Holland Festival Proms:
Sometime Voices

George Benjamin, Tom Coult, Edward Nesbit, Radio Filharmonisch Orkest, Groot Omroepkoor

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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’s The 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.



The British composer George Benjamin (1960) was sixteen when he went to Paris to study with Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatoire. After further studies with Alexander Goehr at King’s 

College, Cambridge, he made his debut in 1980 at the BBC Proms with his orchestral piece Ringed by the Flat Horizon. This composition was followed by A Mind of Winter (1981) and At First Light (1982) works famous for their colourful orchestration and richly beautiful sound-worlds. In the 1990s the composer developed a more refined and formal style which led to Three Inventions for Chamber Orchestra (1995) and Palimpsests (2002). These were followed in 2006 by the chamber opera Into the Little Hill, Benjamin’s first piece for music theatre, performed at the Holland Festival in 2007. This work marked the start of his collaboration with dramatist Martin Crimp with whom he created Written on Skin which was premiered at the 2012 Aix-en-Provence  festival. This full scale opera was performed in the same year at the Dutch National Opera in Katie Mitchell’s highly successful production, and since then the work has travelled to about 20 opera houses around the globe. Lessons in Love and Violence (2017) is the third opera Benjamin and Crimp have created together.

Benjamin’s work is performed worldwide, often under his own direction. In his role as conductor he regularly appears with internationally renowned orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Sinfonietta, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Ensemble Modern. In 2015 he conducted the world premiere of his own Dream of the Song with the Dutch Royal Concertgebouw, an orchestra with whom he maintains a particularly close relationship. George Benjamin has frequently returned to teach and perform  at the Tanglewood Festival since 1999; he lives and works in London where since 2001 he has held the position of Henry Purcell Professor of Composition at King’s College London. In 2015 George Benjamin was made a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and he was knighted in 2017; he is Composer in Focus during the 2018 Holland Festival. 

The British composer Tom Coult (1988) studied at the University of Manchester with Camden Reeves and Philip Grange, and at King’s College London with George Benjamin. His work has been performed by many of the UK’s leading orchestras and ensembles, including a series of acclaimed large-scale pieces such as Beautiful Caged Thing for the soprano Claire Booth and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Sonnet Machine for the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, and Spirit of the Staircase for the London Sinfonietta, which was nominated for a South Bank Sky Arts Award.

In July 2017, Coult’s St John’s Dance was premiered by Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra to open the First Night of the BBC Proms. Coult’s works are characterized by a certain playfulness and sense of fantasy. For instance, Codex (Homage to Serafini), premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 2013, drew inspiration from Luigi Serafini's imaginary encyclopaedia, while My Curves are not Mad, written for the Britten Sinfonia, was inspired by Matisse’s playful cut-outs.

In October 2014, Coult was a featured composer at Soundings, the new music festival curated by the Fidelio Trio’s Mary Dullea at the Austrian Cultural Forum London. His awards include the Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund Prize and the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize. The 2017/18 season will see performances of his work by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Arditti Quartet, and the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. In addition, he is currently at work on an opera, with support from the Jerwood Fellowship of the Aldeburgh Music Festival. 

The English composer Edward Nesbit (1986) graduated from Cambridge University in 2007 with a first class honours degree in music. He then studied with Julian Anderson at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, completing a master’s degree in composition in 2008. Most recently, he completed a PhD in Composition at King's College, London, studying with George Benjamin. Aside from orchestral, ensemble and chamber music, Edward has a particular interest in vocal music. He has composed an extensive catalogue of choral music, in addition to his three song cycles, that includes In to Plain Ways, which won the New Music for St. Paul’s 2015, and was premiered in December of the same year at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Nesbit won the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition prize in 2010, and, three years later, the first Verbier Festival Academy Composer Prize, the latter leading to a commission for Night Dances, a string quartet, and later To Dance on Sands, for eight celli, which was premiered at the 2014 edition of the festival by eight leading cellists, including Gautier Capuçon, Clemens Hagen and Mischa Maisky. 

Nesbit’s works have been performed by groups such as the London Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Britten Sinfonia, in venues such as the Wigmore Hall, the Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican Hall. He is a teaching fellow in composition at King’s College, London, the composer in residence at Queen Mary University of London, and teaches 18th-20th-century music at Cambridge University. 

From 1986, British conductor Martyn Brabbins (1959) studied conducting with Ilya Musin at what was then the Leningrad Conservatory. After returning to the UK, he won the Leeds Conductors Competition in 1988. In that same year, an interim position at the Scottish Chamber Orchestra resulted in his definitive breakthrough. 

Within a couple of years, Brabbins was conducting the leading orchestras of the UK and Ireland. He also made frequent appearances at the BBC Proms. He was Associate Principal Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (1994-2005) and served as the principal guest conductor of deFilharmonie (the current Antwerp Symphony Orchestra) between 2009 and 2015. He was also the chief conductor of the Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra from 2012 to 2016. 

