Sieuwert Verster (68, Wednesday 69) has for more than forty years been director of the eighteenth-century orchestra, which he founded and expanded together with flutist and conductor Frans Brüggen (1934-2014). He calls the orchestra a ‘lucky machine’ and likes to talk about it, which he has to do a lot these days, just after saying goodbye to it.
When I enter his house in Amsterdam, we immediately talk about the Vossius Gymnasium, which we both attended a long time ago in different years, and about the teachers of the time. Verster tells, and it shows how a poem, i.e. a work of art, can affect your life: ‘Todesfugen’ by Paul Celan, which the German teacher, who was passionate about literature, read with the class, made a crushing impression on him. He memorized the poem. A few years later – Verster was studying musicology and dramaturgy at the time – he met a man at Siena station at six in the morning who was a little drunk in the restoration. They started talking and the man turned out to be a German teacher at the university, and he was celebrating that he had just received an award for his translation of, well: Todesfuge. The young Sieuwert immediately broke free and a contact was made. He studied a one-act play by Luigi Pirandello with the teacher.
With tea and biscuits, it turns into a pleasantly long and meandering story, which turns out to be more about happiness. The one-act play was called ‘The man with a flower in his mouth’, and that flower represents a tumor in the throat. Now, in the play, the two men met at a station – everything rhymes in this story – where the train is not running. The man with the flower in his mouth, who is probably doomed, thinks everything is beautiful: the morning light, the meeting, you name it. The other man, a man who has everything, can only be excited about the lost train. The discrepancy in the two’s experience of happiness.
The story continues. Through the one-act he met a Polish young woman whom he later followed, but then it turned out that she was already engaged, so it didn’t work out, but the fiancé’s father was the primarius in a string quartet, and he gave him a whole stack of records with among other things, music by a Polish composer. Now he has a record label, Attacca, on which he publishes contemporary music, and soon a CD will be released with music by this Grazyna Bacewicz.
“So this is an example of how if you remember a German poem once, anything can happen.”
It can also serve as an example of Verster’s sunny outlook on life and his ability to react to what arises. That’s how he actually started the adventure with the eighteenth century orchestra, although that’s not correct, because there was no orchestra in the eighteenth century yet, but there was Frans Brüggen.
“As a young man, Frans Brüggen traveled to Italy with Louis Andriessen on the back of a scooter to ask the composer Luciano Berio for a piece for recorder. He succeeded, he became friends with Berio and then he bought Berio’s house in Liguria, because Frans made a lot of money with all the recorder concerts all over the world. He knew my parents, and they had a house in Tuscany and Frans said: I would like to see that, and then he would also have a house there.”
IT’S THE ARTS THAT SAY AND LIFT US EVERY TIME. THAT’S WHAT IT’S ABOUT FOR ME
Brüggen bought a magnificent view with a ruin on it and Verster’s father, who was an architect, drew up a restoration plan. Sieuwert set himself up as the person who would oversee the renovation of the ruins. At that time he already knew a thing or two about early music, and he already knew Brüggen himself, having done administrative-musical work for him as a student job, at his home.
Frans often played early music during the recitals before the break and contemporary music after the break, many pieces by Louis Andriessen. Some of those pieces were with a tape recorder, and then I went along, and then I had to turn on the tape at the right time. Nervous, of course.”
Thus the friendship was born, and so everything always intertwines in a wonderful mixture of chance, eagerness, receptivity and determination.
“Everything always comes naturally to me. That’s one of the reasons why I wonder if it even makes sense to have this conversation with me. I’m often approached by people on the street who say: should I comfort you or do you want some antidepressants, apparently I can look very sad You know Tolstoy’s first line Anna Karenina? “All happy families are alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The truth is, I’m one of the happiest people I know, so I feel like I don’t have much to say about what makes life worth living.”
But why should there be nothing to say about happiness? Because Tolstoy says so now…
“At my last concert as a director in Amsterdam, the mayor gave a speech that I have sat on a committee with for a year or two. Finally she said: ‘I appreciate your intellectual depth and humour’. Well, it has caused quite a bit of ridicule from my orchestra friends, my children and my wife, for intellectual depth, I have to disappoint you in that, that, no…”
Enjoying things is also worth it, I think, and immediately he starts talking excitedly again about his four grandparents, who are all inspired by something, and how he himself knew in high school that he wanted to become something in music.
“Music was the voice of the planet for me. But: I can’t compose. I played the piano, clarinet and violin: miserably. That’s not modesty. So I went to study musicology because I thought: that’s the solution.”
