'A sincere, heartfelt and companionable greeting to the excellent Orchestra of the N.I.R.'.
That is what the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky wrote in May 1952 in a Golden Book of the Groot Symfonie Orkest of the N.I.R., after he had conducted the orchestra in a tribute concert in honour of his seventieth birthday. This orchestra, the GSO, was then still part of the public broadcasting system and was the illustrious predecessor of the Brussels Philharmonic.
Soon after its establishment in 1935, the GSO could count on great appreciation from the composers of that specific generation. Stravinsky, Bartók, Milhaud, Honegger, Hindemith and Berg maintained close contacts with the orchestra through director Paul Collaer and chief conductor Franz André. They followed the composers closely and ensured that Brussels became the first international platform for the creation of modern music.
In 1937, Bartók compared the GSO with those of other European capitals and said: "In Brussels, things were completely different. Firstly, an excellent orchestra, secondly, a very clever conductor. How these people of the sheet play is totally amazing...". So in May 1945 the orchestra was invited by Bartók to perform the European creation of his Concerto for Orchestra in Paris.
But the orchestra had a special bond with Igor Stravinsky. On 19 April 1939 the orchestra played the world creation of Zvezdoliki or Le roi des étoiles. Stravinsky composed this cantata for male choir and orchestra on a text by Constantin Balmont when he was in Russia around 1911-1912. Ravel promised to have the work performed in Paris, but it turned out to be too difficult (!). For years it was untraceable, but Collaer found it again after 25 years and had it performed in Brussels, in Flagey, by the GSO.
The orchestra not only provided creations, but also made Stravinsky's work known to the Belgian public. Already in the 1930s, the three great ballets Le Sacre du Printemps, l'Oiseau de feu and Petrouchka were part of the orchestra's permanent repertoire. Even after World War II, the orchestra continued to follow Stravinsky closely in his stylistic evolution. In 1952 Collaer even translated Stravinsky's opera Rake's Progress into Dutch, to make the work accessible to a wider audience.
© Kristin Van den Buys