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Pieter Jan Leusink (Conductor)

Born: 1958 - Elburg, Holland

The Dutch conductor, Pieter Jan Leusink (= PJL), was born in 1958 in Elburg, the Netherlands, where he grew up and was raised in the heart of this once protestant country. Elburg is situated on the shore of the Veluwe lake, which used to be the Zuiderzee, a large inland sea, before the gigantic Afsluitdijk was built and much of the sea was poldered in. After Elburg had been granted city rights in the Middle Ages, it became a prosperous merchant port in a rural setting, but failing to expand, the little city fell into decline and became an impoverished fishing place. Owing to the poverty of its inhabitants, little has been altered in the historic city, which makes Elburg today a picturesque historic tourist attraction and an aquatic center as well. In the east corner of the city you cannot fail to see the dominating tower of the Great St Nicholas Church, which has played a major role in the musical career of Pieter Jan Leusink, coinciding with the development of Holland Boys Choir.

At the age of eight, PJ received his first organ lessons. After finishing highschool, he went to Zwolle to study the organ as his main subject at the Municipal Conservatory. Already during his studies he developed a keen interest in boys' choirs, attended singing classes and took conducting lessons from Gottfried van der Horst. After his graduation as "performing artist" in 1983, he founded Stadsknapenkoor Elburg (Elburg City Boys' Choir) in April 1984, in the tradition of the famous English college and cathedral choirs. With great enthusiasm, determination and his innate pedagogical and inspirational qualities, he soon established a national reputation for the choir. Within a few years he started three musical traditions in Elburg, focused in St Nicholas Church, a Festival of Lessons and Carols in December, J.S. Bach's St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) during the Easter season, and a series of Summer concerts in July and August.

The annual Festival of Lessons and Carols, originating from King's College, Cambridge, is a musical Christmas celebration, in which carols alternate with readings from the English King James Bible by Dutch choristers. The intimate atmosphere and the joy of Christmas give these ceremonies a special character, drawing thousands of people to Elburg, wishing to be part of this festive performance. Whereas other choirs enjoy their holidays during the summer season, PJL had the idea of giving free popular concerts on seven consecutive Wednesdays for tourists and anyone interested. They have proved to be highly successful, having attracted more than 110,000 visitors over the past fifteen years.

St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) was initiated by the trebles themselves. Almost from the start the choir boys were invited to sing the soprani in ripieno in MP performances by oratorio choirs. Some of them told their own conductor they were convinced they could sing the entire work better than some of the choirs with which they made their guest-appearances . This happened not long after PJL had decided to end his career as church organist of his paternal local church after a series of conflicts about what was proper on the organ. Rid of the rigid church regime, it was the ideal moment to embrace Bach once more, this time not on the organ, but through his vocal works. Without any subsidies, PJL and the choir gave their first two integral performances of St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) in 1990, inspired by Nikolaus Harnoncourt's authentic approach, only using male voices and period instruments. Owing to Leusink's great management skills, the choir, who changed their name in Holland Boys Choir in 1996, have since performed several MP's every year. In 2001 there will be seven performances of St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) and two of St John Passion (BWV 245).

PJL followed conducting and choir master classes with Sir David Willcocks of King's College Choir. In many respects, however, he is an autodidact and a self-made man. Through his passionate work with Holland Boys Choir, he had developed his own personal interpretation of performing the baroque repertoire and Bach's oratorios and cantatas in particular. He has become an expert with original ideas of boys' choir singing and still is the driving force behind HBC.

Over the years PJL and HBC have recorded quite some appealing works on CD: Bach's St Matthew Passion (BWV 244), George Frideric Handel's Messiah, the Requiems of W.A. Mozart and Gabriel Fauré, various vocal works by Antonio Vivaldi, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, as well as CD's with Christmas Carols and Dutch Sacred Hymns in English settings. He gave a world premiere of Magna Opera Domini, a composition of the present-day Latvian composer J. Karlsons and of the long lost Missa in G and the Missa Paschalis of G.F. Handel's Dutch contemporary Willem de Fesch, which were recorded and televised respectively in Latvia and The Netherlands. With Leusink, Holland Boys Choir made concert tours to England, Wales, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, Poland, Latvia and the former Soviet Union.

In 1999 and 2000 all Bach's sacred cantatas were recorded within 15 months, a tremendous achievement, considering the fact that it was accomplished with the same amateur (read literarily: music-loving) choir, soloists and orchestra throughout the project, in itself deserving an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. The project aroused storms of criticism in The Netherlands on alleged grounds of inferior haste-work (Recording at this speed must be superficial and lacking depth) and commercialism (imagine! Culture with a capital C on the shelves of a drugstore: how low can you go!), even before anyone had heard a single note! Since the release of the first boxes, reviews have become more and more favorable, especially from foreign critics from all over the world. The cantatas project was concluded by a rewarding tour of cantatas concerts in The Netherlands, including the Trauer-Ode, BWV 198 Lass Fürstin, lass noch einen Strahl, BWV 30 Freue dich, erlöste Schar and BWV 102 Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben. In the fall of 2000, Pieter Jan Leusink and Holland Boys Choir made a new recording of J.S. Bach's St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) and their first St John Passion (BWV 245). Both of them were released in 2001.

Written by: Peter Bloemendaal
Contributed by
Peter Bloemendaal (February 2001)

Pieter Jan Leusink: Short Biography | Holland Boys Choir | Netherlands Bach Collegium
Recordings of Vocal Works:
Part 1 | Part 2 | General Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
Individual Recordings:
Leusink - Vols. 1&2 | Leusink - Vols. 3&4 | BWV 244 - P.J. Leusink | BWV 245 - P.J. Leusink
Interview with Pieter Jan Leusink | Interview with Frank Wakelkamp
Table of Recordings by BWV Number

Links to other Sites

Interview of Pieter Jan Leusink with Peter Bloemendaal [Dutch]

Holland Boys Choir [Mostly in Dutch]

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Explanation | Acronyms | Missing Biographies | The Sad Corner


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