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History / Orchestras
Orchestras
Orchestral accompaniment has formed part of the final ever since the first Ysaÿe Competition. At the time, the recently formed symphony orchestra of the public broadcasting authority (the Grand Orchestre Symphonique de l'INR/Groot Symfonisch Orkest van het NIR) fulfilled its mission gloriously under the baton of its conductor and founder Franz André. A talented violinist and a pupil of Weingartner, the tyrannical André had imposed himself as a conductor of great stature, conducting the premieres of numerous works by Stravinsky, Milhaud, and the finest Belgian composers. He it was who in 1951 became the conductor of ‘the Queen Elisabeth’, this time at the head of the National Orchestra.

Officially founded in 1936, the National Orchestra of Belgium had got to off to a fine beginning. Before the war it had benefited from the regular collaboration of Erich Kleiber and it reached its apogee about 1960, with André Cluytens as its music director. ‘The Queen Elisabeth’, however, makes great demands on a conductor’s time and Cluytens only made sporadic appearances in the context of the competition. So from 1951 to 1964 it was Franz André who was solely identified with the ‘Competition orchestra’. His vast experience, his familiarity with contemporary musical idioms, and his flexibility as an accompanist worked wonders, while his composure earned him the eternal gratitude - or ingratitude - of candidates who were helped to recover from a memory loss, a broken string, or a ‘stuck page’. As a member of the jury in 1967, Franz André no longer appeared on the podium, ceding his place to René Defossez. A page had been turned.

The Orchestre National de Belgique under de direction of Gilbert Varga at the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles
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The gradual devolution of Belgian cultural affairs to the country’s linguistic Communities affected subsequent decisions. The Orchestre de la Radio Télévision Belge/Orkest van de Belgische Radio en Televisie (RTB/BRT) was the successor to the National Orchestra, at times with a Flemish conductor (Daniel Sternefeld, 1968), at times with a Walloon conductor (René Defossez, 1971). While the National Orchestra reappeared in 1972, with Defossez as conductor, it was intended that the orchestras of the broadcasting authorities (now split into the RTB and the BRT) would accompany future competitions. But the participation of the (Flemish) BRT orchestra in 1975, conducted by Irwin Hoffman, proved to be a one-off. The National Orchestra returned in 1976, conducted by Georges Octors himself an excellent violinist whose qualities as an accompanist were highly appreciated and strengthened his position as artistic director of the Brussels-based ensemble. (Octors would return to the Competition at the head of the Orchestre Royal de Chambre de Wallonie for the 2001 and 2003 semi-finals.) The best days of the National Orchestra appeared by then, however, to be over. So nobody was surprised when, in 1993, the decision was taken to turn to the symphony orchestras of Liège and Antwerp, which, thanks to the support of the Flemish and French-speaking Communities, had developed into orchestras of international stature: the Liège Philharmonic Orchestra (whose artistic director, Pierre Bartholomée, conducted the 1995 competition) and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic Orchestra (1997). Starting in 1999, however, the National Orchestra of Belgium, which had been reborn under Yuri Simonov, once more became a regular partner of the violin and piano competitions, performing with guest conductors. Among these, Gilbert Varga became a regular favourite between 2001 and 2009, while Marin Alsop made her mark on the instrumental sessions since 2010. The closing concert of the 50th-anniversary year, 2001, conducted by Lorin Maazel, also deserves special mention.

The voice competitions found an ideal partner right from the start (1988) in the La Monnaie/De Munt Symphony Orchestra. Under Sylvain Cambreling (1988) and, later, Marc Soustrot (1992, 1996, and 2000 - he also conducted the 1997 violin competition with the Royal Flemish Philharmonic Orchestra and the 1999 piano competition with the National Orchestra of Belgium), the orchestra of the Brussels opera house succeeded in the delicate operation of providing accompaniment of the quality required for candidates to be heard at their best. It was the opera house’s music director himself, Kazushi Ono, who conducted the 2008 finals; he was followed in 2011 by Carlo Rizzi and in 2014 by Roland Böer. For the baroque repertoire, the need for appropriate accompaniment was felt, as Belgium was one of the historical centres of the baroque revival. Having opted in 1992 and 1996 for an ensemble that used modern instruments (Patrick Peire’s Collegium Instrumentale Brugense), the Competition management took the long-awaited step of choosing an ensemble that used period instruments, the Academy of Ancient Music under Paul Goodwin, which created a sensation when it accompanied the 2000 singing competition. The same approach was taken for the 2004 semi-finals, but lieder and French art songs came back into their own in the semi-finals and the finals are now exclusively accompanied by the La Monnaie/De Munt Symphony Orchestra.

Daniel Blumenthal (voice 2011)
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The quest for the ideal accompaniment is never-ending: for the 50th-anniversary edition in 2001, featuring the violin, in the semi-finals candidates were able to perform a Mozart concerto with what is now the Orchestre Royal de Chambre de Wallonie; with a Mozart concerto having become compulsory for both pianists and violinists, this orchestra has been conducted by Paul Goodwin from 2005 to 2010. In 2012 and 2013, Michael Hofstetter took over the baton and in 2015 Paul Meyer. The accompanists provided for the candidates who do not have their own official pianist are of excellent quality. Some are former laureates of the Competition, others are internationally selected by the Competition.
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