From the press:
‘Unusual piece……. Borstlap’s Sinfonia succeeded remarkably well in establishing a contact with the audience….. Work of great quality.’ Utrechts Nieuwsblad
‘Borstlap’s Sinfonia: a sympathetic work…….. I was quite amazed by this love declaration to Richard Strauss……… The audience reacted enthusiastically.’ NRC Handelsblad
‘Is there a way back to the supremacy of pure, emotional expression? Borstlap turns towards tradition in search of a solution to the problems of contemporary music…… His Sinfonia is the over-ripe fruit of a trend of continuously increasing eclecticism…. a success indeed.’ Het Parool
‘In his Fantasia, Borstlap turns towards a form of new tonality. Sonorous homophonic lines……. expressive and melancholic arpeggio’s….. A magic sound texture.’ Heilbrunner Stimme
‘Borstlap’s Avatâra: a demanding piece in a rather impressionistic idiom, combining an extremely fast basic element with the utmost refinement and subtlety of expression.’ NRC Handelsblad
‘Borstlap’s Avatâra is a remarkable piece…… Unusually convincing impression… an oasis in a modernist desert.’ Haarlems Dagblad
‘The sonata by John Borstlap is a remarkable work with a seemingly improvisatory, refined and effective, shadow-like texture.’ Haarlems Dagblad
‘Following the neo-romantic style of Peter Schat was the great sonata (1975) by the Dutch composer John Borstlap which was premiered on 27th October in the Small Hall of the Concertgebouw… An unusual occasion since modern music is mostly presented at specialized concerts, but this time the context was a ‘normal’ recital by the American pianist Christopher Czaja Sager…. The work is closer to Ravel than to Stockhausen, but this is symptomatic of the times. It is well-written for the performer, the interruptions of the soft passages continously invoke interest, a nervously tense impressionism which appeared to suit Sager excellently. He immediately repeated the work.’ Ernst Vermeulen, Ons Erfdeel
‘Hyperion’s Dream, Night Music and Capriccio (a traditional horn trio) are works which seem closer to Brahms and Schumann than to the threshold of the new millenium. But that just does not matter, when – for example, in Hyperion’s Dream’s second movement – the plaintive melody in the ‘cello, shifting from major to minor, touches the heart. And there are many moments like this.’ Luister, Classical CD Magazine
‘In his music, John Borstlap combines great craftmanship with the utmost original thematic material. It is remarkable how refreshing new tonal music can be.’ Mens & Melodie
‘John Borstlap’s ‘Psyche’: A sonorous piece, based upon a theme by Wagner but worked-out in a very personal way, and in a more or less late-romantic style……. with interesting, often soft, sound colours emerging from the orchestra.’ Tubantia
‘It is questionable whether this overwhelming and intense music does indeed bridge the gap between composer and listener. The chords in themselves often sound familiar, but their succession hardly. And when tempo is high and the instruments each go their own way, the music is not easy to follow. But Borstlap also writes such beautiful slow movements, that one is inclined to seek the cause of the problems in oneself.’ VPRO Radio Guide
‘A fascinating, engaging, and meaningful program that not only made sense, but, judging from the enthusiastic audience reaction, was broadly satisfying to everybody on every level….. After intermission, John Borstlap’s evocative Solemn Night Music…. Completed just last year, the work could as easily have been written in 1905; it’s combination of stringent, involved counterpoint with arching lyricism and a fine sense of traditional orchestral color brought to mind Richard Strauss, with hints of Elgar and Mahler….. Solemn Night Music provided a superb preface to the main draw of the evening, which followed immediately: Beethoven V’. The Dallas Observer
‘Twelve minutes long, the piece [Solemn Night Music] is surprisingly neo-romantic in tone, and unashamedly beautiful. It belongs in a lineage from Strauss and Korngold, although woven from more elaborately contrapuntal cloth and occasionally touched with more piquant harmonies. Beautifully played, it would be well worth hearing again.’ Dallas Morning News
‘[In Solemn Night Music] Borstlap boldly uses the musical language of Arnold Schoenberg’s 1899 masterpiece, Verklärte Nacht, and Anton Webern’s Im Sommerwind from 1904…. This overripe chromatically complex music is gorgeous…… carefully composed and gorgeous to hear.’ North Texas Performing Arts News
‘…. The two attractive features of this concert were soloist Karen Gomyo, and an Asian première. […] The hall, which was some 80 – 90% full, responded warmly to the program. […] The piece by John Borstlap, jointly commissioned by the Dallas Symphony and the Hong Kong Philharmonic as a project initiated by Jaap van Zweden, emphasised the revival of the classical tradition, and indeed the composer has mixed different classical traditions. This reviewer would like to hear more music by this composer.’ Radio Canton
Some further reactions:
Alfred Brendel, pianist: ‘Borstlap’s Fantasia captures splendidly the spirit of Liszt’s late music, and develops it in a personal and convincing way.’