Brabbins regularly works with internationally renowned companies such as the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. 

Martyn Brabbins conducts a lot of British music: contemporary works, but also lesser known earlier pieces. He directed the first performance of Elgar’s The Kingdom by DeFilharmonie, for example. His debut with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2012 was with Harrison Birtwistle's Machaut à ma manière

Brabbins has been active as an opera conductor since his student days. Initially at what was then named the Kirov Theatre (now the Mariinsky Theatre) and more recently at La Scala (Milan), the Bayerische Staatsoper (Munich), The Dutch National Opera (Amsterdam) and the Opéra de Lyon. In 2016 he was appointed as Music Director at the English National Opera, where he conducted the world premiere of Nico Muhly’s Marnie during the 2017/2018 season, as well as a revival of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro

The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra (Radio Filharmonisch Orkest, RFO) has a prominent place in the musical life of the Netherlands. Established in 1945 by Albert van Raalte, since then it has been directed by conductors including Bernard Haitink, Jean Fournet, Willem van Otterloo, Hans Vonk, Edo de Waart and Jaap van Zweden. In 2012, Markus Stenz was appointed chief conductor. 

Since August 2013 the RFO has formed part of the Stichting Omroep Muziek, together with the Netherlands Radio Choir (Groot Omroepkoor) and the production department of the Radio 4 concert series (screened by public broadcasters NTR and AVROTROS). The majority of concerts form part of the series NTR Saturday Matinee and the Sunday-Morning Concert (both in the Concertgebouw), as well as the AVROTROS Friday Concert (at TivoliVredenburg). With its concert series Pieces of Tomorrow and Out of the Blue in TivoliVredenburg and the lunchtime concerts in the Netherlands Public Broadcasting Centre in Hilversum the orchestra reaches new music lovers of all ages. 

The RFO has worked with famous guest conductors including Leopold Stokowski, Kirill Kondrashin, Riccardo Muti, Mariss Jansons, Michael Tilson Thomas, Vasily Petrenko, Valery Gergiev and Vladimir Jurowski. James Gaffigan (US) has been the principal guest conductor since 2011.

Apart from specially programmed symphonic concerts and opera concertante performances the orchestra plays a lot of contemporary music. This often includes premieres, for example of works by Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, John Adams, Harrison Birtwistle and Richard Rijnvos – commissioned as part of the series NTR Saturday Matinee and the AVROTROS Friday Concert. The RFO also performed during the 2011 BBC Proms 2011 in the Royal Albert Hall and since 2015 it has also featured in the Holland Festival Proms annually. 

In 2014 the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra was awarded an Edison Classical Oeuvre Prize for its contributions to musical life in the Netherlands. As one of the main orchestras to play the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, in September 2017 the RFO received the Concertgebouw Prize together with the Netherlands Radio Choir. 

With sixty vocalists, the Netherlands Radio Choir (Groot Omroepkoor, GOK) is the country’s largest professional choir. Since it was established in 1945, the choir has presented a wide-ranging repertoire. It performs choral parts in operas, oratorios and cantatas, as well as a cappella concerts. The choir is closely connected to the Dutch Public Broadcasting Organization (Nederlandse Publieke Omroep, NPO). The majority of concerts form part of the public broadcasting series NTR Saturday Matinee, the AVROTROS Friday Concert and the Sunday-Morning Concert. The repertoire in these series varies from classical to contemporary and includes newly commissioned works by Dutch composers such as Jeths, Manneke, De Raaff, Roukens, Simons, Wagemans and Zuidam, and premieres of foreign composers including Adams, Glanert, Gubaidulina, Henze, Kancheli, MacMillan and Widmann. It also regularly performs 20-century classics by figures such as Boulez, Stockhausen, Kagel, Kurtág, Ligeti and Messiaen. For the broadcasting series the GOK often works together with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. The choir is also invited quite regularly to perform with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and the Berliner Philharmoniker. Kenneth Montgomery was the first official chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Choir, and he was followed by Robin Gritton, Martin Wright, Simon Halsey, Celso Antunes and Gijs Leenaars as chief choral conductors. Since1 March 2015, Klaas Stok has been choirmaster of the Netherlands Radio Choir. Michael Gläser has been the choir’s regular guest conductor since September 2010. In September 2018 Peter Dijkstra will start as primary guest conductor of the Netherlands Radio Choir. In 2017 the GOK – along with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra – was awarded the Concertgebouw Prize for its important contributions to the artistic profile of the Amsterdam concert venue.



George Benjamin, Tom Coult, Edward Nesbit
musical direction
Martyn Brabbins
choral conductor
Bart van Reyn
performed by
Radio Filharmonisch Orkest, Groot Omroepkoor, Audun Iversen, baritone

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