Saturday 8 January 2022

We live in a world where nothing has been left untouched by humanity: composer Jan-Peter de Graaff chats about the inspirations for his new cello concerto

Jan-Peter de Graaff, Maya Fridman and North Netherlands Symphony Orchestra after the premiere of The Forest in April, live-streamed from Tivoli-Vredenburg in Utrecht in March 2021 (Photo Anna van Kooij)
Jan-Peter de Graaff, Maya Fridman and North Netherlands Symphony Orchestra after the premiere of The Forest in April, live-streamed from Tivoli-Vredenburg in Utrecht in March 2021 (Photo Anna van Kooij)

In November 2021, Moscow-born Netherlands-based cellist Maya Fridman released The Forest in April, a disc of cello concertos by the Dutch composer Jan-Peter de Graaff, recorded with North Netherlands Symphony Orchestra and conductors Sander Teepen and Nicolò Foron on the TRPTK label. The disc features Jan-Peter's Concerto No. 5, The Forest in April, which was written for Fridman, alongside his Concerto No. 4, Rimpelingen (Ripples). Jan-Peter's music is often inspired by nature and by physics, and The Forest in April is inspired by man's relationship to nature. The work was premiered in March 2021 in a live-streamed performance. I recently spoke to Jan-Peter to find out more.

Jan-Peter de Graaff: The Forest in April - Maya Fridman, North Netherlands Symphony Orchestra, Sander Teepen & Nicolò Foron - TRPTK
The project began when Maya Fridman heard Jan-Peter's cello concerto Rimpelingen (which was written for the cellist Hans Woudenberg in 2017) and she asked Jan-Peter to write her a concerto. Before writing for people, Jan-Peter likes to get to know them as he wants to tailor pieces for the people they are written for. So he and Maya Fridman had lots of conversations and lots of coffees. They found common ground in their love of nature and interest in the interaction between humans and nature. What interested them both was the way humans tend to shut nature out, living in urban environments, and the realisation that we live in a world where nothing has been left untouched by humanity; how is this possible? 

The ideas for the concerto were also affected by small details that Jan-Peter discovered, such as a documentary about lyrebirds which talked about them being able to imitate the sounds made by modern technology. Whatever we do creates an effect, but it might develop into something different. Jan-Peter felt that this was something he could use in the concerto. With concertos, from the Baroque through to the Romantic, there is a long tradition of call and response, the soloist plays something and the ensemble reacts, perhaps accompanying it or perhaps going against it. So, Jan-Peter conceived the concerto as a metaphor for how humans (the cello soloist) react to the environment (the orchestra), with each movement looking at a different aspect of this abstract idea.

The base layer in the orchestra starts off representing the forest, with Jan-Peter taking inspiration from various composers mimicking nature in music. The soloist introduces a new melodic line, and instruments in the orchestra try mimicking it and this grows, eventually becoming a counterpoint, and the soloist plays another melody. In the first movement, the fragments become shorter and the cello sings over them a chorale melody which is the sum of the various parts of the movement and is in fact the melody that Jan-Peter first started with.

Jan-Peter is a great admirer of the music of French composer Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013), and Jan-Peter is often inspired by Dutilleux's idea of exposition in reverse, where you first have the development and then the exposition of the subject. The beauty of this in the new concerto is that the little motifs are shaped and moulded during the journey into the final melody, which is their ultimate source, and he feels that this is a very natural process. In the second movement, these processes take a different turn and the soloist's cadenza builds a hostile environment, setting the soloist against the orchestra, and here Jan-Peter uses the example of the way a small cancer cell can spread by multiplying.

There is a long history of cello concertos from Vivaldi to Schumann and Dvorak to Elgar to Lutoslawski, but Jan-Peter tends not to listen to existing examples as this might be a bit distracting, if he looks too much there is a danger of the older concerto becoming a ghost hanging over his writing. Instead, he listened a lot more to chamber music and to the solo cello repertoire to see how much he could get out of the instrument. The only time he listened to cello concertos was when he was considering the technical aspects, getting the right balance between soloist and orchestra.

Jan-Peter de Graaff (Photo Brendon Heinst)
Jan-Peter de Graaff (Photo Brendon Heinst)
The Forest in April is Jan-Peter's fifth concerto (and there is another in the pipeline). He likes the concerto form because it is one of the most theatrical of classical music forms. Jan-Peter has written five music-theatre pieces and he likes the combination of music and theatre and enjoys the theatrics of a concerto such as using opposing forces to give tension.

He also enjoys writing for particular people, so that each concerto is tailored for the soloist; with the players of an orchestra, the process is somewhat less personal. When writing for a particular person, he also enjoys the trajectory of rehearsing and with Maya Fridman, Jan-Peter had four months of rehearsals that he describes as very intense and a fantastic process. The new concerto is a virtuoso piece and technically difficult. This is to some extent a reaction to Maya Fridman's playing, and many composers have written for her. But Jan-Peter also admits that he enjoys showing off.

He studied at the Royal Conservatoire in the Hague where the influences were Morton Feldman (1926-1987) and Louis Andriessen (1993-2021), and there was a suspicion of technical virtuosity for its own sake. But Jan-Peter likes the idea of lots of notes in a short amount of time, providing the writing goes with the instrument, but this virtuosity even if dramatically conceived was against the Hague school ideas. But he then went to study at the Royal College of Music in London with composer Kenneth Hesketh, and Jan-Peter found it a great relief to be told to do his own thing, and even encouraged to add more notes.

