Dutch invention - The innovative rise of Altena Brass


4BR Editor Iwan Fox finds out a little more about a very surprising Dutch band and its innovative ambitions - Altena Brass.

AltenaHolland’s established brass band culture, for so long centred in its northern towns and cities, is now seeing a welcome resurgence in the south of the country.

And leading the way is a progressive and ambitious band called Altena Brass.

Growing reputation

Under the baton of Jan Gerrit Adema, Altena is one of the younger championship standard bands in the Netherlands, and in the past couple of years has earned a growing reputation for innovative musical thinking.

Recently, the band performed in the town of Tilburg as part of the ‘Verrassende Ontmoetingen’ (Surprising Encounters) series of concerts, whilst later this month they will perform in The Beurs van Berlage, the second largest concert hall in Amsterdam after the world famous Concertgebouw.

The ‘surprise encounters’ was a well chosen description, as Jan Gerrit Adema programmed no less than three intriguing Dutch premieres for the event:


WilbyThe first was Philip Wilby’s (right) ‘Flight’, originally written in 1991 to feature the flugel as a solo voice, but on these occasions led by a violin, performed by the internationally renowned soloists Bram Bossier and Johan Olof.

In addition Gary Kulesha’s ‘Concerto for Accordion and Brass Band’, written in 1998, was also premiered with soloist An Raskin, whilst to close, the band gave the first Dutch performance of ‘Balkan Moods’, written in 2001 by Norwegian composers Reid Gilje and Frode Rydland.

The concert series was the culmination of over 10 years of music making by Altena Brass, which was founded in 1999 as a non competing band.

Original members

The original members came from the area between the cities of Den Bosch and Gorinchem, in the south of the Netherlands, although over the intervening years new players were drawn as far as Eindhoven, Arnhem, Nijmegen and Rotterdam.

The band is made up of a majority of musicians with extensive professional orchestral and ensemble experience, and whilst enjoying the opportunity to perform together, they were musical brought together by the desire to bring a combination of wind and brass music to a new and opened mined audience.


Over the years the band’s reputation for innovative, adventurous concert programming grew, but it was not until recently that their profile has become more well known in their home country.

Band spokesperson Henk van der Meulen explained more: “The musical ethos stems from the members and their desire to utilise the brass band as a large scale stylistically versatile brass ensemble. It does lead to a slightly different approach to that found in the UK for instance, but the players and MD are aware of the traditional strengths of British style brass band playing, and aim to portray them – although bound in a slightly different musical cover.”

PorhtouseGuest conductors

To this end, the band has worked with a number of guest conductors – most recently with with Ian Porthouse (right), who was impressed by the drive to reach out to a new musical audience in an innovative manner.

”I’ve enjoyed myself with Altena – both socially and musically,” Ian said.  “The desire to combine the strengths of traditional British style brass band playing whilst searching for new musical avenues makes them an exciting and intriguing set of musicians. There is a great deal bands in the UK can learn from their forward thinking ethos.”

Conductor Jan Gerrit Adema added: “Altena Brass doesn't necessarily approaches music from a particular tradition. Knowledge of the music’s  'roots' is indispensable for the band to guarantee being truly versatile.”

As a rule, Altena Brass does perform original brass band repertoire, but it has a growing affinity with contemporary, sometimes experimental music – hence the latest series of ‘surprise’ concerts.


Ian Porthouse has seen this first hand: “The band's does believe that it has a varied mix of easy-listening and jazz to classical and contemporary symphonic repertoire, but whatever it plays it wishes to be seen as a band that encompasses innovation.”

This has led to them performing works such as ‘Sinfonia for Brass Band, Piano and Harp’ by Gary Kulesha, Michael Daugherty's ‘Motown Metal’, ‘Graffiti’ by Knut Vaage, Kurt Weill’s ‘Dreigroschenoper’ and ‘Rotations voor piano en Orchestra’ by Piet Swerts.

“We have also performed national premieres of works such as ‘The Mechanical Advantage’ by Omar Daniel, a large concerto for percussion soloist and brass band and two world premieres: ‘Leo’ by Kerry Woodward and ‘Alpha Centauri’' by Robert van Enschot,” Henk added.


Conductor Jan Gerrit Adema is keen however to show that the band has not forgotten the great tradition of original British brass band music either: “We thoroughly enjoy performing works such as ‘Journey into Freedom’, ‘Sounds’, ‘Spectrum’ and ‘Pageantry’ -  artistically sublime pieces, that are seldom heard in the Netherlands, “ he said.

Since 2003, Altena Brass has also organised its own annual ‘Easter Concert’, for which a prominent guest soloist has been invited such as Brandt Attema, bass trombone with the Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, Hans Nickel (tuba, WDR Symphony Orchestra, Germany), Tatiana Koleva (percussion), Ilja Reingoud (jazz-trombone) and Tjeerd Top (assistant principal violin, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra)


In 2010 Jasper de Waal, the principal horn player of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra was the guest, whilst the band has enjoyed a growing musical relationship with Ian Porthouse.

Although Altena Brass does not focus on contesting, its increasing contact with the traditional elements of British brass banding has meant that it is starting to be drawn into the contesting environment too – albeit with some reservations as Jan explained.

“We consider contesting as a means of improving the level of playing and not as a goal on its own, “ he said. “Competing in a contest more than often comes at the expense of other interesting activities. 

Because of that, Altena has the policy of competing in the National Championships not more than every other year.”

However, despite their short history in 2002 Altena qualified to play in the Dutch Championship Section, whilst their performance at the 2009 Championships evoked a massive polemic on the Dutch brass band-internet forums after their individual interpretation of the set work, ‘Sketches from Nowhere’ stood out and won a great deal of admiration.

As Jan summed up - it was perhaps the perfect example of what this progressive and innovative brass band is all about: “This was Altena Brass at its best: out of the box and controversial!”

Iwan Fox
More information can be found on the website: www.altenabrass.nl


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