The Netherlands Radio Choir is composed of professionally trained singers with a repertoire from the Renaissance to the present. This versatility is directly related to the choir's role as a broadcasting ensemble and as a partnery of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. Their mission is to perform, alongside the ‘iron repertoire’, music that is not heard anywhere else, has not been discovered, is in danger of being forgotten or was recently composed. The programmes for the public broadcasting series NTR Saturday Matinee, Vredenburg Friday and the Concertgebouw's Sunday Morning Concert series, in which the Netherlands Radio Choir frequently performs, are living proof. The choir is also a regular participant in special productions of the Holland Festival and in ground-breaking concerts of public broadcaster NTR in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ; several times each season the choir works with other orchestras, including the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and the Berliner Philharmoniker.
“The Netherlands Radio Choir is one of the best-kept secrets in the world of Dutch music”, Siebe Riedstra wrote in the summer 2010 edition of Luister. “Around the world, professional choirs of this size are gradually becoming extinct." Riedstra was prompted to make this statement after listening to the highly-praised CD recording of MacMillan’s Sun-Dogs: “This a capella work allows the composer and the choir to show off their – not inconsiderable – capacities."
Since its founding in 1947, the Netherlands Radio Choir has built up an impressive record. The choir’s comprehensive repertoire and high quality standards demand a high technical level of the vocalists. Performing a Baroque oratorio in period style requires a different technique than producing a monumental choral sound in pieces such as Rachmaninov’s Kolokola or a moving ‘Aufersteh’n’ in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. The vocalists of the Netherlands Radio Choir distinguish themselves with a combination of high technical quality and a critical but passionate urge to convey to the audience unerringly not just the notes but also all the meaning inherent in them. According to Erik Voermans in het Parool, the effect is astounding: “That very first ‘Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n’ was sung by a hundred voices so softly and so beautifully that it almost made you cry. And when the dynamic floodgates were opened, the emotional impact was almost unbearable”, he wrote after hearing them perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and vocal soloists conducted by Mariss Jansons on 3 December 2009.
Shivers and goose bumps
The concert series of the public broadcasting system feature the Netherlands Radio Choir in productions that are mostly very demanding and programmes with attention to music that is unknown or undiscovered. These concerts – live or via radio and internet – generally attract a large number of listeners. The press, well represented, is equally enthusiastic. After Lohengrin and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, in December 2010 the Saturday Matinee series billed the third Wagner opera with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, the Netherlands Radio Choir and a phenomenal cast of soloists conducted by Jaap van Zweden. In De Telegraaf, Eddie Vetter called the performance of Parsifal 'sublime' and compared it to the quality of that Wagner Mecca, Bayreuth: “The Netherlands Radio Choir is in no way inferior. Their singing is so breathtakingly beautiful that it engenders an enervating combination of shivers and goose bumps. In the Netherlands, very few groups function as well as the radio ensembles.”
For many years, the Netherlands Radio Choir and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra have successfully fulfilled their mission. They carry out their distinctive programming at a high level and with conviction – which is certainly of great importance for the appreciation of a less-than-standard repertoire. In music that has fallen into oblivion, such as Walter Braunfels’s Te Deum, “the complex, often dangerously exposed part” as sung by the Netherlands Radio Choir is “simply overwhelming” (Eddie Vetter, de Telegraaf, 26 April 2011). A work like Anton Bruckner’s ‘Great Mass’ was staged with “sincere spirituality” by the Radio Chamber Philharmonic and the Netherlands Radio Choir “in top form” (Roeland Hazendonk, het Parool, 14 February 2011). In new work by composers reputed around the world such as James MacMillan, “The Groot Omroepkoor … sung at their best, with the final ‘Amen’ ringing out as a truly glorious moment”, according to Renée Reitsma (Bachtrack.com) on the Dutch première of MacMillan’s Nunc Dimittis. Operas that are seldom heard, such as Alfredo Catalani’s La Wally, receive an impassioned plea: “The choir sang magnificently. These professionals are not the least bit embarrassed by a sugary ‘Santa Maria’ or a ‘hahaha’ at the top of their voices" (Guido van Oorschot, de Volkskrant, 1 March 2010).
