Overshadowed by its Hanseatic cousin Hamburg, Antwerp recently celebrated the opening of its own new concert hall, although The Queen Elisabeth Hall was a snip at €57 million compared to the Elbphilharmonie’s €650 million price tag. The wealthy port city is already a centre for Flemish musical culture thanks to Opera Vlaanderen, and the regional government hopes to solidify this by providing a full-time home for the Royal Flemish Philharmonic.

© Koen Broos
© Koen Broos

Designed by British architects SimpsonHaugh & Partners, the hall is unshowy, nestled in a conference centre and dwarfed by the city’s grand railway station next door. From the outside, it is only noticeable from the tortoise-like shell that peaks out from behind the 19th-century façade. Inside, the concert hall is cavernous, its classic shoebox design decked in solid oak, with subtle gold and bronze detailing a nod to Antwerp’s jewellery industry.

While it is cavernous in design, it is not so in sound. Thanks to acoustician Larry Kirkegaard, the hall possesses a nice blooming reverberance that doesn’t linger. Performing music by Wagner and Debussy under guest conductor Thierry Fischer, the Royal Flemish Philharmonic showed they are still getting the feel of an acoustic that is weighty and bass-heavy, and needs effort to make the higher registers ring out.

© Koen Broos
© Koen Broos

Yet the hall’s real stress test was Wim Henderickx’s Symphony no. 2, the orchestra’s big commission for their inaugural season. A professed lover of grand musical monuments, it is fitting that Henderickx was given the brief to inaugurate the new hall with a new large-scale orchestral work. The Flemish composer’s inspiration for the work was incredibly broad, encompassing everything from the “elusive and supernatural” and “celestial bodies” to “the divine, the cosmos and beyond”.

The resulting piece is a multi-media extravaganza. Entitled “Aquarius’ Dream”, the symphony consists of three movements as well as a prologue, interludes and epilogue. On top of an ambitious orchestral score are a vocal part for soprano Claron McFadden, electronic design by Henderickx’s regular collaborator Jorrit Tamminga and visual design by Luigi De Angelius and Sergio Policicchio.

Magnitude was Henderickx’s watchword, from the smoke-filled hall and electronic sub-bass grumbles that greeted the audience on entering the hall, to the dramatic light cast across the hall during the performance – from shafts of bright white to lasers of green or blue, at times rhythmically flashing and at others gently rippling. Similarly, the brass section was distributed throughout the auditorium to create an immersive surround-sound experience.

Claron McFaddon © Koen Broos
Claron McFaddon
© Koen Broos

The composer’s ambition was a little hubristic, and the visual concept tended to scatter rather than focus one’s attention – the lighting design in particular obfuscated the complex musical material. This was a shame, as the score was nuanced and merited undivided attention. Henderickx’s music is textural rather than melodic, and often evokes electronic sounds through fine-grained orchestral writing. He references non-Western music through shifting textures that recall Gamelan music or grooves that are influenced by the heady interlocking rhythms of African music.

Fischer and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic were unflappable in a trying situation, and soprano Carolyn MacFadden, singing nonsense words as well as a text by Rabindranath Tagore, was a serene presence above the fray. The instrumental detail was finely realised and there were some arresting ensemble moments. Yet, the symphony’s multi-media conception obscured the musical matter at its heart – it would be a shame if it were to also rob it of repeat performances.