The Netherlands: Lowlands festival

Eric van Eerdenburg is festival director of Lowlands, the Netherlands’ largest outdoor festival, which takes place in Biddinghuizen. He tells IAM why he includes orchestral performances at a pop festival, and reveals his plans to create a classical music festival for the future.

I think it was in 2002 that we had the first classical orchestra at the festival; it was the National Youth Orchestra, and then for a couple of years we did not do any classical music. However, over the last three years I’ve tried to bring back one big classical orchestra and smaller acts in smaller venues – the Orkest Residentie played in 2011.

Last year we had the National Youth Orchestra again, and this year the Radio Philharmonic. Our audience has a broad interest in culture and I think there must be a lot of people with this eclectic taste [The line-up in 2011 included literature, film, and dance alongside Arctic Monkeys, Miles Kane, Skunk Anansie, Aphex Twin and Elbow].

In 2011,  we programmed the Dutch National Ballet and they held a workshop for around 6,000 people, it went down really well. So that’s the main reason to continue programming classical forms; we try things small and if the audiences like it, we’ll respond by trying to bring it back bigger.

All the orchestras that we’ve worked with so far have been really reluctant and have asked me how appearing at Lowlands will work for them. They’ve been really nervous because it’s a completely different environment for them. But when the orchestra stops playing and they hear the applause, they are really happy and enthusiastic.

Programming an orchestra is comparatively expensive to our other acts, but it depends on the orchestra. We’re talking to the Concertgebouw Orchestra right now and they are much more expensive than I would usually pay for a band to play at that hour of the day, in relation to the amount of people that it will attract.

But to me the money is not really the most important thing; it’s what the festival brings together culturally.

All the orchestras that we’ve worked with so far have been really reluctant and have asked me how appearing at Lowlands will work for them. They’ve been really nervous because it’s a completely different environment for them. But when the orchestra stops playing and they hear the applause, they are really happy and enthusiastic.

Then they want to come back because the feedback they get is really different from the normal classical venues where they usually play. With the Orkest Residentie, Finnish conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali got an ovation for five minutes – he stood there on stage like a popstar being applauded.

We talk to the orchestras in advance and explain that we will arrange all the technical stuff on their terms. Yes it’s different, yes there are different acoustics, and yes maybe it’s not the top quality environment for an orchestra. We understand that an orchestra has completely different technical requirements to that of a pop group – you can’t have 100 people waiting outside with their instruments. There are some specific production problems that we have to tackle, but it’s just a matter of allocating a little extra money.

We hire a specialised company for miking up a classical orchestra because it needs a totally different approach to that of a band. We hire companies that respect the orchestra’s instruments and understand the extra attention required.

The orchestra plays in a tent with a capacity of 15,000 people and so it has to be amplified. I also need to organise a very big dressing room because there’s around 100 people in the backstage area for one act, and so we have a separate tent for the orchestra.

The other difference is that at the festival, bands never rehearse – they do the line check and that’s it. This isn’t the case with an orchestra. We have to programme the festival so that the orchestra appears as the first act on the day in the main tent, and ensure the other stages are not in use, otherwise the sound would be too much in breach of the orchestra.

Around 15,000 people out of the 50,000 on the field will come to the tent to listen to the orchestra. The first circle of 5,000 people is really silent and they listen to the music, then further back after the mixing desks it can be a little noisy, but you have to deal with it.

For a lot of people at Lowlands, it’s their first experience of hearing a full classical orchestral concert and hopefully they will then go on to visit a classical venue.

The thing with classical music is that it has an image of snobbery. The classical world has to go down a few steps on the ladder to reach a new audience. For a lot of people at Lowlands, it’s their first experience of hearing a full classical orchestral concert and hopefully they will then go on to visit a classical venue.

If you present it in an environment that they like, they’ll swallow it. One of my ideas is also to create a classical music festival but present it in a totally different way to how classical music festivals are normally presented.

I’m working on this at the moment; I’m budgeting and I have a venue that is enthusiastic and programmers that are enthusiastic. I’m trying to get the forces together – it’s probably going to be in Amsterdam.

This festival will be completely independent of Lowlands, but we’d adopt the attitude that Lowlands has towards its audience. We’d create the same kind of environment, and I hope we would be able to grow it into a festival that attracts 20,000-25,000 people.

Right now classical festivals are located very much in separate venues and there is no central area where like-minded people can meet, and that element, the gathering of like-minded people, is very important at a festival.

 

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