Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Musique dans la Rue - Alicia Abensour - Harris, Fauré, Debussy & Ravel - 08/28/21

E. Harris: Seascapes, Op. 4 
Gabriel Fauré: Nocturne No. 6 in D-flat Major, Op. 63 
Claude Debussy: Reflets dans l’eau (from Images I) 
Maurice Ravel: Jeux d’eau 
Maurice Ravel: Ondine (from Gaspard de la nuit) 
Alicia Abensour: Piano

As hard to believe as it was, last Saturday was the eighth and last day of Aix-en-Provence’s tremendously popular Musique dans la Rue (Music in the Streets) festival, just as I was getting really used to my unfailingly uplifting, daily happy half-hour of terrific free performances in the nearby Chapelle des Oblats’ spacious cloister after having patiently waited for about another half an hour in line among my fellow music-loving Aixois and a few visitors. My only regret is not having been able to do more, but then again, such is life. 
For that grand finale, the concert I picked did not feature only one composer, as it had been the case for all the previous ones, but not fewer than four, three of whom being among the very best in French classical music history. Even better, all the works apparently had in common the theme of water, which was particularly appropriate since Aix-en-Provence is famous for being a “city of art and of water” due to its vibrant cultural scene and its countless historic fountains. Good choice, Miss Abensour! 

An alumnus of the Conservatoire d’Aix-en-Provence and a current professor at the École Internationale de Genève, young and already very busy pianist Alicia Abensour kicked off the concert with the one unknown quantity on the list, E. Harris’ Seascapes, Op. 4. And I am glad to report that from the very first note, we vicariously were there, right on the sea shores in front of the immense, ever-changing sea, which is in fact a welcome feeling on a late summer afternoon in Provence. 
Gabriel Fauré’s resolutely modern Nocturne No. 6 was next and, although the connection to water was not quite as clear, we were soon all happily indulging in its graceful melodies, its original tranquil pace, and its multi-faceted emotional weight, which was definitely palpable, but remained uncompromisingly dignified, even at its most turbulent (The man was French, after all) courtesy of Abensour’s subtly expressive take on it. 
Quite logically, after Fauré came Debussy, another French composer who knew how to sound good even as he was unceremoniously breaking new musical ground. The short but determinedly bold Reflets dans l’eau, from his Book of Images I, being the perfect case in point, with its unusual yet fascinating textures and harmonies delicately evoking the magical colors of light reflecting on water. 
And then, after Debussy and his fleeting reflections came Ravel and his wide assortment of water sounds inspired by fountains, cascades, rivers and such in his Jeux d’eau, which was not just a little inspired by Franz Liszt’s Les jeux d’eau à la villa d’Este and dedicated to his teacher, Gabriel Fauré (Hello again!). Abensour’s highly competent fingers let the water freely flow, fall, splash, sparkle, and created so many other incredible sounds that they could only have been concocted in Ravel’s brilliant mind. 
The last piece of the concert, and of my personal festival programming, was Ondine, from Ravel’s three-poem suite Gaspard de la nuit. Based on the poem by the same name, about a water nymph who sings to entice the listener into visiting her kingdom deep at the bottom of a lake, it is less cacophonic that his Jeux d’eaux, focusing instead on the melodies’ lyricism and the harmonies’ shimmers, which Abensour’s virtuosic performance beautifully conveyed. So much water, so little time.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Musique dans la Rue - Patrick Zygmanowski - Chopin - 08/27/21

Frédéric Chopin: Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 66 
Frédéric Chopin: Balade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23 
Frédéric Chopin: Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 31 
Patrick Zygmanowski: Piano

The end of August is truly an even more fantastic time than usual to be in Aix-en-Provence, with heat and tourists blissfully—not quite rapidly enough though, if you ask me—receding and, maybe best of all, the Musique dans la rue (Music in the Streets) festival happening with multiple free 30-minute concerts performed by professors of the local conservatoire and other equally qualified musicians popping up all over town every evening for eight straight days. Seriously, what’s not to love? 
After attending more or less randomly four fabulous concerts featuring respectively Mendelssohn, Brahms, Borodin and Schumann, I decided that Frédéric Chopin would be the guy I would spend quality time with on Friday evening, still at the Chapelle des Oblats’ reliable cloister, which has slowly, but surely, and kind of oddly, been becoming my regular hang-out those past few evenings. 
The perspective was all the more exciting since three of his biggest hits would be played by one of the biggest (and probably the most complicated) names of the festival in Patrick Zygmanowski, a French pianist in high demand all over the world as well as a regular professor at the Conservatoire d’Aix-en-Provence and… in Japan (Sure sounds like a hell of a commute!). As expected, the line formed earlier and grew faster than usual at the top of cours Mirabeau, but we all knew it would be worth the wait. 

Our wait was richly rewarded indeed, first with Chopin’s enduringly popular Fantaisie-Impromptu, a gift to the lucky Baroness d’Este that he had decided not to publish. Although it was eventually published posthumously and, it must be said, against his wishes, it would be a damn shame if the rest of us weren’t able to enjoy it as well. Highly melodic and irrepressibly bubbly, it typically sounds just like the spontaneous and spirited ode to freedom that its name suggests. And the effortlessly virtuosic reading of it by Zygmanowski, as we were all basking in the glow of the Provençal golden hour, made it sparkle even brighter. 
Then we switched to a more introspective mood with the Ballade No. 1, which he dedicated to Baron Nathaniel von Stockhausen. A favorite of Robert Schumann and of the composer himself, it has also found a secure spot in popular culture, most notably in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, as well as in concert halls all over the world. On Thursday evening, in our comfy outdoor space, Zygmanowski immediately struck the right balance between grandeur and refinement in its well-paced, open lyrical, beautifully nuanced performance. 
To wrap up this Romantic interlude on an upbeat note, we moved on to the all-around Scherzo No. 2, which Chopin dedicated to Countess Adèle Fürstenstein (The man clearly knew people in high places!). Its famously dramatic, highly contrasted opening holds many promises of creativity and entertainment, and sure enough, they were all gloriously kept by Zygmanowski as he gave Chopin’s most celebrated scherzo the big, bold and colorful life it was written for. Even better, he also knew how to let go of all the infectious impetuosity to make way for the more delicate moments of pure poetry before having some rambunctious fun again. Who said that Chopin was the subdued type?

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Musique dans la Rue - Olivier Lechardeur & Laurence Monti - Schumann - 08/26/21

Clara Schumann: Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Op. 22 
Robert Schumann: Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 105 
Olivier Lechardeur: Piano 
Laurence Monti: Violin 

Another beautiful late-summer evening in Aix-en-Provence, another exciting program in the Chapelle des Oblats’ cloister as part of the annual Musique dans la Rue (Music in the Streets) festival, which is apparently becoming more and more popular over time. Thing is, it is pretty hard not to notice the ubiquitous blue signs all over town, not to mention the barriers trying to contain the mix of dedicated followers and curious passersby in line to get in. And I can certainly attest that it is nearly impossible to turn down the promise of free, high-quality 30-minute performances even when one is swamped with work. 
On Thursday, as I was going through the frustrating embarrassment of riches that is the program, my attention was caught by the double bill of the Schumanns, namely Robert and Clara. I figured that not only would it be really neat to hear his wonderful Violin Sonata No. 1 again, but that it would also be the perfect opportunity to become better acquainted with her œuvre since back in their time the considerably thicker and higher glass ceiling did not allow her to get the broad recognition she so deserved. So I found myself in line at the Oblats again. 

Although in the official program Robert’s sonata appeared first, on Thursday evening, it was Clara’s three romances that took over the first half of the concert. And everybody was thrilled to hear those three little gems that certainly know how to convey a wide range of moods, including the spontaneous liveliness of the first one, the combination of pensive and extroverted lyricism of the second one, and the steady melodic power of the more substantial third one. 
An alumnus of the Conservatoire of Lyon enjoying an outstanding career, Laurence Monti seemed to seamlessly channeled Clara’s prodigious talent as she adroitly unfolded the attractive melodic lines, even when unceremonious gusts of mistral had her make unplanned acrobatics to keep her sheet music in place. Equally eminent pianist Oliver Lechardeur had an easier time managing his score thanks to his little page turner, and proved to be quite the expert at working his way through the complex piano parts. 
Not to be outdone, Robert Schumann’s popular Violin Sonata No. 1 proved again what a superior craftsman Clara's husband was. In true Schumann fashion, the intimate composition has a lot going on what with its fair share of passionate emotions, but also moments of understated serenity, flashes of colorful exuberance, as well as a fleeting touch of darkness. Treated as equal partners on paper, both musicians delivered a perfectly balanced, powerfully expressive performance of the concise yet strongly evocative work. All in all, I am happy to report that Robert sounded worthy of Clara.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Musique dans la Rue - Sextuor Mirabeau - Brahms - 08/25/21

Johannes Brahms: String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 18 
Yannick Callier: Cello 
Michel Durand-Mabire: Violin 
Marie-Anne Hovasse: Viola 
Frédéric Lagarde: Cello 
Nicolas Patris de Breuil: Viola 
Marie-Laurence Rocca: Violin 

As the eight-day Musique dans la Rue (Music in the Streets) festival carries on all over the town of Aix-en-Provence, making it even livelier than usual, I have been desperately combing through the ruthlessly exciting program to try to fit in as many as possible of its free 30-minute performances, to which I have to add a 30-minute wait, into my packed schedule. Fact is, quite a few of them simply looked too intriguing to pass on, regardless of circumstances. 
And that’s exactly how I felt about Johannes Brahms’ first sextet that was going to be performed by six professors of the Conservatoire d’Aix-en-Provence, Sextuor Mirabeau, which sounded just about one notch above the performance of Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 by four professors last Sunday. But hey, the more, the merrier, and since our monthly summer storm thankfully decided to happen on Tuesday, I found myself in the Chapelle des Oblats’ packed cloister again yesterday for another short, but oh so rewarding, musical evening. 

