On Thursday, the Cello Biennale starts in Amsterdam, one of the largest cello events in the world. There is classical, jazz, pop, world music, both traditional and more modern. If only there was a cello in it. Among the big names are many young talents. NRC spoke to Benjamin Kruithof and Chieko Donker Duyvis, and asked them which cellists on the program inspired them:
Benjamin Kruithof – ‘Cellists are lovely people.’
Benjamin Kruithof won the previous National Cello Competition, which is why he is allowed to perform at this Biennale with a large symphony orchestra. “I have always associated playing the cello with pleasure.”
Anyone with a passion for languages and accents is highly recommended to start a conversation with cellist Benjamin Kruithof (23). He speaks a courteous and colorful mixture of languages in each other’s accent: Dutch as the basis, but the mixture you get when you have a Dutch father and a Flemish mother. He pours a Luxembourg-French sauce over it, because Kruithof was born and grew up in Luxembourg. And that time in German, because he has been living and studying classical cello in Berlin for five years now. Kruithof: “At home we always spoke Dutch, but I must have a small accent, don’t I?”
The Kruithof family had a complete string quartet at home: mother plays the violin and sister too, father plays the viola. Benjamin was also the first to get hold of a violin and a viola, but he soon “let those instruments be”. He did not find the viola exciting enough, because his father was much too nice as a teacher.
A family friend and cello teacher gave him a cello at the age of six and a great first impression of the instrument. “He left the technique for a while, but started making me enthusiastic about the music. We only played bits that I liked. That is why I have always associated playing the cello with pleasure. I think that’s why I still like to practice so much, even things that aren’t really necessary. I like to sit down with friends in the evening to side reading. Then we just grab sheet music from one or the other and we’re going to try that out.”
At the previous Cello Biennale in 2020, Benjamin Kruithof convincingly won the corresponding National Cello Competition. He received the first prize, the audience prize and the prize for the best performance of the commissioned composition.
Among other things, he ended up with a lot of concerts in the Netherlands, enough to meet his goal of being in the Netherlands once a month (also for friends and family). That turned out to be great, because “playing a lot of concerts teaches you things that you can’t learn in a rehearsal room: dealing with stress and situations that demand just a little too much of you, rehearsing repertoire in a very short time; it makes you much more professional.”
On a scale from experimental crossovers to purely traditional classical, Kruithof tends most towards the latter. Although he has recently been infected by his more experimental Berlin fellow students. “I’m just really bad at improvising. But as classical performers we can learn a lot from jazz and pop, especially in terms of freedom of form. We classics want to do everything as precisely as possible from a book, and I am a big proponent of that, but sometimes we get so stuck in a score that we forget to play spontaneously. I am now discovering that in Berlin.”
Catastrophically bad composer
That does not mean that he will be composing himself in the short term. “I’ve tried, and I’m a catastrophically bad composer. I do not know why. I would advise against buying a composition by Benjamin Kruithof at this point.” But he likes to improvise on his own evenings for fun. “As a musician you should not forget that music is also your hobby.”
Kruithof has only just come out of another competition: he won the George Enescu competition in Bucharest, Romania in September. After that it was time to recover. He therefore sees playing at the upcoming Biennale, also one of the prizes won in 2020, as a great start to his ‘new season’. He plays with the Symphony Orchestra of the Conservatory of Amsterdam Poeme by Henriëtte Bosmans, so unknown that he even managed to surprise his teacher in Berlin (“What a good piece!”).
In any case, his fellow cello students in Berlin are quite jealous. “They would all like to come along. The Biennale is the largest cello festival there is, all cellists know it. It is unique that you are suddenly together in the same building with only cellists, people who normally travel around the world individually. And it helps that cellists are lovely people. You don’t feel any difference between generations, between newly arrived and young talent. It is a very inspiring place for a young cellist.”
Chieko Donker Duyvis – ‘Magic comes from being vulnerable.’
As a child Chieko Donker Duyvis fell for the versatility of the cello, but as a classical conservatory student she felt caged. “I actually like being a chameleon.”
Sometimes she strums like her cello is a guitar and sings a Brazilian song to go with it. Or she strokes broad lines and hums a cantilene above it – simultaneously, searchingly. As a child, cellist Chieko Donker Duyvis (1997) was happy with everything that was creative. To play. Draw. To sing. Writing stories. Playing the cello was one of those things. At fourteen, in addition to secondary school, she went to the young talent department of the Amsterdam Conservatory “to learn to play better”.
It worked. “At the conservatory I learned to play the cello well, technically I now have a solid foundation,” she says in an Amsterdam cafe. But in those years she often felt searching and unhappy. “Everything revolved around performance, perfection, the endless polishing of all the cracks. Individuality and fun were secondary to this. That didn’t feel right, I thought it was suffocating.”
Those who receive classical training participate in a well-oiled, hyper-competitive structure. “Getting out there because you want ‘something different’ is quite something,” says Chieko Donker Duyvis. “I used to write and sing my own music at home, secretly. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted yet. It felt like I had to come out with my creative side.”
Improvising with cello and vocals
Only when she distanced herself from the performance cult did the actually simple answer sink in: “I have a strength in me that comes out better as a singer, composer and improviser than as a classical cellist. I’m going to make music in a way that makes me happy.”
She took jazz lessons, studied vocal technique, improvisation and composition. “My curiosity was finally allowed to play a role again, and with that the fun returned. I now see myself more as a maker who tells a story using cello and vocals. The two increasingly merge into each other in my improvisations. I enjoy working with dancers, artists and theater makers to keep learning and exploring uncharted paths.”
Her Dutch father and Brazilian-Japanese mother, both artists, encouraged her to remain open to everything, she says. Formative experiences were also her many trips to Brazil. “The warmth and spontaneity, the freer way of expression – I miss that here. There, music is a much more natural presence in everyday life. That is very connecting.”
She now also seeks connection in the concerts with her own ensemble, with which she plays her own compositions inspired by Brazilian music, jazz and classical impressionism. The recording of a debut album is already in the agenda.
‘The Vermicelli family’
One of the other interdisciplinary projects in which she is currently participating – as part of the Cello Biennale – is the family performance The Vermicelli . family, in which she also plays the cello, sings and acts. “People often act as if you have to specialize, as if it’s always better. But specialization also means that you lose something: openness, contact. I actually like being a chameleon.”
What she makes is “free but not without obligation”, she says. “I am really a perfectionist. I really want to touch people. The accessibility that this requires is hard work. First zoom in endlessly on all the details, then zoom out again and rediscover your spontaneous beginner mindset.”
Singing makes her life as a performing artist even richer. “It was scary in the beginning. Singing is an even more direct way of expressing yourself than playing the cello: there I show my deepest feelings, my vulnerability. But the connection you can feel with the audience from there is fantastic. Magic happens when you make yourself vulnerable. I will never forget the first time that really worked: the premiere this summer of my own music as New Maker for the Grachtenfestival. I had the feeling of blossoming singing and finally being myself on stage.”
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of October 20, 2022