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) 
Improvisation 
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) 
Improvisation 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G Minor (First movement) 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: A Musical Joke, K. 522 (Fourth movement) 
Improvisation 
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.