Interview with Ralph van Raat
Bosmans Concertino and other Dutch composers
By Elizaveta Agrafenina
Photo: Heather Pinkham
In September 2011, Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat played the Piano Concertino by Henriëtte Bosmans with the Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest, conducted by Etienne Siebens at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.
This is to our surprise, the first and only time the work was performed since 2011. Why it has not been programmed since, is still a mystery to us, besides from the obvious fact that the music is of exceptional quality, strong melodic phrases and sensual orchestration – which makes it an exciting piece for a concert program.
I met with Ralph, as usual in our times on ZOOM, amidst another lockdown in The Netherlands. We talked about Bosmans, Dutch music scene and composers among other things – concerning musicians.
“In the 90’, before I studied at the Conservatory of Amsterdam, I was introduced to a CD with Dutch piano concertos by my teacher Ton Hartsuiker. The concertos on the CD were by Kees van Baaren, Ton de Leeuw and Henriëtte Bosmans, among others. I was very much inspired by the Dutch music and it formed my early musical education, together with my fascination with French Impressionist movement in music, with composers like Debussy and Ravel. The Concertino by Bosmans immediately made that list, because it had a lot of influences from French Impressionistic music – the best of the two worlds”.
Ralph van Raat suggested several times to different programmers of orchestras to play the Concertino, unfortunately without any luck, until in 2011- when he was contacted by Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest.
«As a musician it is your responsibility to find interesting music and bring it forward. There are programmers who know a lot about music, but not everything! We should also be part of the curating process and influence. When you ask a programmer to select a piece to perform, only one out of ten times it works. And it’s totally worth it».
Ralph van Raat stands out from the majority of Dutch classical pianists today. He dared to go a different direction and focused more on contemporary composers and established a major international performing career focusing mostly on 20th and 21st century composers. He has recorded many CD’s with works by Dutch and International composers such as Rudolf Escher, Theo Loevendie, Louis Andriessen, Robin de Raaff, John Tavener and John Adams.
When asked about female composers, he immediately named his favorites. He has collaborated and performed works by Vanessa Lann, Aspasia Nasopoulou, Heather Pinkham and Anne-Maartje Lemereis. He has commissioned several works and has a plan of recording a number of them.
« There is one female composer who I wish I could have met, the Canadian Ann Southam. I’m a big fan of her music – it’s amazing what she does”.
Here you can listen to Ralph’s favourite work Rivers (Set 3 Nr. 8)
“Last week, before we did our interview, I was listening again to the Concertino , I wanted to listen, after so many years – I wanted to hear it back. I wondered the whole time: Why have I played the piece only once? Why is it not the standard repertoire for piano or orchestras? Why do we only play the same few concerts?”
Concertino was premiered in The Netherlands in 1929 with Concertgebouw Orchestra under Pierre Monteux. The same year, The Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM), organized a festival in Genève. Bosmans’ and Emmy Frensel Wegeners’ works were selected to take part in the festival, to present Dutch music. Concertino was well received and Bosmans was praised by different critics. Only a few German critics were negative, besides criticizing her being a female composer, also saying that “Aus Holland komt dieses Mal nichts Gutes”. The third time Concertino was performed was together with Willem Pijpers piano concert. The review in De Maasbode were comparing the teacher and the student “Bosmans has been able to maintain a greater and stronger unity in her own work than Pijper himself in his own”, already then at the age of 33, she was competing with the leading composers and pianists in The Netherlands.
“Music by Henriëtte Bosmans –is so unique. On one hand, her tonal language is Debussy-oriented, and on the other hand, I hear Willem Pijper’s later works, especially the polytonality, jazzy octatonic harmonies. Bosmans was influenced by different styles and composers in her music, but what I find thrilling is the sensuality she brings to the works. Her orchestrations are beautiful and colorful, it has a dark, earthy grounded feeling to it, which I feel is very Dutch. I would even dare to compare what she does to Louis Andriessen. He was influenced by US minimalism and modernism, but the way he combines and uses it, blends into a cosmopolitan kind of music”.
A call to research and perform
Ralph van Raat is a musicologist and he is teaching 20th century piano repertoire for piano students at the Conservatory of Amsterdam and at the Accademia di Musica di Pinerolo, Turin, Italy. When he studied musicology at the University of Amsterdam, he can’t remember any specific lessons or courses offered on Dutch music, and that is unfortunately also the case at the Conservatory of Amsterdam today.
“There should be a course on Dutch music! Dutch music history is incredibly rich, I don’t know if I want to say the word important, because I don’t wish to sound patriotic, but what the Dutch did and what they still do is extremely interesting. The quality of music composition is of a high standard and we have a specific way of composing in The Netherlands. We not only have some distinct own styles such as created by ‘The Hague School’ of composers, but also our openness to stylistic influences and wide perspectives set us apart from other strong classical traditions. I see a similar attitude in American classical music, with for example the influence of jazz”.
