Live Report: Birds Of Paradise 2023

A festival experience with a difference...

If you’re yearning for a different festival experience look no further than the unique Birds of Paradise which takes place over four days in the Dutch city of Utrecht. Unique is apt, for this is a festival which encourages a number of multi-disciplinary artists to present an exclusive performance tailor made for the event. Intrigued? Thought so. 

Take the opening night performance, for instance, courtesy of The National’s Bryce Dessner. This included three of Dessner’s concerto’s performed by Belgian chamber orchestra/esemble Casco Phil and featuring exceptional performances from Jorgen van Rijen on trombone and Katia and Marielle Labeque on piano. If that wasn’t enough, the second half featured the world premier of ‘Complete Mountain Almanac’, a song cycle from Norwegian composer Rebekka Karijord, orchestrated by Bryce with lyrics by his sister, Jessica Dessner

Making this all the more special is the venue chosen to host the festival, the TivoliVredenburg. Situated in the heart of the city the Tivoli is a great hulk of a building consisting of five individually designed venues that cater for all musical genres. This is a world class venue which reveals more and more of itself as the weekend progresses. The Dessner performance for example takes place in the belly of the beast or the Grote Zaal (“Great Hall”), a part subterranean classical concert hall. By the end of the weekend we’ve decamped to Cloud Nine, a jazz hall situated at the very top of building at the end of several impressive escalator journeys. 

It is hard and frankly uneccessary to pick a standout performance given the eclectic mix on offer. The second night, in the semicircular room Hertz, saw Dutch singer-songwriter Luwten (aka Tessa Douwstra) collaborate with the Belgian Baroque Orchestration (B.O.X) for a harpsichord heavy new take on songs from her recent album ‘Draft’ plus some earlier numbers including the rousing finale, ‘In Over My Head’.

Saturday night belonged to American three-piece Son Lux, who played songs from their ’Tomorrows’ trilogy of albums. Their experimental post-rock electronica captivated an adoring fanbase, with the band clearly full of confidence following their Oscar nominated Best Original Song and Soundtrack for Everything Everywhere All At Once.

The final and busiest day perfectly encapsulated the genre bending ethos of this festival. Nairobi-born, Berlin based ambient artist KMRU opened proceedings with a set that washed away any stresses and strains, leaving the seated audience in a meditative state. This was followed by an exclusive collaboration between Benjamin Abel Meirhaeghe, a Belgian theatre director, and Icelandic producer/composer Valgeir Sigurdsson. The duo, accompanied by violinist Elisabeth Klinck, performed a tour de force 60 minute song cycle exploring the intersection between modern classical, electronic music and opera, in which Meirhaeghe’s countertenor particularly mesmerised. 

The performance was a worthy festival closer, however the perfect ending was reserved for American electronic pioneer JLIN who brought a euphoric live set including work from her forthcoming album ‘Akoma’ and recent collaboration with Philip Glass. This was preceeded by chamber music interpretations of Jlin’s tracks by Grammy-winning percussion outfit Third Coast Percussion and featuring the Dutch string Ragazze Quartet. It could be overwhelming however for the most part all of these performances take place in the evening meaning each ‘day’ is essentially its own standalone gig. This gives you the freedom to enjoy and digest these unique one-offs without having to choose who to watch or hurry between venues. You’re also free to explore the beautiful city of Utrecht by day – Clash even found time to watch FC Utrecht. Cloud nine indeed.

Words: Nicolas Graves
Photography: Ward Mevis + Noah Schielen

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