Stift Music Festival 2022: Quite Simply a Jewel in the Overijssel Crown
Held over nine days, with 28 concerts featuring over 40 talented and distinguished musicians, the Stift Music Festival here in the East Netherlands really has something for everyone.
Founded in 2005 by the irrepressible Daniel Rowland, known to many as a former member of the Brodsky Quartet, the Stift Music Festival, with the medieval Stiftkerk as the central focus, continues to go from strength to strength. Under Daniel’s artistic direction, new music is regularly juxtaposed against well-known favourites, challenging the audience in more than one respect.
This 18th edition, held from 20th — 28th August 2022 and entitled Song of the Earth referenced the indispensability of the earth in programmes which paid tribute to the earth’s beauty and strength, but also its fragility, in an exploration of nature’s inspiration on composers through the ages.
With so many concerts to choose from, the audience really is spoilt for choice in terms of the music on offer and the sheer range of venues — travelling from one concert to the other is a marathon in itself! How many concerts should you attend, and how should you travel to all the wonderful and scenic venues ranging from country houses, a Jewish synagogue, fairy-tale castles, concert halls, wonderful old churches, and even an observatory. Bike or car? In the Netherlands, all things are possible!
I joined the festival towards the end of the week for three concerts in Enschede. The first on Friday night in the Musiek Centrum entitled Distant Light, opened with The Messenger, a most unexpected and atmospheric solo piano piece by the Ukrainian composer, Vladimir Silvestrov performed by Borys Fedorov. The audience were totally mesmerized.
We moved swiftly to a reduced string orchestral version of Mozart’s Requiem performed by Consensus Vocalis, the Enschede based professional chorus conducted by their artistic director, Béni Csillag; the Stift Festival Orchestra and four rather enthralling soloists: Sophie Klußmann, Barbara Kozelj, Fabio Trümpy and Tomas Kildišius.
This was an exciting performance with some cracking tempos especially in the Dies Irae. The question lurking in the back of my mind however was, who would play the famous alto trombone solo in the Tuba Mirum? The viola was given the honour, but only for the first phrase before passing over to the cello. Such a shame the arranger did not trust the viola to continue as this was a wonderfully confident entry, matched beautifully by great subtlety in the tenor’s response.
And then the challenge: a rude interruption in the middle of the requiem… Black Angels (1970), a work by the American composer George Crumb for electric string quartet and wine glasses! I was left thinking, why? Why compose this music? Why perform this? What is the musical value in this work, or is this pure musical theatre for the sake of it? A showcase for a series of extended string techniques featuring a vast number of wine glasses…?
But as is so often the case in this festival, Daniel was right.
This juxtaposition did work. The two bowed gongs, the playing of the cello while lying flat over the cellist’s legs and bowed near the peg box, the shouting and the intensely loud music did melt into moments of tonality, where renaissance dances (with their regular meter) allowed fluidity of movement between a series of harsh discords and elegiac moments of beauty and stillness.
In the blink of an eye however, we were thrust back into the dotted rhythms of Mozart’s Rex Tremendae — a shock for audience and on-stage musicians alike! This was Mozart stripped bare! And interestingly, the increasing focus on the four excellent soloists (whose voices blended beautifully) was refreshing. Energy abounded and we were treated to the fastest Confutatis I have ever heard! Hats off to the violins here — you were amazing! The accompaniment from both the orchestra and the chorus was clean and clear with wonderful attention given to the many contrapuntal lines. This arrangement for strings had a freshness, a message of hope which was totally appropriate for these uncertain times.
Distant Light (1996–7), a violin concerto by the Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks is a stunning work. If you can get past the opening few bars of discordant bird song trills, you will find a piece of great emotional depth which at times has much in common with the musical language of the British composer, John Tavener and The Protecting Veil, especially with those long sonorous pedal notes from the double bass. Daniel Rowland was clearly in his element performing this work. The audience were transfixed by the increasing display of virtuosity. Daniel’s bow arm alone is a thing of beauty. His playing was effortless, and his sound beguiling. This is a work which pushes the boundaries of tonality yet stays just within, creating beautiful and unexpected twists in the harmony. A cheeky waltz with col legno strings and glissando chords dying away into the distant light, offered a moment of tempered hope.
My evening finished with a quick sprint across town in the spitting rain to catch the second concert of the evening. De Kleine Willem is a new venue to me and what a lovely intimate setting for what was essentially an evening jam session with the audience crammed into this tiny theatre in a manner unimaginable only six months ago.
The programme included Philip Glass — Knee Music (1937) from Einstein on the Beach for unaccompanied violin, performed to perfection by Enzo Kok. We also heard a wonderful piece for violin and Russian bayan (or button piano accordion to those from the British Isles!) called Musica Ad Astra by Jonas Tamulionis which transported us to a world of Parisian cafes and then to that of the Argentinian tango. The incessant rhythms broken as if by magic, only to return us to the swirling solitude of the Parisian nights once more.
Confused Diffusions by Borys Fedorov is a real showcase for the viola and was very warmly received by the audience. It took childhood memories of a harbour, the sunrise and drunken folksongs as inspiration, but wow! What a childhood Borys must have had growing up alongside the Volga.
For me though the evening really took off with the final two Piazolla tangos performed by Daniel and friends showcasing wonderful cello and double bass counter melody writing executed to perfection by Maja Bogdanović and Nicky Schwartz — a fabulous jazz bassist. We all left the concert with a smile on our face and a spring in our step. More concerts to look forward to tomorrow!
Review of Saturday’s concert to follow…