Turns out that this concert was originally scheduled in the conservatoire’s regular programming this past season, but had to be cancelled for obvious reasons. I am not sure if the musicians took advantage of the extra time to practice more, but they all sounded mighty fine yesterday as they were creating the less commonly heard textures and colors of Brahms’ String Sextet No. 1. 
That said, although his sextets may not be as popular as some of his other pieces (Let's face it, the competition is pretty daunting), it has to be pointed out that the wonderful Andante has kind of developed a life of its own with occasional appearances in pop culture, including in the Stark Trek: The Next Generation series as well as the films Les Amants and The Piano Teacher. So there.
But it was back to the basics, i.e. six musicians playing together on a stage before an audience, yesterday, and they certainly excelled at bringing out the rich complexity, gorgeous lyricism and overall warmth of the composition. Opening with a gentle theme exquisitely played by the two cellos and one of the violas, the first movement was immediately engaging and superbly expansive. But then again, the entire performance turned out to be a true feast for afficionados of richly burnished, lusciously dark sonorities, the type that one can hear when two cellos and two violas hold their own against the two violins that are used to running the show. In the end, everybody, including the ecstatic audience, won.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Musique dans la Rue - Quatuor Darius - Borodin - 08/22/21

Alexander Borodin: String Quartet No. 2 in D Major 
Marie-Anne Hovasse: Viola 
Frédéric Lagarde: Cello 
Anne Meunier: Violin 
Marie-Laurence Rocca: Violin 

Just about 23 hours after having waited for 30 minutes to enjoy 30 minutes of Mendelssohn in the Chapelle des Oblats’ cloister, which has the double advantage of not only being a naturally welcoming space with its warm-colored walls, stone fountain and olive trees, but also of being conveniently located not far from my apartment, I was back in line for another 30-minute wait before another free 30-minute performance as part of Aix-en-Provence’s Musique dans la Rue (Music in the Streets) festival, but for Alexander Borodin’s ever-popular String Quartet No.2 this time. 
Making my way through the late-afternoon crowd on Sunday was not quite as challenging as it had been on Saturday, but the line of dedicated music lovers was about just as long. Not that it really mattered. I eventually got the opportunity to make a beeline for the exact same premium seat, and readied myself for a performance sans outside noise pollution, but with the expertise of four professors of the Conservatoire d’Aix-en-Provence. This could only be good. 

And it was. Dedicated to Borodin’s wife to allegedly celebrate their 20 years together, his String Quartet No.2 is a superbly crafted work that openly exudes uncomplicated warmth and happiness, with just a touch of orientalism to make it even more appealing. I am not sure how good at his daytime job of chemist Borodin was—His significant contributions to the field speak well for him— but I can tell that he definitely knew how to make magic happen in the music realm. 
Since they’ve been teaching and playing together for a while now, it came as no surprise that the four members of the Quatuor Darius delivered a commendably tight and committed performance. The delightful journey started when they opened Borodin’s treasure trove of luxuriant melodies, and went on as they brought them all to glorious life. The unabashedly luminous Notturno was as enchanting as ever, but in the end, it was only one more component of another deeply fulfilling musical experience on another beautiful late-summer evening in Aix.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Musique dans la Rue - Mélanie Bracale & Frédéric Lagarde - Mendelssohn - 08/21/21

Felix Mendelssohn: Cello Sonata No. 2 in D Major, Op. 58 
Mélanie Bracale: Piano 
Frédéric Lagarde: Cello 

As summer is slowly but surely coming to an end, the time has come for Aix-en-Provence’s 48th Musique dans la Rue (Music in the Streets) festival, which means that from August 20 through 28, a wide range of free 30-minute performances, from chamber music and jazz to world music and marching bands, not to mention sing-alongs of all kinds, among others, are going to spring up in various venues around town for everybody to enjoy. 
I got my first taste of it last Saturday when, after spending pretty much all day slaving in front of my computer, I decided to treat myself to Felix Mendelssohn’s Cello Sonata No. 2 in the cloister of the 17th-century Chapelle des Oblats, the former Carmelite convent at the top of cours Mirabeau. And that’s how, after having carefully walked through the proselytizing hallway, I quickly found an excellent seat in the lovely open space, which was filling up fast with music lovers and a cool breeze. 
The two musicians were cellist Frédéric Lagarde, whose impressive résumé ends for now with his current teaching job at the Conservatoire d’Aix-en-Provence, and his frequent musical partner Mélanie Bracale, whose shorter but already notable résumé is about to expand with a stint at no less than the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris. This sterling company, along with the sure value that is Mendelssohn, was promising a short but memorable musical evening, never mind the loud rock music that was coming out from a window nearby. It eventually had to surrender to Mendelssohn’s relentless counter-assault. 

Mendelssohn’s second sonata is everything one would expect from the Classical-Romantic German composer, including a remarkable balance between the two instruments, intense lyricism, beautiful colors, long singing lines and light-hearted sparks. The allegedly Bach-inspired Adagio, in particular, is a major feat of contrasts by superbly combining the streams of choral-like arpeggios of the piano and the dramatic star turn of the cello to eventually reach a truly happy ending. 
Remaining staunchly focused on the task and impervious to outside distractions, both musicians effortlessly joined their expert forces not only to do justice to the naturally engaging score, but also to share the pure pleasure of playing it with the rest of us, all the way to the infectiously exuberant finale. Suffice it to say, they mightily succeeded.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Nuits Pianistiques - Brahms and Fauré - 08/11/21

Johannes Brahms: Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25 
Gabriel Fauré: Piano Quartet No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 15 
Da-Min Kim: Violin 
Marie-Anne Hovasse: Viola 
Frédéric Lagarde: Cello 
Olivier Lechardeur: Piano 

Back in Aix-en-Provence again, and staying in town this time, I had no trouble finding some more high-quality live music to enjoy with the 29th Nuits Pianistiques that, contrary to what their name could lead to believe, do not feature only piano recitals, but also all kinds of chamber music. Moreover, while the performances do not take place outdoors, the event organizers have chosen the next best thing: The Compras auditorium of the Conservatoire Darius Milhaud, a space with such incredible acoustics that violinist and Festival de Pâques’ co-founder and artistic director Renaud Capuçon decided to record his album of Bach concertos there. And what is good enough for Bach and Capuçon is good enough for me. 
Since those Nuits Pianistiques were created by the Musique-Échanges association with intergenerational playing and community outreach in mind, they stretch far and wide in terms of musicians and repertoire, but never too thin. On Wednesday night, the program may not have been ground-breaking, but the prospect of indulging in two meaty quartets with piano from Brahms and Fauré—Not to mention a couple of hours in a perfectly calibrated air-conditioned space—was simply too exciting to pass on. 

Johannes Brahms was still a young man when he came up with his Piano Quartet No. 1, and yet, it is as stunningly accomplished, both rigorously written and opulently lyrical, as one would expect from the ultimate perfectionist he always was. Moreover, some freshness and insouciance are quite palpable in there too, or is it just the irresistibly high-flying rondo alla zingarese that gives this overall impression? In any case, this last movement certainly gave the entire work lasting recognition. And the sizable audience was more than eager to undertake the magnificent 40-minute journey on Wednesday night. 
The four musicians on the stage were definitely up to the task, and expertly handled the challenging and rewarding score. From the deceptively simple opening to the no-holds-barred dazzling finale, they played with technical brilliance, tremendous passion and, maybe most importantly, perfect harmony. Each of them intrinsically knew how to make the most of their part while always fitting in, and the result was a fiercely vibrant performance. 

