A long-standing tradition
By Rudy Tambuyser, 2008
Despite – or some might say: precisely because of – its small size, Flanders is indeed a busy bee when it comes to music. It has often been said, and written, that the Flemish associative life – in and of itself a consequence of living close together – no longer exhibits the richness and the voluntarism of its heyday, which was roughly between the end of WWII and the seventies. That could well be true, but it isn’t a crazy assumption to assume that the age-old tradition of getting together, eating, drinking, having weighty discussions and, last but not least, making music has left its traces in the astonishing musical busy-ness that Flanders continues to reveal.
Is a habitual genetic code a possibility? Bart De Baere, conservator of the Antwerp Museum of Contemporary Art and thus an unimpeachably progressive voice, thinks that in his own discipline, plastic art, it is indeed the case. Recently he declared the following regarding an internationally known Flemish plastic artist: “In our country, we make art like others make wine. It’s something we’ve been doing for centuries. […] The story starts in the Middle Ages when highly organized workshops exported manuscripts, altar pieces and tapestries all over the world. Artists such as Van Eyck and later Rubens and Van Dyck produced work for the mightiest courts of the time. A lot of that work was safeguarded in our churches, castles and museums. Young people growing up in historical cities like Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp, Mechelen, Leuven or Brussels are surrounded by a rich artistic heritage. It inspires youngsters who are sensitive to it.”
Pretty simple and maybe even a little too much so. But De Baere’s words certainly do echo when it comes to music. In the late Middle Ages, the Flemish polyfonists (from Dufay via Josquin and Obrecht to Willaert and Ockeghem), who had been trained as singers and composers at the numerous cathedral schools in our country, worked mainly at the Italian courts and as a result passed on the formal framework for southern talent and inspiration to thrive in coming generations. Later, in the classical and romantic periods Flanders – from 1830 until the 1960’s, at which point we must speak of Belgium –became renowned for its interpreting artists rather than for its composers. One could say: rather more for its consistent craftsmanship than for its revelations. That’s the way it has always been and it looks like it will probably stay that way. Flanders is far from being flamboyant, but a certain crafty stability and a sense of excellence seems to be inextricably linked to it.
Maybe that’s why contemporary Flemish musicians, ensembles and composers in the most wide-ranging disciplines of the classical music business are held in such high regard. And it is probably not surprising at all, given our history, that this is, particularly, the case for the extensive domain of the authentic music practices, the art of singing and playing according to the old traditions, in other words: “early” music.
At the end of the fifties, beginning of the sixties, the so-called movement of early music emerged. On the one hand as a reaction to the hegemony of romanticism, late-romanticism and the over-romantic interpretations of old scores, on the other hand, the slipstream of the avant-garde serialization, which, through an almost scientifically objective view of art and the “correct” view of it, inspired the rediscovery of music from ages gone by.
Everybody is aware of the invaluable research done by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt into early performance practices. Among the people surrounding them are two Flemings who still make the world sit up and listen. Philippe Herreweghe started the Ghent-based choir Collegium Vocale, to study early vocal practices. He thus determined the sound of Bach during the 20th and 21st centuries. Herreweghe has recently developed into a more all-round conductor and Bruckner-fan, as conductor of the Flemish orchestra deFilharmonie and as a guest conductor at i.e. the Concertgebouw Amsterdam and Wiener Philharmoniker.
Instrumentally speaking, the violinist Sigiswald Kuijken, his borthers Wieland (viola da gamba) and Barthold (traverso), and their ensemble La Petite Bande, have driven the historical insights home, furthering everyone’s education.
From the same perspective, we can’t leave out clavichordist Jos van Immerseel and his orchestra Anima Eterna. They started twenty years ago as an accompanying group for Bach concertos and, in the meantime, they have interpreted the entire classical, as well as a good part of the romantic tradition, with authentic instrumentation. The most impressive of these much talked-about results is Mozart’s entire piano concerto repertoire, Schubert and Beethoven’s symphonies and the occasional excursion into the orchestra works of Liszt, Tchaikovski, Strauss and even Rimski and Ravel.
