“Name five famous Belgians” is a favourite parlour game. In the sphere of classical music, the National Orchestra of Belgium’s new season provides four suitable candidates. The orchestra, founded in 1931 as the Brussels Symphony Orchestra, is one of Belgium’s oldest and has an illustrious history of music directors going back to the great (Belgian) conductor André Cluytens.

National Orchestra of Belgium © National Orchestra of Belgium
National Orchestra of Belgium
© National Orchestra of Belgium
Three Belgian composers feature in the season. Although César Franck spent most of his life working in Paris, he was born in Liège. Famed as an organist and teacher, his compositional output for orchestra is slim. His most famous work is his sole Symphony (in D minor) was composed in his final years, following the resurgence of the symphonic form in Paris thanks to works like Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony. Franck’s Symphony is decidedly Germanic in form and style, in the late-Romantic manner. It features in three concerts this season, the first conducted by Chinese-American conductor Xian Zhang. Le Chasseur maudit is a terrific, dramatic symphonic poem based on the ballad Der wilde Jäger (The Wild Hunter) by Gottfried August Bürger. It tells the grisly tale of a Count who dares to go hunting on a Sunday, thus violating the Sabbath. His defiant hunting horn is heard, despite warning church bells. Deep in the woods, he is cursed and pursued by demons for eternity. All jolly stuff, and Franck’s musical imagery is terrific. Le Chasseur maudit is programmed with Brahms’ First Piano Concerto and Ravel’s exquisite Le tombeau de Couperin.

One of Franck’s pupils was Guillaume Lekeu. Wagnerian influences are heard in long, expansive melodies, most of which was written for chamber forces. His Fantaisie sur deux airs populaires angevins is one of his few orchestral works, a weighty fantasy, and can be heard in the same programme as his teacher, Franck, in October. Lekeu died tragically young – the day after his 24th birthday – after contracting typhoid fever and it’s tempting to wonder just how much great music would have flowed from his pen had he lived a full life.

Belgium has given the world its fair share of outstanding violinists: Eugène Ysaÿe, Henri Vieuxtemps and Arthur Grumiaux spring to mind. Vieuxtemps composed a huge amount of music for the violin, including five celebrated concertos, of which the Fourth (in D minor) is tackled by Russian violinist Nikita Boriso-Glebsky in March.

Composer and conductor Dirk Brossé, born in Ghent, leads the orchestra through four concerts entitled “Music for the Millions”, designed to appeal to the newcomer to classical music, with repertoire ranging from Mozart to film music.

Andrey Boreyko © Christoph Rüttger
Andrey Boreyko
© Christoph Rüttger
Since September 2012, Andrey Boreyko has been the NOB’s music director, renowned for his diverse programming and for his interpretations of Shostakovich, which have attracted international acclaim. He presides over a performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 15 in February. One of the finest symphonies in the latter half of the 20th century, the Fifteenth is riddled with quotations – Rossini’s William Tell Overture, motifs from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and The Ring, as well as from his own works. The clockwork percussion which ends the symphony lends it an eerie, other-worldly atmosphere.

Boreyko presides over some of the most attractive programming of the season. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, often dismissed as an orchestral warhorse, is a fantastic symphonic suite on oriental themes, inspired by tales from The Arabian Nights. Boreyko pairs it with the Piano Concerto no. 3 "Silence of Anatolia" by composer-pianist Fazil Say, which is imbued with his native Turkish rhythms and orchestral timbres.

A trio of popular Prokofiev works is conducted by Boreyko in December. The Suite from Lieutenant Kijé contains the famous “Troika”, while the Fifth Symphony is (outwardly at least) a work full of great hope, written towards the end of World War 2. Julia Fischer joins the NOB for the Violin Concerto no. 2 in G minor, the central movement of which contains one of Prokofiev’s most beautiful melodies.

Guest conductors bring different areas of specialism. Norwegian conductor Eivind Aadland brings Grieg’s Suites to Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt and Lawrence Foster – a world authority on the music of George Enescu – presides over a Enescu/Bartók programme which concludes with Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony.

 

Article sponsored by National Orchestra of Belgium.