Sunday September 23 and Tuesday September 25, 2018

On a chilly, windy, rainy Sunday morning I stepped into a packed house in Amsterdam for a concert. The house was the famous Concertgebouw – simply, “concert building” – and the performers were the Gävle Symfonie Orkest and pianist Javier Perianes.

From the first notes of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A, op. 16, I was thrilled not only by the performance but by the marvellous acoustics. The softest notes on the piano were clearly audible (and my seat was some 20 rows back). Likewise, when the full orchestra and piano were at the peak of a crescendo, one could steal clearly distinguish the flutes, the reeds, the trumpets, trombones, cellos, violins, etc.

I had bought my ticket primarily for the Grieg piano concerto, but the second piece also had some surprises for me. The concert closed with Mendelssohn’s “Fifth Symphony in D, op 107, also known as the “Reformation” symphony.

The music was stirring throughout, and hearing it in this setting brought new layers of meaning to a tune that was a familiar hymn in my childhood. “A mighty fortress is our God,” we sang – in Nederlands, “Een vaste burcht is onze God”. This tune was a major and recurring theme in the Reformation Symphony.

I was glad that I had been in the Netherlands, absorbing aspects of the history and culture, for a couple of weeks before going to this concert. “A mighty fortress is our God” always sounded somewhat abstract, merely spiritual, when I heard the hymn in the past. But after seeing so many monuments to the centuries of war between Catholic Spain and mostly Protestant Netherlands, the Reformation Symphony sounded more like a passionate and triumphant expression of patriotism. Struggle for control of churches and doctrines, yes – but also struggles over vital resources, important waterways, strategic harbours, and centuries-old fortifications.

Tower of the Grote Kerk in Haarlem. (Click image for larger view)

Two days later it was time for another music adventure. I had long wanted to hear one of the famous organs in a Grote Kerk – “big church”. With this in mind I arranged to be in Haarlem on the night of an organ recital.

The organ in Haarlem’s Grote Kerk was built in 1738 and has been a tourist attraction almost ever since. Early visitors included GF Handel and WA Mozart, who both came to the church to play this organ.

With more than 5000 pipes, some of which are more than 10 metres tall, and richly decorated with gold, mahogany, and 25 larger-than-life-size sculptures, the organ is a stunning sight by daylight.

But I really wanted to know how it sounds, and so I came back in the evening for a concert by organist Willem Hörmann.

I couldn’t fully understand what the usher said to me, but it included going to the opposite end of the church from the organ. That seemed strange, but there were already a small group of people seated on chairs there, so I sat too.

A few minutes later a man stood up to speak, and it was the organist himself. He proceeded to discuss each of the pieces on the night’s program. 

My sketchy knowledge of Nederlands was not up to this challenge. I understood only a phrase here and there, even though I had at least two chances to hear every word – the echo was continuous. Yet I thought I was catching a little more than was the famous painter Frans Hals, who was a few rows back. (And a couple meters down, for that matter – buried under a slab of stone, like others who had the social standing or the wealth to be buried inside the great church. No doubt I had seen some of those others earlier in the day, in portraits of wealthy burgers in the Frans Hals Museum.)

When the introduction was over we all moved to the other end of the church to join a much bigger audience, and the organist disappeared.

And suddenly, without a word of notice, music began to fill the church.

The organ in Haarlem’s Grote Kerk.

There were a dozen pieces on the program, by composers from the past four centuries. I was enthralled by all of them. In particular, I was amazed by how beautiful the music sounded in spite of the ever-present echo – the composers, I thought, as well as the organist, must have a deep understanding of how to work with this echo, rather than letting that echo turn all sounds into a muddle.

The concert was utterly unlike any other concert I’ve attended, because there was no performance to see. Yes, the sights were stunning, with massive stone pillars rising up to an ornate wood-patterned ceiling, and with that spectacular organ and its many statues looming over the keenly attentive audience. But there was no performer to be seen, nor any visible movement from the organ itself. There was no apparent agent of music, there was just music. It was easy to imagine that to some people in centuries past, the music may have seemed to come straight from God. And it also brought to mind the famous saying of Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This organ is a highly advanced piece of technology indeed.

The final two pieces on the program, by Max Reger, were as ferocious as the two lions at the very top of the organ. The entire massive stone building vibrated, sending shivers up my spine, and no doubt also rattling the spines of Frans Hals and his high-class buddies under the floor.

Two lions at the very top of the Grote Kerk organ. (Click image for larger view)