On a recent visit to Antwerp, I had a fresh oppor­tu­nity to disap­point my chil­dren. I knew this going in, and I did it anyway. In the end, however, their predicted lack of enthu­siasm, even though it came to pass, turned out not to matter at all.

Let me explain.

The Object of the Quest

I am the inor­di­nately proud father of two teenage boys who, as teenage boys are wont to do, are more inter­ested in binge-watching the latest anime than going to a clas­sical music perfor­mance. Still, I think it’s my job to expose them to a variety of cultural expe­ri­ences, so that they can make up their own minds what to hold on to as they emerge into adult­hood.

One of my own favorites in the clas­sical reper­toire is Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana—and that was the object of the little odyssey that led me, my wife and the kids to Antwerp (a 90-minute drive from our home town near Amsterdam).

Before I go on, a brief inter­mezzo. Just in case you’re unfa­miliar with the music. This magnif­i­cent hour-long scenic cantata is based on the Carmina Burana (“Songs of Beuern”), a secular medieval collec­tion of poems written in Latin, Middle High German, Old Provençal and Old French. 24 of these texts, dating back to the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, were compiled by German composer Carl Orff into a libretto for the orches­tral piece that has become his magnum opus. It premiered in 1937.

It’s one of those almost cine­matic pull-out-all-the-stops compo­si­tions, and calls for a large orchestra; two full mixed choirs and one boys’ choir; three soloists (soprano, tenor and bari­tone); and addi­tional tenor, bari­tone and bass soloists for some shorter solos.


If you’ve never heard the Carmina Burana, stop what you’re doing. Stop reading this. Just listen, if only to the first few minutes:

Our Trip to Antwerp

The reason I took the boys to Antwerp was that this partic­ular concert of the Carmina Burana was accom­pa­nied by a dance perfor­mance. I thought: even if the music doesn’t capti­vate them, at least they’ll have some­thing to watch. We left Holland the previous evening, had a late Belgian dinner, stayed at a hotel in the city center, and did some sight­seeing and shop­ping the next morning before heading over to the matinee perfor­mance.

As it turned out, the dance was the actual center­piece of the show, with the disap­point­ingly smallish orchestra and choir performing Orff’s music as a sound­track. For good measure, they’d also thrown in bits of Italian and Russian opera that I couldn’t iden­tify but that certainly weren’t part of the orig­inal.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not belit­tling the efforts of the artists who did their best to enter­tain us that after­noon. It was a solid perfor­mance, well executed, and it served its purpose. I have tremen­dous respect for anyone who had the guts to get up on stage and offer up their art live to an audi­ence. But… it was not the Carmina Burana into which I’d hoped to initiate my boys.

A Welcome Surprise

As I had expected, my resi­dent anime experts weren’t instan­ta­neously converted into clas­sical music enthu­si­asts. Their post-perfor­mance reviews ranged from “it was okay” and “I’m not really into dance” to “some of the music was a bit scary” and “shall we go now?”. So far so predictable.

But then came the unex­pected bit. There were no grum­blings, no complaints, no mentions of other things they’d rather have done, no ques­tions of why we had to drive all the way over here for this.

The boys were, to my delight, not eval­u­ating the expe­ri­ence based on what it had offered them, but on what it meant to us, as a family. Even if this wasn’t their cup of Post-Millennial tea, they had still enjoyed, for its own sake, having under­taken a journey to share some­thing that mattered to at least one of us. Well… whodathunkit?

Apparently, that’s how you disap­point your chil­dren and get away with it.

(Having said that, the fact that they had their own hotel room for the first time may just have had some­thing to do with it as well.)

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Image credit: Edgar Degas, Ballet School (1873) (source)

Father, son, husband, friend and writer by day; asleep by night. Happily pondering the immortality of the crab wherever words are shared.

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