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Dutch town rivalry yields world's best orchestras

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Matt Steinglass
Globe Correspondent / January 11, 2004

THORN, Netherlands -- This village, in the southern Dutch province of Limburg, is a tidy cluster of brick houses surrounding a towering Gothic church of gray stone, perched on a hillock beside the River Maas. Founded in the 10th century as an elite girls' church school, Thorn grew into a small medieval kingdom ruled by the school's abbess. (Picture the dean of Wellesley College reigning over Wellesley.)

The town is known as the ''white village" (''het witte stadje") because its center is painted entirely white, for historical reasons having to do with the Napoleonic tax code. On a sunny weekend day, a visitor can expect to see clubs of motorcyclists and one-passenger funny-car owners pulling up at cafes on the Hoogstraat, while in a field at the edge of town, the local ''schutterij," or musketeers' association, assembles for shooting practice. In short, Thorn is one of those adorable Dutch villages so saturated with odd and picturesque institutions that it seems in danger of dissolving into a puddle of quaintness.

But in one sphere, Thorn is not quaint at all -- or rather, it has elevated its quaintness to a very serious level. Thorn (population: 2,600) boasts two of the world's best amateur wind orchestras. The Koninklijke Harmoni and the Harmoni St. Michal are known locally as the ''bokken" (he-goats) and the ''geiten" (she-goats). In 1993, the geiten took first prize at the World Music Contest, the quadrennial amateur classical-music championships. At the next contest, in 1997, the bokken won. In 2001, neither side could attend, and the championship went to a Spanish wind orchestra. But locals consider it a victory by proxy: The Spanish orchestra's conductor, Henry Adams, hails from Thorn.

In the world of the wind orchestra, Thorn reigns supreme.

Wind orchestras are fairly common in Europe. They may be thought of as more serious versions of the American marching band, or as classical orchestras with their cellos and violins replaced by saxophones and clarinets. They can play anything from popular marches to Shostakovich symphonies. Wind orchestras are especially popular in Limburg and in the Spanish province of Valencia; there are more than 250 in Limburg alone.

But Thorn's bokken and geiten are more than just musical societies. They're more like rival clans. Every family in town belongs to one side or the other, and membership is hereditary. The schism dates to 1863, when the local priest tried to ban members of the town band from playing in cafes. The band split; the geiten followed the church, the bokken went their own way. In the religious/secular tensions which racked the Netherlands through the early 1900s, the clash grew heated.

''It used to be that bokken and geiten didn't intermarry," says Peter Parren, president of the Koninklijke Harmoni (the bokken). In recent decades things have mellowed. ''Today it's purely a musical rivalry. Our children play together on the soccer team. It doesn't disturb our social life."

It does, however, produce an extraordinary level of musicianship. Children in Thorn study music from an early age. ''We put a bit of pressure on the kids to play," says C.J.J. Halkes, the St. Michal's chairman. ''It was stronger before, but these days kids are so busy, with soccer and everything." Talented prospects are invited to join the appropriate wind orchestra as young as 14. A striking number go on to conservatory and professional musical careers. Others remain amateurs.

Those who move away from Thorn often drive hours to attend rehearsals. ''It's just fun," says Rick Schreurs, 22, a saxophonist with the bokken. Schreurs studies landscape architecture at university in Arnhem, 90 minutes north of Thorn. He comes back every weekend to rehearse -- ''to see my mates."

''The Harmonis are the standard-bearers of the community," says Parren. And in tightly-knit, Roman Catholic Limburg, community means a lot.

The Koninklijke Harmoni is housed in a peak-roofed white house in the center of the old town. Rehearsals, open to visitors, are held every Sunday morning at 10:30 on the second floor. (''The acoustics are quite bad," says Parren, ''but we'll never leave. Too much history.") A small raised dais accommodates 90 musicians and conductor Jan Cobers, a Thorn native, internationally respected conductor, and former first clarinetist with the Netherlands Radio Orchestra. The musicians range from teenagers to gray-haired retirees. On the day I visited, Cobers was guiding them through a dissonant crescendo in Respighi's ''Feste Romane." The sound of the massed horns was brilliant, hair-raising.

The geiten also rehearse on Sunday mornings, precluding the possibility of playing for both orchestras, if anyone were tempted. Their building, in the newer part of town, is an unappealing block of windowless brick. (The acoustics are excellent.) In the smoky, dim, front-room cafe, a quartet of gray-haired fellows were clustered at the bar, drinking beer and gin at 11 a.m. Down the hall, a soundproof door opened onto a swell of shimmering sound: The Harmoni St. Michael was playing -- what else? -- ''The Ride of the Valkyries."

''I like playing material out of the symphonic repertoire," said Frank Crasborn, contrabassist with the geiten. (That's Crasborn, as in the Crasborn hotel. It's a small town.) ''That's what I love about playing in the Harmoni, this constant drive to play at a professional level. And, of course, it's fun, socially."

This social aspect is the unique quality of Thorn's Harmonis. You can sense it even as a spectator: When you watch the bokken or the geiten play, you're seeing not just an orchestra, but a concerted social project. It sounds corny, but you do sometimes feel that what you hear coming out of Rick Schreurs's sax are the collective hopes and energies of all of Thorn.

Or half of Thorn, anyway. It's true that the Harmonis' rivalry is more muted today than it once was. The two play a joint concert every year on Ascension Day, in May, and collaborate in running the town's single music school. And both Harmonis face the same challenges -- particularly retaining their membership in an ever-more-fluid society. ''Society here is changing, getting more individualistic -- like what you have in the US," says Parren.

But for all their common interests, the two societies haven't quite buried the hatchet. They never compete in the same festival in the same year, for example; that might drive passions in town too high. And then there's the question of which was actually the original Harmoni in Thorn. The Harmoni St. Michael website claims the group's lineage goes back to 1839, while ''despite claims by some," no evidence shows the existence of the Koninklijke Harmoni before 1865.

''There are some amateur historians in the geiten who are trying to claim that the Koninklijke Harmoni was not actually founded in 1812," retorts Parren. ''But we don't bother with such academic disputes." He smiles. Then, unable to restrain himself, he continues: ''You see, at the end of the Napoleonic period. . . ."

Matt Steinglass is a freelance writer who lives in Hanoi.

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