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Anne Ku at Ilp in May 2001
Anne Ku writes about her travels, conversations, thoughts, events, music, and anything else that is interesting enough to fill a web page. She has written and produced two chamber operas, premiered in Utrecht, Netherlands. See her publication list for more.
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Sir Peter Maxwell Davies in Amsterdam

His name sounded very familiar but his music not. Instinctively I knew the 4th December Amsterdam concert of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies was not to be missed. My English astrophysicist friend had declined my invitation with great reluctance. She wrote "Aaargh!!!! I am sitting here crying. I would KILL to see PMD - but I am hosting the institute seminar speaker for dinner that night!!" Another friend had skyped "It sounds awesome! I wish I could go. But I can't be in two places at the same time."

So it was a relief, after four attempts at finding a companion, that one friend was free this Friday night. To which I could only conclude that there is too much culture in the Netherlands, too many alternative activities one could do on a given evening.

Tucked away at our computers and laptops, connected to the rest of the world by the Internet, we are not available to meet face-to-face unless by prior appointment.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, knighted by the Queen of England and Master of the Queen's Music, spends most of his time tucked away on a remote island north of Scotland. He announced at the pre-concert interview that it was to be the last time he would conduct. He had too much music to write, he said. He would return to the Orkney Islands and compose, at least for the next five years.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies after radio interview in Amsterdam
After the public interview with Dutch Radio 4 at the Muziekgebouw aan't Ij, Amsterdam

After the concert, I asked Sir Maxwell Davies if he would truly stop conducting. He replied,"Maybe as a guest conductor. But first I must compose. Anyone can conduct my music but who can compose it?"

Indeed I was more curious to hear his music than see him conduct. He conveyed much during the half-hour pre-concert interview and in the short introductions before each of the four pieces. I felt he was approachable enough to blurt out my question after the concert. At the same time, I regretted that I hadn't requested an interview beforehand. He had a lot to say. A lot of important things too.

The bagpiper led us into the big hall of the Muziekgebouw aan't Ij

The concert began with an affectionate tribute and ended with a festive occasion. In between were pieces written about the Scottish struggle for its own parliament and a commentary on climate change.

The opening piece Jimmack the Postie (1986) is an affectionate homage to the postman on Hoy in the Orkney Islands, how he travelled by scooter, stopping at each of the 30 houses for coffee, beer, wine, or whiskey, and eventually finishing at night, too drunk to drive. Grateful for this vivid introduction, I let my imagination run free as the music was played.

Maxwell Davies wrote ten Strathclyde Concertos on commission from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The 4th is a clarinet concerto which stretches the limits of the clarinettist. Dimitri Ashkenazy, son of the famous pianist and conductor, walked on stage barefoot in an untucked black shirt. My companion, a former clarinetist, moved in his seat as Ashkenazy fluttered between low and high notes at presto pace. After playing continuously for quite some time, he stopped to clean and dry out his clarinet with a cloth, as though the break was written in the score.

When Ashkenazy resumed, the mood had changed. The earlier grim and heavy passages, alluding to the bloody battles and difficult periods in Scotland's history, gave way to a clarity led by the clarinet in tune with the rest of the orchestra albeit at pianissimo. He stayed soft, played long, and took us to a new level of awareness. It was an arrangement of a Scottish folk tune not in character with the previous section. Like a ray of hope after a long struggle, I felt a burdern lifted from me. And then, to my surprise, I felt my eyes moisten and my cheeks tingle. I told Sir Maxwell Davies afterwards that I wished this last section could go on forever.

Finding our seats before the concert began in the Muziekgebouw aan't Ij

I want to skip to the last piece, An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise. Commissioned by the Boston Pops Orchestra, Maxwell Davies chose to write about a wedding, the first one in 28 years in Orkney. Gramophone Magazine wrote "Davies is a master story-teller in this vividly detailed tone-painting of a rustic, often raucous, all-night wedding celebration." Not just the music, but the musicians were also smiling, smirking, and enjoying themselves as if they were playing at the wedding! As the night wore on, the music evoked memories of an Irish wedding in which the villagers, young and old, all came out to party till dawn. The celebratory mood made me regret that my own wedding near Amsterdam was not more festive and wild.

The all night wedding ended the next morning as the composer staggered out to the beach to witness a new dawn. From behind us, we heard a solo bagpiper sound. He had welcomed and led us into the big concert hall earlier. Now he walked on stage joining the rest of the Radio Chamber Philharmonic in leading us to the dawn of a new day. I was reminded of all the good things in life and how lucky we were to be alive. Tears rolled again. I never knew contemporary music to be so "affective!" I was touched beyond words.

Who is Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, British composer of avantgarde music, whose music touched me to tears? Contemporary music has shocked, inspired, and even bored me, but never touched me to such an extent. I cannot wait until 5th January 2010 when the interview and concert will be broadcasted on Dutch Radio 4. His is the music that I want to hear again and again.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies talks about composition and conducting

7 December 2009

Related links:
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
official website
Muziekgebouw aan't Ij
official website
Dutch Radio 4
official website
Personal reviews


The glass building of Muziekgebouw aan't Ij, which translates to "music building on the Ij" and opened in 2005, is a 21st-century architecture for 21st-century music.

On previous occasions I had always taken a train to Amsterdam Centraal and walked to the building.

On this evening, I was "chauffeured" from Utrecht in a car and landed in the basement parking area. The exit led me immediately to the ground floor of the building where I could get tickets, programme notes, and check-in my coat.