After the intermission, we stayed in the mid-19th century but left Romanticism à l’allemande for Romanticism à la française with Gabriel Fauré’s Piano Quartet No. 1, which he wrote when he was a young man as well, and about to be dumped by an apparently reluctant fiancée he deeply loved at that. That said, although it has its moments of emotional turmoil, the music is not as depressing as the composer’s distressing and no doubt frustrating situation at the time could have led us to expect. 
The allegro molto moderato is beautifully melodic, the scherzo is brilliantly playful, the adagio does betray heartbreaking sadness, but always with a sense of restraint, and the allegro molto concludes the piece with plenty of lively energy. Never one to wear his heart on his sleeve, Fauré nevertheless manages to express deep feelings—and display formidable compositional skills too—with sincerity and unfussiness. Readily switching from Brahms’ intense passion to Fauré’s subtle elegance, the quartet beautifully conveyed the work’s sense of airiness, refinement and nuances for an instinctively intimate and yet effortlessly communicative experience. 

And then the mood shifted into high gear again when, as an encore, the musicians played the last couple of minutes of Brahms’ rondo alla zingarese again, just for the fun of it. And it sure was.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Festival international de piano de La Roque d'Anthéron - Kathia Buniatishvili - 08/05/21

Eric Satie: Gymnopédie No. 1 
Frederic Chopin: Prelude Op. 28, No. 4 
Frederic Chopin: Scherzo No. 3, Op. 39 
Johann Sebastian Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068 (Air on the G String) 
Franz Schubert: Impromptu No. 3, Op. 90 
Franz Schubert: Ständchen D. 957 
Frederic Chopin: Heroic Polonaise, Op. 53 
Frederic Chopin: Mazurka Op 17, No. 4 
François Couperin: Les barricades mystérieuses (The mysterious barricades) 
Johann Sebastian Bach/Franz Liszt: Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543 
Franz Liszt: Consolation No. 3 
Franz Liszt/Vladimir Horowitz: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 

Last Thursday evening, after the enlightening afternoon recital by Franco-Haitian, and rightfully proud of it, pianist Célimène Daudet, a leisurely walk around La Roque d’Anthéron, and salads that took 45 minutes to arrive (Maybe we should have stuck to the fabulous ice-creams next door), we were back in the Château de Florans’ magnificent park for one of the biggest draws, if not the biggest draw, of this year’s international piano festival, namely Georgian-born and French-naturalized Khatia Buniatishvili, whose prodigious technique has been as much discussed as her glamorous looks. 
But you gotta give it to the woman: She is a tireless advocate for classical music who does not hesitate to use her rock-star status to relentlessly promote it in all five languages that she speaks. Although I had been keeping an eye out for her, I never got a chance to hear her perform live in the U.S., maybe because she is so much in demand in Europe. But hey, if Khatia Buniatishvili won't come to me, then I must go to Khatia Buniatishvili, and that’s just what I did when my mom and I took our seats in front of the park’s high-tech outdoor concert shell that offered the double advantage of stunning aesthetics and excellent acoustics. 

The cicadas were still out in full force at the beginning of the concert, which made the choice of Eric Satie’s ethereally impressionistic, resolutely minimalist Gymnopédie No. 1 as the opening number kind of unfortunate. The struggle was worth it though, as the subtleness of Satie’s composition was well brought out by the pianist who is not exactly known for her subtleness. 
And then, without missing a beat, Buniatishvili smoothly transitioned into Frederic Chopin’s Prelude Op. 28, No. 4. Maybe because so much emotional baggage is packed in its tiny size, the prelude has often popped up in popular culture, especially when aching sadness with yet a glimmer of hope is needed. On Thursday night, it unfolded with a lot of restraint and earnestness. 
Until, that is, after some drastic gear shifting, Chopin’s short and snappy Scherzo No. 3, Op. 39 made itself heard loud and clear with its tight structure and caustic mood, and proved that the composer was not just all Romanticism all the time. 
As daylight was fading and the cicadas were slowly but surely deciding to call it a night, we moved on to Johann Sebastian Bach’s beloved “Air on the G String”. Having heard it played on the violin countless times, I was thrilled to discover the piano version, although I suspect that Buniatishvili’s Chopinesque treatment of it would have surprised its maker. 
Back into the Romantic genre, she gently emphasized Schubert's gift for melody-making with his radiantly lyrical Impromptu No. 3, Op. 90 and his delicately elegiac “Ständchen” D. 957. As I was listening to such exquisite miniatures in a finally quiet environment under the stars I really felt like we were all living a magical moment suspended in time. 
The first energy-filled notes of Chopin’s “Heroic Polonaise” brought me right back to reality though, and very happily so. Looking totally swept up by the power of the music while remaining fully in control of her skills, Buniatishvili delivered a gorgeously flamboyant, effortlessly virtuosic performance of the formidable masterpiece. 
She radically changed register again for his Mazurka Op 17, No. 4, another crowd favorite of Chopin’s that was all understated and unrushed dreaminess, with just one quick obsessive bout in the middle of it. 
Originally composed for the harpsichord, François Couperin’s “Les barricades mystérieuses” (The mysterious barricades) may or may not refer to specific barricades, but in any case, it is an appealing work, endlessly complex without being intimidating, which probably explains why it has become such an inspiration for all kinds of modern musical endeavors, and was such a satisfying treat on Thursday night. 
Originally composed for the organ, Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A Minor in all likelihood lost of its solemnity during its conversion for the piano by Liszt, just as it certainly lost some of its sternness during Buniatishvili’s openly emotional performance of it on Thursday night. The Romantic take on the Baroque composition may have been unusual, but a lot of us dug it. 
Chopin kind of remained in the air through his friendly rival Franz Liszt’s Consolation No. 3, but the similarity to his famed Nocturnes was always intended. An all-around favorite encore, it was nice to hear it as part of an official playlist, especially since it was played so eloquently. 
Liszt’s irresistible Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 closed the program. Although he wrote no fewer than 19 Hungarian rhapsodies, he could very well have stopped at his second one as it has been by far the most popular of them all. A ubiquitous presence in animated cartoons and popular media, not to mention concert halls around the world, it also is a Himalaya to climb for any pianist who dares to consider it. On Thursday evening, Buniatishvili channeled her inner tempestuous gypsy and handled the entire piece, including Horowitz’s cadenza, with her signature electrifying fervor, and we all loved her for it. 

The sold-out audience was so effusive in their approval of their musical evening that she came back for a graceful adagio of the Concerto in D Minor BWV 947 by Bach/Marcello, followed by one last greatest hit of classical music with a vividly contrasted “Clair de lune” from Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, which we gratefully savored to the very last note under a beautiful moonlight.

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Festival international de piano de la Roque d'Anthéron - Célimène Daudet - 08/05/21

Justin Elie: Chants de la montagne No. 1 (Echo-isma o) 
Justin Elie: Chants de la montagne No. 2 (Nostalgie) 
Ludovic Lamothe: Feuillet d’album No. 1 
Ludovic Lamothe: Feuillet d’album No. 2 
Franz Liszt: Three transcriptions of six of Chopin's Polish songs 
 2. Spring 
3. The Ring 
4. Drinking Song 
Franz Liszt: La Notte 
Edmond Saintonge: Élégie-Méringue (Elegy-Merengue) 
Justin Elie: Three popular Haitian Meringues 
Ludovic Lamothe: Loco, excerpts of voodoo icons 
Danza No. 1 (Habanera) 
Danza No. 2 
 Danza No. 3 

Back in Aix-en-Provence after my short week in Dieulefit, I was determined not to let summer heat and tourist invasion get to me, so last Thursday, my mom and I headed to La Roque d’Anthéron for two concerts of its prestigious international piano festival that has never let anything, not even the never-ending pandemic, bring it to a stop for the past 40 years. 
On the other hand,  La Roque d’Anthéron for all its loveliness has few distractions, except for an incredible ice-cream parlor with a shaded terrace and a gargantuan menu in town as well as the impressive Cistercian Abbey of Silvacane nearby, but hey, the holy trinity of food, history and music is not a bad way to fill a beautiful summer day. 
Needless to say, our main goal was the music, and we were dearly hoping that the streak of good luck we had been enjoying would carry on a little longer, so that after a piano recital in Dieulefit’s local park and a piano recital in Saoû’s dense forest the previous week, we could end our season in grand style with two last piano recitals al fresco in the magnificent park of La Roque d’Anthéron’s 16th-century Château de Florans. 
The 5 PM recital would feature Franco-Haitian pianist Célimène Daudet, a young, bold and already much in-demand pianist who had concocted a playlist heavily influenced by her Haitian roots with three Haitian composers and pianists who had trained at the Paris Conservatory in the early 20th century… and Franz Liszt. 
The intimate Espace Florans, in which she was going to perform, consisted of a piano standing on a small stage placed on top of a stunning alley of plane trees in front of a small audience—That would be us—who got there via a narrow path in the woods. In short, everything was lined up for a rather unusual and very exciting experience. 

