Groningen does not have an opera house, but it does have a modern, state-of-the-art concert hall called De Oosterpoort, which is a major venue for all sorts of music, from classical to rock. Besides the large concert hall, there are also two smaller auditoriums and a cultural center in the same complex.
The name Oosterpoort does not mean that there used to be a port here, as I naively thought when I first saw the word. What it really means is “East Gate”. In former times there was a large stone gateway on this site, as part of the city walls.
Since I was in Groningen on Good Friday (not that I had planned it that way, particularly), I had my choice of two different performances of the St. Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), one at the New Church and one at De Oosterpoort.
Actually I could have seen them both, because one was in the afternoon and one in the evening. But I decided one was enough, so I went to the one in the evening at De Oosterpoort. The concert was sold out, but I was second on the waiting list, so as people started coming in I simply loitered around near the cash desk by some beautiful white orchids. Soon two ladies came along with three tickets, since their friend was sick and couldn’t come. So I bought their third ticket from them for € 35, which is what they had paid for it, and had an excellent seat in the middle of the sixth row.
This was the first time I had seen a full performance of the St. Matthew Passion (because as a Sunday School dropout I tend to prefer secular music when I have a choice), but I must say I was very impressed. Bach composed the Passion for a double choir and a double orchestra, and sure enough, the right half of the orchestra was a mirror image of the left, meaning there were oboes on both sides, flutes on both sides, etc. But the ones on the left got to play all the really brilliant solo parts, so the two orchestras weren’t equally weighted after all.
There were six solo singers: The Evangelist (a tenor), Christus (a baritone) and four others who were simply called Soprano, Contralto, Tenor and Bass. These last four also took on various roles such as Judas (the bass), Peter, Pontius Pilate and various priests and maids. They all had beautiful arias and duets to sing, just as in an opera – all except the Evangelist, who sang the narration as a sort of recitative.
Sometimes the Evangelist had a long paragraph of narration to sing, but sometimes only two to four words, such as “They said” or “Jesus spoke to him”. I think those must have been the hardest parts.
They sang in the original German, but the program booklet had a parallel translation into Dutch so people could follow along. The German pronunciation of the singers was excellent, even though only one of them was German.
On another day I went to a free lunch concert at De Oosterpoort.
The musicians in the photo below are Anne-Elise Thouvenin, a French cellist from Nîmes, and Rolinka Niers, a Dutch clarinetist. At the time, they were both finishing up their studies at the Prince Claus Conservatory in Groningen.
And now for something completely different…
All you loyal readers of my Bruchsal post Look ma, no electrons! may recall that I have a thing about old-timey mechanical musical instruments such as our great-grandparents used to listen to.
So I was glad to see (and hear!) that Groningen has a genuine authentic (and loud!) mechanical street organ called De Pronkjewail. Whenever there is any kind of festival in Groningen, De Pronkjewail is bound to be there.
You can see and hear it here.
My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2017.
See also: Cycling in Groningen