Belgium: Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège

‘Porter la musique partout où elle peut aller’ is the rather melodic motto of the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège. Roughly translating as ‘Carry music wherever it may go’, it’s an ethos that has seen the Belgian orchestra perform everywhere from local schools to prisons.

‘Our credo means that we cannot just wait for people to come to our concert hall, the Salle Philharmonique,’ says CEO Jean-Pierre Rousseau. ‘We have a duty to go to the places where our audiences are, or to people who perhaps cannot come to the hall.’

The orchestra also makes a concerted effort to diversify its programming from the traditional symphonic repertoire. It’s part of a strategy to attract younger audiences, or those who aren’t familiar with classical music, says Rousseau.

Among these concert series are ‘Les samedis en famille’ [Family Saturdays], whereby familes with children come along to a concert that is accompanied by a video projection featuring illustrations and excerpts from films, all geared towards informing the audience about a particular composition. Another concert sees the orchestra play alongside a narrator, who helps bring a childhood story to life.

This season the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège introduced a new concept, ‘Music Factory: La mécanique des émotions’. ‘The French conductor Fayçal Karoui chooses a particular theme to investigate,’ explains Rousseau. ‘It could be an emotion, or an idea, for example the notion of hero, or even the summer. The maestro then explains how composers express these ideas within their music. It’s a different way for us to delve into various compositions, be they famous or lesser known. It has already proved to be a big success with our audience.’

This thematic approach extends to the orchestra’s main programming; this season explores ‘Les Orientales’, with works including Belkis, Queen of Saba (Respighi), The Miraculous Mandarin (Bartók), Tocar y luchar (Fujikura), and La mort de Cléopâtre (Berlioz). Traditional music from India and Iran will also be staged.

‘As the chief orchestra of the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, we also have an important role to support symphonic creation,’ says Rousseau. ‘The orchestra regularly performs contemporary work and commissions at least one local or regional composer each year. Most recently that was Belgian composer Claude Ledoux, who created a concerto for orchestra and the Chinese instrument erhu.

The Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège also performed the Belgian premiere of Fazil Say’s Gezi Park 1, a concerto for two pianos.

Christian Arming © Merel 't Hart
Christian Arming © Merel ‘t Hart

Vienna-born maestro Christian Arming has led the orchestra in the position of music director since 2011. Rousseau says he grants the musicians a sense of stability. ‘He is a marathon runner. He fosters cohesion among the musicians and reinforces the orchestra’s public image. He has a smiling but firm authority – and that wins the support and approval of our musicians.’

Plans for the coming season include touring to Fribourg, Basel, Vienna, Innsbruck and Linz. ‘It will be the third time that we have played at the Musikverein in Vienna since 2005,’ says Rousseau. ‘And this time it will be with our Viennese conductor, so we are very proud of that. During that tour, the orchestra will play works by Bartók, Berlioz, Franck, Rimsky-Korsakov and the Liège-born Eugène Ysaÿe.’

‘Touring acts almost like a postcard for the orchestra,’ Rousseau continues. ‘It is a big challenge; the musicians have to be on top form, during what is a long and exhausting trip. But the opportunity to be heard by audiences in other countries, and to affirm the unique sound of the orchestra abroad, provides a great adrenaline rush. The orchestra always returns from touring on a high, and there’s a pride among the musicians which sustains them.’