The concert started on a subtle note with two “Chants de la montagne” (Mountain songs) from Justin Elie, so subtle in fact that hearing the piano over the hordes of cicadas adding their own loud soundtrack to the original score was often challenging. But, with a little effort, we were able to connect with the delicate rêverie, the deep love for the homeland, which Daudet valiantly expressed despite all the unceremonious ruckus going on relentlessly around her. 
Ludovic Lamothe was nicknamed the “black Chopin”, partly for his undivided devotion for Chopin’s œuvre, which he frequently performed in concerts, but also for the influence Chopin had in his compositions. In case anyone had any doubts, one listen of his two “Feuillet d’albums” (Photo album pages) definitely cleared that up. Full of lyricism and tenderness, and let’s not forget nostalgia, those inconspicuous yet deeply affecting little gems would have surely pleased the role model himself. 
Three of Liszt’s versions of Polish songs by Chopin brought us back to the Old Continent, still in full Romantic mood, and quite entertained us with their own personalities. “The Spring” enchanted, “The Ring” sparkled, and “The Drinking Song” exploded with raucousness. Through it all, Daudet demonstrated a solid command of her craft while paying meticulous attention to detail. 
“La Notte”, which Liszt wrote after the death of his eldest daughter Blandine and wished to have played at his funeral, is as thoughtful as the name of the work on which it is based: “Il Penseroso” from the Années de Pelerinage suites. Despite the depressing subject matter, Daudet cleverly kept sentimentality and gloominess at bay to focus instead on the melancholy and wistfulness of the composition. 
Next, “Élégie-Méringue” by Edmond Saintonge cheered everybody up with the first appearance of the popular méringue music and its sensual Afro-Caribbean rhythms of the afternoon. Fortunately for us, it would not be the last. 
Justin Elie’s three popular Haitian méringues picked up this new theme and expanded the festive mood with three other examples of the engaging music that has come to represent Haitian culture and values, the last piece being especially remarkable with its strong, ominous dark undertones, and the implacable virtuosity with which Daudet handled them. 
Ludovic Lamothe was back to wrap up the program with three méringue dances, starting with the “Habanera” during which, as I looked up, I could watch the surrounding tree tops far up in the sky seemingly swaying to the infectious, vaguely devilish rhythms coming up from the piano. A winning combination of classical exactness and Caribbean spontaneity with a touch of Haitian voodooism, those three danzas were an uplifting ending to an immensely satisfying concert. 

Before we parted way though, Daudet generously treated us to two encores, back on the Old Continent, with Scriabin’s poignant Étude pour piano, Op. 2, No. 1, which he wrote when he was only 16 years old, and Liszt’s restless “Schlaflos! Frag und Antwort” (Insomnia: Question and Answer), which he wrote presumably when he could not sleep. They both proved, as if it were still necessary, that Daudet’s prodigious skills transcend time, space and genre.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Saoû chante Mozart - Jean-Francois Zygel - Mon Mozart à moi (concert-fantaisie) - 07/26/21

Orchestre des pays de Savoie 
Conductor: Nicolas Chalvin 
Jean-Francois Zygel: Piano 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 29 in A Major (First movement) 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Eine kleine Nachtmusik (First movement) 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-Flat Major (Second movement) 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, K. 478 (First movement) 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G Minor (First movement) 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: A Musical Joke, K. 522 (Fourth movement) 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major (Second movement) 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G Minor (Fourth movement) 

After Alexandre Tharaud’s terrific piano recital in Dieulefit on Saturday night, I happily took Sunday off from supporting cultural institutions, although anybody fortunate enough to have become acquainted with the homemade ice-creams of Dieulefit’s chocolatier extraordinaire Jean Da may argued that they are total works of art, and they would not be wrong. They are certainly one of the major incentives that keep me coming back to Dieulefit, and they certainly made my Sunday. 
But then some live music still had to be heard, so on Monday afternoon, my mom, our friend Jacqueline and I took off to the forest of Saoû, which is located, logically enough, right outside the lovely village of Saoû, for the final, all-Mozart concert of the annual Saoû chante Mozart (Saoû sings Mozart) festival, featuring another French multi-talented pianist in Jean-Francois Zygel, on what promised to be an absolutely gorgeous summer evening in the woods starting at… 7 PM! 
At least that’s what the program promised, not out of consideration for all the sleep I had been missing for various, personally uncontrollable, reasons, mind you, but rather, more prosaically, because of the lack of lighting. And if it had sounded almost too good to be true, it turned out that it actually was: While the seating area under the glamorous canopy of sky-scraping trees was filled to capacity well before 7 PM, the concert actually started at 7:30 PM due to late-comers whose presence was apparently indispensable, and then the unavoidable rambling speeches by various officials. And then, the music finally began. 

As soon as the engaging notes of Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 starting filling our bucolic setting, I decided to stop bitching about wasted time and to start embracing our evening with the Viennese master, which was really no that tall of an order as this first movement was predictably light, graceful and vivacious… but standing by itself. As a rule I resent when just one movement of a composition is played because that’s obviously not the way they are supposed to be heard, and I did feel an inevitable ting of frustration when the orchestra did not go on, but then I remembered how many months I had just spent without live music, and decided to count my blessings instead. 
Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 may be fairly well-known, but the exquisite little gem that is Eine kleine Nachtmusik is downright world-famous, although for some reason I’ve never heard it performed frequently during concerts. I was therefore ecstatically happy to get another chance to enjoy it, even if, again, only the first movement was on the program. Considering the frisson of excitement that went through the audience as the Mannheim rocket theme started its ascension, I knew that I was not alone. 
As an additional treat, once the movement over, Jean-Francois Zygel treated us to his own version, which was as inspired and entertaining as one could have expected from an inquisitive musician and natural communicator like him. The man even managed to gamely play along the singing of a nearby bird that would not shut up. 
Apparently, Mozart himself considered his Quintet for Piano and Winds “the best thing I have written in my life” at the time of its release, and many music lovers concur. I am not a big fan of wind instruments in general, but I did remain in awe of the imaginative writing, the delicately nonchalant mood, and the perfect balance among all the parties during the second movement we heard on Monday evening. 
Right after the winds came the strings with the first movement of his Piano Quartet No. 1, incidentally a milestone in the chamber music repertoire as it is considered to be the first bona fide piano quartet ever composed, even if it was just labelled “difficult music” at the time. On Monday evening, the four musicians proved that no matter how difficult the score was, they could handle it. Not one to miss the party, Zygler did his own solo improvision on it once the quartet was over, and brilliantly too. 
Back to Mozart’s greatest hits, Zygler pointed out that the famed motif of his Symphony No. 40 has been one of the most downloaded classical music ringtones ever. Come to think of it though, it is not that surprising that those stubbornly recurring three notes, equally inviting and mysterious, turned into a ubiquitous earworm. And their power was just made plain obvious when Zygler performed his own take of it, starting by plucking away at the piano cords, before the orchestra eventually took over and delightfully performed the infectious original. 
Mozart reputedly loved nothing more than a good joke, and he put this trait of his to good use with his Musical Joke, never mind that the English title does not reflect well the original German Ein musikalischer Spaß, as even my currently feeble German skills can confirm that “Spaß” means “fun” and not “joke”. And sure enough, as we were listening to the fourth movement of it, we could hear him poke clever fun at his less talented colleagues with excessive repetitions, rhythmic imbalance, general clumsiness and a totally out-of-control ending that even included a bit of polytonality because, why not? 
Beside being an unusually talented composer, Mozart was also a gifted piano man and wrote many stunning pieces for the instrument, which in turn helped increase the popularity of the piano concerto. His most beloved is probably his Piano Concerto No. 23, whose second movement contains some of the most sublime music ever written, and not just by him, and thus gives it an indisputable spot among his greatest hits. Both versions we heard on Monday night, by Zygler solo and then with the orchestra, were ingeniously complementary. 
To conclude our Mozartian feast, and this year's festival, Zygler had selected the last movement of the Symphony No. 40 because of the comprehensive recap of Mozart’s œuvre it represents, including the fading Baroque genre, the then-current galant and classical styles, and the looming Romanticism trend. The orchestra acquitted itself in this last task of the evening with plenty of verve and warmth under the baton of Nicolas Chalvin. 

