While it is impossible to pinpoint the exact date of the Nederlands Kamerkoor’s (The Netherlands Chamber Choir = NCC) formation, it is certain that the choir has been in existence for more than sixty years. Music journals at the end of 1938 make mention of a choir named the Nederlandsch Kamerkoor, that would present its first public concert in Haarlem early in 1939. But the choir was already active in 1937 under the name Pro Musica, participating in a series of radio broadcasts of Bach Cantatas. These performances were the brainchild of VARA bigwig Roger Schoute, who encouraged the young musician Felix de Nobel to assemble a choir for the broadcasts. (This event was extensively celebrated in October 1997 as the official 60th anniversary of the choir.) The collaboration with the VARA, the socialist broadcasting company, lasted but a single season.
The Nederlands Kamerkoor has had a chequered history. The choir’s initial makeup was itself curious. Felix de Nobel (who studied choral conducting with Sam Dresden) succeeded in calling to arms the crème de la crème of Dutch vocalists. Many of that first battalion of singers would become renowned soloists: Theo Baylé, Corry Bijster, Greet Koeman, Roos Boelsma, Annie Hermes and Guus Hoekman. De Nobel was, however, forced to accept the impossibility of forming a homogeneous vocal unit made up of opera and oratorio singers - “who all tried to roar the loudest”, as Annie Hermes put it. The choir began to resemble a clearing house for ambitious vocalists: as soon as one was able to advance to a more lucrative singing position, he or she wasted no time in moving on.
Felix de Nobel managed to steer the choir through World War II, and in 1946 appeared with a new formation with which he could better realize his choral ideals. In the first post-war season the choir was run by the Netherlands Transitional Radio Authority, whose task it was to co-ordinate radio broadcasts until the old broadcasting networks were back on their feet. But the collaboration with the radio network was soon terminated and for many years the choir was entirely on its own. The instigation of a strict rehearsal regime enabled the conductor and choir to build up, in a short period of time, a repertoire spanning five centuries of a cappella music, and moreover at a high performing standard. Invitations poured in from abroad: England (1948), Perugia (1949) and the prestigious Edinburgh Festival (1951). These successful foreign tours jettisoned the Nederlands Kamerkoor to international status in the world of choral music, and the publicity this success generated at home quickly brought this unique home-grown product to the attention of the Dutch music world. The Nederlands Kamerkoor became a regular participant in prominent choral events as well as a frequent guest of the Holland Festival.
Countless composers, from both the Netherlands and abroad, have been inspired to write works for the choir: Hendrik Andriessen, Henk Badings, Lex van Delden, Rudof Escher, Frank Martin, Francis Poulenc as well as many lesser-known composers. Friendly contacts were maintained with Zoltán Kodály, Luigi Dallapiccola and others.
The artistic successes, however, stood in sharp contrast to the situation under which the choir members worked. Employment conditions were abominable. The singers could not be assured of a full contract and Felix de Nobel had absolute control of the ensemble. The choir had to meet its financial responsibilities without outside assistance and was grateful for any and all invitations, even if the payment was abysmal. The individual singers as well were in precarious financial straits: it was impossible to make ends meet without moonlighting, and at times the incomes were so minimal that they were forced to call upon social assistance. One was regularly confronted with the question of how long it could go on like this; the Nederlands Kamerkoor’s very existence hung continually on a thread.
The announcement, during the 1951 Edinburgh Festival, of a modest government grant marked the turning point. In 1953 the government’s annual budget for music included, for the first time, a subsidy for the Nederlands Kamerkoor and in the years to come this contribution continued to increase, affording the choir members a substantial rise in salary. From approximately 1960 onwards, financial insecurity was no longer a matter for concern when considering a job with the Nederlands Kamerkoor.
