Martin Longley reports on Angélique Kidjo's ongoing relationship with orchestral music, this time with the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra in concert in Brussels
Angélique Kidjo & The Antwerp Symphony Orchestra
BOZAR, Brussels, Belgium
December 8 2019
Accustomed to leading her own regular band, singer Angélique Kidjo has recently been developing a programme designed to place her in front of various international orchestras, in collaboration with arranger/conductor Gast Waltzing from Luxembourg. The core repertoire is Kidjo’s own, but another prominent feature is the music penned for her by the New York minimalist composer Philip Glass. The set also includes several arrangements of classic numbers from various genre-quarters.
This concert allied the Benin-born Kidjo with the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, in what is surely Belgium’s finest concert hall, the Grande Salle Henry Le Boef, which lies in the heart of Bozar, the main Brussels arts centre. The short first set opened with ‘Ifé’, a 2014 composition by Philip Glass specially written for Kidjo, framing three Yoruba poems. Five years later, it sounded like she hasn’t fully inhabited the music, Kidjo’s delivery sounding somewhat tentative and stilted in front of the orchestra. She didn’t sit well with them during the first song, then came in too soon with the first line of the second, but the third song, ‘Oshumare’, fared much better. The orchestra wasn’t pliable, and didn’t swing much, although that’s not really a requirement of Glass’s music. These songs acted as a dignified prelude to the evening’s steady development, and were followed by ‘Danzon No 2’, from the Mexican composer Arturo Márquez, during which time Kidjo left the stage. It was lively multi-mood entertainment, bright and punchy.
If Kidjo appeared slightly wooden and uncomfortable at first (so unlike her!), the second part of the show was where she released the forces that audiences are familiar with, as she relaxed into her own songbook, with guitarist David Laborier (also from Luxembourg) arranging some of the material. She delivered a radically altered ‘Summertime’, sour string ranks swelling around strong kettle drum punctuation, and should be applauded for making such a popular Gershwin song sound so renewed. Kidjo’s own works peaked, as expected, with ‘Agolo’ and ‘Afirika’, right at the end, but just before those two, she savoured Sidney Bechet’s ‘Petite Fleur’ as arranged by Laborier, once again investing its spirit with her own personality, the number incarnated as a stately waltz.
Step by step, Kidjo had been dismantling the usual formalities of the orchestral concert, making jokey comments between the songs, urging audience encouragement, either by singing or clapping, and shouting out the abilities of the orchestra’s members. Now the orchestra was following Kidjo, working around the voice-and-guitar core of her songs. Then, as her signature ‘Afirika’ released its anthemic power, she edged down the steps, heading up the aisles and prompting a full wave of standing up, along the rows. This was probably one of the most extreme examples of an orchestra and its audience letting go of their accustomed inhibitions. Kidjo had travelled from being an uncertain toe-dipper to completely taking over the ambiance of the entire concert hall, radiating her warmth and charisma up to the rafters.