Maybe were they all a bit verklempt too as it was the maestro’s last performance in a symphonic concert as the Orchestre des pays de Savoie’s musical director, an occasion that Zygler simply had to mark with one last, beautifully heart-felt, improvisation as daylight was finally slowly fading away.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Saoû chante Mozart - Artiste sur l'herbe : consécration ! - Alexander Tharaud - 07/24/21

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Modulierendes Präludium, KV 624 (626b) 
Jean-Philippe Rameau: Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin 
Allemande – Sarabande – Fanfarinette - Gavotte avec les Doubles de la Gavotte 
Sergei Rachmaninov: Morceaux de fantaisie, Op. 3 
Franz Schubert: Impromptus, Op. 90 

Although last Friday I took the evening off from concert duties (Sorry, mom!), little did I know that on Saturday morning I would not be as refreshed as I was hoping due to a night plagued by, in no particular order, little critters running around in the attic above me, cats fighting underneath my window, not to mention some mosquitoes in the actual bedroom. So much for the peace and quiet of the countryside. 
On the other hand, I figured that if I was not going to get good sleep in Dieulefit, at least I should get good music, and that’s what I did on Saturday night with my mom and our friend Jacqueline at the piano recital al fresco by French "artist on the grass" Alexandre Tharaud, which took place in the local parc de la Baume at 9:30 PM, but who’s counting anymore? At least we had time to have a lovely dinner al fresco too. 
The occasion was the 32nd Saoû chante Mozart (Saoû sings Mozart) festival, which, according to the program notes, this year offered 12 dates, 15 locations, 19 concerts and 120 artists. Take that, Mostly Mozart Festival, which is not even happening (again). At least this year I am on the right side of the pond. 

Although the festival has been including other composers over the years, Mozart still understandably manages to creep into most, if not all, playlists, which is not that difficult considering the incredible range of his œuvre. On Saturday night, as the night was falling, gray clouds were gathering, the opening speeches by local officials were finally over and the last valiant cicada was about to give up, Tharaud started his concert with Mozart’s Modulierendes Präludium, KV 624 (626b), a seemingly short and inconspicuous, yet delightfully lively prelude, which the composer used to play to check his piano and warm up his fingers. Before we knew it, it had gone by fleetingly, just like the summer breeze that was keeping us cool. 
Remaining roughly in the same time period, we moved on to Rameau, whose works for harpsichord are still as popular with contemporary musicians as they were with Mozart himself. I, however, am not really a big fan of the admittedly estimable French composer, and apparently neither is Mother Nature as it started raining in the middle of the Sarabande, and the performance had to be interrupted not only for the comfort of the musician, but also for the safety of the magnificent Steinway, which got its own cover AND canopy. Talk about special treatment! 
The shower dissipated quickly, and Tharaub came back and resumed playing, undisturbed by the fact that the canopy was covering the piano but not him, and gamely delivered a wonderfully heart-felt performance that even increased my appreciation of Rameau, which is no small feat. 
Moving boldly from French Late Baroque to Russian Romanticism, we next got to enjoy the five vignettes of Rachmaninov’s Morceaux de fantaisie. Since they first came out, the second one, the Prelude in C-sharp Minor, has had its own life as a ubiquitous concert encore and semi-regular presence in movie soundtracks. Unlike the composer and some snooty critics, I am always happy to hear it, with its solemnly resounding bells, rapid-fire middle section, and ever-mysterious finale, all in less than four minutes. Not bad for a 19-year-old barely out of the conservatory! Oh, and yes, the other four pieces are not bad either, as Tharaud convincingly reminded us on Saturday night. 
After Rachmaninov’s permanently depressive state, we moved on to Schubert’s intermittently depressive state with his four Impromptus, Op. 90. The Allegro molto moderato felt both warm and chilly, and never completely fulfilled, but then again, such is life. As we were settling into the melodic rêverie of the Allegro, we got jolted back to reality as some raindrops made the music stop again. The upside was that Tharaud eventually took it back up from the top, which means we got to hear the beginning again. The last two impromptus went on without any further external challenges, but plenty of dark overtones, a little desperation, and the occasional flicker of peacefulness. 

We had made it to the end almost intact, if a bit damp, and most grateful that the man had not given up on us. As if to celebrate the completion of the program and wrap things up as soon as possible, just in case, Tharaud, who had been chatty in between works, moved right on to a resolutely uplifting, highly virtuosic piece that, in my non-expert opinion, may very well have been by Scarlatti. In any case, it was a fun ending for a memorable Saturday night in the park with Alexandre.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Journées Musicales de Dieulefit - Grandes Sonatas pour Cordes et Piano - 07/22/21

César Franck: Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano 
François Daudet: Piano
Virginie Robilliard: Violin  
Maurice Ravel: Tzigane 
François Daudet: Piano 
Virginie Robilliard: Violin 
Sergei Rachmaninov: Sonata in G Minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 19 
François Daudet: Piano 
David Louwerse: Cello 

Last Thursday morning, my mom and I made it to Dieulefit one day later than expected, having spent part of the previous night with Rimski-Korsakov’s unpredictable but so exciting Golden Cockerel in Aix, but ready to take on more summer musical treats, of the chamber music kind this time, starting that very evening with the “Grandes Sonates pour Cordes et Piano” (Big Sonatas for Strings and Piano) concert of the Journées musicales de Dieulefit, a decades-old musical event (“festival” would be too big of a word) which consists of four concerts spread out on two “Musical Days in Dieulefit” and the surrounding areas. 
My mom being a recent volunteer with the small organization, not only had she been tapped to help out, but she had also signed me up for that evening, probably figuring out that it would be a productive way for me to earn my stay. So I found myself directing countless confused concert-goers, who apparently could neither remember the alphabet nor count until 12, to their seats inside the tiny and eventually packed Saint-Pierre Church as I was feeling the lack of sleep slowly but surely getting a hold on me. But hey, after the recent string of late-night performances I had to put up with, I knew I could handle it. 

And I could all the more handle it as our seats were just a few feet away from the “stage”, which allowed us to enjoy a full-immersion experience of what was going on there. As luck would have it, the music, starting with César Franck’s unabashedly luminous Sonata for Violin and Piano, was awfully enjoyable. One of the most popular sonatas in the repertoire, Franck’s little masterpiece simply never ceases to seduce the listener with its gorgeous melodies, rich lyricism, and a general feeling of uncomplicated happiness, even during the turbulences of the allegro. Pianist François Daudet, who also happens to wear the hat of music director, provided a solid background that let regular violinist Virginie Robilliard brightly shine through. 
The second goodie on the program was Maurice Ravel’s wild-at-heart with a French twist Tzigane, a true challenge for any violin player, and a true feast for any violin lover. Robilliard dedicated her performance of it to “freedom”, and sure enough, while she was clearly pulling all the strings (No pun intended) of her blazing performance, there was also an imperceptible sense of freedom in the air, the kind of freedom that an artist in full command of her craft can leverage and share. Not to be outdone by its brief part toward the end, Daudet got into the final race full speed ahead for a hell-raising grand finale
After virtuosic freedom came heart-warming love, as Robilliard decided to take it down a notch and reward our ecstatic ovation with a lovely rendition of Elgar’s “Salut d’amour”. 
Moving on without intermission, long-time regular David Louwerse and his cello took over strings duty for Sergei Rachmaninov’s Sonata in G Minor for Cello and Piano, while the indefatigable François Daudet stayed at the keyboard. Not as widely known as the previous two pieces, our Russian portion of the evening nevertheless contained just about the same generous amount of compelling lyricism, as well as, in true Rachmaninov fashion, bell-like sonorities, bouts of mental anguish and overall mysticism. Giving equal importance to both instruments, the openly Romantic composition assigned each musician a daunting set of technical challenges, which they winningly overcame for a truly beautiful performance. 
So beautiful, in fact, that they decided to repeat the andante as an encore, and therefore concluded the concert on a seriously soulful note.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Festival international d'art lyrique - The Golden Cockerel (Final Dress Rehearsal) - 07/21/21

Composer: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov 
Librettist: Vladimir Belsky 
Director/Producer: Barrie Kosky
Orchestre de l'Opéra de Lyon
Tsar Dodon: Dimitry Ulyanov 
Shemakha Queen: Nina Minasyan 
Astrologist: Vasily Efimov 
Aphron: Adrey Zhilikhovsky 
Gvidon: Vasily Efimov 
Polkan: Mischa Schelomianski 
Amlefa: Margarita Nebrasova 
Voice of the golden cockerel: Maria Nazarova
Body of the golden cockerel: Wilfried Gonon
Chorus: Chœur de l'Opéra de Lyon

“Never say never”, that’s what I was thinking as I was sitting down next to my mom in the Théâtre de l’Archevêché last Wednesday night at the personally unthinkable hour of… 10 PM, after two invitations to the final dress rehearsal of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel had unexpectedly fallen on my lap, and who was I to say no? So I said yes. And that’s how, after some last-minute schedule adjustment, a tentative disco nap and a substantial dinner, we were ready for what would be, this time for sure, the last opera of my first Festival international d’art lyrique d'Aix-en-Provence since the month-long event ended on Sunday. 
I did not know anything about The Golden Cockerel until it appeared on the festival’s program this year, and while I am a big fan of Russian music and always open to discovering new works, it did not feel like an absolute priority, until I was made an offer I simply could not refuse, that is. Moreover, my subsequent quick and totally informal survey taught me that while the opera is not very well-known, it is apparently worth-knowing. As an additional bonus, my inquiries also landed some interesting findings, such as a former Russian colleague having read the story as a child but having never heard of the opera, and my dad being given a recording of it by his mom when he was a teenager, and still remembering most of it. The man will never cease to surprise me! 