The choir’s exceptional reputation for its renderings of contemporary music yields them invitations to perform outside the Netherlands, such as in Tristan Murail’s Les sept paroles du Christ en croix, with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France conducted by Pascal Rophé in the IRCAM in Paris, June 2010, and the performance of the revised version one year later in the Festival Ars Musica in Brussels with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.
A capella singing is “the true test of advanced sound culture”, says Michael Gläser, the choir’s principal guest conductor. Each year it is a high point in the Vredenburg Friday, the collective name for the colourful broadcasting series in Vredenburg Leidsche Rijn. Not in the ultramodern Vredenburg location, but for the occasion in the Jacobi Church in Utrecht, the choir’s a capella singing provides proof of its versatility in a kaleidoscopic journey from the Renaissance to the present, from Schütz to Sandström, or in programmes featuring the music of composers such as Rachmaninov or Pärt.
The choir also regularly performs a capella in the Saturday Matinee series in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. In recent seasons the choir has sung major choral works a cappella, such as Schnittke's Psalms of Repentance and the Engel-Prozessionen written especially for the choir by Karlheinz Stockhausen.
As off the 2012-2013 season the chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Choir is Gijs Leenaars. As from September 2010, Michael Gläser has been principal guest conductor. Gijs Leenaars was preceded by Kenneth Montgomery, Robin Gritton, Martin Wright, Simon Halsey and Celso Antunes. Alongside these chief conductors is a choice selection of guest conductors. In the early years, smaller ensembles composed of choir members performed under Carel Laôut or Antoon Krelage and later Meindert Boekel and Frans Müller. More recently, the choir has worked with names such as Marcus Creed, James Wood, Kaspars Putnins, Sigvards Klava and Stefan Parkman. Together with specialists such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Frans Brüggen, Philippe Herreweghe, Ton Koopman and Jos van Veldhoven the choir applies itself to Baroque and classical music.
Montgomery and the Saturday Matinee series
Following the appointment of Kenneth Montgomery, the first official chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Choir, the choir more often gave public concerts, while the number of studio recordings declined. In particular, there were increased appearances with the present public broadcasting series NTR Saturday Matinee, which started in 1961. That was the beginning of the now impressive series of premieres of the work of 20th century and contemporary composers to which the choir has linked its name, such as Ligeti, Boulez, Birtwistle, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, Kagel, Reich, Wagemans, Keuris, Adès and Adams. Recent new additions are Rihm, Harvey and MacMillan.
In large-scale works for choir and orchestra, the Netherlands Radio Choir has given historic concerts with conductors such as Jean Fournet, Eugen Jochum and Carlo Maria Giulini. One of these historic events was the Dutch premiere in 1964 of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, conducted by the composer himself and Bernard Haitink. Comparable monumental works of Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Poulenc, Elgar and others are brought to life with today’s great maestros, including Jaap van Zweden, Markus Stenz, Paul Gaffigan, Sir Simon Rattle and Mariss Jansons.
The Netherlands Radio Choir sees it as its responsibility to play a role in training a new generation of choral conductors. Thanks in part to an initiative of the choir, the Eric Ericsson Masterclass for young choral conductors came into being. This Master Class has been held every other year since 2001. Teachers have included Eric Ericsson himself who gave it its name, Simon Halsey, Uwe Gronostay, Hartmut Haenchen, André Thomas, Martin Wright, Jos van Veldhoven and Michael Gläser. During the seventh Masterclass in June/July 2013 the choir did performe a work from Kurtág together with the ASKO Schönberg Ensemble under Reinbert de Leeuw.
The choir offers young professional singers an opportunity to gain experience as trainees in numerous productions. In Februari 2013, in collaboration with Zing Magazine, the second open day was held for singers in amateur choirs from all around the country. This sing-along was also a huge success.