One of life’s greatest treats is to be driven somewhere far, far away, greeted with a warm welcome, treated like VIPs, fed a mouth-watering meal, and play music to one’s heart content.
That’s what we looked forward to on Saturday 2nd October 2010 when we drove 20 minutes to nearby Bilthoven to join French horn player Emile and biologist Annelies on the 2 hour drive northeast towards the Dutch/German border . [Emile drove the distance from Bilthoven to Sellingen.]
Sellingen is a Dutch town in the province of Groningen, some 25 km northeast of Emmen. If you keep driving east, you will cross the German border and eventually reach Munster.
The occasion for this visit was to meet Liesbeth, whose fame preceded her. I would have met her a year ago when she visited the Utrecht area but it didn’t happen for one reason or another. As her husband Willem had recently purchased a new Pleyel grand piano, it was a sure temptation for any pianist. The black beauty sat in the hallway waiting to be played and consumed by our entourage of musicians. Pleyel was Chopin’s piano, soft and romantic.
After we sat down for welcome drinks, we learned that Liesbeth had invited people to come to a house concert at 8 pm. This became the surprise concert, for we had not expected listeners after dinner. Had I known, I would have brought a change of clothing. Instead, Robert and I were casually dressed, not for the stage but for a family dinner.
Earlier when we were talking about visiting Liesbeth and Willem, Emile had suggested a house concert. Two weeks was very short notice and too much fuss. We settled for a dinner and music making — a whirlwind overnight stay in an 1870’s converted farm house.
Now sitting in the former stable of this house, we realised that we had underestimated the organisational prowess of Liesbeth, the hostess with the mostest. She moved gracefully like a ballerina on stage, poured drinks for us and made us feel at home. The table was set for a full-fledged Dutch dinner with traditional soup, baked sauerkraut casserole, sausage, and other traditional goodies which she had prepared with great care.
After the dessert, all five antique clocks took turns chiming 8. “We will stop the clocks for the concert,” Liesbeth said.
A neighbour noticed that we grimaced at the sound of the chimes. “You don’t like the ticking?” he asked. “Does it remind you of the metronome? Is that why?”
We left the dining table to get ready for the house concert. The neighbours had already sat down on both sides of the piano. The programmes were printed with images of the piano, guitar, and French horn. Inside the single folded cover was blank. We were to decide what we wanted to play.
Emile introduced Franz Strauss’ Nocturno, a piece that we had performed a year ago when we first started playing together. We had played it at Derek Gripper’s solo concert in the Monument House Concert Series. Franz was Richard Strauss’ father. Next we played another romantic piece, a transcription of the popular Fantasiestuck Op. 73 by Robert Schumann for clarinet and piano.
It’s at this point that I would play a solo. But the guitarist was eager to play. At first Robert sat next to the piano as he usually would. Those on the left side of the piano had trouble seeing him. Seeing is hearing. I suggested that he sit behind me so that the audiences on both sides of the piano could see him. It was a first for me — to have the other musician sit behind me where I cannot see.
I wanted a rest before playing Beethoven’s op .17 horn and piano sonata. I asked Robert to give a solo so I could sit among the audience.
Robert announced,”Usually I would play Requerdos d’Alhambra at this point. However, seeing that you’re a more sophisticated audience, I will play Barrio’s El Ultimo Tremolo.”
After the intermission in which wine and refreshments were served, we resumed with horn and piano.
And then, a surprise entree to the programme: the biologist Annelies picked up her oboe and played the first movement of Haydn’s Oboe Concerto in C Major. It was refreshing to hear the crisp and clear sound of the oboe after the French horn and guitar.
Words do not do enough justice to describe the 23 hours in Sellingen. We arrived at 5 pm and left at 4 pm the next day. We immersed ourselves in another world, another life, far from the madding crowds of Utrecht and more populated areas of the Netherlands.
We danced and sang into the wee hours of the morning in the garden house. We slept in beds reminiscent of days of “bedstees” — little covered closet beds that the Dutch used to sleep to keep warm. The stable and the house shared the same roof. A carpenter bought this house in 1972 and converted it into a bigger living space.
There is something truly magical about house concerts. Live foreground music brings people together to share the same listening experience. Afterwards the conversation is charged with energy and excitement. It’s a gift of the hosts to their friends and neighbours. It’s a gift to us musicians to perform in an intimate space to attentive audiences.
Thank you, Emile, Liesbeth, and Willem!