My first piece of intel about The Golden Cockerel informed me that it is based on a fairy tale in verse by Alexander Pushkin, which Rimsky-Korsakov turned into a sharp satire of Russian imperialism. That certainly sounded like an intriguing enough combination, which on top of it would probably open the door to all kinds of possibilities when it comes to staging it. Plus, an intermission-free two-hour performance would enable the show to briskly go on, and us to go back home at a semi-reasonable hour for opera buffs in summer (since apparently nobody in summer opera audiences have to go to work the next morning). 
Although the golden cockerel of the title has a pivotal role in the story, the opera’s main character is the hapless Tsar Dodon, whose laziness and sloppiness were made obvious as soon as the opera began by the quite disgusting ragtag outfits he was wearing. But while Russian bass Dimitry Ulyanov did not shy away from the Tsar’s unkemptness, his singing, all deep shades and emotional weight, was almost too magnificent for the part. Faced with what was essentially a daunting one-man show, he nevertheless went the whole distance with remarkable stamina and steadiness. 
The biggest distraction in his life was indisputably his encounter with the spell-binding and yet resolutely unattainable Shemakha Queen, to whom Armenian coloratura soprano Nina Minasyan gave dazzling vocal and physical life. Clad in a form-fitting sparkly dress and a high-feathered headdress, she looked like she was coming straight out of a Folies Bergères revue. Only that instead of the brash appeal of a showgirl, her artlessly luminous voice and discreetly tantalizing dance moves, not to mention her leg coquettishly sticking out as she was sitting down, couldn’t help but bring to mind the elusive eroticism of Scheherazade, this other powerfully seductive heroine of Rimsky-Korsakov. 
We regretfully did not get the planned astrologist, Russian tenor Andrei Popov, due to the latest COVID-related restrictions, so we ended up with Russian tenor Vasily Efimov singing the part from the wings while a stand-in was going through the character’s motions on the stage. But hey, that’s what you get when you attend a work-in-progress during a never-ending pandemic. 
The same Vasily Efimov was just as resourceful in his official role of Tsarevich Gvidon, one of the tsar’s two constantly-fighting-till-death-did-them-apart sons (Abel and Cain anyone?), AKA the nice one; Moldavian baryton Andrey Zhilikhovsky was equally efficient as his feistier sibling, Tsarevich Aphron. we quickly figured out that nothing good could come out of those two, but little did we know...
Russian talents were decidedly in full force in smaller parts with Russian bass Mischa Schelomianski’s general Polkan and Russian contralto Margarita Nekrasova’s housekeeper Amelfa. Both made the most of their characters with impressive vocal skills and strong stage presence. 
And what about the famous golden cockerel? Well, maybe because it was carrying such heavy responsibilities as not only the title role, but also as the foreseer of troubles to come, it took no less than two people to bring him to resounding life: Russian soprano Maria Nazarova provided remarkably loud and clear crowing, whose force only equaled its precision, from the wings. On the stage, the young and limber French actor Wilfried Gonon impersonated a cockerel as fascinating as foreboding, with few but well-calibrated moves, a de rigueur golden crest, and a lot of body paint. 
Beautifully contributing to the performance was the fantastic chorus, whose singers appeared as horses of a chess board for the men, as attractive ladies-in-waiting for the women, before they all cavorted in carnivalesque costumes as the kingdom’s people, and eventually stood in sober outfits for the equally sober epilogue, always impeccably fitting in. 

Although the original tale was unfolding in a quintessentially Russian context, Australian director Barrie Kosky judiciously decided to focus on its universality by coming up with a slightly surreal set à la Tim Burton, consisting of a landscape featuring a steep slope, countless bamboos and a dead tree, that looked in fact rather drab until soulful lighting made creative promises come true. As time went on, abstract and real, poetic and burlesque, humans and animals, all regularly interacted in a scenery where anything could happen, and pretty much did. 
Never hesitating to go the extra mile without ever going too far, as Kosky added some visually eye-popping touches such as the four Nijinsky-like dancers who sporadically showed up and did their thing in various, err, interesting outfits, including skimpy shimmering loincloths and not much else, or deliciously macabre scenes like the Tsar Dodon having a Hamlet lite moment when playing with his sons’ severed heads while their bodies were hanging upside down from the dead tree nearby. All those uncanny details were not only a feast for the eyes, but also winningly brought out the most unusual aspects of the score. 
Faithful to its composer’s mission of mixing illusion and reality, the abundantly lyrical music was full of contrasts, among which stood out, at least to my ears, the earthiness and exoticism of, respectively, western and eastern sounds, as well as the occasional bout of dark humor. In the pit, young and fearless Italian conductor Daniele Rustioni kept everything under control, even during the most challenging passages where the characters could have easily slipped into gross caricatures, and led the orchestra in a confident performance that effortlessly brought out the wild inventiveness of the whole enterprise. 

Cocorico to all indeed! Even better, it was all over at the stroke of midnight, and we were able to get some rest before moving on to new adventures.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Festival international d'art lyrique - Tempest and Passion - 07/17/21

Balthasar Neumann Ensemble 
Conductor: Thomas Hengelbrook 
Mozart: Symphony No. 39 in E-Flat Major 
Mozart: “Ruhe sanft, mein holders Leven” (Zaide
Mozart: “Et incarnatus est” (Mass in C Minor, K. 427) 
Mozart: “Alleluia” (Exsultate, jubilate) 
Soprano: Alexandra Flood 
Mozart: Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K 551 (Jupiter

As its name indicates, Aix-en-Provence’s prestigious Festival international d’art lyrique focuses on the many-faced art of the voice, and therefore mostly presents operas. But its original mission having broaden over the last few decades, nowadays it also offers a sizable choice of other events, among which are orchestral concerts that cover a wide range of works going from staunchly traditional to boldly adventurous. 
As my first opera at the festival, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, had been expertly performed by the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble, I figured that I might as well stick to the same composer and musicians for my first foray onto orchestral territory too. Another decisive selling point was a never-to-be-missed opportunity to hear the almighty Jupiter. Plus, his popular Symphony No. 39 was there too, as well as Mendelssohn’s "Infelice" for soprano and orchestra, providing just enough of a reminder that we were still at a lyrical art festival. 
The “Tempest and Passion” program may have been kind of predicable, but my well-planned evening had some surprises in store for me, starting when my cheap but very satisfactory nose-bleed seat in the Grand Théâtre de Provence was suddenly turned into an orchestra seat of my choosing right before the start of the concert. 
My stroke of luck, however, seemed to end just as quickly when, after I had strategically picked a seat in the middle of the partly filled last row for optimal view, acoustics and tranquility, a woman sitting nearby started to energetically fan herself, clearly not realizing that just the effort she was putting into it was probably making her even hotter. 
My luck quickly returned, however, when she got tired of it even before I did, and my enjoyment of Mozart’s 39th symphony was barely affected. Whew! 

And there was a lot to be enjoyed indeed! Although nobody can tell for sure if Mozart ever got to attend a performance of it, it can be assumed that he would have been pleased with the one by the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble on Saturday. The first of his last three symphonies has a lot going for it, what with an expansive adagio, a lovely andante, an attractive menuetto and trio, and a constantly surprising finale. All of those qualities and more were on full display on Saturday evening as the ensemble played with much commitment and vitality. 
Due to an illness, the promised Mendelsohn’s piece had been replaced by three arias by Mozart at the last minute, but young and endlessly versatile Australian soprano Alexandra Flood was unfazed, even if she needed her sheet music for the last two works. She handled them all with plenty of confidence and grace. 
Another surprise was that the intermission scheduled in the program did not happen in real life, but hey, who am I to complain about a well-paced evening? So we did not waste any time to move on to Mozart’s 41st and last symphony, which apparently was nicknamed “Jupiter” about a century after its composer had passed. 
Fact is though, rarely has a name been more fitting. With its Olympian perfection, its towering and yet accessible grandeur, its beautiful melodies and delightful surprises, it is the ultimate Mozartian gift that keeps on giving. Continuously digging out the little details while keeping the energetic pace that had adopted right at the famously attention-grabbing opening, the ensemble sounded like they were having as much fun as we were. 

