Back in the cold, grey climes of Lambeth, Braga seems a world away. However, as far away as it might now seem, Braga became our destination last weekend in aid of what was the third edition of the ever-blossoming SEMIBREVE festival. Known more for its imposing football stadium and impressive collection of churches than it is for anything overtly experimental, Braga may not necessarily strike you as the place to stage a festival of this particular ilk.
The town itself is a rather genteel place, filled with terraced cafés and well-dressed elders that wouldn’t look altogether out of place on a fashion blog. But SEMIBREVE is itself anything but conventional: set in the palatial surrounds of the magnificently restored Theatro Circo, we were treated not to Don Giovanni, as one might expect to find in such a venue, but something far more beguiling, hypnotic and mesmerising instead.
Whether it was Raime, with their Andrei Rublev-inspired visuals and (in the best possible sense) overwhelming melodies, or a memorable showing from Forest Swords, every performance had its own singular merit. Even though some of what was on show didn’t necessarily agree with me, that’s not to say that I didn’t find it valuable, or interesting in some way, shape or form, and this is testament to the meticulous care with which the event’s organisers pick their artists. And although some have been somewhat different to one another, the way in which they came together constructed a definite spine, which linked all of the acts together. The outcome? An extremely coherent programme of art, music and performance. Nonetheless, it’s the theatre itself which is quite conceivably SEMIBREVE’s trump card – simultaneously grand and strangely intimate, absorbing the festival in such a space genuinely felt special.
Attempting to write about, or describe anything we saw in an ‘orthodox’ sense seems redundant, purely because this is not an ‘orthodox’ music festival. (A round of drinks sets you back less than €4, for a start.) Indeed, it has more in common with Glyndebourne than it does Glastonbury; it’s more akin to a performance festival than it is a pure ‘music’ one, per se. You got the impression that the artists selected felt there to have been a real sense of occasion – not least Matthew Barnes, anonym Forest Swords, who cooed his own appreciation of our spectacular environs – and would consequently rise to said occasion. All of which heightened the audience’s sense of privilege, and made for an exhilarating experience. (As an aside, and as prematurely senile as this might sound, being able to sit down while watching the acts certainly allowed me to appreciate them more.) Other budding festivals, take note.
The only letdown of last weekend was an ill-advised moment of gourmet adventurousness, that manifested itself in the form of a Francesinha – an absolutely gut-busting ‘sandwich’ made of any, and every meat imaginable. But I won’t hold it against you, Braga, and it originated in Porto anyhow. It would be churlish to criticise the food, considering it was our own noses that led us there, and we chowed down on fantastic local veal and fish dishes later on that same evening, before one of the festival’s four organisers – Tiago Sequeira – generously led us in the general direction of some excellent frango assado, or chargrilled, spatchcocked chicken, the following afternoon. Again, to suggest the cost was economical is to sell Portugal short.
All in all, it’s a shame the word ‘festival’ has become synonymous of late with extortion and enormous, faceless car park arenas in which a headliner is but a dot on the horizon, because as SEMIBREVE demonstrates, they don’t all have to be like that. This ‘festival’ is the living, breathing proof of this and, in the most positive and so too praiseworthy way possible, SEMIBREVE is unlike any other event I’ve ever been to. Intimate and exciting, it proffers the impression that you’re witnessing something that not only ephemeral, but also exclusive – you sense it’s something that no one else will see. With Braga as its setting, this particular sensation was only enhanced, with its people genuinely appreciative of what was being put on. No blasé indifference needed here. And bumbling about the town, sipping on cervejas à pressão and munching on pastéis de nata, only added to the charm and allure of the weekend. However, what I’d really suggest sets this bespoke festival apart is the feeling of privilege and intimacy that you get as an observer. It makes you feel less a spectator, and more a participant. Braga, we’ll be back. But for now, obrigado, e boa noite.
Further coverage of SEMIBREVE 2013 can be found here.