Saturday, February 14, 2009

Well, here in Brussels, they actually have a skyscraper to chocolate! Have a look. Saturday has been sunny and the perfect way to get a good impression of this very interesting city. Much of what one wants to see is within a fairly small perimeter with most everything in walking distance of the town center. Again, the uneven surfaces of the streets puts a demand on agility, fitness, and good shoes. Just around the corner is the Grand Place (not palace) and merely calling it “grand” misses by a mile. Every city has its name brand square but Brussels wins the day with what is called by many the most gorgeous city square in Europe. Yet have you ever tried to take a picture of a square by standing in the middle of it? Doesn’t work. Don’t know how the picture books do it, but if you want a good image, get a book. In outrageous contrast to the glory of the square is the Manneken Pis. This silly statue is of a little boy who is said to have delivered a very timely pee on some part of Brussels in flames in the 1600s, thus keeping the whole place from burning to the ground. The crowds gathered at this sculpture tucked in the corner of a narrow street are beyond belief; not necessary to ask where we are all headed as we hurdle along. Today the little fellow was adorned with a goofy red outfit (oh, it’s Valentines Day, isn’t it?) which made him appear totally ridiculous. But there he stood, peeing away, before a thousand flashing cameras. Before going further, I should note that the street maps of Brussels are the most challenging ones ever. That is because of the incredibly long names. Can you imagine fitting Rue des Quatre Files Aymon Vierheemskinderen Strattand and dozens of similar names onto a piece of paper not bigger than a placemat? You need to allow extra time just figuring out where you are as you walk along. In any event it is uphill (literally, and besides you could not go downhill from Manneken Pis) from here, past a mixture of beautiful old places and shiny new ones (Brussels is where the headquarters of the European Union are located) to the street where are to be found the art museums. Ancien and Neue side by side. First stop for me was the building with the world-class holdings of the Flemish painters and their contemporaries. Here there are rooms of Reubens and Van Dyck. Here also are some memorable pieces by the Bruegels, elder and younger, who worked in the 16th and 17th centuries. An especially nice one is a winter scene providing an allegorical look at Bethlehem at the time of the nativity, something that the audio guide is very helpful in explaining. It is just fascinating. Also are some Hans Memlings (he of Bruges note) and several works by Hieronymus Bosch. The autoguide is also informative in addressing the techniques used to paint several centuries ago; how the paint was made and how the wood and canvas was prepped. Much of what has survived is oil on wood, not because canvas was a less-favored medium but because wood just outlasts it. Switching time zones, most contemporary art, broadly defined as art created in the 19th and 20th centuries, is displayed in eye-catching buildings which themselves are works of art; the Guggenheim comes to mind. Contemporary art here is housed in sort of an inverted Guggenheim, burrowing eight stories into the ground. Very interesting architecture, and a good collection featuring mainly Belgian artists. Most notable of these is Rene Magritte although his famous “This is not a pipe” is not here; I think it is in Los Angeles. There is quite a good selection of works by this prominent Surrealist painter, worth a slow browse. As is always the case in top notch museums, however, there is much more to see than time allows.
A few weeks ago, once I determined precisely when I was coming to Brussels, I checked the concert calendar, and jumped with joy. Andras Schiff, one of the world’s premiere pianists, was to be in concert here on Valentine’s Day night. I acted quickly and got a good ticket, 12 rows from the stage, dead center. This year is the 200th anniversary of the death of Haydn so for Schiff tonight it was all Haydn and as good as it gets. The Palais des Beaux-Arts is the venue for symphonic outings and it is an inspired place. Literally, I suppose, because it is one of the landmark designs of the hometown architect Victor Horta, acknowledged father of the Art Nouveau. He has his own museum elsewhere in Brussels, but I will have to save seeing it for another time. This big, yet cozy, hall is perfect for a solo act. When the ceiling lights dim the place darkens, but then there is uplighting across the stage, highlighting the sepia-colored woods which form the backdrop. Unusually intimate. Beautiful art deco patterns are accented and a brighter light focuses on the piano, a grand Bosendorfer. It is quite the setting for a virtuoso such as Schiff and he flourished. In silhouette he looks eerily like those little Mozart profile cameos that you see from time to time, with puffy, short hair and an entirely classical profile. He could have had a sack over his head insofar as the performance was concerned. Exquisite. And exposure to a warmer, more nuanced side of Haydn’s oeuvre was quite rewarding.
A post concert dinner at one of Brussels’ most notable eateries. l’Ogenblik, was perfect. I ending up sitting next to a man with a British accent, born in the Belgian Congo, with a place in Brussels and family in Atlanta and who practices cosmetic dentistry in Manhattan. Great conversation. Surely we will touch base again. Such are the happy moments, savoring the present, anticipating the future.

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