The Nederlands Kamerkoor was now in a position to enjoy a continuity of personnel, and the artistic standard rose accordingly. The choir flourished in the decade between 1955 and 1965; highlights of this period were the frequent collaboration with conductor Carlo Maria Giulini in Holland Festival opera productions and the repeated tours to North America. 1965 saw an improvement in the singers’ social security, as well as the formation of the Netherlands Choral Foundation (Nederlands Koorstichting) which, subsidized by the Dutch government, became the Nederlands Kamerkoor’s official employer.
This latest development, however necessary from a social standpoint, brought with it an unprecedented and far-reaching artistic danger. The Nederlands Kamerkoor personnel was seldom, if ever, refreshed, and as a result the conductor, singers and their audiences grew collectively older. When, in 1972, Felix de Nobel was compelled for reasons of health and age to pass the torch to a new leader, the choir’s situation was desperate. A number of older singers, it was clear, would also have to be made redundant, but there was no established procedure to accomplish this. The remaining singers, moreover, were staunchly devoted to the idea of a conductor with absolute authority, but in the 1970’s such conductors simply no longer existed. Authority had become a dirty word during the 1970’s and was challenged by a new generation critical of the society it had inherited. Artistically as well, troubles abounded. Up until that time the choir had enjoyed an unchallenged reputation for its interpretation of five centuries of music, particularly of early music. But in the beginning of the 1970s it lost touch with the developments in ‘authentic’ early music practices. A new era had begun in which the Nederlands Kamerkoor was no longer the sole authority in the performance of music from all stylistic periods. The Nederlands Kamerkoor was stuck in a serious artistic quagmire, and there were doubts as to whether the ensemble would find its way out at all. Tranquility was not to return during that decade; conductors who were entrusted with the artistic management were promptly broken by the general confusion as the choir wrestled with bringing in young blood and reorienting its artistic goals.
By the beginning of the 1980’s the choir had undergone a complete makeover. Younger voices had been introduced and the decision was taken not to seek a single chief conductor who would conduct all the choir’s concerts. In an attempt to rejoin the early music movement, conductors who specialized in that field were enlisted on a project-by-project basis. These early music specialists included Gustav Leonhardt, Nicolaus Harnoncourt, Ton Koopman, Jos van Immerseel, Paul Van Nevel, Christopher Hogwood, Roger Norrington, Andrew Parrott, Peter Philips and William Christie. In addition the choir sought out specialists in other fields, such as Reinbert de Leeuw and Uwe Gronostay, as well as renowned all-round choral conductors like Eric Ericson and John Alldis.
By the mid-1980s it was clear that the Nederlands Kamerkoor had regained the international stature it had once enjoyed, and in a massive public-relations campaign it presented itself as a revitalized, youthful choir. In 1987 Uwe Gronostay was appointed chief conductor and artistic director. His job was to maintain the unity and continuity of the choir’s sound and to lead the ensemble in his speciality of late-Romantic choral music.
The Nederlands Kamerkoor has thus reached the position it is in today: that of a fully professional and independent vocal ensemble, not bound to a radio broadcasting company or opera house, that works with world-renowned specialists in their own particular facet of choral music. In 1997 Uwe Gronostay bade the Nederlands Kamerkoor farewell as chief conductor and artistic director. Ivar Munk, former general and artistic manager of the Danish Radio Choir, succeeded Gronostay as the first non-conducting artistic director in the Nederlands Kamerkoor’s history, and the Estonian Tõnu Kaljuste followed Gronostay in 1998 as chief conductor. Both appointments brought with them a certain shift in the programming: the importance of contemporary music has been restored, with particular attention paid to music from Eastern and Northern Europe.
In addition to collaborations with prominent orchestras, the Nederlands Kamerkoor continues to promote its own subscription series featuring music for a cappella choir. The ensemble’s loyal public organized itself in the late 1980s into an active society of Friends of the Nederlands Kamerkoor. Record companies have also shown an increasing interest in the ensemble, and during the past decade a veritable flood of CDs has been issued, many of which have been honoured with national and international awards.