There is a beautiful state-of-the-art orchestral concert hall – the Euskalduna Palace, home of the professional Bilbao Symphony Orchestra (Bilbao Orkestra Sinfonikoa), and one of the homes of the Basque National Orchestra (Euskadiko Orkestra Sinfonikoa):
Still, the two home orchestras play very well (the Basque National Orchestra more consistently excellent than the BSO), and there is some interesting programming. A particular highlight was a fair amount of Russian music during the year – especially Shostakovich. The orchestras themselves are very international: only about half the players in each are Basque; quite a few of the others are from Eastern Europe and there are even some from Britain.
There’s also a nice three-day festival of orchestral music in the winter, for which a number of Spanish orchestras and chamber orchestras congregate. Each day there are several concerts in each of three venues within the Euskalduna Palace – the large concert hall and two smaller ones. Each concert lasts an hour and costs between 5 and 9 Euros. You can dot around between halls and orchestras, seeing several one-hour concerts in a day. This year the theme was Spanish and French music. The day we went we saw quite a lot of Ravel and Rodrigo.
There’s no full-time opera company in Bilbao, but the ABAO (Asociation Bilbaina de Amigos de l’Opera) lays on several full-scale professional opera productions in the concert hall each year. Again, there’s some quite adventurous programming – this year, for instance, a couple of less well-known Verdi operas and Bellini’s ‘I Puritani’.
There’s a small early music festival in Bilbao too, and a very impressive season of contemporary chamber concerts. We saw, for instance, Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ and pieces by like Ligeti and Xenakis, and so on.
The beautiful early 20th century opera house / theatre, the Teatro Arriaga, just round the corner from our flat, offers a variety of cultural experiences, and we’ve been there quite often. It’s a great building which is a city landmark with civic functions beyond that of a theatre, standing as it does by the river in the most popular public space in the city centre, the Arenal. It´s where political demonstrations often gather, and it´s where the tumultuous opening of the summer fiesta is held:
I’ve written elsewhere about the two great art galleries, the Guggenheim and the Bellas Artes, and their permanent collections. Both also have an excellent series of exhibitions. At the Guggenheim, major international touring exhibitions take place. We saw for instance the David Hockney exhibition which had been in London the previous year, an exhibition of Klimt, and an exceptionally interesting exhibition of Picasso and other French art before, during and after the second world war. At the Bellas Artes, there were three wonderful exhibitions – Goya’s amazing series of engravings, all owned by the museum; a superb show of the paintings of wonderful Colombian artist Botero; and works by the Basque sculptor Nestor Basterretxea. (See previous post on Basque Art for details about Basterretxea).
We particularly loved the Botero, with his almost magic realist paintings of Colombian life, his exuberant portrayal of short fat South American people (challenging conventional European notions of aesthetic beauty – including figures of Christ and the virgin Mary), his exquisitely painted visual jokes (such as his ‘fat’ versions of Renaissance portraits) and satires (such as his paintings of bishops and cardinals), and his sometimes shocking political paintings (including a series of works inspired by Abu Ghraib).