Conductor Marcel Nicolajevich Verhoeff

Marcel N. Verhoeff, born in 1956, received his first piano lesson at the age of six. Starting in 1975, Marcel studied solo singing at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, from the pedagogue Herman Woltman. He then went on to study from Aafje Heynis and then from Louis Devos at the Royal Conservatory in Brussels. In addition to singing, he also studied choral conducting from Jan Eelkema and orchestra conducting from Fernand Terby, Kenneth Montgomery, Antoni Ross-Marba and Anton Kersjes. The last of whom remained his coach for years.

Marcel Verhoeff conducted  his first choir in 1975. In 1987, after a number of successful concerts with mostly Russian music, he made his first study trip to the Soviet Union on the invitation of the Russian and Dutch governments. This visit would go on to shape much of his career. One of the consequences of his trip was the honourable invitation to conduct the Great Russian State Academic Choir Alexander Yurlov Capella, as part of the Tchaikovsky remembrance year in 1990 (Tchaikovsky had been born 150 years earlier).

The collaboration between choir and conductor was later followed up by a successful concert tour through the Netherlands. Guest appearances with, amongst others, the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra - together with the legendary pianist Tatjana Nicolaeva in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto - were another consequence of his performances in Russia.

In 1993 he was appointed chief conductor of the Male Voices of Bulgaria in Sofia. He made several impressive CD recordings with this choir in Sofia’s Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. These CD’s also appeared on the Koch-Schwann label. In the same year he recorded Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Vespers op. 39 with the State Academic Male- and Boys Choir of Moscow. Rachmaninov wrote these Vespers for boy’s and men’s voices, yet it’s the first time a recording was made with a boy’s and men’s choir.

In October 1993, Marcel was appointed director of the Cossack regiment in Krasnodar, Southern Russia. Following that, he was appointed chief conductor of the Don KosakenChor Russand. Since then, Marcel Nicolajevich Verhoeff has completed several tours and CD recordings with these ensembles. And since 1997 he has regularly appeared as guest conductor for the Romanian State Opera in Cluj-Napoca, the Moldova State Philharmonic in Lași (Romania) and the Moldavian State Opera.

In September 2000 and October 2001, Marcel Verhoeff appeared as a guest with the State Philharmonic in Lași, where he conducted two opera and gala evenings with great success.

He was asked to be the guest conductor of the Royal Military Chapel of the Netherlands Army following a large open air concert, titled “Midsummernightconcert” in connection with “750 jaar Breda.” The concert featured: Breda’s Royal Male Choir, the choir of Wroclaw’s Philharmonic, many internationally renowned vocal soloists and the aforementioned Royal Military Chapel of the Netherlands Army.

In May 2012 Marcel conducted the world premiere of “the Flood”, by Dutch composer Douwe Eisenga, during a special concert at the Lași Philharmonic with soloists and the State Philharmonic choir and orchestra “Moldova.” This concert was broadcast live, by the Romanian state radio.

Interview with Marcel N. Verhoeff

You travel a great deal for your work and you’ve worked in Russia for more than 20 years. That’s a long time. What is your connection to this country?

Traveling through the world, I often experience beautiful, and especially, emotional moments. One of my regular destinations is, indeed, Russia, with its huge history, gorgeous cities, beautiful nature, and especially, people full of emotion. It’s like coming home. Russia has been like a second home for more than 20 years now, yet at the same time, it isn’t. Russia changes, Russia lives, Russia is a challenge. I could write a book about how enthralling and impressive this country is. The difference between now and 20 years ago is unbelievable. Somebody who last visited Moscow 20 years ago will be amazed  by this great metropolis with its enormous energy. I can feel that energy in my musicians too. The passion, emotion and inner strength often moves me to tears. Which is why I feel enormously privileged that I’m allowed to work with these musicians, all over the world.

It has become impossible to imagine the international music scene without Don KosakenChor Russland. But a Dutch conductor with a professional Russian ensemble? How do you work together?

