boisvert, Bethany Shepherd, Olivia Vermeulen, Christina Daletska, and Lionel Peintre, and actors Niels Bormann and Katharina Schubert

A return to the concert hall and the familiarly comforting sounds of a chamber orchestra was offered through an eclectic program called “Ife” after the Philip Glass song cycle. Subtitled as an “Encounter between Africa and Western Classics,” the program featured singer Angélique Kidjo, the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, and kora player Tunde Jegede.

This was a performance where Kidjo held court, offering her open-hearted, authentic voice to music of Glass, French chansons, Piaf, and the pop songs that have brought her international recognition. The Amsterdam Sinfonietta impressed throughout the night with its playing of works by Britten and young British composer Errollyn Wallen, but in the end it was the translucent beauty of Jegede’s kora solos that brought the most emotional experience of the concert and perhaps the festival.