Libor Pesek, Conductor Laureate of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra: ‘I was immediately captured by the way he creates music. John Borstlap is the rare sort of personality who uses musical language to express, with great originality, his spiritual message.’
Lukas Foss, composer, principal conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, NY: ‘John Borstlap is a first-rate composer indeed, one of the finest in the Netherlands.’
Richard Stamp, principal conductor of the Academy of London: ‘His music is at once profound and deeply felt but also expertly crafted. In short, it has something to say.’
John Casken, Prof. of Music, University of Manchester: ‘I really admire the musical fluency of expression and the way he revisits the familiar but constantly turns it in new directions. The technical resources necessary for this to happen in a convincing musical way are quite formidable.’
René Koering, Surintendant de la Musique de l’Orchestre et Opéra National de Montpellier: ‘Psyche shows a virtuosic orchestral writing, also in terms of harmony… A very unusual and, in these times, daring work.’
Dr. Roger Scruton FBA, FRSL, philosopher in a.o. musical aesthetics: ‘I think he is one of the truly remarkable intellects of our time, a serious and inspired composer, and a person with an unusual grasp of the role of the artist in general, and the composer in particular in the cultural conditions that have developed in modern Europe.’
Prof. Dr. Wolfgang-Andreas Schultz, philosopher, musicologist, composer and lecturer at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hamburg: ‘….. a brilliant thinker in the field of musical philosophy, as I could conclude from his great essay Recreating the Classical Tradition. Among the composers who seek new ways, I appreciate the music of John Borstlap as a very important voice.’
Prof. Dr. Andreas Dorschel, philosopher and lecturer in musical aesthetics, Head of the Institute for the Aesthetics of Music at the Universität für Musik und Darstellende Kunst in Graz: ‘Borstlap believes in the possibility of connecting with the classical-romantic tradition, and I understand his compositions as a convincing proof that nowadays such connection can be achieved, without reverting to the eclecticism of style copies or (postmodern) style collages. His music shows a composer who creates a music of highly sensual attractiveness, but who also has full intellectual mastery over the material which is his starting point.’
Anonymous conductor in Leipzig, 1832: ‘Recommendations are meaningless. Even Beethoven got recommendations.’
Anonymous German orchestral programmer in 2016: ‘This music is so beautiful and well-made, that it cannot be accepted as contemporary music, it does not reflect our troubled times’.
Anonymous festival director in 2010: ‘Going-back a couple of decennia is OK to me, but going-back a whole century is unacceptable’.
Anonymous music fan in 2017: ‘I am camping in Tombstone. Last night turned on the radio and picked up the classical station from Tucson. The Dallas Symphony was playing your Solemn Night Music. It was beautiful – fit the mood of watching the brilliant stars perfectly. I was impressed.’