Among Herreweghe and Kuijken’s pupils we find, René Jacobs, who regularly worked with both as a countertenor and who taught the world famous Andreas Scholl, now a conductor (with, among others, the Freiburger Barockorchester en Akademie für alte Musik Berlin) and who relentlessly receives kudos for his inspiring opera versions. Marcel Ponseele, according to his colleagues the best baroque oboist in the world, played with Herreweghe for years and started his own ensemble in the eighties with flautist Jan De Winne, called Il Gardellino, named after a concerto by Vivaldi.
Another generational colleague of these musicians is the amazing cellist Roel Dieltiens, who once had a great career ahead of him as a solo cellist, but chose a more authentic approach with his Ensemble Explorations, of which the name speaks for itself.
The odd man out, so to speak, is the Flanders Recorder Quartet - in Dutch they go by, Vier op ‘n Rij – who are in their own way unique, highflying and internationally recognized as emissaries of “early music”.
We should also mention the vocal ensembles Huelgas Ensemble, directed by the authoritative Middle Age and Renaissance specialist Paul Van Nevel and Capilla Flamenca, a quartet directed by Dirk Snellings, who mainly focuses on meticulous, scientific source research and vocal know-how, and the more flamboyant, holistic and experimentally inclined Graindelavoix, directed by Björn Schmelzer. Among the younger instrumental ensembles it would be a shame not to mention the baroque group B’Rock and Les Muffatti under the direction of the remarkable flautist Peter Van Heyghen.
All early music was, at one point, new music and not one artistic discipline would survive if it weren’t for the constant stream of ideas surrounding new forms of expression. Indeed, the famous Hungarian composer and conductor Peter Eötvös called the early musical movement a mildly anachronistic, but valuable form of avant-garde and music has the advantage of the canon having to be perpetually reinterpreted and thus re-thought.
However, the need for an artistic spearhead that will prepare the canon of tomorrow is undeniable. Here, Flanders once again puts up a good show.
As far as interpretation goes, the legendary group Maximalist!, created in the eighties in Brussels as an alternative to the all-purveying minimalism, was inspired by just about everything but not in the least by the Arte Povera. Their short but acutely powerful existence laid the foundations for a good part of Flanders’ present-day ambassadors of new music.
She might not be a musician, but dance icon Anne Theresa De Keersmaecker and her company Rosas emerged from a similar scene. The legendary X-legged Sally, led by clarinettist-composer Peter Vermeersch was also born from Maximalist!; these days he leads the Flat Earth Society, a delightful meta-fanfare, maybe not immediately classifiable as classical music, but that doesn’t matter.
Bl!ndman – the exclamation mark is a tribute to Maximalist! – is a saxophone quartet led by the impassioned ex-Maximalist!-member Eric Sleichim. Their aim is to find new forms of expression based on the wide range of saxophone possibilities and it seems that these are endless. On the one hand, the group focuses on reuniting the acoustic sound of the saxophone with electronic means; on the other hand, they also try to connect with tradition. This varies wildly from, for instance, the electronic accompaniment of a silent movie by Bunuel, via brand new compositions by Oehring, Lachenmann or Sleichim himself, to arrangements of organ partitas by Bach. The last few years the quartet has been on an extensive search through previous centuries, with experiments in the Middle Ages (the school of Notre-Dame with among others Perotinus), the Renaissance and Baroque periods, with the collaboration of highly specialized individuals such as Paul Van Nevel and Pedro Memelsdorff. Sleichim also composed, apart from a lot of Bl!ndman’s work, an opera about the life of the surrealist Antonin Artaud.
Another offshoot of Maximalist! is the internationally acclaimed ensemble Ictus, led by the superb conductor George-Elie Octors, which has privileged contacts with a number of outstanding composers (Harvey, Ferneyhough, Reich, Aperghis,…) and calls the Kaaitheater in Brussels its home. It regularly performs at the famed Studio 4, in the boat-shaped Flagey building, located in the Brussels’ commune of Ixelles. International musicians have long praised the legendary radio building for its acoustic qualities. The building was renovated in 2002 and now houses an arts facility, under the direction of Hugo De Greef, who also surfaced from the Maximalist! environment and has a solid reputation as a cultural organiser.
