18 December, 2011

A few nights in Belgium: Requiems and Royalty

I can hardly say that this semester has been uneventful. As I think back, plenty of interesting events come to mind: that first hectic week in Hotel Astrid spent scrounging free wifi at cafes across the city and going to the fortuitously-scheduled film festival at night; the challenge of meeting with my adviser, professors, and library staff and explaining my unusual academic situation to them...in French; a twenty-five mile bike ride from Bruges to Zeebrugge, just for the sake of seeing the North Sea; a few brushes with the police (not my fault!); meeting crazy pro-OWS Yugoslavians in Paris and being dragged along with them to a med-students' bar where the drinks come in...baby bottles; getting violently ill in Paris a few days later thanks to too much sun? too little water? and dragging myself back to my hostel on the metro; oh right, that "briefing" at the American embassy and reception at the ambassador's house; getting quite, quite lost in Bois de la Cambre with a friend at night; hiking seventeen miles to get to the site of the Battle of Waterloo; refusing invitations to "have a coffee" with various guys ranging from a junior staff member of the European Parliament to a Parisian bookseller; visiting way too many Christmas markets; nearly getting stranded in Germany after one particularly eventful Christmas market visit and having to push a motor scooter back to Flagey with a friend (who actually did by far the most of the pushing) through throngs of partying Brits at nearly 2:00 a.m.; getting lost around Gare du Midi for a few hours (not such a great idea); getting a super-new haircut in Lille, France and discovering that leather jackets are actually quite classy; trying roasted chestnuts, glühwein, Belgian fries, Belgian waffles, Belgian chocolate, and waterzooi for the first time; seeing how the Belgian staff of the Sheraton interprets the American Thanksgiving menu; running into a serious riot (as in, Molotov cocktails, smashed windshields and 200 arrests sort of riot) near Porte de Namur; and lots, lots more.

Yeah, that's a lot. And that's just what comes to mind immediately. I could have written a nice, juicy blog post about any single one of them, I suppose. But I didn't, because I'm a terrible blogger...at least when it comes to posting about things that people are actually interested in. Be that as it may, I'm going to pretend that talking about my last two nights in the city will make up for any previous delinquency. Because they've been sufficiently awesome that that might be rather close to the truth.

Last night, Saturday the seventeenth of December, I attended a concert at the Bozar (get it, "beaux-arts"?) in the center of Brussels. The performance featured the Brussels Choral Society, the Charlemagne Orchestra for Europe. It took place in the Salle Henri LeBoeuf, directly across the road from the Royal Palace, on the slope of the "Mont des Arts". The Salle, and the Palais des Beaux Arts as a whole, was designed by Belgian architect Victor Horta (very famous fellow if you happen to know anything about the Art Deco movement). Actually, I could go into a whole side lecture about the Palais and how nifty Art Deco is and such, since that's been a lot of what I've been studying this semester. But such speeches are best appreciated when the buildings in question are before the audiences' eyes. I'll just comment for now that the shape of the building is rather unusual because the city didn't want it to block the view from the royal palace overlooking the city. And Salle Henri LeBoeuf is excellently designed; even the cheapest seats (which I had, rather predictably) have excellent views of the stage and the acoustic range is great.

As for the performance...note that as yet I haven't even specified the program. That's because they were playing Verdi's Requiem.

Which announcement I feel deserves a paragraph of it's own. Not for any objective reasons, but very simply because that is one of my all-time favorite pieces of music (along, rather interestingly, with Mozart's and Duruflé's requiems...yes, I know that may sound morbid, but they're fantastic).

Anyway, the performance was admittedly not Abbado's breathtaking and legendary rendition, but it had the virtue of being a live one, which always adds a great deal to one's appreciation of the piece. And unlike many of the alternatives to Abbado that I've heard over the years, this was hardly a rendition to be sneered at. The soloists worried me at first. I'm not sure if it was them or if it was the orchestra that was at fault, but in the Kyrie part they seemed a little too overwhelmed by the orchestra. Understandable enough, I suppose, since with the dynamic range the orchestra is expected to utilize in that piece, it would be difficult not to overwhelm four unaided human voices...then of course, there's the enormous choir comes in and blows everyone away and the soloists are more or less seamlessly absorbed into the larger body. That was accomplished fairly well, but not as effectively as it could have been had the orchestra not so nearly drowned them out before that.

If overly-powerful dynamics were a bit of a problem in the Kyrie, as you can probably imagine (assuming you've heard the piece), that only made the Dies Irae all the more exhilarating. The choir and orchestra completely nailed the Tuba Mirum, probably the single most dramatic and recognizable passage in the requiem. I'd very willingly compare their performance here to the Abbado one. In fact, watching it, and the conductor's style here, one couldn't help but think that the Brussels Choral Society, the Charlemagne Orchestra for Europe, and their conductor were deliberately calling on the Abbado rendition for inspiration. Not that that's a bad thing. Praise originality to the heavens, but there are some times when something is just done so well that a good imitation is the most satisfying possibility for years to come.

After the Tuba Mirum the soloists came in again and this time I was reassured. The baritone was the standout by a long shot, as he had been before, but the orchestral parts recede considerably during the solos for the rest of the piece, and you could see that paying off in terms of dynamics here. I'll admit that I still wasn't impressed per se with either the soprano or mezzo soprano yet; that could however, be because each of their parts here was more a duet than a solo, and the very young mezzo soprano was having just a bit of a difficult time keeping up with the much older and more experienced soprano. A subtle difference, but I think one might notice it after listening obsessively to the Abbado version (though one wonders how much of my "criticism" may result simply from being more accustomed to the Abbado version than from any actual fault here). To renege a bit on what I was just saying, however: the Lacrymosa, which started off with the soprano and mezzo together, was phenomenal.

Once the Dies Irae was complete (I hadn't realized very consciously before how long it is!), the soloists really started to shine. The Sanctus starts out completely a capella, for the choir, and was beautifully done. One interesting thing about this piece is that the soprano never gets a solo per se until the very last part, the Libera Me. That gorgeous high C which she hits about midway through this final segment marks a turning point in the piece. Suddenly the choir is singing more quickly, more lightly; one get's a sense of a resolution having been achieved and that joy is the natural product of that achievement. That was all perfectly done last night, and for me that clinched the performance.

I fear my criticism thus far might give an inaccurate idea of the performance's quality. I was on the whole very impressed. I wouldn't be surprised if my occasional difficulty in hearing the soloists was partly due to being up in the balcony on the side--not a bad vantage point at all, but if the way one is supposed to project one's voice in a play for maximum audibility is anything to go by, not being out in the front during such a concert might theoretically make a bit of a difference in the way one hears things. Even if that has nothing whatsoever to do with it, every part of the piece that it was really important to get they nailed. The choir and orchestra were fantastic throughout, and the soloists only got better as the evening went on. After the last note sounded, the musicians were called back on stage no less than four times by audience applause.

On a related note, I learned upon getting there (by overhearing some excited Dutch-speakers) that the Princess was going to be in attendance. Sure enough, Princess Claire of Belgium came in to the royal box moments before the concert began, and the news crew made a bit of noise in the box beside mine getting a shot for the broadcast. Because the view from where I was was just that good. Ha.

I later learned that she's a leading patron of the Brussels Choral Society, which sang at her wedding, and that she was the patron of this event.

Well, seeing as it's around 2:00 a.m. here in Belgium, the wise thing to do would be to sleep and to hope that tomorrow I'll be as enthusiastic about recounting tonight's events as I was today.

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