But the concert that was not all-Mozart before becoming all-Mozart turned out not to be all-Mozart after all with a last, but definitely not least, surprise that included a couple of special guests from the Cuban-European Youth Academy (CuE), an innovative exchange program meant to help young Cuban and European musicians pursue the study of their craft. 
And that's how, on Saturday night, fabulous composer-first violin Jenny Peña Campo led the whole orchestra into an irresistibly sexy and infectious Latin-flavored encore of her own writing, which she eventually enhanced with hot dance moves with the equally talented maracas player. And just like that, this ultimate, totally unexpected treat of the evening got what even the Viennese master had not: a spontaneous long, roaring and standing ovation.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Festival international d'art lyrique - Innocence - 07/10/21

Composer: Kaija Saariaho 
London Symphony Orchestra 
Librettist: Sofi Oksanen/Aleksi Barrière 
Conductor: Susanna Mälkki 
Producer/Director: Simon Stone 
Waitress: Magdalena Kožená 
Mother-in-Law: Sandrine Piau 
Father-in-Law: Tuomas Pursio 
Bride: Lilian Farahani 
Groom: Markus Nykänen 
Priest: Jukka Rasilainen 
Teacher: Lucy Shelton 
Markéta: Vilma Jää 
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir 

Since my first, long-overdue experience of Aix-en-Provence’s Festival international d’art lyrique was the oldest opera on this year’s program with Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, I figured that my second one might as well be the most recent opera on this year’s program, so recent in fact that it had its world première just one week before the performance I would attend, mine being technically the troisième of Kaija Saariaho’s much anticipated Innocence
I had been intrigued by her L’amour de loin when I saw at the Met back in 2016, and I consequently was very curious to see what the arguably most exciting contemporary opera composer has come up with lately. Truth be told, I was almost grateful for the pandemic since it had postponed the première of Innocence by a year, just in time for me to be in Aix to check it out. 
Even better, after having enjoyed two very different and equally rewarding outdoors performances so far this summer, I have to admit that I was shamelessly relishing the modern comfort of the deliciously plush seats and perfectly calibrated A/C of Aix’s Grand Théâtre de Provence, where I happily plopped myself down between a young Asian woman and an elderly German couple at the totally civilized time of 8:00 PM last Saturday evening. 

I knew very little about Innocence before committing to it, except that it was inspired by the 13 characters of The Last Supper, that its duration would be about 110 blissfully uninterrupted minutes, and that it would be sung and spoken in English, Finnish, Czech, Romanian, French, Swedish, German, Spanish and Greek, which of course did not fail to tickle the linguist in me. Once in the auditorium, there was no turning back as the compact Rubik’s Cube-like décor and the ominously dark first notes set the tone for a riveting evening. 
Although her first appearance was rather inconspicuous, there was soon little doubt that superb Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená would be the link between the joyful wedding and the tragic shooting that were happening 10 years apart in the expertly organized vignettes. And we could have hardly wished for a better one: She carried her visceral pain with painful dignity and thrilling vocal power. 
French soprano Sandrine Piau may be a Baroque specialist, but on Saturday night she brilliantly demonstrated that she’s just as comfortable with challenging contemporary music as the mother of the groom who just can’t let go of the past no matter how much denial she’s desperately trying to be in. 
Her husband did not fare much better in terms of dealing with upsetting ghosts and an uncertain future, and this was made perfectly clear by stern Finnish bass-baritone Tuomas Pursio, who was nevertheless still trying and failing to bring some normalcy into a situation that was anything but. 
Irano-Dutch soprano Lilian Farahani was achingly efficient as the young bride merrily celebrating her new life and her new family before the harsh truth brutally and irrevocably crushes her happy ending. 
As for her new husband, baby-faced but powerful-voiced Finnish tenor Markus Nykänen confidently went from unabashedly looking forward to the future to torn by unbearable guilt and despair. 
Germano-Finnish bass-baritone Jukka Rasilainen was terrific as the heart-breaking priest who had lost his faith, but nevertheless remained the only friend and significant support of the ill-fated family. 
American soprano Lucy Shelton was deeply moving as the teacher who did not realize what was going on until it was too late, and subsequently had to renounce teaching out of excruciating guilt. 
The six young artists impersonating the international students all did an excellent job, whether they were acting, speaking or singing, but a special mention has to be made of young Czech folk singer Vilma Jää who, with her crystalline voice and otherworldly presence, was a truly outstanding Markéta. 
Although they were not visible, the members of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir provided a subtle touch of hauntingness to the performance. 

The homogenous cast was in fine form indeed, but the whole enterprise would not have succeeded so well if they had not benefitted from really ingenious staging. As it was, the various rooms distributed on the two levels of the continuously rotating, labyrinthic set allowed for seamless transitioning of past and present scenes as time inexorably went on. While such a concept could have easily brought confusion, in this case it was cleverly putting all the pieces of the puzzle together one by one like clockwork. 
By converting and emptying the various spaces until only a few symbolic touches remained (empty walls, dispersed corpses, blood stains), the Australian director Simon Stone helped the story steadily progress from the boisterous wedding party to the timidly hopeful conclusion, peppering it with memorable scenes such as Markéta’s first eerie appearance to her mother, or the quiet horror of the school shooting slowly unfolding with neither gun shots nor shooter, or the many consequence-heavy confrontations that left nobody intact. 
The ambitious score was both predictable and surprising in its boldly unusual and highly successful combination of textures, harmonies and colors that were conveyed by a wide range of techniques. Saariaho’s ever-inquisitive mind had obviously been at work again, and the result was fascinating. Throughout the evening, the story peeled off its many different layers, the characters revealed uncomfortable truths, and universal questions about innocence and guilt were raised. 
A staunch contemporary music advocate, and also Saariaho’s long-time partner in wild adventures, prominent Finnish maestra Susanna Mälkki led the reliably fabulous London Symphony Orchestra in a performance that was as pointedly multi-faceted and vividly human as the work itself. It can't have been an easy feat to keep the remarkably complex, dense-in-its-transparency music going for almost two hours, but they handled it like the true pros they are. 

The ovation was deservedly long and loud, and went up a few notches when pretty much everybody got up to greet a frail but smiling Kaija Saariaho as she was wheeled on the stage by Vilma Jää. By all accounts, she had done it again.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Festival international d'art lyrique - Le nozze di Figaro - 07/05/21

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 
Librettist: Lorenzo da Ponte 
Balthasar Neumann Ensemble 
Conductor: Thomas Hengelbrock 
Producer/Director: Lotte de Beer 
Andrè Schuen: Figaro 
Julie Fuchs: Susanna 
Gyula Orendt: Count Almaviva 
Jacquelyn Wagner: Countess Almaviva 
Lea Desandre: Cherubino 
Monica Bacelli: Marcellina 
Maurizio Muraro: Bartolo 
Choir: Chœur du CNRR de Marseille 

In normal times (Remember those?), if you were an opera buff and a Francophile, summer’s arrival could only mean one thing: It was time to pack up and head for Aix-en-Provence and its Festival international d’art lyrique (International Festival of Lyrical Art). Since its modest beginning in 1947 with a few low-key concerts and one opera (the little-known at the time Cosí fan tutte) the event has constantly evolved to nowadays present prestigious orchestras, world-famous artists, and numerous ground-breaking productions ranging from modern takes on war horses to specially commissioned works. 
This year again, the program does not lack ambition or eclecticism, plus a long list of strictly enforced “health and safety” rules, lingering pandemic oblige. But then again, what rules wouldn’t we follow to hear some live music again? Therefore, back in the spring, my mom and I wasted no time getting tickets for Le nozze di Figaro because, obviously, how could we go wrong with Mozart? Our next steps were getting our vaccines, and then keeping our fingers and toes solidly crossed until D-Day. All accomplished.
Truth be told, my relationship with Mozart’s beloved opera buffa has been a tad ambivalent. While I’ve always been in awe of the flawless score (Who isn’t?), I’ve also kind of resented the fact that, when faced with her husband’s unsavory intentions towards her own maid, the lovely countess does nothing but laments, and then forgives. Even before our long-overdue #MeToo era, this had always felt wrong. Was it too much to ask to have her kick the bastard out, or at the very least take a hot young lover of her own? 
Over two centuries later, enters fast-rising Dutch director Lotte de Beer and the promise of a feminist take on the misogynistic tale. So, it was with great expectations that we took our amazing seats among a bunch of German tourists in the festival’s most iconic venue, the wonderfully intimate Théâtre de l’Archevêché, in the courtyard of the imposing 14th-century palace of the city’s former archbishop, at the ungodly hour of 9:30 PM last Monday night. 