Music is an international language that binds cultures together. I feel at home in Russia and I’m a Russian amongst Russians. It shouldn’t be a surprise that, after all these years, a close friendship has developed between the soloists of the Don KosakenChor Russland and the instrumentalists of the Soloists Ensemble “Philharmonia”. There’s also a close friendship between the soloists, such as with Evgeny Polikanin.

In addition to the intensive musical collaboration, there is always time, accompanied by vodka, blini and other Russian delicacies, to philosophize on life, politics and everything else you share with friends. These are often evenings full of emotion, as described in the books by Tolstoy, Leskov and other great Russian writers. Even when we’re on tour, we always make time to dine with each other. I remember one brilliant summer afternoon in my garden in Zeeland. I live in the middle of the centre of a quiet village, and during a short summer tour my wife and I invited the choir, the ensemble, our friends and our neighbours to come and enjoy the “Zeeuwish” life with us, in our garden. Those are moments you carry in your heart.

Great, you’ve mentioned this friendship, you radiate it on stage. How do you prepare your repertoire?

Creative processes appear in this friendly environment. The inexhaustible source of unknown Russian music represents a challenge, every time. It’s wonderful to discover a new repertoire together and to create new artistic programmes with it. We’ve set a goal for ourselves to convey the wealth of unknown Russian music to the West. Apart from work by less well known - in the West - Russian composers like Pachmutova, Schwesnikov, Orbelian, Solojev and Sviridov, the singers and instrumentalists, and the libraries and conservatories of Moscow and Krasnodar [a Russian city on the river Don and a stronghold of the Cossacks] also present us with interesting and unknown compositions. These are then performed authentically, or, with the help of Russian musicians, specially adapted for this choir and ensemble. Valery Elchik, who is a virtuoso on his balalaika, is one of the greatest arrangers and many arrangements are written with him. By striking the right balance between our old and familiar repertoire and the new repertoire our concerts are extraordinarily accessible to a broad audience.

Is there a great deal of transition amongst the musicians in the choir and ensemble or do you always tour with a regular group?

There isn’t much transition in the choir, but you can compare the way this choir works to making the starting line-up for a football club, in which the conductor is the coach. There are around 28 musicians on stage, but the actual choir is larger. For every tour, singers are selected on the basis of the material that is to be performed and on their fitness of course, because going on a large tour is like playing professional sports. Also, there are yearly auditions to ensure the quality of the ensemble. Actually, not just to ensure it. The bar is set higher each year. You can see that in the choice of material, the arrangements and of course the musicians.

We’ve been able to read in the press that you’ve received the prestigious Rus Prix Award for 2012, that must be quite an honor.

I was indeed surprised and I was allowed to receive this prize on the first of june 2012. There were more laureates, amongst whom were Thymen Kouwenaar, cultural attaché of the Dutch Embassy in Moscow; Mark Rutte, Prime Minister; Summa group & De haven van Rotterdam; Royal Philips Electronics & Electron. The funny thing was that the laureates were addressed from space by André Kuipers, who himself had received the Rus Prix Award in 2004. This award also opens a lot of doors through which many more opportunities arise, and it creates new markets for the choir and ensemble.

It seems you haven’t yet tired of working with this, by now, world famous choir, right?

No, definitely not and the wonderful thing is that everything only continues to grow. We now have a winter tour with around 50 concerts and - after a brief period of rest - we’ll continue with concerts in, amongst other places: Israel, Turkey and Cyprus. Besides these, there are many more wonderful projects in development, but more on that later. In the near future we’ll also engage in collaborations with other artists. A cross over with a number of well known pop artists is being set up now and I’m really looking forward to that.

The latest CD “A Russian Romance” contains many works that aren’t known in the West. It’s a brilliant repertoire, beautifully recorded and wonderfully clearly and intensely sung. The instrumental parts are also very virtuose and of a highly professional standard. It’s dripping with power and emotion.

Thanks for the compliment. We do our best and we adore filling theatres and concert halls with Russian sounds every night, because we love our jobs. It’s wonderful to see an audience leave with a smile. When we’re able to let the music speak from our hearts and when the audience feels that, then our mission is accomplished. By the way, it might be interesting to note the “new” material has also been a big hit in Russia itself. We noticed that during our concerts in the Dom Muzika in Moscow.