Shortly before the world stopped turning around as usual, in December 2019, I had the pleasure of conducting again at the beautiful Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, one of my favorite concert halls in the world. While I was there, I reached out to Carine Alders, who coordinates the Leo Smit Stichting. Whenever I travel for work somewhere I like to immerse myself with the local culture, and to recognize gems that I could do research about share with audiences back home. The purpose for me was simple: to become acquainted with some of the most important (forgotten, neglected and also new) voices of female composers in the Netherlands. Our meeting was very helpful, and Carine shared with me recordings, scores, and much information. Mathilde Wantenaar‘s name came up, and when I researched on it a little bit I found her music fascinating, refreshing and very original. This is how I decided to program it for our upcoming concert with the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, on November 20, 2021.
Christian Baldini: Mathilde, it will be a pleasure to conduct the US premiere of your orchestral work “Prélude à une nuit américaine”. I find this work extremely fascinating, beautiful, with very subtle orchestration and also particularly reminiscent of Bartók and Debussy. Tell me, what is the genesis of this piece? How did you approach writing it? How would you explain your compositional process, and does it change much from piece to piece?
Mathilde Wantenaar: I improvise a lot on the piano, this is also how I started composing as a child – I was supposed to be studying pieces for my piano lessons, but would wander off in my imagination and start playing around with the notes, inventing little melodies and pieces. As I improvise, or play an existing piece, I might find something which draws me in, a chord or a melody or a little motive and I start playing around with it. Once I have some material I might look for some more contrasting material perhaps and also think about the form. Sometimes the form comes first, though, or I have an atmosphere in mind while I start improvising or if the starting point is a text, everything changes and I start by reciting the text, learning it by heart and trying to hear the music that is hidden in it. So it does change from piece to piece.
CB: What would you say to someone who has not listened to your music yet? What should they listen for? Ultimately, what do you hope listeners will take with them home after experiencing one of your pieces?
MW: For me music is about beauty, but I mean this in the broadest sense (so not just pleasant music, although there is nothing wrong with pleasant music either in my opinion). I think that artists all over the world are making a collective effort to look for and bring forth beauty just like scientists all over the world are making a collective effort to discover truth. But every artist has their own approach and highlights different aspects, which makes the musical landscape so rich and diverse. I try to capture and present the musical aspects that I myself find thrilling or touching and offer them to the musicians and listeners in the hope that it might touch them the same way that the music I love touches me. Some of my favourite musical aspects are lyricism, I love it when the music sings, long lines and a sense of direction, the building of tension, unabashed dramatic gestures, playing with different textures and atmospheres which can be far-away, misty and magical or golden, shimmering and triumphant and anything in between.
CB: What are some of the things you care about the most when it comes to music (both new and old)?
MW: You are asking some pretty intense questions haha. Let me think… I think I should refer back to my previous answer. Music is about beauty and communicating beauty, first with the performer who is to interpret and add their own musicality to the piece, and via the performer the piece is communicated to the listener, whose imagination is also unleashed, hopefully.
CB: You are still very young, and you’ve developed a remarkable career already. Can you tell us about some of the most important or inspiring experiences and/or people that you’ve had so far? What has helped you or inspired you to continue growing and excelling as an artist?
MW: When I was still in high school, there was a project with the renowned ASKO|Schönberg ensemble, for whom we got to write a piece which was then performed in the beautiful small hall of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. This was such a great experience that I decided to go for it and study composition at the Conservatory of Amsterdam. I have had many more inspiring experiences after that, because writing a new piece and working all kinds of musicians is always an adventure, but one of my most recent important experiences was the première of my second orchestral piece ‘Meander’, performed by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Lahav Shani. Lahav is a brilliant conductor and I was quite nervous to be working with him to be honest, because I looked up to him so much, but he was so kind and warmhearted and also gave me some very useful feedback to further improve my orchestral writing. I greatly appreciate it when the people who perform my work, not just the conductor but also individual musicians, share their experience and thoughts with me. It means they find it worthwhile and it allows me to grow.
CB: Is there anything that you would change in the so called “classical music” world? Are you at all interested in other genres, in crossover, or other variants of possible collaborations? (Are you also interested in composing an opera, perhaps?)
MW: I really like the classical music world. It is such a wonderful tradition with immense beauty to offer. Of course a bit more new music on the program never hurts, but perhaps I am not completely unbiased on that front haha. But seriously, I do think it is important to focus also on programming new works so that the classical music tradition really stays alive, instead of a beautiful but ancient piece of art in a museum. And as for ‘other genres’, I think new music is new music, you never know what it will sound like and what it will sound like is up to the composer. It can be crossover like you mentioned, if the composer feels that is an interesting path to explore, but in any case it is good to give many different people the opportunity to write and be performed, so we musicians, listeners and composers alike can be inspired and the music continues to grow and live on.
CB: I’d like to ask you to dream of a music festival for which you’d be the artistic director. What would you program? Which guests would you invite? Which orchestras and/or ensembles would be featured? (to make it even more difficult: you’d have unlimited funds!) – if possible, please provide two or three sample programs.
MW: Christian, what a question! I feel like my head might explode, I would need weeks or months even to think about that question! And I am still trying occasionally to write some notes also… I am sorry I cannot come up with something right on the spot. In any case, referring to your previous question, I think it is always nice to combine ‘old’ and ‘new’ music in a program. When I go to a concert I want to hear the treasures form the past as well as experience something new and fresh and anything in between. It’s no revolutionary stance I think, but I strongly believe in it.
CB: Thank you very much for your time Mathilde, I look forward to performing your music and to sharing it with our audiences!
MW: Thank you and all the musicians for performing my piece! And the audience for listening of course. I wish I could be there, but Davis is a little far from home (Amsterdam, the Netherlands) for me. I just looked it up and read it is the most popular city in Yolo county, which sounds like a place worth visiting, so who knows one day… In any case good luck and fun with the performance! I hope you and the listeners will enjoy it 🙂
Amsterdam born composer Mathilde Wantenaar (1993) started her studies at the Amsterdam Conservatory, where she studied classical composition with Willem Jeths and Wim Henderickx and subsidiary subjects including piano, cello, classical voice and advanced rhythm.
Wantenaar’s music has been described as lyrical, enchanting and eclectic yet authentic. The combination of her craftsmanship and openness to a broad array of genres make Wantenaar a very versatile composer. She works with individual musicians, both vocalists and instrumentalists, as well as small ensembles, large orchestras and everything in between, and is especially interested in creating opera.
After her first chamber opera premiered during the Opera Forward Festival 2016 of the Dutch National Opera Wantenaar completed her composition studies and was admitted to the Royal Conservatory of The Hague to study classical voice with Rita Dams and Noa Frenkel where the goal was to further develop her musicality, explore the art of singing in depth and learn more about drama. This proved to be an invaluable experience with regards to her vocal writing in particular, but also her compositional approach in general.
For three years Wantenaar divided her time between her composition practice and vocal studies, until she got her first orchestral commission (Prélude à une nuit américaine for the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra) as well as an opera commission (Een lied voor de maan for the Dutch National Opera) in 2019 and decided it was time to focus solely on composition from now on.
Wantenaar has written for, and collaborated with, the Dutch National Opera, the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, the Netherlands Radio Choir, the Dutch Wind Ensemble, Amsterdam Sinfonietta, Wishful Singing, Liza Ferschtman, Ralph van Raat, Johannette Zomer and many others.