Farewell, Orchestra!

An interview with Sieuwert Verster

Tuesday 4 October 2022
Dutch original article by Noortje Zanen. English translation by Christy de Back.

Sieuwert Verster and the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century are inextricably linked. When the well-known recorder player Frans Brüggen founded the orchestra in 1981, he did so with his friend Sieuw. This month, director Verster is leaving the orchestra. One of the events to mark this occasion is a special concert in the Amsterdam Royal Concertgebouw. How does Sieuwert Verster look back on all these years and what is his outlook on the future? ‘Of course, it all began with Frans. Having said that: this orchestra was created collectively. This has been our major strength,’ explains Verster on the night before his final tour with the orchestra. ‘My first meeting with Frans was thanks to friends of my parents. They invited me, as a musicology student, to put together an exhibition about the early music movement. I was 20 years old, and it was in the early 1970s. Pioneers such as Gustav Leonhardt and Frans Brüggen caused an explosion with their revolutionary interpretations of early music. They gave a completely new twist to the music landscape.

‘I will be the conductor, and you will be the director’
‘I was allowed to borrow some of Frans’ recorders to display at the exhibition. That’s how we got to know each other. We soon became friends, and this friendship deepened tremendously over the years. For example, I travelled together with Frans when he played the recorder on tours, so I could start the tape of Sweet, the piece by bosom friend Louis Andriessen. Frans often played it after the interval with other contemporary music. One day, Frans came to see me, and he said: “Sieuw, I have an idea. I would like to set up an orchestra. I will be the conductor, and you will be the director.” And the rest, as they say, is history.’

Everybody wanted to hear us play
With baroque violinist and concertmaster Lucy van Dael and a few other friends, Frans Brüggen invited the best early music specialists in the world. They played early music on the original musical instruments to get closer to the wonderful world of sound as these composers had imagined it. ‘We experienced the joy of building something together. It was relatively easy because Frans was already famous. Everybody wanted to hear us perform. That’s how we started our adventure. Growing at first, then flourishing. Then the years when Frans was deteriorating and after he passed away in 2014 the transition years. This was after we had decided to continue to work with this orchestra. Frans had given us his shepherd’s blessing.’

Leaving after more than 40 years
‘And now here we are. The bizarre moment when I say farewell to the orchestra after more than 40 years. The decision to continue with this orchestra after Frans passed away meant, of course, that we had to attract new and younger members for our orchestra. As its director, I should not be an exception to this. It really doesn’t happen all that often anymore, that someone has the same position for 42 years. Young people are constantly changing jobs. I also received initiations that made me feel very honoured, but I did not even think for one moment about changing jobs. I was right there in the position where I belonged.’’  

Now I finally, really understand music!
‘Thanks to my musicology studies, I knew something about music and that’s how I met Frans. Thanks to Frans and the orchestra there were a few moments in my life when I felt: “And now I finally, really understand music!” Thanks to my Theatre studies, I have always seen the tours with the orchestra as a performance with a beginning, a high point, a low point and an ending. I was directing the entire performance. Something that has helped me, was working as a cow shepherd for 3 years in the Austrian mountains. This meant that I had developed an instinct about how to keep the group together.’  

A wonderful successor
This month, Verster is still organising the tour himself. However, from 1 November onwards, the orchestra will be completely in the hands of the new director Kate Rockett. ‘I think that she is a wonderful successor. She is young, she is a woman, she has experience as a manager in the cultural sector, she studied musicology and she is a musician. What more could we want? I think she is very capable to find the right balance between changing the things that really need to change after forty years and cherishing the exceptional qualities of this orchestra.’

The concert on 18 October 2022 in The Amsterdam Royal Concertgebouw will be extra special for Verster. The orchestra will perform the world premiere of Farewell by Martijn Padding. This is the orchestra saying goodbye to Verster. ‘I am very grateful to the orchestra and the board for this leaving present. It matches with the rest of the programme: Nymphes des bois by Josquin des Prez and the magnificent Requiem by Mozart. And May by Louis Andriessen, as an ode to Frans Brüggen.’; a wonderful gesture from the orchestra to the outgoing director. Sieuwert Verster will have will full focus on managing his contemporary music label Attacca from November onwards. ‘I would also like to make films and documentaries, perhaps about the legacy and the future of the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century.’ 

Photos: Annelies van der Vegt