Based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ 1784 stage comedy La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro (The Mad Day, or The Marriage of Figaro), Le nozze di Figaro was the first of three landmark Mozart-da Ponte collaborations, which would later include no less than Don Giovanni et Cosí fan tutte. Although it was only a critical success in Vienna, it soon became a huge hit in Prague, helping Mozart reach the rockstar status that he still holds there, and the rest has been history, as the almost-packed-despite-all-the-restrictions theater confirmed on Monday night. 
As if to underline that this production was indeed women-focused, the female singers turned out to be remarkably compelling, starting with French soprano Julie Fuchs, whose delightfully canny Susanna never stopped running around trying to do her job and to escape the count without missing a beat… or a note. 
American soprano Jacquelyn Wagner handled the unforgiving role of the hapless Countess Almaviva with much grace and commitment, and an exceptionally meticulous phrasing. From her first appearance, in an aerobics outfit that would have made Jane Fonda proud, to the sublime, high road-taking “Più docile io sono”, she made a memorable impression. 
I have never been a fan of trouser role, but I sure was internally cheering for Franco-Italian mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre every time she showed up and sang as the wide-eyed, totally endearing Cherubino. 
Last, but not least, Italian mezzo-soprano Monica Bacelli expertly rounded up the female cast as a no-nonsense Marcellina. 
While the ladies deeply impressed, the men effortlessly fit the bill as well. Romano-Hungarian baritone Gyula Orendt was clearly having a field day as the lecherous Count Almaviva, the relentless predator that we all love to hate. In fact, the singer had such a charismatic presence, unflappable comic timing, in addition to a solid and flexible voice, that he made it hard for us to dismiss his character as just another jerk. 
Not to be outdone, his direct rival, the assertive and dignified Figaro, immensely benefitted from Italian baritone Andrè Schuen's vocal talent and strong personality, as well as his easy chemistry with the vivacious Susanna, at least until jealousy got the best of him. 
Italian bass Maurizio Muraro was a wonderful Bartolo in his smaller but essential role. 
The chorus, from Marseille, fit in seamlessly in what ended up being a mad performance of the infamous “Mad Day”. 

While the cast was highly competent in their various roles, the modern and resolutely farce-oriented production, introduced by a frantic commedia dell’arte-flavored overture, quickly proved to be frustratingly uneven. As much as I appreciated the fact that de Beer had whole-heartedly thrown herself into the exciting endeavor with a vivid imagination and a palpable sense of purpose, I also often felt that her generally commendable output was in dire need of some serious editing. 
For each brilliant idea, and there were for sure plenty of those, like the countess’ wide range of suicide attempts and failures, or the hot iron symbolizing burning desire, or the transgenerational female bonding over knitting (pussy hats?), there was a gag that was irrelevant, too heavy-handed, or simply not funny, like a bunch of cheerleaders coming out of the blue, or countless doors being incessantly slammed (Slapstick anyone?), or some good old raunchiness that overstayed its welcome (The huge, inflatable, multicolored tree made of phalluses slowly unfolding at the end was not as innovative as it looked. Yayoi Kusama thought of it first and better). 
I mean, did we really need a cream pie-throwing stunt during the ultimate feat of complexity and finesse that is the legendary sextet? That is one example of the main problem: While all the breathless agitation was going on in the admittedly smart, sitcom-worthy set of the first two acts, and then slowed down on the bare stage occupied by a large conjugal bed encased in the glass cage that was holding the countess prisoner (Get it?) and the subsequent make-shift forest, it was hard for Mozart’s magnificent score to receive all the attention it so richly deserves. 
It was all the more regrettable that down in the pit the German Balthasar Neumann Ensemble did an outstanding job under the baton of Thomas Hengelbrock. From the dazzling overture to the superb finale, from the show-stopping arias to the extraordinary ensembles, the maestro and his musicians joined the singers to deliver a performance whose confident warmth, elegance and wit more often than not stood out in stark contrast to all the forced entertainment raging above them. And just that was worth the (stiff) price of admission. 

That said, after having stumbled back into the real world at 1:30 AM, during the 5-minute walk and then the 5 flights of stairs leading to my apartment, we had to admit that there was no denying the pure joy of hearing beautiful music on a beautiful summer night in a beautiful Provençal town.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Festival des écrivains du sud - L'écriture, c'est la vie ! - 06/27/21

Francis Poulenc: Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano, FP 43
Johannes Brahms: Horn trio, Op. 40
Georges Enescu: Légende
Robert Schumann: Fantasiestücke for cello and piano, Op. 73
Rober Boutry : Fanfare pour des temps légendaires pour trois trompettes
Vincent d’Indy: Trio for clarinet, cello and Piano Op. 29

So… where was I? Not even close to where I am now, that’s for sure.
Isn’t it amazing what a difference a global pandemic, a bunch of lockdowns, an intercontinental move and a new job can make! And to think it is not quite over just yet.
When I left Carnegie Hall on the evening of March 8, 2020, happily dazzled for the third time in four days by the combined virtuosic powers of Emmanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos and Yo-Yo Maand Beethoven, of courselittle did I suspect that it would be the last live performance I would attend in one year, three months and nineteen days. But then again, who’s counting?
Needless to say, reality quickly caught up with me and the rest of the world, and the period of time between then and now rapidly became a weird mix of inertia, frustration, turmoil and hope, although thankfully never personal tragedy.
Moreover, having a natural aversion to canned music and a fickle Internet connection of late essentially meant that, beside successfully streaming the Metropolitan Opera’s At-Home Gala live over a year ago—For the record, not (just) because, as my friend Dawn kept on pointing out, I am an incorrigible voyeurand stumbling across a few buskers here and there, those were exceptionally quiet 1000+ days (and nights).
And then, last Sunday evening, after having ended a glorious decade in New York City and spent the last seven months in Aix-en-Provence, I finally sat down in the mostly packed (so much for social distancing) outdoors square of the so cool Méjanes Public Library (a former matches’ factory, of all things) of Provence’s historic capital with my friend Jacqueline for (Gasp!) a live—and free—concert.
The long-overdue treat was the musical performance that would be closing the three-day Festival des Écrivains du Sud (Festival of Southern Writers) whose focus this year was “L’écriture, c’est la vie !” (Writing is life. How French!)
The young musicians came from the nearby Institut d’Enseignement Supérieur de la Musique – Europe et Méditerranée (Institute of Higher Music Studies – Europe et Mediterranean) and the one-hour (not including the unavoidable opening speeches) intermission-free program was an interesting smorgasbord of pieces crisscrossing time and space. Not that we were going to be picky anyway. As they say, beggars cannot be choosers.
As if to set a joyful tone for this eagerly awaited occasion, Francis Poulenc’s Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano, kicked things off with an irresistibly playful presto, which was readily followed by an organically soulful andante. Although they had to contend with the daunting honor of opening the concert and the stress of having their sheet music occasionally swept by a mischievous wind, Chloé Silvestri, Victor Cariou and Adrien Avezard overcame all those challenges and more with plenty of flair and, well, gusto.
Seeing my beloved Brahms in the playlist obviously made the program extra special for me. Even better, although only one movement was mentioned on the flyer, we got to enjoyed both the adagio mesto and the allegro con brio of his Horn trio. That would be our only opportunity to hear the unabashedly beautiful sound of the violin that evening, and by design or not Giulia Deschamps made sure it would be a truly memorable one. Not to be outdone, Caroline Roussel and Marianne Billaud also brilliantly contributed to the highly melodic piece.
Moldovia-born and French-educated Georges Enescu is well-known for his original style, as his trumpet-starring composition Légende (Legend) clearly attests. And with committed performers such as Marine Mercier Landry and Noémie Versaeilie, the experience could not have been more thrilling. Seriously, who knew the trumpet was so versatile?
Back to the traditional repertoire, the three individual components of Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke may have been originally written for clarinet and piano, but on Sunday it was their version for cello and piano that allowed the winning duo of Naïlis Potet and Bernardo Virgen Barragan to express the engaging vignettes’ wide range of moods all the way to the exuberant finale.
French pianist, conductor and composer Roger Boutry’s Fanfare pour des temps légendaires pour trois trompettes had the unusual advantage of gathering together three remarkable trumpetists, in this case Marine Mercier Landry, Pierrot Buliard and Guillaume Barbe, for a piece that had so many seemingly false starts that even the surrounding cicadas got tired of it and decided to loudly show everybody how a coherent composition is done. So there.
Vincent d’Indy got to close our musical evening with the overture of his attractive Trio for clarinet, cello and piano. A contemporary of Debussy, he wrote a multifaceted work that would have made his more famous fellow impressionist French composer proud. And that’s not the glowing performance of it by Yvan Guerra, Yvane Denis and Lٞéa Garnier that would have showed them otherwise.

Before we knew it, the hour had passed and we were done, and already ready for more. So bring it on already.