September 2020 marked my first professional job outside of my studies: a re-invitation to conduct Asko|Schönberg in a recreated programme from January the same year, remembering composer/conductor Reinbert de Leeuw.
As far as work during lockdown went, this was a the greatest start to my professional conducting career: performing Jan van de Putte’s Diese Freiheit with Asko|Schönberg and Alto Gerrie de Vries, at De Doelen in Rotterdam and in a NPO4 radio broadcast from the Stadstheater Arnhem. The project was a surreal experience for us all, as it was in many cases the first thing that we’d done out of lockdown, however once we started, everything felt familiar from January and it ended up being a wonderful introduction back into the real world.
The morning of the Arnhem concert however, everything came crashing down on us. From the high of our première in Rotterdam, we woke up to the news of a serious surge in COVID cases across The Netherlands (bearing in mind that this was before a vaccine had been developed) and there was a high likelihood that our show would be cancelled. None of us knew what would happen and it was only 90 minutes before the general rehearsal that I got the call saying that the show would go ahead. The very next day, however, the entire country went into lockdown.
In January 2020 I was assisting Manoj Kamps and Asko|Schönberg at the Muziekgebouw, Amsterdam, as part of my studies in the National Master Orkestdirectie. The original brief was to learn a series of works for the ensemble’s concert series: “Words and Music”, focusing primarily on Morton Feldman’s “For Samuel Beckett”, together with a series of other new pieces. While this was going on, I got a call telling me that another show they were doing simultaneously needed another conductor to stand in for Reinbert de Leeuw.
Reinbert had originally opted to conduct and play piano simultaneously, however due to his health wasn’t able to fulfil either completely. To this point I had heard very little about Reinbert and didn’t know him personally, but many people held him in very high musical regard so I saw this as an absolute honour.
[Quick note on covering generally: In the past I’ve had to fill in for numerous conductors at short notice, whether it be for a rehearsal or concert, and although it seems like every young conductor’s dream on the surface, it always turns out to be a strange situation. A lot of the time your mind is on the wellbeing of the conductor who’s had to pull out for whatever reason (I’ve had everything from flight delays to family troubles to mental breakdowns), but at times you’re greeted with a real feeling of hostility and get the feeling that the orchestra or management would rather cancel the occasion instead of continue with a cover, so the pressure of making everyone suddenly feel at ease is immediately doubled. The positive is that if the performance isn’t a complete catastrophe, the unwritten rule is that you’ll come back the next season.
I believe that my time at Chetham’s School of Music prepared me best for these situations: firstly, if you train in the UK you learn to sightread flawlessly, therefore being able to learn anything quickly and perform with no rehearsal in a very high pressure situation is second nature for me. Secondly, I’m a big believe of the phrase “Keep calm and carry on” – however cliché that may be as a Brit who sounds at home at Downton Abbey.]
Jan van de Putte’s Diese Freiheit is monodramatic musical poem for contralto, ensemble and electronics. At first, having read through the text, I thought the work was based on the mental decline of Miss Havisham, however having talked with the composer he mentioned that the piece was in fact based on a text by Franz Kafka..
I was handed the score around 4 hours before starting my first rehearsal. This wasn’t the unusual or daunting part of the experience, but 3 of those 4 hours were spent assisting Manoj in a separate rehearsal. This rehearsal was followed by a meeting with the chief technician, who wanted to know about my requirements from the “Disklavier”, the only part of the score that utterly baffled me, as there was no introduction written. I’ll never forget the sight of walking into the hall and discovering a grand piano suspended 5 metres above the stage (which I discovered later was a reference to Kafka’s castle in the clouds).
This covering job was unlike any other I’d done in my life, mostly because Reinbert didn’t actually pull out at all and was absolutely furious at the thought of my presence. On stage, he was sitting at an upright piano facing the ensemble, while I was hidden away – used only as a practical tool and not a public accessory. (Something I was ok with, the show wasn’t about me and everyone else involved was relieved that I was there. Gerrie remains one of the greatest and most self-reliant singers I’ve ever worked with – an absolute tour de force.)
At first, Reinbert did not like me. I was aware that he had a reputation of being far from a kind and gentle soul, so did my best to balance “killing with kindness” with standing my ground and getting the job done. Considering he was one of the famous Notenkrakers, one of the greatest figures of Dutch contemporary music, I knew he was the centre of attention. However, being as frail as he was, it was no surprise that physically he was past his prime and not willing to accept it. My least favourite part of the process was the beginning of the work: considering I was following a piano in the sky on a timed soundtrack (and that I have a generally solid feeling for tempo), it was extremely irritating having Reinbert constantly shout the incorrect tempo above me, which always caused confusion among the other musicians.
Throughout the week though, he did warm to me and we formed a more amicable relationship as the concerts approached (at times these big personalities come around eventually). It was awe-inspiring to see him at work, being able to perform works by Shostakovich, Klaas de Vries, Kurtág and his own adaptation of Schubert’s “Der Doppelgänger” (which worked incredibly effectively), while throwing all caution to the wind to fulfil one’s passion. Deep down I had a feeling that he’d be at least retiring soon, but I had no idea that it would be his last time ever on stage.
Both projects will stay with me forever, but the first was something unique. At the sound of applause I didn’t immediately go to the front: it wasn’t my place. Although he was far from the most likeable man, I’ll remember Reinbert with a unique from of fondness.