Philharmonia Orchestra Music of Today – Michel van der Aa

Van der Aa
Just Before
Mask [UK premiere]

Banjamin Kobler (piano)

Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Baldur Brönnimann

Michel van der Aa in conversation with Julian Anderson

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 9 October, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Michel van der AaOne of the most worthwhile aspects of the Philharmonia’s early-evening and free “Music of Today” series (now in its sixth season under the directorship of Julian Anderson) is the opportunity to hear music by those composers who are known but, as yet, little heard in the UK. Such is the case with Dutchman Michel van der Aa (born 1970), whose work in music and film marks him out among the most inclusive and wide-ranging of younger composers. This brace of instrumental compositions was a good opportunity to find out why.

Illness prevented soprano Claron McFadden from participating, so all credit to pianist Benjamin Kobler for appearing at short notice to perform Just Before (2000). This is a notable instance of van der Aa’s cross-disciplinary pursuits – its designation “for piano and soundtrack” referring to an electronic component that disrupts the solo contribution as well as inciting it to greater expressive extremes founded on those of rhythmic repetition and chordal-based lyricism as set out near the beginning. A confrontation, without resolution, that Kobler unfolded with absolute security of focus, with the composer (who initially trained as a sound engineer) directing proceedings from an off-stage console.

On the basis of this ‘portrait’, it might not be unreasonable to think of Van der Aa as a composer who is concerned less with original ideas than with expounding an individual perspective. Nothing heard in either of these pieces seemed startlingly new, but the handling of them was as distinctive as it was arresting.

The more so with Mask (2006) – a work “for ensemble and soundtrack” in which the latter is an understated but always present context which at length ‘turns the tables’ on the ensemble’s capricious behaviour before assuming dominance by drawing the latter’s content into its own domain. The sound of masking tape being peeled away is a constant feature during the earlier stages, yielding latterly to a metronome that more candidly marks time as the piece passes into muted withdrawal.

A fine performance by members of the Philharmonia Orchestra, under the able direction of Baldur Brönnimann. Van der Aa has a major music-theatre work, “The Book of Disquiet”, being premiered in Linz during January and an orchestral song-cycle for Amsterdam next March. Hopefully one or other of these will find its way here before long, so building upon the foundation laid by this worthwhile “Music of Today” event.

  • The next Music of Today concert, featuring the music of Gérard Grisey, is on Sunday 30 November at 6 p.m.
  • Philharmonia Orchestra
  • Philharmonia Orchestra information:
    Freephone 0800 652 6717

  • Southbank Centre

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