It is always a joy to be at a New European Ensemble gig, not least because you don’t know exactly what you are going to get. Will it be a straightforward concert with the musician sitting in a formal semi-circle or will there be lots more going on besides like the last time we saw them in a concert involving the pictures of Escher? Tonight’s concert in the Juarriaanse Zaal in Rotterdam’s de Doelen concert hall complex was very much of the latter type, adding two more dimensions – smoke and light, and very spectacular it was too.

This evening’s cut-down version of NEuE consisted of Felicia van den End on flute, James Meldrum on clarinet and pianist Malgorzata Walentynowicz with Rada Ovcharova on violin, Willem Stam on cello and Pepe Garcia at the back with his vibraphone and percussion. Brilliant though they all were, they were often in danger of being up-staged by the visual effects and at times played in almost total darkness. This really was a concert for ears and the eyes and a few more senses as well.

The concert started as dramatically as it meant to continue. Spotlights arranged above the musicians pointed straight down, the beams picking up the swirling smoke that engulfed the stage. Terry Riley’s piece In C started very slowly, each instrument slowly picking up the theme until it was like an express train thundering through a series of tunnels punctuated by a few peaceful pastoral scenes in between. There is a certain amount of improvisation in this powerful piece, allowing each musician to express themselves more freely.

The main part of the concert consisted of a couple of pieces by Salvador Breed, also responsible for the overall sound of the event, which melded seamlessly with Steve Reich’s potent Double Sextet.  This spellbinding work, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2009, provided the hub around which this concert was designed. For this composition, the on-stage line-up was the same but augmented by another on tape creating a strange effect whereby one wasn’t sure where the music was coming from – was it live or recorded?

It would be unfair to say this part of the evening was a vehicle for Nick Verstand but the two sequences involving his light sculptures were probably what we would remember most.

World renowned Dutch artist Verstand has worked alongside such eminent sculptors as Ai Weiwei and Anish Kapoor. He devises and creates the technology, both hardware and software, for his work which seeks to break down the barriers between music and the visual arts. He has created light art for the MTV Music Video Awards, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, SXSW and recording artists including Björk.

Verstand’s installations and live performances explore how emotional experiences can be materialized through collaborative design processes that break social boundaries, resulting in intuitive experiences that create a mesmerizing environment for the subconscious. This was evident in his contributions to this evening’s concert.

The first involved a horizontal beam of blue light which shone the entire length of the room. It contained swirling shapes which in turn looked like water or clouds. The shaft of light gradually widened until it became like a probing searchlight until slowly receding and disappearing. The second piece involved a similar blue light, this time in the shape of giant cone, the full height of the stage. It shone down, directly onto the musicians, swaying gently as it moved, its probing movement like the ominous searching ray of an alien spacecraft. The effect was breath-taking and, with the music, made for a memorable evening which I really enjoyed and set me wondering what the New European Ensemble would come up with next.  Michael Hasted  5th April 2024

Photo by Stijn te Hennepe

There will be further performances in Den Bosch on 6th April and at Korzo in The Hague on 19th April.