Spatial music: movement and sound in Nicolaikerk


Years ago, as a composition student, I was asked to write music to make use of the huge space in St Nicolas Church in Utrecht. Pressed for time, I adapted a piece for baroque recorders and baroque violin. Only at the premiere did I see the greater possibilities of space and movement.

On 29 Sept and 1st Oct 2016 Nicolaikerk in Utrecht celebrates the 60th anniversary of its “marcussenorgel”with a concert of adult and children’s choirs, trumpet, trombone, two organs, and two premieres.

As a member of the audience, I find it unusual to walk into the setting of a concert where chairs are arranged around the columns of the church and not line by line. The first challenge is to figure out where best to sit. That requires knowing where the musicians will stand. One can only guess that they will go to the music stands and the organs.

Before we even see the musicians, we hear the music. Voices float from afar and around. The members of the choir are among us or hidden behind columns. Once they emerge, the voices crescendo and blend as they converge. This piece is not even on the program. It’s a warm-up.

Soon I realize that I can’t see the musicians. Strange that we want to see what we hear.

I move from my comfortable seat between two gentlemen I know across to the other side to sit among strangers. It’s more important to see than to be comfortable.

The program booklet which cost 1 euro introduces the first piece “Music and Space” (1927) by Piet Kee which premiered on 6 July 1971 in Haarlem, a great city of great organs. This rondo for two organs and five brass winds is a powerful opening, followed by the more subdued children’s choir and organ performing Missa Brevis by Benjamin Britten.

The concert program alters between modern and old, atonal and tonal, almost deliberately to relax the ear. Hans Leo Hassler’s (1564 – 1612) Nun fanget an for brass quartet precedes the last two pieces, premieres of Christian Richter‘s work for two organs, mixed choir children’s choir and brass quintet and “Hegemony” for carillon. For the latter piece, we are given a glass of sparkling wine as we queue to go outdoors.

Concerts abound in this Roman city of cobbled stones and church bells. Even a church service commands great music. I think I’ll cycle to the dome church for the 10 o’clock service Sunday.

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