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Holland Festival 2018

George Benjamin is the composer in focus at this year’s festival. This concert by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Netherlands Radio Choir conducted by Martyn Brabbins shows the scope of his music. Dance Figures (2004) is packed with the lively and colourful contrasts for which Benjamin is famous. The vocal work Sometime Voices (1996), for baritone, choir and orchestra, is based on a description of the magical music in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It is the first piece by George Benjamin to use a singer and the start of his journey to writing opera. Tom Coult’s fast and changeable Sonnet Machine (2015), and Edward Nesbit’s In spite of the mere objectiveness of things (2016) will also be performed. Both composers studied with George Benjamin. Lastly, the Canon & Fugue (from The Art of Fugue) arrangement (2007) is George Benjamin’s tribute to Bach.


George Benjamin (1960)
Dance Figures (2004)

Tom Coult (1988)
Sonnet Machine (2015)
Dutch premiere

Johann Sebastian Bach/George Benjamin (1960)
Canon & Fugue (from The Art of Fugue) (2007)
Nederlandse première

Edward Nesbit (1986)
In spite of the mere objectiveness of things (2016)
Dutch premiere

George Benjamin (1960)
Sometime Voices (1996)
Dutch premiere

background information

George Benjamin is without doubt one of the most gifted orchestra composers of this time. After setting off to Paris as a sixteen-year-old prodigy to study with Olivier Messiaen, he made his BBC Proms

debut when he was just 20, with the orchestra piece Ringed by the Flat Horizon (1980). The masterful orchestrations of the work made Benjamin instantly world famous. Fluorescent mixtures of timbre and tone (often described as ‘French’) and an unerring sense of harmony are still characteristic features of his music. Benjamin’s work from the 1990s (including Sudden Time, 1993 and Three Inventions, 1995) distinguishes itself by a stronger emphasis on structure and form.

The music featured during the Holland Festival Proms illustrates how Benjamin takes the rich colouring of his scores and, through an iron grip on harmony and form, weaves it into a symphonic world of sound. One example is Dance Figures (2004), a suite of nine ‘choreographic sketches for orchestra’ full of sharp musical contrasts. From the pounding tuttis in ‘Hammers’ and the flowing melodies of ‘Song’ to the wondrous blends of sound in ‘Recit’, in which ingenious combinations of orchestra instruments create the illusion of an organ. The movements ‘In the Mirror’ and ‘Olicantes’ show Benjamin’s fascination for canons and other polyphonic techniques. This is also evident in Canon and Fugue (2007), an arrangement for chamber orchestra of a selection from Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge.

In Sometime Voices (1996), a work for baritone, choir and orchestra, Benjamin goes back to one of his best loved plays. Shakespeare’sThe Tempest is classic material for composers due to the many references to sound and music. One example is the baritone in Sometime Voices, who interprets parts of Caliban’s song from the third act, in which the monster sings of the magical music that sounds all around his island: ‘Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments / Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices’.

Tom Coult (1988), one of Benjamin’s students of composition at King’s College in London, also took his inspiration from Shakespeare, and specifically his poetry. In Sonnet Machine (2016) the rhyme scheme and 14-line sonnet form provided the blueprint for a composition in which five different ‘chunks of music’ follow each other more and more quickly, ‘like a machine spinning out of control’ as the composer explains.

The young London-based composer Edward Nesbit (1986) studied under Julian Anderson, before gaining a PhD in composition under George Benjamin. His orchestra piece In spite of the mere objectivity of things (2015), commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, contains hypnotizing melodies and sonorous harmonies that are coloured in with impressionistic orchestrations.