by Laura Gullett
We woke up our first morning in Amsterdam both very eager for the day’s trip to the city of Alkmaar, but also quite exhausted. As we walked towards the train station, eyes were peeled for somewhere to get coffee or a quick breakfast snack. Yet, even though it was past 8 am, the streets were deserted. Adriana put the pieces together and realized that today in Holland was “Pentecost Monday,” a national holiday. All the shops were closed, no one was working, and everyone was sleeping.
After a half hour train ride, we arrived in Alkmaar! Our first stop was the Grote Kerk. We were warmly greeted by Pieter van Dijk, who explained to us that the previous night, the Grote Kerk had hosted the North Holland Beer Festival (explaining the heavy scent of beer pervading the church). The Grote Kerk is no longer a proper church; rather, it serves as a community gathering space for events such as the Beer Festival. Such a use for a church is not as large of a departure from historical precedent as might be expected; throughout the Netherlands’ history, churches have been the center point of city and town life, and used for a variety of purposes. The Grote Kerk had even served as a town prison at one point in its history. To our luck, a town’s wealth was displayed by the splendor of its church, and as a result, the organs were fabulous.
There are two organs in the Grote Kerk. The first we played was a 1511 Van Covelens organ, the oldest playable organ of the 1,800 historical organs in Holland! The organ has a span of three octaves and a third, and charmed us with its flutes and beautiful plenum sounds. I was struck by the clarity of the sound that came from the small instrument. Adriana and David played Sweelinck on the organ as part of a masterclass, and then we all got a chance to try it out. The organ can be manually pumped, so we all took a turn pumping the bellows, as well.
We then ate a yummy Dutch lunch at a restaurant on a boat built into the side of a canal. The menu was entirely in Dutch, so we weren’t entirely sure what we were ordering—even Karen, who has shown a remarkable aptitude for figuring out the Dutch words and has served as our quasi-translator.
We returned to the church to play its main organ, a 1646 Schnitger organ. The organ had been built originally by van Hagerbeer as a Dutch classic organ. Schnitger was brought in to “renovate” the organ to a North German style instrument, prompting much controversy throughout the town. After the Schnitger renovation, those who had been opposed called the organ a “German noisemaker.” But to our ears, the organ was fantastic. Schnitger expanded the organ from 40 to 56 stops, expanding the pedal from 3 stops to 13. For this expansion, he managed to fit all of the new pipes within the original Dutch case, a quite impressive feat. Today, 90% of the original Schnitger pipework remains, as well as the original case.
This organ is renowned internationally, largely because the blind organist Helmut Walcha made recordings there. The story goes that Walcha was in Haarlem on the beach with a friend, who suggested they visit this organ in Alkmaar. Walcha conceded that he would visit the organ if it rained the next day, which it did! He loved the organ so much he decided to make his famous “Art of the Fugue” recording there. Ever since, the organ has inspired many to become organists. We all got a chance to try the fantastic instrument out, playing a variety of Buxtehude and Bach, which was an incredible experience.
To round out the day, Frank van Wijk welcomed us to the Kapelkerk in Alkmaar. The Kapelkerk boasts a 1762 Müller organ, the last made by Christiaan Müller. We will see two more organs in the next days, so this was our introduction to his instruments. The organ was restored in 2001-2004 by Flentrop so that the instrument retains its original colors. As Frank played and spoke about the instrument, you couldn’t help but catching his enthusiasm as he excitedly detailed its history and showed off its great features. Frank played us several movements of C.P.E. Bach sonatas, as well as a wonderful Dutch allegro in the classical style. The instrument was marvelous to hear up close; we were all beaming as we listened to the music.
That brought our day in Alkmaar to a close. We got back on the train and rode back to Amsterdam. After a five-minute dinner, we sped walk across the city to Leidesplein, where we were going to see the opera that very night! The performance was Handel’s “Orlando,” which I think we can all agree was amazing. All the soloists were impeccable, especially Bejun Mehta, a countertenor. For many of us, this was our first exposure to a full-length opera, and we emerged opera enthusiasts.
Per usual, we returned home and feasted. Despite the post-midnight hour, we were all hungry for another meal. After hanging out a while, we all hit the sack and fell asleep within seconds.