13 Nov 2023

MATHILDE WANTENAAR: Prélude à une nuit américaine

by Jeff Counts

THE COMPOSER – MATHILDE WANTENAAR (b. 1993) – “Lyrical, enchanting and eclectic yet authentic” is how Dutch composer Mathilde Wantenaar’s music is described in her bio. She pursued a double life as a composer and singer until 2019, when competing commissions for an orchestral work (this Prélude – her first) and an opera necessitated a renewed focus on music writing. Though no longer studying it formally, Wantenaar believes the time she spent in vocal practice, exploring the explicit drama inherent in song, has continued to influence her creativity as an instrumental composer. She also credits her parents for setting her life as an artist in motion, calling them “the reason I exist at all” in reference to the fact that they met and fell in love through music performance.

Mathilde Wantenaar
Photo by Karen van Gilst.

THE HISTORY – When Wantenaar got word of a commission request from the Rotterdam Philharmonic in 2019, her first reaction was “oh, no”. She was already committed to a new project for the upcoming Opera Forward Festival for the Dutch National Opera. “I felt like the proverbial rabbit caught in headlights, totally paralysed,” she told musicologist and podcaster Thea Derks in 2021, “From a planning point of view I couldn’t accept the commission.” Wantenaar asked for a postponement but got some excellent advice instead. When the Rotterdam Philharmonic, eager to present her work in the fall, asked if she didn’t have some pre-existing material she could repurpose into a new orchestra work, Wantenaar realized she had just received “a golden tip, that helped me break the deadlock.” In the grand tradition of composers who have re-used and recycled incomplete ideas from their past, Wantenaar recalled a “piece of material I had wanted to elaborate on for a long time.” She experimented with twelve-tone techniques, at one point, and one of those early pieces contained a line that she always found “beautiful” and “somewhat wrenching” harmonically. The fragment was “euphonious and at the same time a bit jazzy”. It was perfect for the Rotterdam commission. “I am an admirer of Ravel and Debussy, but also of Tchaikovsky,” Wantenaar told Derks, adding that her main intention with the Prélude à une nuit américainewas to “write equally beautiful long-held string lines”. She did that, and in the process gifted her first orchestral work with a “jazzy…American touch” to compliment it’s “French, nocturnal sultriness.” Though the jazziness of the Prélude score is perhaps too subtly imbedded to perceive, the sultriness is right there on the surface. Paris at night is an experience visitors have always treasured, and Wantenaar’s oblique version of it is steamy and lamp-lit in all the right ways.   

THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 2019, Notre Dame Cathedral burned, protesters took to the streets in Hong Kong, Donald Trump became the third President in U.S. history to be impeached and Japan’s Emperor Hirohito abdicated.

THE CONNECTION – These performances represent the Utah Symphony premiere of Mathilde Wantenaar’s Prélude à une nuit américaine.