New European Ensemble & MC ESCHER at Kunst Museum Den Haag

Poor old MC Escher is being a bit upstaged at the moment. It’s Johannes Vermeer who is currently getting all the attention and the unfortunate Maurits Cornelis hardly gets a mention. Now, admittedly, Mr Escher could not handle a paintbrush but then name me a Vermeer drawing or print if you can.

Escher inspired a whole generation of illustrators and designers through the 1970s and 80s, so much so that he almost became a cliché, suffering from severe over exposure – although it must be said that I have never seen an Escher reproduced on a bicycle bell like I have with The Girl With a Pearl Earring.

Well, the dust has settled and Escher has regained some of his respectability and to complement the major exhibition at the Kunstmuseum in The Hague commemorating his 125th anniversary, The New European Ensemble has created a musical/visual spectacle par excellence.

The New European Ensemble is orientated around the brothers Stam – artistic director Emlyn on viola and Willem on cello. They created Metamorfosen in collaboration with Carolien Teunisse of Deframe, who did the visuals, and conductor Vlad Maistorovici.

The concert took place in the main central hall of the Kunstmuseum where a stage and the orchestra had been set up behind a huge gauze. The wonderful thing about the theatrical use of gauze is that if it is lit from the front it is opaque and appears solid but if lit from behind is totally transparent. Both these aspects were exploited in Metamorfosen with the orchestra dimly lit with soloists occasionally being in the spotlight. Meanwhile images by Ms Teunisse were projected on the gauze, all of which were based on, or inspired by, the work of MC Escher. A brilliant concept, brilliantly executed.

The first piece perfectly encapsulated what the evening had in store with Stam frères playing their interpretation of the prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite BWV 1007 while, on the screen in front of them, two blue lines danced around, reacting to the music. As the piece progressed the lines slowly morphed into pencils and into one of Escher’s best known images, Drawing Hands, two Dürer-like hands drawing each other.

For me, the highlight of the concert was Willem Stam and Hanna Shybayeva playing Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, a piece I will never tire of despite its Escherlike over exposure. It was accompanied by a variation on Escher’s Hand with Reflecting Sphere which shows a reflection of the artist in what could be described as, and looked like, an early selfie. In Ms Teunisse’s version the sphere was a live fish-eye view of Mr Stam and his cello which was then encompassed by Escher’s famous pillars. Brilliant.

There was also work from D. Heinichen, Webern and Mr Maistorovici himself. His piece Metamorfose After MC Escher began with what seemed like the orchestra tuning up again as the images metamorphosed from chess board to tortoises and cats. The music became much more melodic, being almost Gershwinesque at times.

This was a really enjoyable concert. My only criticism, and one I don’t use very often, is that it was too short; I could have done with another half hour. Further performances are planned so watch out for those.   Michael Hasted     25th February 2023