City seduces with medieval sites, Belgian brews

Anyone who’s seen “In Bruges,” set within an hour’s drive of Ghent, might get a sense of the city’s almost otherworldly medieval beauty. In the film, Ralph Fiennes’ character, a London gangster who sends a pair of hitmen to Bruges to lay low after a job gone awry, says of the city: “It’s just a shame it’s in Belgium, really, but then you figure if it wasn’t in Belgium, there’d be too many people and it would spoil the whole thing.”

It’s a sentiment that could just as easily apply to Ghent, where once-in-a-lifetime concert experiences are mixed with a world-class roster of films every October in a way that makes the Ghent Intl. Film Festival truly unique.

Apparently, the charms of Ghent are not lost even on lifelong residents. “It’s like growing up in a fairy tale,” says born-and-bred Ghent filmmaker Silvia Defrance, whose 26-minute short, “Candy Darling,” was among the World Cinema offerings at the recent 35th edition of the fest.

As the 12-day event drew to a close Oct. 18, Defrance was among the revelers partying into the wee hours at a subterranean bar adjacent to the Marriott Hotel where many of the filmmakers and composers holed up during their stay.

Gathered in the low-ceilinged room, which summoned up one of those taverns inhabited by the painter Frans Hals’ boozy merchants and wenches, were Angelo Badalamenti, whose music was showcased earlier that evening at Ghent’s World Soundtrack Awards, along with his featured singers Siouxie Sioux and Beth Rowley as well as Brit maestros Clint Mansell and David Arnold and Discovery Award honoree Marc Streitenfeld.

The impromptu scene couldn’t have been further from the jammed, soulless affairs at Sundance and Cannes, with their VIP alcoves cordoned off to protect celebrities from the plebes.

At Ghent, the atmosphere is warm and convivial. The festival, run with the precision of a Swiss watch, encourages talent and assorted guests to mingle freely. During its second week, when the film fest proper seemed to give way to its assorted live film-music showcases, talents such as James Newton Howard and Trevor Jones plus assorted other guests would convene for drinks in the lobby of the Marriott around 7 p.m., then proceed to walk the city’s cobblestone streets to the various concert venues.

For the World Soundtrack Awards, where Badalamenti’s set was preceded by Dario Marianelli’s suite from “Atonement” (both composers played piano backed by the Brussels Philharmonic and conductor Dirk Brosse), buses were provided to take guests to and from the De Bijloke Music Center, a 13th-century converted hospital with vaulted ceilings.

For managing director Jacques Dubrulle, the evening was the culmination of a series of performances designed to exhibit the depth and breadth of film music, and each situation could not have been more different from the others.

Earlier in the week, Gabriel Yared, in his tribute to the late filmmaker Anthony Minghella, presided over an evening of exquisitely sad music from such films as “The English Patient,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Cold Mountain.” The chamber group ensemble, conducted by Brosse, featured Yared at the piano, and his playing made clear his and Minghella’s admiration for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. The poignancy and emotion of the music left few people at Zaal Miry Conservatorium dry-eyed.

The next night Mansell, accompanied by the Sonus Quartet and assorted musicians on electric instruments, summoned in a program dedicated to his scores for director Darren Aronofsky the kind of atmosphere more akin to the sound designs of Brian Eno and Radiohead than the classicists who inspired Yared.

And so it went each evening: from baroque to folk to alt-rock.

Fest director Dubrulle’s idea to make film music a focus of the fest in 1985 started modestly, with concerts dedicated to Bernard Hermann and Georges Delerue. Approximately 3,500 attended that year, while 115,000 made the trek this past October, testament to a program that has expanded and become more ambitious over time.

“I think what we have are very good orchestras and a music director (Brosse),” says Dubrulle, “and we’ve built up a strong reputation with composers, whom we treat very well.”

But it’s not just Dubrulle blowing his own horn. Rob Messinger, a partner with First Artists Management — whose clients include Gustavo Santaolalla, Alberto Iglesias and Philip Glass — has attended the fest five times over the years. “There’s something about Ghent in how gracious they are, how they put composers on a pedestal,” Messinger says. “There’s a feeling of camaraderie there among composers and the people in the business.”

Christine Russell, whose clients at Evolution Music Partners include David Shire (“Zodiac”) and one of this year’s Discovery Award nominees, Mark Kilian, says, “Composers are usually locked in their studios all day and lead very isolated lives,” adding that the festival provides “a wonderful opportunity for composers to hang out together.”

Swedish composer Adam Norden, also a five-time Ghent attendee, served on the jury last year and was nominated in 2001 for the fest’s Discovery Award. “For me and many Europeans,” says Norden, “it’s really one of the few events that we have to meet colleagues and people from the business, because we’re not really spoiled by that. You have lots of stuff in L.A. like workshops and seminars, but in Europe they have virtually nothing, which is a big reason to go.”

There are a few others, too, that have little to do with movies and music, like delectable Belgian brews and character-rich spots like the Cafe Den Turk, the city’s oldest pub (built in 1228) and the favorite watering hole of composers in the know, and the elegant eatery Belga Queen, with its accent on local cuisine and an upstairs lounge where one night a Frank Sinatra impersonator was doing a spot-on Chairman of the Board. While Ghent is in the northern, Flemish part of Belgium (as opposed to the predominant French of the South), English is widely spoken.

Recognition by the World Soundtrack Academy — made up of a who’s who of creatives in the film music business — carries its own dividends. Messinger says that Santaolalla, who won the Discovery Award in 2004 for “21 Grams,” “certainly attributes (the award) to some of the momentum that was created in his career.”

As is customary for Discovery winners, they are invited back the following year to perform. Santaolalla’s return engagement was marked by the world premiere of his “Brokeback Mountain” score. He not only won two awards for “Brokeback” at Ghent that year, but the laurels presaged his Oscar win the following February.

Iglesias, too, would unveil the world premiere of his “Kite Runner” score in 2007, which ended up getting Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations. Observes Messinger: “We find that (Ghent) creates momentum and buzz around scores that are timely.”

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