As I made my way to the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, a mass of photographers and guests dressed in their evening best waited eagerly by the front doors. Alas, this reception was not for me, but rather for the Prince and Princess of Belgium, the evening’s guests and the very reason behind the concert. In a bid to host the 2017 International Exposition, the concert was an opportunity for Belgium to bring some of its cultural highlights to Paris and demonstrate what it is capable of. With two of its biggest orchestras programmed for the evening, the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège and the Orchestre et Choeurs de l’Opéra Royal de Wallonie, I was curious to taste these Belgian treats, being unfamiliar with either orchestra.

Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège © A S Trebulak
Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège
© A S Trebulak

As the audience found their places and were sat comfortably, we were asked to rise again as the Prince and Princess entered the hall, greeted by the Belgian national anthem, followed by the French Marseillaise. Pomp and circumstance over, the soprano Sophie Karthäuser walked on stage and the conductor Christian Arming lifted his baton, ready to conduct the orchestra from Liège. “Villanelle” from Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été opened the concert, and some wonderful singing from Karthäuser certainly started things with a bang. Excellent leading by the concertmaster made up for the conductor’s slight initial restraint.

However, as the orchestra moved on to Belgian composer César Franck’s Symphony in D minor, Arming seemed far more at ease and entirely invested in the music, crouching for one phrase before leaping to the tips of his toes for the next, extracting a very sharp performance from the orchestra. Speaking from personal experience, Franck’s symphony requires great dynamic control and overall awareness from all members of the orchestra, and they did just that, seamlessly passing around the melody under Arming’s careful direction. Despite having performed Franck’s symphony over 100 times, the orchestra fortunately showed no sign of weariness or boredom, retaining the same enthusiasm and excitement one would find at a première.

Following a brief pause, the main attraction of the evening was the overture from Franck’s Stradella. An unfinished work by Franck (only the voice and piano parts were completed), Stradella tells the story of Alessandro Stradella, famous Baroque composer and notorious ladies’ man. Only recently orchestrated and completed by Belgian composer Luc van Hove for the re-opening of the Liège Opera House, this was an interesting work for the concert, successfully recreating Franck’s eclectic compositional style.

The second half of the concert also brought a new orchestra, the Orchestre et Choeurs de l’Opéra Royal de Wallonie, under the direction of Paolo Arrivabeni. It is both interesting and rare to be able to listen to two different orchestras in the same evening, offering two quite clearly different styles and sounds resulting from two very different conductors. Whilst Arming displayed energy and enthusiasm, Arrivabeni’s presence on the podium radiated power, both the orchestra and choir under complete control at all times.

However, it is here that the concert seemed to take a puzzling turn. Belgium is certainly able to offer both famous composers (the music of Eugène Ysaÿe would have been a welcome addition to the concert’s programme) and lesser-known composers, the latter being ones I would have been very eager to discover. But despite this, rather than displaying Belgium’s numerous and varied musical talents, the second half of the concert consisted, much to my confusion, of Italian opera. Whilst I myself am a huge fan of (Italian) opera, this would have been one of the rare occasions on which I would have preferred something else. Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro is undoubtedly a masterpiece, but in this concert, “Deh vieni, non tardar” seemed to occupy a space which would have been much better suited to a Belgian composer, fitting for such an occasion.

The Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni, followed by choral movements from Verdi’s Macbeth and Nabucco, were again pleasing and well performed by both the orchestra and the choir, climaxing with Verdi’s grandiose “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves”, but nonetheless questionable additions to the programme. In a concert seeking to promote Belgium and the credibility of its bid to host the International Exhibition, a world-class demonstration of science, industry and culture, it is a shame that the concert did not ardently seek to promote more Belgian music.

Nonetheless, Nabucco’s fiery overture brought a close to the concert. The use of an overture as a finale has always struck me as somewhat oxymoronic, but it certainly brought spirits to a high and left them there as the audience applauded lengthily the orchestra, choir and conductor. Though the Prince appeared rather subdued in his applause, the Princess seemed very cheerful following an evening of good music.

***11