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A conversation between Ralph van Raat and Robin de Raaff

by Frederike Berntsen

After premiering Robin de Raaff’s 2001 Piano Concerto, Ralph van Raat returns as a soloist in a piece by his composer colleague. Circulus was commissioned by the Holland Festival and written for Van Raat, as well as for the Amsterdam Gashouder. The two musicians talk about this new piano concert.

Ralph van Raat: ‘When I read the piano part of Circulus, I feel a kinship with the type of sound. The large number of tone colours in the part is grist for my mill. There’s nothing I enjoy more than playing with colours on the grand piano. I think the French expressionist idiom is wonderful. This work has the same richness of timbre.’

Van Raat leafs through the fresh score. When he sees the notes, his inner ear hears musicians’ music, music full of feeling in which intuition plays an important part. This intuitive element is essential, he says, because it is this which allows listeners to relate to what they are listening to. How the music is made, how the pieces fit together, does not matter to him as long as the feeling comes across.

Robin de Raaff: ‘You are very good at conveying stillness in a part, not just in sound but also with your body language. This has an enchanting effect on listeners. I kept that in mind while working on Circulus.’

Van Raat: ‘The piano concert Circulus forms a world in itself and has a personal idiom with a mystical element: I know it contains all kinds of things, but I don't see it all immediately. The piece only reveals itself gradually. You hear grandeur and amazement immediately in the first bars. The term sound space is entirely appropriate here. That’s what you enter as a player and as a listener, a sound space.’

De Raaff: ‘Not too long ago, I was on Crete with my daughter. One evening, we were looking at the sky, and all at once I was face to face with my own zodiac constellation, Sagittarius. I’d never experienced this before. And beside it, I saw my mother’s Scorpio constellation. I shared all this with my daughter.’

In that moment, De Raaff experienced what a generation means, the role time plays. He felt something like a full circle. This is what he looked for in his composition, too: the circle of life. ‘A piece is woken with a kiss,’ he says, ‘leads a life and dies in the end. The immeasurable vastness of the heavens, the tiny specks of light from the stars: I’ve tried to translate that into music. For quite some time, I had a lot of puzzle pieces. Most were in a different place than they are now, and only after a long time did I figure out how everything fits together.’

Visual music
‘You hear openness in many parts of the piece,’ Van Raat adds. ‘timelessness. Small motifs keep coming back, but in a different form. This gives a timeless effect, something you could stretch out indefinitely. When I look at the sheet music, this music seems highly visual, the notation corresponding with the type of sound. Images form in your head immediately when you listen to it.

I can’t play everything, by the way. Some chords are too wide for my hands. And for the moment when I have to press two pedals with one foot for a special effect, I need to have my shoes fit with a rubber sole, or else I won’t have enough grip. You ask a lot, but you also give the performer lots of room. They are always number one. You write for your audience and your musicians, not for yourself. It isn’t: “Ralph, it says pianissimo, go practice some more.” It’s all written down, but I’m the player, and I have my own style and ideas.’

De Raaff: ‘I’m always looking for the logic of what’s happening. Everything has to have a clear place in the piece’s story. The musical dramaturgy has to be right. I ask alertness as well as a quite extreme expression of the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.’

De Raaff looks for the relationship between the soloist and orchestra. There are not very many moments when the orchestra fully takes over. He discovered this a bit later. He had to add several pages of rest for the soloist to catch his breath. It is important for De Raaff that the soloist and orchestra have equal roles. He does not embrace the 19th century idea of the soloist in the front with the orchestra behind.

Van Raat: ‘I see a lot of fermatas, general pauses for all musicians. The tone’s dying out is incorporated into the composition. That allows me to play with the timing. There are so many factors to consider at the moment of the concert. I am dealing with a particular space, acoustics, fellow musicians, lighting and listeners. Even more so in this special case. The Gashouder is large and grand. The distances are considerable, and we are busy with theatrical aspects in a particular way.

In order to adequately respond to everything and everyone, it is important that you have the opportunity to do so. A note may die out beautifully, and you might feel that you can go on only seconds later. I feel my role in this piano concert is that of a guide. There is freedom to interact. Of course, I’m meticulously prepared. This concerns details on location, but quite important details that can make the performance a success.
It’s a challenge to achieve that clarity. To ensure all notes are heard, however soft. It’s quite difficult to play fast-paced figures lightly and breezily. Louder tends to be easier.’

An important source of inspiration for De Raaff was the Gashouder, the location where the piece will be first performed. The circular architecture, the idea of the circle, the clock, the ticking of human time. It was all on his mind.

De Raaff: ‘In the Gashouder, the audience is seated around the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. Percussion groups are situated to the left of, right of and behind the listeners. This is a spatial sound experience. The audience is embraced by the sound. Resonance is an important element in Circulus that is further emphasised by the space in which the performance takes place. In the beginning, you hear night fall, with the Gashouder’s dome roof above you. Gradually, more light enters the piece through the stars, and at last a constellation comes into view. The role of the audience is not just to listen, but also to experience. You have no choice but to go along. This is because of the spatial arrangement and how light comes into play.’

Robin de Raaff, Matthias Pintscher, Ralph van Raat, Radio Filharmonisch Orkest, Groot Omroepkoor
10 June 2022, Gashouder