Ralph always tries to have at least one lesson in his course on important music by Dutch composers. It is a big century to cover, but he manages to inspire aspiring pianists to think outside the box.
“My students at the Conservatory of Amsterdam are extremely talented and intelligent, but sometimes I’m a bit surprised on how little they know about contemporary composers. I find it shocking when a 4th year bachelor student doesn’t know who Louis Andriessen is!”
Louis Andriessen is considered one of the most influential Dutch composers of his generation. He passed away in 2021, leaving a strong legacy and influence in the Dutch music scene.
“You can’t really blame the students or audiences, if they lack knowledge because the music has not been presented to them. It is an important part of our education to introduce new generation of musicians to other composers than the standard musical canon. Some (many) years ago, the minister of culture implemented a regulation, that 7% of music played by orchestras should be Dutch. That was a great initiative and many Dutch composers could compete with international standards and well known composers. In order to engage audiences, we need something like that. I myself feel personally responsible”.
Dutch people are modest about their own music. In the conversation with Ralph, he is always trying to be humble and respectful. I had to push a bit in order to get to the core of why Dutch music is so important and why we should bring it to stage. There is always talk of big influences from neighboring countries, we speak in terms of German or French influences. In my experience, we are in general very afraid of nationalism – especially because of music being influenced and connected to nationalist movements in the past. Maybe there is a way for Dutch music to gain proper recognition in the present– without connecting it to a patriotic or nationalist movements.
Dutch Living Composers
I asked Ralph at the end of our talk, if there is a message he thinks is important or something we should pay more attention to. His advice was to listen and work with living composers. As an example; Theo Loevendie and Daan Manneke have a lot to say musically and verbally, especially because they are connected to the composers who are for us impossible to be in touch with.
“I was very lucky that my teacher Ton Hartsuiker introduced to me Dutch music when I was 14. I remember that he played a piece, without telling me what it was. I was flabbergasted, because it had all my favorite elements – jazzy harmonies, surprise, spontaneity, a strong pulse and an exciting energy. He told me afterwards that it was sonata by Willem Pijper and that he lived only 10 minutes away from me”.
“The Netherlands is a small country, and it brings the luxury of having everyone close by. The contemporary generation of composers can give us a great insight into music and should gain a much more important role in the way we program our music today”.
Ralph van Raat
Photo: Heather Pinkham
Pianist and musicologist Ralph van Raat (1978) appears as a recitalist in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Australia and the United States. Augmenting traditional repertoire, he takes special interest in the performance of contemporary classical music. He has worked closely with many composers on the interpretation of their piano works, with John Adams, Louis Andriessen, Tan Dun, György Kurtág, Magnus Lindberg, Arvo Pärt, Frederic Rzewski and Sir John Tavener. Many composers have dedicated their piano compositions to Van Raat.
Ralph van Raat performs regularly as a soloist with orchestras including London Sinfonietta, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Shanghai Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra and the Dortmunder Philharmoniker. He has worked closely with conductors including Tan Dun, Valery Gergiev, JoAnn Falletta, David Robertson, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Susanna Mälkki, Stefan Asbury and John Adams.
He has performed as a soloist at important festivals including the Gergiev Festival, the BBC Proms, the Festival International de Musique de Besançon, Holland Festival, the Time of Music festival in Viitasaari, Finland, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in the UK, the Berliner Festspiele, the Hong Kong Festival of the Arts and Tanglewood Summer Festival in the United States. He has been given his own concert series at both the Concertgebouw and Muziekgebouw of Amsterdam, and Rotterdam’s De Doelen.
In 2018, Van Raat performed his début at both New York’s Carnegie Hall and the Philharmonie in Paris, both to sold out halls, standing ovations and rave reviews. Since 2006, Van Raat has had an exclusive contract with Naxos. His first recording for Naxos (the complete piano works by John Adams) received top ratings in several magazines. Van Raat’s recording of Arvo Pärt’s piano repertoire received a 5/5 star rating in BBC Music. Naxos honoured him in 2009 with an Artist’s Box and in 2017 with an Artist’s Profile.
Ralph van Raat graduated with honors from both the Conservatory and the University of Amsterdam (musicology). He teaches contemporary piano interpretation at the Conservatory of Amsterdam and the Accademia di Musica Pinerolo (Turin). He also regularly gives masterclasses and lectures at several European conservatories and for many foundations and universities. Van Raat is a regular Jury member at competitions, such as the Orléans Concours International.