Some thoughts about the meaning of a negative press
Since new music cannot please everybody, as indeed it should not, negative reactions in the press are equally valid or invalid as positive responses, which forces the listener to make up his/her own mind, an instructive challenge which requires reflection upon value judgement and the meaning of the art form. Next to the positive press as mentioned above, an equally extensive collection of negative reactions resulted from performances, which – as by agreement – follow an interesting and particularly revealing line, which can be summarized as follows:
1) not modern (i.e. contemporary) enough, therefore irrelevant
2) lacking originality: the composer does nothing with the language
3) imitation of styles from the past, therefore not authentic
Sometimes the review keeps to one of these arguments, sometimes they are combined. It will be clear that this form of critique comes from a paradigm, in which progressivess, renewal, transcending boundaries, and originality are the central values. The ideology where these values were cultivated, was postwar modernism, by now a historical category. All three points of critique are focussed on the musical ‘language’, the idiom used, and not what is ‘said’ in this ‘language’. Within the modernist paradigm, there is no ‘content’ of the ‘language’ since it is the language itself which forms the content: the medium is the message. In premodernist music however, the language is a vehicle for a psychological (or emotional) meaning, which the language communicates. A modernist critique thus misses the point with nr 2: originality can be found in the way the language is used, which is not the same as the level of the language itself. (With this music, the least that can be said is that there does not exist a music exactly like this from the period of the idiom, because the idiom is used in a personal way.) As for nr 3: every musical language is to a greater or lesser extent based upon imitation, be it from something in the present, or from a recent past, or a much earlier past. This music is not an imitation of the past but a prolongation of a type of musical language which is used for personal ends. Taking-up a musical language from a rich past – as this music obviously does – says nothing about authenticity; the only sign of authenticity can be found in the artistic quality of the result, which is another matter and not related to the musical style as such. As for nr 1, one can easily see that ‘being modern’ is the most ephemeral quality imaginable, and not related to musical quality: nothing dates as quickly as ‘being modern’. One could even say, that in a time with a generally poor musical production, being ‘modern’ is not an obvious positive quality.
Occasionaly a negative review concludes that the use of an older musical language betrays a lack of invention and creative fantasy, thereby unintentionally condemning some composers of the core repertoire to substandard: Bach, Brahms, the later Strauss, Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Britten, Shostakovich.
Sometimes a negative critique of this music is combined with praise, where the critic feels pressured to admit something positive that impressed him in spite of his rejection, which only shows the contradictory elements of his value framework, so that from this point of view a work can be both ‘beautiful’ and ‘moving’ and ‘irrelevant’ and ‘derivative’ in the same time, which throws-up the question which of these terms refers to artistic quality. Interestingly, while almost all new works are nowadays reviewed with almost unanimous willingness to see positive aspects in them, creating a welcoming press climate, this music does not invoke inhibitions to condemn, which can be seen as a positive injection into an often bland, tame press reception of new music.
Music criticism is part of the ‘social contract’ between the parties of the art form: composers, performers, promotors (incl. the music agencies), audiences and music journalism. All parties should be concerned about keeping the art form alive, because they share a common interest. Music criticism is, however ephemeral, an indicator of certain paradigms operating in music life, and as such may offer interesting insights, quite apart from its value in terms of judgement.
The music as subjected to the above-mentioned reviewing can be best understood as the musical equivalent of contemporary figurative painting and contemporary classical architecture, which both seek connection with older traditions, not to imitate or to escape into an ‘easy’ never-land, but to recapture certain types of artistic quality and beauty which have been disqualified in the last century. This can be considered another form of ‘groundbreaking renewal’ and ‘exploration’, but into a direction, very different from modernism, a new art which should be judged in terms of artistic quality, like every art form in any medium or idiom. A general problem with music journalism today is, that awareness of these trends in other art forms is often completely lacking. Either the critic’s value framework is defined by what is generally played in the central performance culture, i.e. is traditional, or by the modernist paradigm which forms a sharp contrast with traditional values; since this music is written specifically for the central performance culture, it is understandable that critics, expecting an up-to-date musical language reflecting ‘the modern world’, can only reject a new music which does not refer to such framework as not ‘relevant’.
According to postwar ideologies ‘relevance’ can only be conferred to new music which follows the line of development as projected by the first generation of postwar modernist composers, for whom ‘the past’ was in itself a territory to be avoided on all costs, with which was meant: the pre-modernist past.
JB, April 2016