EFA Festival in Focus | Flanders Festival Ghent
Simon Mundy, in interview with Flanders Festival Gent’s Artistic and Managing Director, Veerle Simoens, looks at the festival’s history and current success
The concept of the Flanders Festival is sometimes hard for outsiders to grasp but perhaps the best way to explain it is to compare it to Belgium itself – a federal structure with each part having its own role, speciality and tradition. The festival migrates from Flemish city to city like an itinerant friar, stopping for a few weeks in each for a different flavour of art and ale. Only in recent years, under the auspices of the current EFA President, Jan Briers, has the Flanders Festival reached its present form.
The journey started in Ghent back in 1958 and that is where it stops now for the second half of September. The original Flanders Festival was a superb piece of opportunistic thinking - it was started because there was money left over from the World Expo held at Heysel on the outskirts of Brussels that year (which also left the Atomium as a permanent landmark).
These days the Ghent portion is directed by Veerle Simoens, who has been artistic director for the last three years but has this year become head of the management side too. Her background has prepared her well for the role. She began as (and still is) a cellist. “I had a piano trio with my sisters,” she told me. “The violinist dealt with the money, the pianist looked after the repertoire and I was left with the booking, the selling, the promotion and the website. I found I liked to organise and sell – but then cellists are organised people. In the string quartet it is the cellist who keeps things steady – you are always helping others!”
“We had our own chamber music festival in Antwerp for two years (2009 and 10). It was very intense. Then a chamber orchestra asked me to manage it. We had no government support so it was very challenging. When Ghent asked me to join as Artistic Director in 2015 I couldn't say no. In a way it was quite comfortable just forming the programme but I like having responsibility for the management side as well. As General Director you have a total view and you have the flexibility to solve problems.”
As well as being the original chapter of the Flanders Festival, Ghent is now the largest in terms of its range of venues and repertoire. “We cover the whole city,” says Veerle, “whereas the others tend to be confined to a more limited number of spaces or art forms. Every city has its own needs and tastes – for example Bruges concentrates on early music – and we respond to that. We are quite eclectic in Ghent because we have a very broad public: from the very faithful to people who are just discovering classical music and want to listen to it in a new context.”
Picking a few days from the 2018 programme proves Veerle's point. On a Monday night there's the firmly traditional Ton Koopman directing Bach's Mass in B Minor. The next night has the adventurous violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaya joining Camerata Bern for American Jewish jazz alongside Hartmann's Violin Concerto and Frank Martin's Polyptique – a reconciliation concert highlighting those who suffered in war. A day later sees young players from the European Youth Chamber Academy joined on stage for Brahms and Mendelssohn by far more experienced players as part of the long-term Generation Project. And on the Thursday there's an 'ode to peace' commemorating the centenary of the end of the First World War that so devastated Flanders. It comes as Distortion, A Hymn to Liberty by the composer Dirk Brossé and singer-songwriter Frederik Sioen.
“My first love is chamber music,” says Veerle, “and although I'm into the big Romantic repertoire, there are chamber music concerts that you can only programme in a festival; for example it would be hard to mark the war centenary and then look at the relationship between music and philosophy in the normal schedule of a concert hall.” She illustrates this with, Le Banquet, an evening in which Mériam Korichi invites eight philosophers to discuss Plato's Symposium and its Hymn to Eros with the help of a group of musicians. That subject was also explored by Leonard Bernstein in Serenade, his violin concerto, of course, but this event does not mark his centenary but fifty years since 'the summer of love', also the year that Soviet tanks rolled into Prague.
The link with the European Chamber Music Academy is an important one for Veerle. Founded in 2004 it is a network of conservatoires, universities and festivals operating as part of the EU's Erasmus programme for young people's education exchange – combining music with cultural history (even the ancient rules of rhetoric). Veerle says, “I studied as part of the Academy (though in those days we had to pretend to be German to qualify) and it really influenced me”. However, she found it harder to persuade audiences to put their trust in the young musicians alone when she included the Academy in the schedule. “Now, through the Generation Project, we put them on stage with their tutors – more famous musicians – and the tickets are selling well because the audience decide they can trust them.”
She wants this sense of music being able to illustrate connections with big issues to continue as a feature of the Ghent Festival. “This year we have explored power and the way it is misused,” she told me, “but next year I want to think the way children do, with the freedom to use fantasy and imagination.”
Further Information on the Flanders Festival Ghent
Each year, over 180 classical and world-music concerts are performed by about 1500 (inter)national artists. Superb performances, splendid historic locations and original concepts, like OdeGand and Parklife, never fail to attract a 60.000-strong audience. Ghent Festival of Flanders is a member of the Federation of Flemish Music Festival FMiV as well as of the European Festivals Association (EFA).
In 2018, Flanders Festival Ghent celebrates its 61st edition. The festival stands out with a diverse, creative and high-quality programme. Each year, over 180 classical and world-music concerts are performed by about 1500 (inter)national artists. Superb performances, splendid historic locations and original concepts, like OdeGand, Parklife and artbeat. never fail to attract a 60,000-strong audience. Flanders Festival Ghent is a member of the Federation of Flemish Music Festival FMiV as well as of the European Festival Association (EFA).
Flanders Festival Ghent is an international music festival centred on a high-quality classical repertoire but also ready to take the odd artistic risk. In Ghent and the surrounding East-Flanders province, the Festival acts as the mortar among cultural centres and the link between a glorious past and a fascinating present. Reaching out to an ever wider audience, the Festival is a valuable addition to the existing cultural scene.
Not just in downtown Ghent
The choice of Ghent, with its impressive architectural heritage, as the Festival’s heart was no accident. In addition, each year, countless villages and communes in the surrounding East Flanders province are firmly involved in this celebration of music, now universally known as “Flanders Festival Ghent”.
The story so far…
In 1958, Jan Briers sr. decided to set up “The Ghent Music Festival”. At the time, Briers sr. was the head of the Flemish broadcasting corporation BRT as well as a communication sciences professor at the universities of Ghent and Brussels. His brand-new festival presented eight concerts that attracted a 4000-strong audience. In 1959, the initiative was rebranded to “Flanders Festival”, and seven chapters were added to the original Ghent region.
Flanders Festival Ghent has become a household name both in Belgium and abroad, with a strong following that keeps growing year after year. This growth is in large part due to the inspiring leadership of Messrs. Jan Briers (father and son) and the oftentimes prophetic vision of artistic directors like Gerard Mortier, Dirk Struys, Serge Dorny, Bert Schreurs, and Jelle Dierickx. Since November 2014 Veerle Simoens is in charge as artistic programmer and in 2016 she became artistic director.
In 1972 the Festival staged its first large-scale happening in all of Saint Peter’s Abbey’s available halls. The current success of “OdeGand”, the grand opening event on and along Ghent’s canals, and “Avanti!”, a musical cycling tour along East Flanders province’s most idyllic tracks, can therefore rightfully be considered the continuation of a long-standing tradition. Pop and world music were quickly added to Flanders Festival’s programme to provide an inspiring contrast and confrontation with western classical music, which has been the staple until this very day.
Not just Flemish composers from the polyphonic era were unearthed to general acclaim—Flanders Festival Ghent also spawned an impressive number of now world-famous Belgian musicians like Philippe Herreweghe, Sigiswald Kuijken, Paul Van Nevel and Jos van Immerseel. Obviously, the Festival also invited all major international stars to perform in Ghent: Sir Simon Rattle, Claudio Abbado, Valery Gergiev, …
Artistic Director & Managing Director | Veerle Simoens
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