Other ensembles worth mentioning are Champ d’Action, created in 1988 by the Antwerp-based electronic influenced composer Serge Verstockt, who recently delivered the score for Jan Fabre’s Requiem für eine Metamorphose for the Salzburger Festspiele 2007. Pianist-conductor Koen Kessels directed Champ d’Action for a long time, but in 1999 he started his HERMESensemble, dedicated to 20th and 21st century music.
The Spectra ensemble, directed by pianist, conductor and composer Filip Rathé and created by himself and Alvaro Guimaraes, was named after the Spectra-group, which, along with the IPEM (Institute for Psycho-acoustics and Electronic Music), gave shape to the emerging electronic avant-garde movement in Ghent in the sixties. Both institutes boast a number of deceased masters amidst their members, such as Karel Goeyvaerts, Norbert Rosseau, Louis De Meester and Lucien Goethals, but also Philippe Boesmans, who is now resident composer at De Munt in Brussels, musicologist Herman Sabbe and Claude Coppens, pianist and composer.
Guimaraes, in the meantime, started the Kunstarbeiders Gezelschap in 2003, which produces contemporary music projects focusing on the multi disciplinarian, social and theoretical impact.
Also in Ghent, we find the Stichting Logos, the brainchild of composer Godfried-Willem Raes, the ingenious inventor of musical automatons, unconditional musical progressive thinker, constantly implicated in the never-ending battle to free music from the clutches of the elite.
Another citizen of Ghent, and just as unparalleled as Raes, is the composer Lucien Posman, a self-proclaimed post-mannerist and a huge fan and connoisseur of William Blake, for whose writing he has often composed music. For example, The book of Loss and Ten songs of experience, recorded by the Ghent-based vocal ensemble for contemporary music, Aquarius, led by Marc Michael De Smet and named after the opera of the same name by Karel Goeyvaerts.
As far as performance goes, we should mention Prometheus Ensemble, led by bassist-conductor Etienne Siebens, an ensemble that gathers quite a few prominent musicians and aims for the more canonical element of 20th century music, as well as the young, five-part ensemble Het Collectief, who connects new ties between canon singing and very recent times and have unforgettable versions of Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Stockhausen’s Tierkreis to their name.
Last but not least, we’d also like to mention a few outstanding Flemish composers. Luc Brewaeys, who was a pupil of Iannis Xenakis and Franco Donatoni, has to be our best symphonic composer, with 8 symphonies under his belt as well as scintillating orchestrations of Debussy’s Préludes.
Luc Van Hove, who is a teacher of composition at the Antwerp conservatory, is a key figure, a “constructivist” who values craftsmanship above all else. He recently delivered an opera La Strada (Fellini) for the Vlaamse Opera.
His colleague Wim Henderickx, who used to be a percussionist, was noticed thanks to his Raga’s for orchestra, based on traditional Hindu music and with music theatre (Triumph of Spirit over Matter, Achilleus, Een totale Entführung). His most recent score is Sunyata (emptiness), written for the theatre performance VOID.
Piet Swerts immediately made a name for himself in 1993 when his violin concerto Zodiac was selected among 154 entries at the Queen Elisabeth competition for violin. Henryk Gòrecki and Franco Donatoni were both jury members. After its premiere, his opera Liaisons Dangereuses was heralded as one of the most astonishing happenings during the 1996-1997 opera season, by the English opera magazine Opera Now.
Kris Defoort used to be a classical flautist but became a celebrated jazz pianist and is now one of our most prominent composers, his best known works being the opera The Woman who Walked into Doors and the cycle Conservations/Conversations.
And then there’s the new, young generation, who, not surprisingly, were coached by the tenors of today: Annelies Van Parys by Brewaeys, Joachim Brackx by Raes en Bert Van Herck by Van Hove.
