Power play: Ghent’s Festival of Flanders charts influences good and bad


Ghent’s leg of the region-wide Festival of Flanders looks at the influence of authorities on composition, and on the passions they in turn could inspire

The powers that be

Without Stalin, Shostakovich might have written completely different music. That simple statement sparks a range of considerations, courtesy of Veerle Simoens, the director of the Ghent Festival of Flanders, which kicks-off in the city this weekend.

And of course Shostakovich isn’t the only one. Through the centuries, many poets and composers, playwrights and painters have been under the influence of a watchful eye. The words you wrote might seem like an obvious risk, but, as Simoens points out, even the sonatas you composed could have been considered politically charged.

Just look at the formation of Belgium – a revolution sparked by an opera.

So the 61st edition of the classical and new music festival – the Ghent leg of the region-wide Festival of Flanders – looks at power: How in the form of the majestic or the mystical, it inspires, while in the form of the tyrannical, it reforms.

There’s no arguing that many composers found the almighty to be the ultimate power, and so it was with Bach, whose Mass in B Minor is considered by many scholars to be his greatest masterpiece. Dutch conductor Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir perform the piece with the necessary baroque flourish it requires in the appropriately sacral Sint-Baafs Cathedral.

Hymn to liberty

In a concert devoted to power of a completely different sort, Flemish composer Dirk Brossé, jazz pianist Jef Neve and singer-songwriter Frederik Sioen present Distortion: A Hymn to Liberty. Performed together with the Belgian National Orchestra and Flemish soprano Hanne Roos, the piece reflects on the unpredictable nature of peace and war.

And you knew Shostakovich would be on the menu. He comes courtesy of the famous Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which performs his Chamber Symphony, an adapted version of Shostakovich’s eighth string quartet. That quartet includes musical quotation from Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, infamous for the ire it inspired within Russia’s Communist Party.

Ghent Festival of Flanders includes many other performances, including one for kids, and Parklife, a musical tour through a forest, complete with family-friendly activities and food trucks. The traditional kick-off event this Saturday is Odegand, where international musicians and ensembles perform in 14 venues across the city centre. One pass gets you into any 45-minute concert of your choice.

15 September to 6 October, across Ghent

Photo, from left: Frederik Sioen, Hanne Roos, Dirk Brossé and Jef Neve perform Distortion: A Hymn to Liberty
©Courtesy Ghent Festival of Flanders