Ready for worlds to come: De Singel’s Hendrik Storme
Hendrik Storme started his position as artistic director at Antwerp’s De Singel at a challenging time – when the stage, like halls around the world, was closed due to the pandemic. It gave him time to think about the future of the fast-changing Belgian institution.
“The main question I always ask myself is: how can we be as representative as possible of this diverse world we are living in?” Storme says. “I have worked in the classical music world for over 25 years. I ran the Baroque group B’Rock Orchestra for 15 years. I was also the artistic director of an important music festival in Belgium, Klarafestival in Brussels, for over 10 years. And I have seen a lot of changes in those 25 years. Let’s say when I started, the world of classical music was still very white, especially here in Belgium. That became, for me, more and more difficult to accept, being a child of my own diverse generation. I’m 45 years old.”
That goal of attracting more mixed audiences at De Singel is already on the way toward being realized, Storme says. Crowds have been more diverse since they reopened, although the demographic shift has been seen more in dance, theatre and popular music programming than it has at classical concerts.
“I see an increase of people with different backgrounds”, he says. “That’s very clear. We also see increasingly younger audiences. It’s always strange to see the difference between, for instance, the average audience for classical music and the audience for our theatre and dance department. With dance, especially the contemporary dance program, we attract a very young audience, very diverse. I think the average age there is around 27 or 28. For the theatre, it’s already a little older. And for classical music, as in many other places, the average age is 63 or 64.”
With the 2023–24 season soon to commence, Storme is looking forward to programs that will better reflect the diversity of the city of Antwerp while staying true to De Singel’s history.
“The slogan of the upcoming season is ‘The Worlds to Come’, which has, of course, everything to do with the interesting time in which we are living, this time of social and cultural changes”, he says. “We try to embrace all those changes.
“We try to embrace the diversity that surrounds us and all the challenges, new elements and sensations, that come with it”, he adds. “Instead of seeing them as threats, we try to embrace them and to see them as a source of inspiration. Thatʼs the reason we decided to use this slogan, Worlds to Come.”
A total of ten festivals run through the season, starting in September and ending in June, taking on such themes as architecture and rebirth, featuring several new works. “We have a small festival of music and theatre from Georgia,” Storme says, “a festival at the crossroads between jazz and global music (Winterfuse), and a large multidisciplinary festival on the theme of rebirth, combining various concerts with theatre and contemporary dance. We even have a lecture by the philosopher Byung-Chul Han.”
While the season certainly includes Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler and other names that attract the classical music base, there are also concerts that invite younger and older listeners to share in the discovery of new works and new ideas.
“We have a new series called ConcertLAB, in which we reflect on the tradition of the concert itself,” Storme says. “Do we always have to welcome orchestras nicely dressed on a stage, or can we imagine different kinds of presentation of concerts? We have to come up with new ideas when it comes to presenting music on a stage.”
One evening in the ConcertLAB will feature a new commissioned work from composer Mathias Coppens, built around the very contemporary idea of artificial intelligence. Audience members will be able to alter the score in real time during the performance by means of an app on their phones, actually changing the shape the composition takes as it unfolds.
A later weekend, under the banner “Downtown New York”, will focus on the seminal developments that happened in New York City during the latter part of the 20th century, with works by Laurie Anderson, John Cage, Morton Feldman and Terry Riley. The music of Julius Eastman – a radical New York minimalist who died unknown in 1990, but whose work has recently experienced a resurgence – will also be heard, in a multimedia concert led by Belgian pianist Daan Vandewelle and composer/conductor Petr Kotik, who was an associate of Eastman’s.
“Here in Belgium, and even in intellectual and musical circles, you would be surprised how little is known about this fantastic composer”, Storme says. “And I still feel that we have to defend the choice of bringing him to the scene. For me, heʼs one of the most important people in the field of minimal music. So yes, I think itʼs important to organize a tribute and an homage to Julius Eastman.”
“There was a time when in Europe, music from America was seen, let’s say, in a slightly negative way, especially contemporary music”, he adds. “But that is changing rapidly. And I think that is very interesting to see. I think it has to do with the success of people like Carolyn Shaw and Nico Muhly and other fantastic musicians. And some of them will also be with us next season. Tyshawn Sorey is one of them, I think a very interesting and inspiring musician who is bridging avant-garde jazz and contemporary classical music. He will be with us with a new program based on the music of Duke Ellington, among others.”
“I think it is very important for contemporary arts institutions and concert houses to program this music”, Storme says. “It’s not only about new initiatives – of new music, giving possibilities to composers to write the music of the future. But it’s also about how we deal with tradition, and the thousands of pages of important music written over the centuries. I’m trying to build a house where both worlds can come together, where we try to bridge innovation with tradition, both in terms of repertoire, and also in terms of performance.”
The coming season will also offer several “double bills”, with artists making two appearances across the season (such as virtuoso mandonlinist Avi Avital on 3rd October and 16th May, pianist/harpsichordist Kristian Bezuidenhout performing Mozart on 29th September and 13th January, and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir on 3nd March and 22nd March). And the Kronos Quartet, currently celebrating their 50th year, will make their debut at the venue in October, playing new works composed especially for their golden anniversary.
De Singel, which opened its doors in 1980, is only a bit younger than the Kronos Quartet. Even while preparing for the coming season, Storme is actively thinking about the hall’s own 50th birthday, and imagining beyond.
“How can we be relevant today – and within 10 years?” he says. “It has to do with connection and representation, of course. How can we deinstitutionalize ourselves, decolonize ourselves? How can we be a very important element in this great society of work without without losing our initial propositions? We are a house for classical music theatre, dance and architecture. Thatʼs not going to change. How can we be relevant by building on those disciplines? That’s the main question for me. I will be happy when we have a very diverse audience within 10 years, and a larger audience as well.”