Arts & Culture Music

Klara Festival, Brussels

  • April 2, 2023
  • 5 min read
Klara Festival, Brussels

For those who think of Brussels as either just a spectacular mediaeval square, le Grand Place, surrounded by chocolate shops, or the hub of fairly soulless buildings for the European institutions, the Klara Festival every Spring is a helpful antidote. Klara is the classical channel of Flemish radio and its three-week festival (run independently of the radio hierarchy but all broadcast nonetheless) is a highly adventurous mix of all the genres, which can be classed as art music, from the very early to the very contemporary European, with a good dose of other zones of the world thrown in.

The concerts mostly take place in the city’s fine pair of concert halls, built only a few years apart but very different in atmosphere. BOZAR, an abbreviation of its original name as the Palais des Beaux Arts, is the world’s first purpose-built arts centre, a labyrinth of galleries, cinemas and halls constructed in 1928 and built into the side of the hill below the King of the Belgians’ rather inelegant palace. In the basement of BOZAR sits its warm, if slightly gloomy, concert venue, where most of the symphonic events take place.

Below another hill, a mile away in Ixelles is Flagey, a wonderful art deco building by a lake that was the home for the National Radio Institute, hosting the broadcasters in both French and Flemish, until the 1990s. Its halls still bear studio numbers and the main one is Studio 4, a majestic double cube with a gorgeous organ and acoustic that allows every detail to come across clearly without being dry.

My selection of concerts, in the middle of the festival, began with an evening of French music in Flagey Studio 4. This year’s resident artist has been Barbara Hannigan, a rare musician in that she is good a conductor as she is a soprano (of which she is very good indeed). She led a programme showcasing young colleagues from a scheme called Equilibrium Young Artists that she has been mentoring. On the evidence the outcome is impressive, with the mentees in Ravel’s septet, the Introduction and Allegro, playing with rather more vim and accuracy than their mentors (who formed the string quartet). The harpist, Astrid Haring, was particularly deft.

Then it was Hannigan’s turn to sing, conducted by her young assistant, Rolf Verbeek, and what a stunning performance she turned in for the Four Hindu Poems by Ravel’s near contemporary, Maurice Delage. These are songs that are far too rarely heard and were the highlight of the whole trip. Having put down such a scary marker for others to follow, Hannigan became the conductor for two Stravinsky vocal works, the Three Japanese Lyrics and Two Poems of Konstantine Balmont, sung with finesse by soprano Emma Posman. After them, mezzo Ema Nikolovska gave us Ravel’s delicious Three Poems by Mallarmé. Both younger singers were very fine, and will develop impressive careers, but could not quite match Hannigan’s musical subtlety or range of colours.

The next evening, it was time to migrate north to Bruges (or, since this was Flemish Radio, Brugge). Its concert hall is firmly from this century, all modern red brick with a squat interior dyed battleship grey – efficient but with none of the charm of the old city it borders. There the Belgian National Orchestra gave an appealing evening of new works sandwiching Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. That was played by Josef Spacek, a man who fully justifies his reputation as a rising star, giving a virile reading that knew when to be lyrical but kept moving. Joshua Weilerstein, another musician on the up, conducted. The evening opened with Human Voices Only by Kris Defoort, a Flemish composer in his middle years who uses the full panoply of orchestral sounds in a way that feels as Californian as it does European but was highly effective on first hearing.

Less satisfactory was the vast and repetitive seascape, Become Ocean, a portrait of environmental pollution in theory, accompanied by a specially commissioned video of slowly deteriorating sea water by an artist just billed as Lillevan, projected three stories high above the orchestra. There are two American composers called John Adams grounded in minimalism and this was by the minor talent of the pair, John Luther Adams. He takes the idea of endless riffs to a level that must give as much repetitive strain injury to the players as it does boredom to the audience. The long train ride at midnight in the rain back to Brussels was a pleasure in comparison. However, the excellence of the first half of the evening more than made up for Luther Adams’ longeurs.

This was a small sample of the Klara Festival but it was enough to demonstrate the intelligence and daring of the programme (there were also concerts in BOZAR that weekend of music from Central Asia and mostly 17th century Italian church music, as well as a recital by pianist Paul Lewis). Wandering between the Belgian halls is an invigorating way to blow off the Winter cobwebs.

Simon Mundy’s journey for Enquirer was facilitated by Visit Brussels.

Image: Barbara Hannigan singing music by Delage with Equilibrium Ensemble in Flagey, Brussels, at the 2023 Klara Festival. Bjorn Comhaire

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Simon Mundy

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