Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Saoû Chante Mozart - Mozart & Weber - 07/22/23

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Andante in F Major arranged for Flute, Violin and Viola, KV. 616 
Carl Maria von Weber: Clarinet Quintet in B-flat Major, Opus 34 (Fantasia and Rondo) 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Flute Quartet in A Major for Flute, Violin, Viola and Cello, K. 298 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Clarinet Quintet, K. 581 
Philippe Bernold: Flute 
Philippe Berrod: Clarinet 
Marc Coppey: Cello 
Mario Hossen: Violin 
Richard Schmoucler: Violin 
Grégoire Vecchioni: Viola 

From die-hard music lovers to mere music dilettantes, summer in Drôme provençale means at least one stop at the Saoû Chante Mozart festival, the highly regarded classical music feast whose popularity has never failed to increase in its 34 years of existence. Moreover, it got high praise, at least from my mom, when it managed to successfully put up some carefully organized outdoors concerts during the pandemic summers. Now, is that dedication or what? 
Unlike, my mom who dutifully went to most of the performances (Ah, to be retired in Southern France!), I have a more selective approach and a busier schedule, so I decided to save my time and energy for the one program I simply couldn’t do without, the concert featuring Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet at the Château d’Eurre, a smallish but stylish castle still standing in the lavender fields right outside the pretty village of Saoû and occupied by two very lucky families, last Saturday evening at the highly civilized time of 8 P.M. 
That also gave us the opportunity to take in a very pleasant ride on the nonchalantly winding road in the local countryside, and even indulge in yummy blackcurrant ice-cream in front of the castle, garden-party style, never mind that the lavender had already been harvested and the remains were definitely not attractive. It would have taken more than scrawny fields to kill the festive mood, and there was with a lot of giddiness when we sat down in the elegant courtyard to the unescapable sounds of the tireless crickets outside. 

Although he “hated that job and could not finish it”, Mozart eventually delivered a very nice work for Count von Deym’s cabinet of wax sculptures in Vienna just a few months before his death. On Saturday evening, it provided a delightful introduction to the concert as well as a not-to-be-missed chance to marvel at the sterling musicianship of Philippe Bernold, who is not only one of France’s top flutists, but the intrepid artistic director of the festival as well. 
The next piece was not by Mozart, but close enough since Carl Maria von Weber was one of his wife’s cousins, and his Clarinet Quintet was certainly dazzling enough to be featured in the program. We only got two movements of it, but what movements! While the closing Rondo was bright and high-spirited, it is the Fantasia that caught everybody’s attention and confidently kept it. Suffice to say, it has not been called “one of the most beautiful pieces ever written for the clarinet” for nothing. 
After a short intermission during which we did not even bother getting out, everybody was back for Mozart’s happy-go-lucky Flute Quartet in A Major for Flute, Violin, Viola and Cello, which turned out to be a nice, short and sweet treat that was almost as refreshing and tasty as the ice-cream we had enjoyed earlier. 
But the high point of the evening had to be Mozart’s glorious Clarinet Quintet, the first, and maybe still the best, major composition that perfectly incorporated the clarinet into the traditional string quartet. Tellingly enough, it was the only composition without a related blurb in the printed program, appearing only on the cover with one word: “sublime”. And what else is there to say, really? 
Although I am not a particular fan of the clarinet, I am a huge fan of that Clarinet Quartet and was thrilled at the prospect of experiencing it then and there. There was a lot of eminent musicians on the stage on Saturday night, but as far as I am concerned, having long-established clarinet virtuoso Philippe Berrod grace us with his superlative talent while clearly having a ball himself was the blazing highlight of the performance. 

In fact, it was such an undisputed peak that the musicians decided not to extend the evening with an encore despite our long and loud request. So we left, walked through the all lit-up village square where plenty of festivities were still going strong, and took the nonchalantly winding road back to Dieulefit in total darkness but for the car’s lights this time, a spooky but relaxing way to end our Saturday night.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Journées Musicales de Dieulefit - Strauss & Schubert - 07/18/23

Richard Strauss: Sonata for Cello and Piano in F Major, Opus 6 
Franz Schubert: Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat Major for Piano, Violin, and Cello, D. 929 (Opus 100) 
François Daudet: Piano 
David Louwerse: Cello 
Virginie Robillard: Violin 

Twenty-four hours after indulging in a blazing performance of Baroque masterpieces on Monday, my mom and I were back in Dieulefit’s intimate and packed  ̶  which, of course, also meant sweltering  ̶  Église Saint-Pierre for the third and last concert of the village’s annual mini festival “Journées Musicales de Dieulefit”, this time to enjoy a Romantic evening with Richard Strauss and Franz Schubert courtesy of the mighty trio of François Daudet, David Louwerse and Virginie Robillard. As Daudet himself had pointed out to us earlier, this would be a less brainy, but still challenging endeavor. 
And that’s how on Tuesday evening we found ourselves in the same seats, after making sure to have the proper information this time, amidst apparently much of the same audience, at the same ungodly hour of 9:00 P.M. This time, however, we caught a glimpse of our friend Michèle, understandably only too happy to get a break from preparing her big moving-out sale, before meeting her for lunch the next day to compare notes. Great minds do think alike. 

