January 1997 Concertgebouw Concert

In 1997, while in the Netherlands for work, I had the joy of attending the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra [concertgebouw.nl] directed by Leonard Slatkin. It was both wonderful and ironic that in Amsterdam I could hear amazing American music that I might never be able to hear back home in the US. These are the notes I took after the concert to email home the next day. I have added a few links to Wikipedia articles and other reference sites.

Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest, January 24, 1997 [Wikipedia]
dirigent: Leonard Slatkin [Wikipedia]
solist: Ivan Meylemans, trombone [Wikipedia]
koor: Ensemble uit het Groot Omroepkoor [Netherlands Radio Choir] (instud. Simon Halsey [Wikipedia])

This was the last concert in a two-week series on American music presented by Leonard Slatkin. My seat was near the stage, on row 6. I could see the conductor(s) very well. It was a great concert.

I got there about 45 minutes early. The stage is about five feet off the floor, with a red rope along the edge for safety. A harp player was gently tuning. Eventually more people started warming up and playing over bits of the music.

Part One

The first three short pieces were by John Adams (1947-) [Wikipedia].

  • Two Fanfares for orchestra (1986) For this fanfare piece one trumpet was at the top of each of the two stairways behind the orchestra.
  • Tromba lontana This is a very dreamy piece that sounded like the feeling of being in a small boat rolling around on the water.
  • Short ride in a fast machine The title of this is familiar, so I think I’ve heard it before. It sounds a lot like Philip Glass, so I didn’t actually recognize the music. They had two Yamaha synth keyboards on stage for this one.

Next is the Tromboneconcert (1991) by Christopher Rouse (1949-) [Wikipedia]. It had three movements listed:

Adagio; doloroso
Elegiaco, lugubre

It opens very slowly and quietly. The trombone whoots out a few low, quiet notes and the orchestra grumbles gently about them. This goes back and forth like that for a while. Then all heck breaks loose.

The percussion section has a wooden box with circular holes on three sides and a wooden block on top. It’s about 3 feet cubical. Then they take a big sledge hammer on a long handle and whale the tar out of that box. The rest of the orchestra is making similarly loud sounds so the hammer is mostly a visual effect. They swing it from high in the air.

The piece gets quiet and loud again at least once more before giving up in exhaustion.

Afterward a man who could only have been the composer comes up on the stage and is given flowers.


During the intermission they used the trap door to bring up a solo grand piano and send a ton of percussion equipment down to the basement.

Part Two

Geographical Fugue [Wikipedia] from the suite “Gesprochene Musik” (1930) for spreekkoor by Ernst Toch (1887-1964) [Wikipedia].

This was interesting. Spreekkoor of course is Dutch for “Speak Choir” or some such, and the choir did not sing. They chanted the words. Sort of a 1930 attempt at rap in four-part fugue form. Pretty cool stuff.

The portion of the words printed in the program that they chanted were:

and the big Mississippi
and the town Honolulu
and the Lake Titicaca,
the Popocatepetl is not in Canada
rather in Mexico
Canada Malaga Rimini Brindisi
Tibet Nagasaki Yokohama ...

Of course you could easily follow the entrances of the theme in other sections because the words started over with Trinidad. No singing pitch, just rhythms and words and louds and softs.

Vierde Symfonie (4th Symphony) (1909-1916) [Wikipedia] by Charles Ives (1874-1954) [Wikipedia]
Assistant Conductors John Gibbons and Simon Halsey

The program shows four movements.

  • Prelude: Maestoso
  • Allegretto
  • Fugue: Andante moderato con moto
  • Very slowly – Largo Maestoso

The conductor’s score was printed sideways, like a calendar.

I missed one of the gaps and only was aware of three. Probably just stunned. Over half of this piece is a Bizarro World version of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, complete with the composer never having heard it performed. Although he finished it in 1916, it was not performed until 1965.

Leonard Slatkin introduced this piece as it was the end of his series on American music. He said that Charles Ives had often listened to the Boston orchestra and was tired of hearing the same European sounds all the time. He vowed to create a uniquely American music. According to Mr. Slatkin, this piece contains many hymns and pop songs of his day, and if you remove them the piece is pretty much in the same impressionist genre as Debussy.

It must be Bizarro Debussy.

There is a small choir, a solo piano, a piano 4 hands, and a piano tuned somehow in quarter tones. The pipe organ played also, although that’s not mentioned in the program. Twice I was amazed at how the orchestra had managed to blend just right to get an organ sound, but then during the bows I noticed an organist standing next to the organ console.

The piece opens the way Beethoven’s 9th ends, with a choir singing:

      Watchman, tell us of the night,
What the signs of promise are:
Traveller, o'er yon mountain's height,
See that Glory-beaming star!
Watchman, aught of joy or hope?
Traveller, yes; it brings the day,
Promised day of Isreal.
Dost thou see its beauteous ray?

Then all heck breaks loose for a long time. It’s so involved there are extra conductors. From where I was sitting I only saw one extra, but there are two in the program. The one I saw was sitting on a stool immediately in front of Leonard Slatkin. Mr. Slatkin explained to the audience that there are at times four or five rhythms going on at once. He held up his hands and said, “I just can’t do it!”

He referred to the complex sounds into which the hymns and pop tunes are dropped as the dissolving of a time period. That’s pretty accurate. Think of a vat of extremely strong acid, and then drop all your 1916 pop records into it. That kind of sound.

But suddenly the piece breaks out in the most incredibly beautiful gentle music, enough to make the whole piece worth listening to. Really nice, honest harmonies, etc. It must have been a joke because it goes nuts again before ending, but it does refer back both to the choir and to the beautiful part once more.

I think the beautiful part was the Fugue, but I’m not sure because I was off in my movement counting. It was the next to the last I was aware of.

Last few thoughts of a wonderful evening

I sat next to a party of four. The man next to me was nice, friendly but didn’t talk too much. When the trombone piece ended, he saw I had stood with most of the crowd, which was giving a standing ovation, and asked me if I liked it. I said, oh, yes. He just smiled. At the end of the concert it was again standing ovation time. This time he was smiling broadly. He said to me, it’s quite an experience! I said, yes, I’m lucky to be here. He said, ‘we are, yes’. Then he pointed to a young lady standing in the aisle and said, “she is the wife of the trombonist.” I said something suitable and he said, “I’m her father.” He was pretty happy.

Several of the viola (I think) players had something interesting. Strapped to the backs of their chairs were metal rods holding up a clear plastic shield adjusted to be right behind their heads. I suppose to cut down the sound from behind them – the Horn section was behind them, and there was a lot of loud playing tonight.

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