Take a swift forty minute train ride from Brussels and you arrive in the East Flanders city of Gent. You're firmly in Dutch speaking territory here, and Gent has much of the feel of Amsterdam: tall terraced houses with assorted gables fringing a network of canals. Bicycles abound: the first sight that greets you at the station is a cycle park with thousands of bikes, stretching as far as the eye can see.
If you choose the right Saturday in September, you are in time for a unique event: the "OdeGand", the opening day of the Gent Festival of Music. The festival lasts just over three weeks, with a variety of shows from around the world, but the opening day is particularly special, with a billing of 60 concerts in everything from classical and opera through to Jazz, fado and several acts that are quite unclassifiable. As well as these official performances, the town is awash in street acts of varyingly levels of weirdness. Within a few tens of metres from each other in the main cathedral square (the Sin Baafsplein), we saw African drumming, a group dressed in traditional hunting dress playing horn fanfares and a trio of stiltwalkers, heavily made up, dressed in long earth-red hooped skirts and caps that would have given a mediaeval feel but for the desk lamps suspended from their foreheads, playing an accordion, some form of mediaeval double reed instrument and something that I think was a soprano sax (but I'm not 100% sure.)
A €26 day pass will get you into all of the official shows. We were pushed for time and managed just the one: the German all-male a cappella group "Der Singphoniker" who sang in the main cathedral. There are six singers ranging from sopranist down to deep bass, who mostly sing sacred music but interleave this with secular songs from various centuries in various languages. The voices were individually beautiful and blended exquisitely; in the reverberant acoustic of a cathedral with 80 foot ceilings, they quality of sound was quite lovely. My one criticism is that in the absence of a highly varied set of material, I would have liked a printed programme to better understand what I was listening to: it's inevitably hard to make out lyrics in that kind of acoustic environment, and the result is that much of the material rather blended into one.
Had we not been rushing back to Brussels for the opera, we would have had time for plenty more. To name but a few: fado singer Vanessa Alves, viola da gambist Fahmi Alqhai, Bach and Liszt from pianist Dorel Golan, several jazz acts, Handel arias from soprano Magali Léger, percussion from Evelyn Glennie, flamenco dance, an Italian ocarina group and, probably top of the bizarre charts, the Vegetable Orchestra, who craft their instruments out of fresh vegetables before each performance (the promo photo shows a man playing the leek).
The venues are all very close to each other, but if you don't want to walk, you can take one of the canal boats, or just sit by the picturesque canal side and warm yourself up against the chilly wind with waffles and coffee (they're big on chocolate and waffles in Belgium.)
We didn't have enough time this year, needing to rush back to Brussels for an evening's opera at La Monnaie. But it's a great musical day out and we'll do it properly next year!
18th September 2011