Between the really early and the hot off the press, there is of course the regular repertoire, with innumerable ensembles, soloists, orchestras and organisers, of which hereby a few of the most notable.
Flanders has a rich tradition of chamber music. Among the string quartets the Spiegel Kwartet, with Elisa Kawagutti, who used to be concertmaster at deFilharmonie, and the Danel Kwartet, who emigrated from Lille, are certainly the most noteworthy.
There is also Oxalys, an exceptional ensemble with a varying line-up, created by flautist Toon Fret, who is also a member of Het Collectief. Oxalys recently released a beautiful recording of a chamber adaptation by Schönberg of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.
The Enigma Kwartet is a young quartet around pianist Nicholas Callot and among the string trios Goeyvaerts Strijktrio is certainly worth mentioning. They recently released work by Louis De Meester and Eugène Ysaÿes’ trio ‘Le Chimay’. I Solisti del Vento is a woodwind group started by bassoonist Francis Pollet. The superb soloists Piet Van Bockstal (oboe, see also Ictus and deFilharmonie) and Vlad Weverbergh (clarinet) are also members.
Among the prominent pianists in Flanders, there are certainly a few that stand out: Jan Michiels, all-rounder with an unmistakeable preference for recent music, Daan Vandewalle, who almost solely focuses on contemporary work, and since very recently, Liebrecht Vanbeckevoort, who, as a laureate at the prestigious International Music Competition Queen Elisabeth in Brussels, has seen his career make leaps and bounds.
Jozef De Beenhouwer is a little less known, but just as Svjatoslav Richter, Alfred Brendel and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, he’s a winner of the Schumann-prize issued in the city of Zwickau and is also an incomparable Brahms-interpreter.
Other soloists are the violinist Yossif Ivanov, winner of the 2006 Queen Elisabeth competition and cellist Arne Deforce, who used to be one of the pillars of the Champ d’Action ensemble, but almost exclusively focuses on solo work these days and mainly in contemporary music.
Among the Flemish orchestras, there are three that absolutely must be mentioned. deFilharmonie used to be the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of Flanders, based in Antwerp. Whether or not under the direction of its musical director, Philippe Herreweghe, it tours and regularly plays the important concert halls in Flanders: deSingel in Antwerp, which also houses the Antwerp conservatory, De Bijloke, a historical site which was once a 13th century hospital but was transformed into a concert hall, the Concertgebouw Brugge, the most recent and, without a doubt, acoustically, the best concert hall in Flanders, and finally, the Elisabethzaal, also in Antwerp, home of deFilharmonie and also where they perform their subscribers’ concerts.
The Vlaams Radio Orkest – Brussels Philharmonic (VRO) and the Vlaams Radio Koor (VRK) used to be part of the national broadcasting company, but have gained independent status and are now housed in Flagey, and is under the direction of Michel Tabachnik and Bo Holten. Pianist and composer, Johan Duijck, who used to direct the VRK, now directs St-Martin-in-the-Fields, where he is also resident composer.
The Symfonieorkest Vlaanderen is a slimmer, very flexible and young orchestra that plays extensively in Belgium; the Concertgebouw in Bruges is their home base. They are directed by Etienne Siebens (see also Prometheus Ensemble).
Flanders is famed for organisation in terms of classical music. The international resonance of the name Festival van Vlaanderen – Flanders Festival is proof of that. It is precisely fifty years old and is nowadays, one of the largest producers and co-producers of concerts throughout the entire season. The Brussels and international divisions are obviously well-known, but there are also the international acclaimed festival of early music Musica Antiqua in Bruges and the fringe festival Laus Polyfoniae in Antwerp.
There are of course the seasons in the aforementioned Bijloke (Ghent), Singel (Antwerp), Concertgebouw (Bruges), but also smaller, more modest initiatives are worth mentioning because of their originality and exceptional quality: the Handelsbeurs in Ghent and Amuz in Antwerp.
Too much to chose from. Classical music in Flanders is certainly not on its last legs…