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Dutch Harp Festival 2018

The Dutch harp scene has been one of the best in the world for decades. Phia Berghout, one of the most influential harpists (if not the most influential harpist) of the twentieth century, recognised as early as the 1950s that young musicians needed a broad and cosmopolitain outlook, the chance to meet and exchange ideas, and to consciously reflect on their future careers. She co-founded the Eduard van Beinum Foundation to support new music in the Netherlands, and her Harp Weeks paved the way for the birth of the World Harp Congress. Ever since, Dutch harpists have distinguished themselves through a high technical and musical level, open-minded interest in new things, and a laudable ability to cooperate and realise ambitious group projects. The 2008 World Harp Congress in Amsterdam was warm, bold, high level – and with the biggest real effort I’ve experienced to keep a lid on the costs of participation, a major issue in accessibility, quality and development. 


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Ten years on from the Amsterdam WHC, Dutch harpists remain as dynamic as ever. The Dutch Harp Festival has become a major fixture in our calendars, now housed in the magnificent TivoliVrendenburg arts centre in Utrecht. It began life in 2010, founded by Remy van Kesteren and his colleagues, who sought above all to combine a harp competition with a festival. “Competitions are motivating and can be inspiring”, Remy explained at the time of the first DHF, “but there is no getting away from it: they’re also really tough to do! I think we competition organisers have a responsibility to make the experience as constructive for competitors as possible. 

It is important to us to have a festival at the same time as the competition in Utrecht. It makes the atmosphere less tense and more celebratory, it provides something nice for the competitors who are eliminated before the final stage, and it attracts more public attention. After all, a competition is there to discover, stimulate and celebrate music and musical talent. In essence, it should be like a festival, anyway.”

The Dutch Harp Competition has evolved since 2010, and this year was the most experimental to date. Mindful of accessibility, the first round took place in different world locations. It’s a lot more expensive for a competition to fly a jury to Hong Kong, New York, etc – but a lot easier for candidates to attend. Not for nothing do we talk about the “competition circuit”; success is closely linked to experience and training. If you can only afford to attend one in your life, it’s more likely you’ll crash out than if you go to ten, with all the disappointment that entails. 

A lot of free choice repertoire has always been a Dutch Harp Comp. hallmark, but this year went completely cross-genre. The DHC 2018, now renamed the World Harp Competition, was open to all types of harp, and had an entirely free choice of programme. This was the bravest and most complex innovation. You can address the issue of individual jury members’ differing expertise with a cross-discipline jury; that’s relatively straightforward, if you invite good people in whom you can trust. What is more problematic is a reality of many competitions: every candidate turns out to be very good. At this point, in order to produce a ranking, the jury has to find reasons to take marks off. And this requires a framework, because you are ranking players against each other. If you are going to pronounce that someone was better than someone else, it’s your human and professional obligation to be able to explain why. 

The framework is always, at root, artificial; it’s a construct. One competition may decide that the semifinal performance will also count in the judging of the final; another will ignore it. You may, or may not be penalised for not playing from memory; you might be judged on the overall quality of your programme, or otherwise just on how you played the pieces. Everybody knows they should say “competitions are very subjective” bravely when they lose, but it can take time fully to grasp the depth of the truth behind the platitude. Once you do, it helps. It can liberate you from the result, and draw your attention more to your personal challenge and development. Approach a competition in that spirit, and you will always be a winner, regardless of how the numbers crunch. 

In Utrecht, it was a real pleasure to experience competition rounds in a festival context. Each semifinalist appeared as a festival concert, the jury sitting dispersed in the audience. Congratulations to everyone who made it to the last rounds in Utrecht: this is a fantastic achievement, and all performances engaged  admirably with their unusual brief.

Stepping beyond habitual structures is a great way to think about them, because looking in from the outside is a new perspective. Here’s an example: because we were listening to the competitors in the middle of a hugely dynamic festival with an incredible amount of cross-programming, some audience members went in and out, mid-round. On the one hand, perhaps that made for a relaxed and open atmosphere, which is certainly nicer than the usual competition one, somewhere on the rocky road between tense reverence and funeral angst. On the other, the pressure of a competition remains peculiar. Candidates have spent ages preparing, and perhaps out of respect for this, one should sit tight until they have finished. There’s a lot of noise about stuffy atmospheres particularly in the classical sphere – but equally, that tradition asks that we sit quietly and concentrate. 

Even if one decides that a competition audience should be quieter in future, it is good to try doing it differently. Then you have thought about the nature of the structures, why they exist and where they should be questioned. The Dutch Harp Competition was born partly out of frustration with many issues Remy and his colleagues experienced when they were themselves competitors. It is important to question and interrogate, and even better to do this actively. It is easy to argue X or Y on paper, but much harder to put alternatives into practice. I can’t think of another harp event that does this better than the DHF. 

Alongside the competition, the quality, scale and variety of programming was impressive and inspiring. We had Nikolaz Cadoret and Hélène Breschand improvising to silent film; Edmar Castaneda’s incredible Latin jazz; concerts in the dark; Stockhausen; harp yoga; the Japanese koto, Indian fusion, Breton (whoop!) music; and harp yoga. We would also like to congratulate our Italian colleagues for the launch of their Reus 49, developed with Remy over four years. It is much, MUCH more difficult to add strings to a harp than it might sound like, and we are also inspired by and admire this work. 

Since its beginnings, the DHF has had an artistic vision that is creative, indeed zany – and highly serious. It is  always thought-provoking, it is never boring, the quality of its festival programme is second to none and its calm, friendly, professional organisation is also a pleasure to work with. If you haven’t yet been, keep an eye out for the next edition!

I don’t know if the DHC consciously traces Phia Berghout’s footsteps, but she would surely have been proud. 

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