The other concerto on the disc, Rimpelingen (Ripples) was written in 2017 for Hans Woudenberg. It was written for his goodbye concert with the Asko|Schönberg ensemble. The commission had not been for a concerto, but when Jan-Peter realised the piece was being written for Woudenberg's his last concert, he suggested a concerto. Hans Woudenberg's playing was rather different to Maya Fridman's, and Jan-Peter found it interesting to work with her on Rimpelingen. The resulting interpretation was sometimes different to what he had originally intended in the music, but he is comfortable with that if the results fit the context. He also likes the idea of letting go of a piece, so that it becomes part of the performer. After all, music is a living art-form, it is made on the spot, at a particular moment in time by people who have their own thoughts on the music.

Earlier this year, Jan-Peter wrote Event Horizon for the 75th anniversary of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra (premiered in September 2021). This was based on a similar concept to The Forest in April as it explored humanity's relationship with physics. Jan-Peter is very interested both in physics and in human behaviour. He finds the idea of how people react to something abstract to be a hugely inspiring process. Rimpelingen (Ripples) is inspired by the idea of skimming stones across water and the patterns that they make. Jan-Peter sees everything as a chain reaction and comments that cause and effect is the most musical idea that you find in physics. When he was a boy, he saw a chain reaction demonstration at the science museum, where a large effect was created from a small cause. He finds this idea hugely inspiring and very poetic, and it is where some of his musical ideas come from.

When I ask what his music sounds like, he calls it very kinetic. It is definitely based on the idea of cause and effect, but it feels like a rollercoaster, thrilling and active with something always going on. He goes on to comment that his music is the opposite of minimal, but he also likes to subvert expectations through the music which gives his pieces a theatricality. He is also interested in the use of colour, shifts in colour density and speed which cause kaleidoscopic effects. 

Henri Dutilleux is a big inspiration. As is Alban Berg, for the combination of meaning, theatricality, philosophy and colour in his music. Other composers he names are Stravinsky, a god-like figure for every composer, and Ravel. This latter was Jan-Peter's first love, his music triggered Jan-Peter when he was just 14 or 15. Dutch composers he mentions include Theo Verbey (1959-2019) and, of course, Louis Andriessen. Initially, Jan-Peter stayed away from Andriessen as other Dutch composers were very influenced by him, but more recently Jan-Peter has found other aspects to Andriessen's music, a child-like wonder and fragility that has inspired him.

As a child, Jan-Peter had a passion for making sounds and he always wanted to be creative; in secondary school, his big passion was for film making. But he entered a contest for young composers when he was 15 and he realised that this was something he could develop. He had teachers who encourage him to audition for the conservatoire which led to him studying in the Hague.

Looking ahead, Jan-Peter is writing a new oratorio about Exodus, Het Gouden Kalf with a libretto by Jibbe Willems; the children of Israel in the desert whilst Moses goes up Mount Sinai, waiting, nothing happens and they build the golden calf. The premiere is planned for September 2022, with choir, string quintet, trumpet, oboe and percussion. He feels that the story resonates with our time, but he will also look at Handel's oratorios and see what can be made of them.

A recent work was the monodrama Parallax which was premiered this year and will be performed again in The Hague on 26 February 2022 at Festival Dag in de Branding. This is a drama about someone who believes that the earth is flat, and tries to convince the audience. Again, the work has relevance to modern-day conspiracy theories, but it is also a drama. It was written for the soprano Katrien Baerts, who Jan-Peter feels is fearless and can do extreme things with her voice. He describes the music as crazy but serving the drama, and adds that after all conspiracy theorists like to make a noise! The libretto is in English, by Eleanor Barlow, so Jan-Peter hopes that there might be the possibility of the UK premiere.

Another new work is his sixth concerto, a piano concerto for pianist Hannes Minnaar. It is being written for a piano luthéal. This is an instrument that Ravel used, a mechanical device that can make a piano sound like a harpsichord. Only one survives, a wooden one in a museum that was created to work with a Pleyel piano of the period. This is in a bad state, and a Dutch maker has made a new one to work with a modern piano. Jan-Peter's new piece will be the first concerto written for the instrument. The premiere is planned for May 2024 with Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Karina Canellakis.

Jan-Peter de Graaff: The Forest in April - Maya Fridman, North Netherlands Symphony Orchestra, Sander Teepen & Nicolò Foron - TRPTK

Never miss out on future posts by following us

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Elsewhere on this blog

  • Colour and movement: Patrick Allies and Siglo de Oro transport us to 17th century New Spain - concert review
  • Full of the joy of Christmas: music by Heinrich Schütz and his contemporaries from Arcangelo at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • Hymns to the Virgin: the Tallis Scholars at St John's Smith Square's Christmas Festival - concert review
  • The Other ErlkingSongs and Ballads of Carl Loewe, from Nicholas Mogg and Jâms Coleman - record review
  • Focused intensity and sheer joyful elan: John Butt and Dunedin Consort perform Handel's Messiah at Wigmore Hall  - concert review
  • Music and meaning: Handel's Messiah from Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge and Britten Sinfonia with conductor David Watkin at the Barbican - concert review
  • Something more raw, that goes back to the origins of the stories: I chat to composer Glen Gabriel about his new album, Norse Mythology - my interview
  • The comfort of the familiar mixed with the intriguing, the lesser known and the downright unfamiliar: The Sixteen at Christmas - concert review
  • Poetic imagination: Andri Björn Róbertsson and Ástríður Alda Sigurðardóttir in songs by Árni Thorsteinson & Robert Schumann - record review
  • Bird Portraits: Edward Cowie's amazing musical exploration of birdlife - record review
  • Meyerbeer's first opera, written when he was just 21, is finally available in a modern recording that enables us to begin to appreciate what we've been missing - record review
  • Celebrating the 300th anniversary of their publication in 1720, Bridget Cunningham records Handel's Eight Great Harpsichord Suites - record review
  • Home

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month