Belgium: Anima Eterna Brugge

Jos van Immerseel, artistic director of period ensemble Anima Eterna Brugge, was once criticised for taking a historical approach to musical masterpieces, but now he’s lauded for his dedication and unique vision. 

This month Anima Eterna Brugge staged a series of concerts at venues across Belgium and the Netherlands, with the programme featuring Carl Orff’s cantata Carmina Burana. Performing alongside the ensemble will be soprano Yeree Suh, tenor Yves Saelens, and baritone Thomas Bauer, as well as the Collegium Vocale Gent and the Cantate Domino Aalst children’s choir.

‘To gather such an exquisite team as this one is no easy task – from an artistic as well as a practical point of view,’ says van Immerseel, who founded the Belgian orchestra in 1987. ‘A big challenge was to match Orff’s daunting and virtuoso vocal writing to the right voices. Do not underestimate this music: it contains lots of technical difficulties, and sometimes the notes climb incredibly high.’

The conductor and harpsichordist says Anima’s staging of the work will be different to the typical interpretations. ‘Usually Carmina is performed with large symphonic forces, featuring the strings as a key element. But looking at Orff’s score carefully, one notices how modest the role of the strings actually is.

‘The composer clearly favoured the winds here, often in highly unusual combinations – piccolos playing with the pianos, for instance, or celestas with flutes, piccolo with chimes, double bassoon with tuba, high bassoon with three trombones.’

Whilst preparing Carmina Burana, van Immerseel spoke with Paul Hanouille, a former colleague and close friend of Orff. ‘He actually lives in Bruges, so he met with us to provide some first-hand insights regarding the composer and his work,’ he says. ‘We’re very much taking into account Orff’s fascination with rich sounds and his predilection for a clear rendering of texts. It implies a use of gut strings, period keyboards, historical winds, and percussion with natural skin.’

Indeed the Bruges orchestra’s calling card is a close recreation of the composer’s original intentions on each piece of music. For every project, Anima Eterna Brugge embarks on an exploratory phase, investigating and thoroughly researching the composition.

The musicians take time to discover and acquire the instruments which inspired a particular composer, and find out how they might have sounded at the time. The orchestra also explores variables like playing technique, pitch, tempo, orchestral balance, as well as other factors which may influence the sound, such as the acoustics in which the music was premiered.

Our approach makes the masterpieces come to life in every performance – and that is our main goal.

‘Jos is one of the pioneers of this historically informed performance practice, which is at the foundation of what Anima Eterna does,’ says Sofie Taes, the orchestra’s communication and dramaturgy manager. ‘This means returning to the source of the music in terms of score, instruments, performance technique and the conventions of the time in which the composer was living.’

‘In the early stages of Jos’ career, when it was very new to perform music this way, he had to defend himself against people who thought it was strange to use early instruments which are much tougher to play than modern ones,’ Taes continues. ‘But in the meantime, the orchestra has convinced everyone that this approach makes the masterpieces come to life in every performance – and that is our main goal.

‘Jos always stays so enthusiastic and passionate, so the music remains fresh and new. That’s what we want to deliver. Even Ravel’s Bolero or Orff’s Carmina can surprise the public.’

Jos van Immerseel © David Samyn
Jos van Immerseel © David Samyn

The ethos and methodology have earned Anima Eterna a mixed audience. ‘On the one hand, we have a general crowd who love Bach, or the Bolero, and just want to enjoy an evening with great masterpieces,’ says Taes. ‘But we also have people who specifically follow everything that Jos and Anima do, because they know they will discover something of the original composers’ intentions.’

The concert tour of Carmina Burana was a major undertaking of repertoire that is new to the orchestra. Next year that undertaking will comprise a focus on Czech composers, followed in 2016 by a more southern focus, with music by Ravel and Villa-Lobos.

The orchestra will also stage several medium and smaller projects each season, featuring reprises as well as new repertoire. This approach allows Anima to attempt new repertoire whilst staying true to its musical roots.

Next year Anima will celebrate the 70th birthday of van Immerseel by paying tribute to the multi-talented artist. The orchestra’s Schubertiade project will see a CD release and several concerts, featuring the composer’s chamber music and symphonies, with van Immerseel in the role of pianist and conductor.