What do you mean by ‘music is the voice of the planet’?
“That it is the art that wins every time and lifts us up. That’s what it’s all about for me. When it comes to music, you have three groups of people, apart from the people who don’t like music at all: People who like music, that’s a lot; people who know a lot about music, there are fewer of them, but also many. But there are very few people who really understand and can also explain why something works, so that you suddenly get a kick in the stomach and think: that’s it. And I have been able to experience that many times in the 40 years with the orchestra.”
And what is ‘understanding’ then? So what do you want to understand?
“I can’t explain that to you.”
But maybe we can get a little closer.
“It has to do with the fact that you think you can put yourself in the head of the composer at that moment. That you think: now I understand what he or she wanted. When Frans died I thought: I want to leave a monument to him. Then I went to Louis Andriessen and he has it Able to written, on fragments of Gorters Able to. In that piece I hear a kind of tenderness that I’ve always suspected Louis had, but he hid it under a lot of noise and stamping. Now Daniel Reuss made [de dirigent van Capella Amserdam] the wonderfully audible, with so many of those moments where you really feel the hairs on the back of your neck rising that you know: this chord is absolutely brilliant, it couldn’t have been anything else. It’s a kind of inevitability, you feel it and think, ‘Ah! it’s instrumentation’ and suddenly everything changes. That you kind of have to wear a bigger shirt to accommodate the feeling of happiness.”
So it is real knowledge. You can hear: it should be this chord.
“Music is craft, science, knowledge and art. Everybody. With the greatest of all, mastery of the craft, scientific awareness and drive for innovation, doing something a little differently than your predecessors did, combined with brilliant talent, led to things you could not have imagined.”
Back to that moment of insight: what do you want to understand?
“Of course you are jealous or impressed by people who can do something. You would prefer to know: how does someone come up with this? What happened here, that somebody suddenly comes to this beat, to this orchestration, to this development, you name it.”
Do you want to understand what the composer intended or do you want to understand what is happening here?
“I think it’s more or less coincidental.”
I do not think. Isn’t the piece bigger than the maker? It makes art interesting.
“Yes, if it is true, it must transcend man. But that’s what I mean by craft: It starts with knowledge and then mastering the craft to be able to use that knowledge, learn to write fugues and so on, in combination with the divine spark that only that one person can conceive in that moment . be. It is the three layers that suddenly give you the feeling that you are getting closer. Like you get more intelligent ears or you discover that there is another color besides the colors you already knew. It’s, it’s… revelation sounds so religious, but I often start a concert as a heathen and I get extremely religious.”
MUSIC IS CRAFT, SCIENCE, KNOWLEDGE AND ART
But that wasn’t his job. His work as director must have looked a lot more practical, I suppose. He shows the schedules he made for the orchestra’s last major tours, the 181st to the 183rd. It always says where they are, what they are playing, who is the conductor and who is the concertmaster, which soloists are allowed to perform, who are in the orchestra, when and where they practice, how they travel, when they eat.
“I studied musicology, I used to play a lot and I was a cowherd for two years. These three things together were, according to Frans, the ideal training package to keep such a group together. A trip actually requires total direction: we come together from our 21 countries, we hug each other, we show pictures of our partners and our children, we condole the death of parents and go to work. And then there is an arc from the first rehearsal to the closing applause of the last concert. The total arc, the direction, that was my task, and then I also thought about where we should play and what we should play together with Frans and with input from the orchestra. And yes, of course I also had to book hotels and flights and things like that.”
According to him, the organization of this was very good. He worked for forty years only with Ineke, a former dancer, and then they mostly sat at home and figured it all out. He loved traveling with the orchestra all these years, he says.
“Of course, we were also very successful. It was almost always sold out everywhere. And then you go to the hotel – yes, now we are a bit older, although there is a young generation again – and we sat in the bar until two o’clock and talked about what we were going to do the next day. It was adventurous, we felt that we were immortal, that we conquered the world, that we helped the music move forward, that we found interpretations that… I know sometimes I thought if another orchestra had published a Beethoven cycle: ‘Well, we ‘already done it, couldn’t it be better?’ Of course it’s nonsense, but we were so happy.’
You keep talking about ‘we’ now, but you were the only one not making music.
“Yes. It was bad at times, of course I also felt lonely at times because of it. But yes, on the other hand, we were there because I had conceived and organized it. Any sadness has been fully compensated by the joy that I have helped accomplish something. And that so many people have experienced so many extremely happy moments.”