© Mark D Hammond | Wikicommons
© Mark D Hammond | Wikicommons
Bruges has long been an important destination for travellers. Its name probably derives from the old Dutch word for “bridge” – appropriate for a city which lays claim (along with Amsterdam and Manchester) to the title “the Venice of the North”, with its busy network of canals. It was an important location along the old trade routes between the Hansa cities of the north and commercial regions of France, Italy and Spain. The city was a centre for cloth fairs and wool markets, as well as being famous for its lace. Most of its medieval architecture is still intact and in 2000 Bruges was declared a World Heritage Site.

Bruges is also an important destination for cultural travellers. The capital of the West Flanders province in the Flemish region of Belgium, Bruges is packed with culture. The only difficulty for the musical tourist is deciding when to actually visit, for Bruges boasts four important music festivals as well as hosting a packed classical music season.

Bruges canal by night © David Karlin
Bruges canal by night
© David Karlin
Its concert hall – the Concertgebouw – was built in 2002 (when the city was European Capital of Culture) and is a marvel, famed for its “acoustic wizardry” which generates “a great deal of warmth and richness of reverberation”.

A bulging season brochure promises a great deal to the musical tourist. Fine Belgian orchestras such as the National Orchestra of Belgium, the Brussels Philharmonic and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic are bolstered by visits from the Rotterdam Philharmonic under its charismatic conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. However, it’s in the area of early music and, in particular, period instrument performance that Bruges is almost indecently rich. I cannot think of another city in the world where so many accomplished period bands are on offer this season.

Two festivals in particular should attract fans of early music. The sixth Bach Academy Bruges festival in January juxtaposes the music of Bach and Buxtehude. Such was Buxtehude’s reputation as an organist that in 1705, Bach made the trek from Arnstadt to Lübeck on foot – some 400 kilometres – to meet him and hear him play. Collegium Vocale Gent and Philippe Herreweghe open the festival with Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri, closing it with Bach cantatas. From Scotland, the Dunedin Consort offers a rich, varied programme, including the Brandenburg Concerto no. 6 and cantatas sung by star countertenor Iestyn Davies. Bach Academy Bruges has a number of related events to help put the music in context; most attractively, perhaps, an appetising event titled “Bach and Beer”, where you can sample local brews alongside Bach Cello Suites!

MAfestival Bruges 2015 © MAfestival Bruges
MAfestival Bruges 2015
© MAfestival Bruges
Later in the year, there is the MAfestival Bruges in July and August, one of the world’s most important early music festivals. It was founded in 1963 and is an adventurous collection of performances, lectures and educational activities, alongside exhibitions about historical instruments. There is the associated annual International Competition Musica Antiqua too. The MAfestival also has a lively fringe series of events, offering young performers a stage. Details of the 2016 festival will be announced in March, when you’ll be able to find them here on Bachtrack.

Among the notable early music ensembles appearing at the Concertgebouw are such important groups as B’Rock (a terrific Belgian band), Le Concert Olympique (which specialises in historically informed Beethoven), Les Ambassadeurs, the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, Concerto Italiano and Jordi Savall’s Hesperion XXI.

Jos van Immerseel © Concertgebouw Brugge
Jos van Immerseel
© Concertgebouw Brugge
At the centre of the Concertgebouw’s period instrument performers, there is the terrific orchestra in residence Anima Eterna Brugge. In November it performs Schubert’s ‘Great’ Symphony no. 9 in C major, a “Schubert happening” chosen by pianist-conductor Jos van Immerseel as his very special 70th birthday present. “Schubert is one of those giants who keep on surprising me and who call for even more appreciation the better you get to know their oeuvre,” he explains. Immerseel founded Anima Eterna, initially as a Baroque band, but their work has expanded as their explorations have taken them into the late 19th century and into the 20th. Their Ravel on period instruments was a revelation and visitors to Bruges have the chance to experience it for themselves in March, as part of a season exploring music from sunnier climes.

In 2015-16, Concertgebouw patrons can enjoy “a long trek to the south” – a season all about musical migration, with music and artists from southern Europe and South America. A good example is Maurice Ravel. Born in the French Basque country to a Spanish mother and a Swiss father, Ravel was particularly fascinated by Spain. Works such as Boléro, Rapsodie espagnole and the Alborada del gracioso are infused with Spanish rhythms and exotic orchestration. Boléro is included in an all-Spanish concert by the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne which also features Bizet’s Carmen Suite, as arranged by Rodion Shchedrin, and Lalo’s sunny violin concerto in all but name, the Symphonie espagnole. Manuel de Falla and Iannis Xenakis are other prominent composers in this Mediterranean-inspired programming. 

Starriest international visitors this season are undoubtedly the Budapest Festival Orchestra, which gets its own mini-residency at the Concertgebouw. Iván Fischer has been exploring Mozart and two concerts combine the Requiem with the popular Clarinet Concerto. Fischer also conducts and directs his own semi-staging of The Magic Flute.

Another popular Bruges festival is December Dance. Jan Fabre has created theatre, dance and opera productions for 35 years. He calls his generation of performers his “warriors of beauty”. The December Dance season is curated by Fabre, drawing together dancers and choreographers who have worked with him to demonstrate the power of contemporary dance and theatre.

With so many cultural activities at the Concertgebouw, wrapped in Bruges’ great architecture and history, perhaps the conundrum of when to visit is best avoided by simply planning more than one trip! 


Article sponsored by Concertgebouw Brugge