Nederlands Kamerkoor sings at a digital winding sea with motifs by Van Gogh and Klimt

A modern Gesamtkunstwerk or an ‘immersive concert experience’ in which choral music and painting merge. That’s the promise of the program Van Gogh in Me by the Nederlands Kamerkoor and the Italian studio fuse*. Music by Debussy, Mahler, Schönberg is combined with digitally distorted paintings by contemporaries Vincent van Gogh and Gustav Klimt. The performance was allowed to participate in the state visit of King Willem-Alexander to Austria this summer, where it had its world premiere in the Vienna Konzerthaus. The reason is the Gustav Klimt exhibition, now on display in the Amsterdam Van Gogh Museum and later in the Vienna Belvedere: that exhibition is also about making artistic connections.

Also read the review of the exhibition in the Van Gogh Museum: How ‘Golden Boy’ Gustav Klimt surfed the artistic waves of his time

What do you hear and why?

Rahul Gandolahage: „The Chamber Choir sings a cappella music by Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Satie, Alma and Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Schönberg. Much of it was originally not choral music, but instrumental music to which German and French poetry was later set. The ‘Adagietto’ from Mahlers Fifth Symphony for example, has been arranged for chorus by Clytus Gottwald. He chose the poem Im Abendrot by Joseph von Eichendorff as text. So it’s kind of a remix. The lyrics are not in the program booklet. That would also be pointless, because it is dark in the room. But the lyrics are also not projected anywhere. So you have no idea what you’re hearing. The music felt quite anonymous and distant as a result.”

Thomas van Huut: „I had studied the program in advance, but the reason behind the musical choices was not clear to me. In his Paris period, Van Gogh was a fan of Wagner, Klimt made the famous Beethoven Frieze. We don’t hear Wagner and Beethoven. But why Satie and Saint-Saëns?”

What is there to see?

TvH: „On a large screen above the choir you see an endless amount of hair-fine, colored lines that flow and wave across the screen. Famous paintings by Van Gogh and Klimt loom up in the abstract patterns that arise as a result. For example, you recognize almond blossom and Wheatfield with crows by Van Gogh, and the blistering gold of Klimts The kiss and Water hoses II. The Italian multimedia studio fuse* collects live data during the concert: data about the sound, movements of the conductor and some choir members, in order to let the ’emotion of the music’ drive the digital effects. So the paintings are actually ‘remixed’ live.”

Is there synergy?

TvH: „I thought so at the visually more abstract moments: where the patterns swell with the vocals, it is indeed as if they are painting with their voices. Blue flecks looked pretty like puffs of breath in icy air. Sometimes I could also enjoy the colors with the music: beautiful blue and bright orange.”

RG: „A concert has always been a ‘living’ performance. The extra layer here is that the paintings are also ‘performed’, but that didn’t do much for me. I found myself closing my eyes after just a few ‘paintings’ to be able to listen to the music. And when I opened my eyes again, I saw nothing that surprised me. The distortions became predictable.”

TvH: “When the original paintings loomed up from the abstract digital meandering seas, it sometimes almost hurt me: their rendering was so distorted that you couldn’t see the nuances of the original paintings. Then it becomes a puzzle: guess your picture, which painting was distorted here? And because you couldn’t read the sung lyrics, I found it difficult to make a substantive connection with the music.”

RG: “The distraction also lies in how the paintings were deformed. In portraits, the facial skin seemed to run off like wet makeup. One face seemed smeared with bird droppings. But there were beautiful moments. Then with Mahler’s ‘Adagietto’ from afar The kiss van Klimt emerged, in a kind of dark forest of fiery orange trees, I thought that was a nice effect. Especially because the ‘Adagietto’ was a love letter for Alma Mahler. But you should just know that, you couldn’t read it.”

Would this formula have worked better with abstract paintings?

TVH: “I don’t think so. A painting is finished, a painter is already working with colors that shimmer or wave. There is no need for an extra layer of movement. What you see now is a glorified visualizer from Windows Media Player combined with a slideshow of famous paintings.”

Was it, as promised, an ‘immersive experience’?

RG: “Live music has always been an immersive experience.”

TvH: “Moving the image confused me most. After all, the ‘immersive’ power of art is in your own imagination.”

RG: “And it will be filled in here for you.”

So this show doesn’t work?

RG: “Not as a Gesamtkunstwerk, but as a crowd puller. The audience was relatively young, younger than at most classical concerts. Carré was almost completely full. She drew the name Van Gogh into the hall, but I had the feeling that the applause was ultimately mainly for the singers. So in that respect: successful.”

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