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Think small: Klarafestival marks 50th anniversary

© The Brussels Times
The smallest concert hall in the world at Place Flagey.
© The Brussels Times

For a city of one million people, Brussels has some rich cultural offerings. Some events are held in small venues that slip below the radar, but others take over the entire city, like the annual Klarafestival. One of the biggest classical music festivals in the country, Klarafestival isn’t afraid of taking risks. This year they have built the world’s smallest concert hall on Place Flagey in the heart of multicultural Ixelles. A far cry from the red velvet seats of a classical concert hall, the Klarafestival Box squeezes a sofa and a piano into a space about the size of a kitchen.

The 15-square-metre box holds just three people and a musician. You have to book a seat online in advance, or you can reserve all three places if you want a truly intimate experience.

The Klarafestival Box programme involves 114 free mini concerts by 12 performers over six days. Details of each performance are kept secret until the last moment. You might find yourself sitting in front of a famous performer, or it could be a recent graduate from a music academy who turns up in the box to play.

Each performance lasts about ten minutes, followed by a brief chat with the musician about the work. The aim is to take classical music to ordinary people in the street. It’s never been done before on this small scale, the organisers say.

“The Klarafestival Box will be one of the eye-catchers of Klarafestival 2018. The box is our newest idea to build bridges between artists and public. By letting people experience the intimacy and closeness with the performers, we hope to win new souls appreciating classical music. It is one of the targets Klarafestival sets for itself,” says Sophie Detremmerie Managing Director of the festival.

Founded in 1968, the annual Klarafestival originally went under the name Flanders Festival Brussels. From the beginning, it has brought an unpredictable mix of classical and contemporary performances to venues in Brussels, Antwerp and Bruges. In 2004, the festival linked up with the new classical radio station Klara to create the Klarafestival.

For its 50th anniversary, Klarafestival aims to recapture the revolutionary spirit of May 1968. The 2018 festival slogan – Alles wieder gut (Everything is fine again, taken from a song by Mahler) – reflects the mood of optimism that swept across Europe half a century ago.

The programme promises to introduce audiences to some startling experiences, ranging from the weird to the wonderful. Among the highlights is a performance of Alexander Scriabin’s strange utopian work Mysterium in Bozar’s large Henry Le Boeuf Hall.

Originally intended to be performed in a Himalayan sanctuary over several days, complete with smoke and scent effects, the work remained unfinished when Scriabin died in 1915. But Klarafestival has dusted off the score for a rare performance on 16 March accompanied by a unique light show.

Elsewhere in town, the upper floor of the Autoworld car museum in the Cinquantenaire Park provides an unexpected location for Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood, along with Terry Riley’s In C performed by the group Africa Express on rare instruments like the kora, ngoni and balafon.

The night of 26 March is billed as the Night of the Unexpected at the Beursschouwburg. The stage will be taken over by seven harp players surrounded by 52 sound tapes in a performance of John Cage’s HPSCHD.

The experimental evening also features works by Bach, Messiaen and the Belgian band Bl!ndman, along with works by the young group Music Masters on Air inspired by Ovid’s love poems. Closing off the evening, DJs Kopi & Luwak will dig deeply in their collection of scratchy 78rpm records to revive some forgotten classics.

The beautiful Abbaye de la Cambre provides the setting for a mini festival involving three acclaimed international choirs performing 75 psalms by 75 different composers. Spread across three days, The Psalms Experience brings together the Dutch Nederlands Kamerkoor, the Norwegain Det Norske Solistkor and the British Tallis Scholars.

The programme draws on more than eight centuries of psalm music, ranging from the Flemish polyphonist Philippe de Monte to the Dutch contemporary composer Michel van der Aa. Each concert begins with a lively discussion on universal themes such as wisdom and compassion led by theologian Karen Armstrong.  

On 25 March, the Franui group adds a quirky touch to the festival by performing raw versions of songs by Brahms, Schubert and Mahler. Based in a village in the remote Tirol, the group have developed a sound that is more like folk than classical. Their performance will be accompanied by images by the controversial Swedish video artist Jonas Dahlberg. “We want to take the art song off its pedestal,” declares Franui trumpet player Andreas Schett.

For more information on the concerts and tickets go to 

By Derek Blyth

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