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Expat community tradition continues with The Snowman and Brussels Carol Concert

11:47 30/11/2021

While the audiences have changed somewhat over the years, there’s no denying that two Christmas concerts staged by a handful of dedicated expats are as popular as they were 30 years ago. The Snowman and Brussels Carol Concert are different, but both appeal to the whole family.

Coming up this weekend is The Snowman, a classical concert “for children aged two to 92” based on the beloved picture book and television special about a boy who builds a snowman who comes to life. It’s famed for being wordless, though some versions include narration.

That’s certainly the case with Brussels’ Snowman show, with British barrister Ian Forrester providing the narration, which changes every year. “This year, he’s going to mention a few current issues,” says Mary Gow. “I think we’ve got something called Covid, there could be climate change references, risk assessment. That’s the brilliant thing about Ian Forrester. He changes the script each year.”

Same story, never the same

Gow is a pianist who plays both concerts every year and is instrumental in organising them. “Ian Forrester and the conductor, Dirk Boiy, work very well together,” she says. “I’m the one who cracks the whip and sometimes says ‘I don’t think we can say that, let’s think about the age group’ and so forth.”

If this doesn’t sound like The Snowman you know, rest assured that it is – just with a bit of a contemporary twist. Audiences return every year to hear the latest version, with Forrester’s witty take on the mores of the day. “Even though it’s the same story – The Snowman – it’s never the same,” notes Gow.

Gow has been organising The Snowman since 1991, when it was performed in Dutch in Flanders. A year later it was done in French in Wallonia and after that it settled in Brussels in English. There are two performances on 5 December, one with an interval and one without.

Instruments and animals

The first half of the performance is dedicated to introducing the audience to different parts of an orchestra through one theme or another. “We’ve focused on strings, we’ve focused on brass, a couple of years ago we did percussion,” says Gow. “This year the audience is going to learn why certain instruments represent certain animals. Why are birds always flutes for instance? We’ll learn about the sounds instruments make and the characters they suggest.”

Later this month, on 12 December, the same group presents Brussels Carol Concert. An orchestral and choir concert, it’s been taking place in one form or another for some 45 years, truly becoming a fixture of the international holiday season in the capital.

Gow is a Kiwi who has lived in Brussels for more than 40 years and is thus a font of knowledge of expat goings-on over the decades. She rattles off the names of people involved in this tradition as if she spoke to them yesterday.

Brussels Carol Concert in 2017Brussels Carol Concert features a children’s choir, Greek mezzo-soprano Fontini Athanassaki and a few sing-alongs

“Brussels Carol Concert is an offshoot of the Supressed Songsters, which started in the 1970s,” she says. “That was the Thompsons. They retired after 14 or 15 years, then it became Carols for Christmas with the Perries. They did it for 14 years. I picked up the baton 14 or 15 years ago and renamed it Brussels Carol Concert.”

One of the reasons the event remains popular is that the audience is invited to sing along to some of the traditional tunes of the season, such as ‘Joy to the World’, ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ and ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’. “It doesn’t matter what nationality you are,” says Gow, “everybody still wants to sing Christmas carols.”

That said, the audience has morphed over the years to represent the very fabric of Brussels’ international community. “For the last five years, the majority of the audience has not been Anglophone,” notes Gow. “A majority of people who come are Eastern European – Russian, Romanian, Lithuanian, Polish. There are also a lot Scandinavians, but the Italians and Spanish are there, too.”

And so Brussels Carol Concert has changed has changed over the years, too, going from a concert of English standards to one with a smattering of international carols to today’s version, which is a healthy mix of languages and rhythms.

“I sort of bend with the choir,” explains Gow. “A few years ago, for instance, we had 10 Finns in the choir, and about halfway through rehearsals they said, why aren’t we dong a Finnish Christmas carol? And I said, well, why not? I told them to choose a carol, and we sang it in Finnish.”

Proceeds to Fetal Medicine Center

There are about 15 nationalities in the choir, and pupils from twice that number of schools in the children’s choir. Gow assembles primary school pupils from both the international and local French- and Dutch-speaking schools for the children’s choir.

“We only have two or three who don’t speak English, but I put them together with bilingual kids, and they manage. The kids are wonderful, how they manage. They get thrown together, and I teach them from scratch.”

After a few weeks of training, voice coach Catherine Leclerc of the International School of Brussels comes in to refine the sound. “A majority of these children have never sung in a choir before, and most of them don’t read music,” explains Gow. “Quite a few of them find learning the words from memory quite a challenge, but Cat’s got tricks to get around that. Strangely enough, it’s the little five-year-olds at the front who’ve got their words absolutely perfect. We don’t trouble them, we don’t give them booklets, we don’t have any of that paper that can fall on the floor. They sing the whole lot from memory. It’s truly impressive.”

Also impressive is the work being done by the Fetal Medicine Center at CHU Brugmann in Brussels. Proceeds from both concerts go to the foundation associated with the centre, which is fully funded through government subsidies and private donations.

The centre identifies abnormalities in unborn children and performs pre-natal surgeries. Mary Gow has observed a surgery done by the centre’s co-founder Jacques Jani.He goes in and inserts a stent into the lungs while the baby is cooking. Just before delivery he goes back in and removes the stent, and the mother and baby are back into normal pregnancy. And then the baby is born. I’ve seen an operation, you cannot imagine how minisculely careful it is.”

The Snowman: 5 December 15.00 & 17.30, Auderghem Cultural Centre, Blvd Du Souverain 183
Brussels Carol Concert: 12 December 17.00, Royal Conservatory, Rue de la Régence 30


Written by Lisa Bradshaw