Gearing up for the Fourth Amsterdam Cello Biennale

Laurence VittesFri 28th September 2012

Cello Festivals Kicks Off in Amsterdam on October 26

The Fourth Amsterdam Cello Biennale is gearing up to make waves in the waterfront Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ concert complex built specifically for ‘classical music in the 21st century’. From October 26 to November 8, a slew of concerts, three new concertos (by Pēteris Vasks, Alexander Raskatov and Julia Wolfe), masterclasses, competitions, a Mega-Kinder children's orchestra, Bach Suites for breakfast and chilling in the Fatboy Cello Lounge will make Amsterdam the place for cellists to be. I caught up with several of the key players to find out about the preparation and planning it takes.

Festival founder and director Maarten Mostert, a top cellist himself and professor at the Amsterdam Conservatory, calls the Biennale a dream come true. ‘We started it in 2006, from nothing, and suddenly it was a festival.’ Now, with a three-person staff, Mostert can properly attend to the year-round process of selecting the cellists, the repertoire, and the composers. Almost everything is set for 2012, and Mostert is already working on 2014 - and has been for more than a year. ‘If you want to get certain soloists,’ he advises, ‘you have to start early’. Composers can require even more long-range planning; the decision to invite Tan Dun to be this year's composer in residence was made in 2008.
The soloists, too, have to be planning well ahead. Sol Gabetta, who will play the world premiere of the new concerto by Vasks, and who feels strongly that ‘we have something to give to the new generations,’ had known the composer for almost a decade before the final selection was made. ‘He has such a mystical personality,’ she says, and jumped at the opportunity to work with him again on the Biennale's commissioning project; her commitment to the concerto includes touring it with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta and recording it next year.
As another example of the logistics that go into making the Biennale a success, cutting edge Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger for the Third Biennale in 2010 wrote and played a cello concerto with a Dutch wind ensemble, invited his ‘favourite cellist Giovanni Sollima’ with whom he then proceeded to prepare and teach 140 young cellist in different towns around Holland - ‘in order to play half an hour without pieces of written music at hand. It all went very well,’ Reijseger says proudly, who cherishes the memories and has a video recording as proof!

The Biennale will also feature more conventional approaches to breaking new ground: Raphael Wallfisch will play string orchestra versions of Stravinsky's Suite Italienne (orchestrated by the cellist's son Ben) and the Schumann Concerto orchestrated by Swiss composer Arthur Lilienthal which integrates all the wind parts into the string parts. Wallfisch claims that Schumann at one point heard it as a string quintet - maybe that will be heard in 2014.

Tan Dun's presence will highlight the relationship between the cello, for which he has written so beautifully, and the erhu, which he calls ‘the little Chinese sister of the cello’, in performances by Tan Wei, China's most famous erhu player. ‘Both instruments share a similar human voice,’ he says, ‘a very present voice with a deep soul.’

Contrasted to the Piatigorsky Festival in Los Angeles earlier this year, Wallfisch says that the Amsterdam Biennale is like the Manchester International of cello festivals: ‘Everything is under one roof; people can go from one event to another without any time lost; there are displays of books and instruments. The whole place is humming with activity; the social aspect is intense; we are playing all the time for colleagues as much as for the public.’

Maarten Mostert agrees. ‘Cellists are very sociable people,’ he says before adding wryly, ‘you can't imagine a violin festival.’

Laurence Vittes

Classical music journalist Laurence Vittes is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post, Strings, Audiophile Audition and Gramophone.

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