Richard Strauss being one of my favorite composers, I was excited about checking out one of his works in the superior company of François Daudet and his long-time companion in music, cellist extraordinaire David Louwerse. Written when Strauss was still a teenager, his Sonata for Cello and Piano is a full and delectable immersion in Late Romanticism, freely overflowing with big emotions, intense lyricism and carefree exuberance. One is only young once! The three movements were masterly put together and just as masterly executed, but I must tip my hat off to the second one whose glowing beauty was simply magical. 
After the well-deserved intermission, during which we enjoyed peace and quiet and space inside while most people were outside, Virginie Robillard joined her two frequent partners for Schubert’s voluptuously sprawling Piano Trio No. 2, which the composer wrapped up shortly before his untimely death. Clocking in at roughly 50 minutes, the piece requires not only technical skills and emotional commitment, but plenty of stamina as well. On Tuesday night, our three musicians had it all, and readily delivered an exceptionally well-balanced and all-around gorgeous performance. 
That said, I will admit that the cello did stand out whenever the stunning main theme of the second movement, based on a Swedish folk song of all things, appeared. The haunting melody is in fact familiar to many unsuspecting people since, being a certified earworm, it has incidentally popped up countless times in popular culture over the decades, including in films as diverse as Barry Lindon, The Hunger and The Pianist. And sure enough, after hearing Louwerse’s magnificent take on it on Tuesday, never mind the stubbornly sticky strings he had to put up with, I had it stuck in my head for the rest of the week, with all my gratitude. 

As we were all basking in a heavenly romantic mood while vigorously asking for more, the musicians came back for a most appropriate encore: The slow movement of Felix Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 1, which concluded the concert, and the festival, on a truly lovely note.

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Journées Musicales de Dieulefit - All-Bach - 07/17/23

Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonata No. 1 in B Minor, BWV 1014 
Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonata No. 2 in A Major, BWV 1015 
Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonata No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1016 
Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonata No. 4 in C Major, BWV 1017 
Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonata No. 5 in F Minor, BWV 1018 
Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonata No. 6 in G Major, BWV 1019
François Daudet: Piano 
Virginie Robillard: Violin

Even if it does not have the charming rusticity of Provence or the dazzling glamour of the French Riviera, I have to say the Drôme region has turned out to be a pretty happening place this summer. After all, this is where, after enjoying two wonderful concerts in the lovely Chapelle Saint Jean outside Crupie, my mom and I almost got to see the sold-out performance of Molière’s L’avare in the courtyard of the Madame de Sévigné’s famous castle in Grignan, if only Mother Nature hadn’t suddenly decided otherwise and unceremoniously threw an all too real show of thunder and lightning our way, effectively canceling a performance for only the second time this season. 
Things got better on Bastille Day though, thanks to a sweet, short and fun cello & viola concert by adventurous local artists Anne-Charlotte Dupas and Chloé Parisot, who contributed their own colorful bouquet of fireworks, including Rebecca Clark, George Handel, Witold Lutoslawski, Paul Hindemith, and my two favorites, a prelude by Shostakovich and Beethoven’s eyeglass duo, to a festive apéritif at the friendly cafe Le Bar & Vous in Dieulefit. 
Still in Dieulefit, the highly popular annual “Journées Musicales de Dieulefit” concert series organized by the Chemins de Pierre association got going last Sunday, and my mom and I decided to go check out the all-Bach program presented by old timers François Daudet and Virginie Robilliard in the cozy, crowded and hot, but still undisputedly welcoming, Église Saint Pierre on Monday evening. Even better, seeing our old friend Ginette in the crowded space and being able to catch up with her during intermission certainly made up for the frustrated confusion created by the fact that our long-ago purchased tickets for assigned seats did not actually have seat numbers on them (Le sigh). 

Bach is generally considered one of the most remarkable composers who has ever lived, and his body of work reputedly contains some of the biggest challenges in classical music. Undaunted, pianist François Daudet, a much in-demand musician as well as the artistic director of the Chemins de Pierre association, and violinist Virginie Robilliard, who was praised for both her “impeccable technique” and her “soul” by our host for the evening, were there to tackle Bach’s six sonatas for piano and violin in one evening, and all I could say was: More power to them! 
The biggest surprise for me as I was listening to those indeed all-around brilliant works on Monday evening, was to notice some unsuspected qualities in them, such as the delicate lyricism of the slow movements and the infectious exuberance of the fast ones, kind of like Bach à litalienne. Although they cannot fail to impress for their relentless complexity, those perfectly balanced little miracles also proved that they have clear structures, gracious melodies, and just sheer beauty, which make them easily accessible to all. 
Of course, we were also lucky to have two prodigiously talented and fiercely committed musicians bringing them to life for us. Daudet and Robillard are used to playing together in Dieulefit every summer, and their long-standing professional relationship no doubt contributed to the blazing performance they delivered on Monday evening. As the violinist, Robillard stood by default in the foreground, where the force and grace she consistently displayed under pressure effortlessly held everybody’s attention. Right behind her, Daudet confidently held his own, making sure to nail his solo star turn when the time had come for it during the last, but not least, sonata. 

And then the question was: What can you play after Bach? Well, more Bach, of course. And that’s just what they did, with a repeat performance of the very first movement that kick-started our evening. And then it was time to leave the hopping church and venture into the real world on a pitch dark and eerily quiet village, energy savings oblige.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Association de la Chapelle Saint Jean - Berg, Fradet & Guénand - Handel, Shostakovich & Ducros - 07/09/23

George Frederick Handel: Sonata in G Minor, Op. 2, No. 8 
Dmitri Shostakovich: Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano 
Jérôme Ducros: Trio for Two Cellos and Piano 
Mylène Berg: Piano 
Anna Fradet: Cello 
Augustin Guénand: Cello 

Thoroughly enchanted by our bass & cello evening of the previous Sunday, my mom and I eagerly went back to the little chapel on the little hill outside the little village of Crupie last Sunday evening, this time for the equally unusual combination of two cellos and a piano, and a promising program featuring new versions of works by George Frederick Handel and Dmitri Shostakovich, as well as the wild card that would be local contemporary pianist and composer Jérôme Ducros. 
It had been an eventful week filled with business and pleasure, so we were looking forward to a relaxing Sunday evening despite the overbearing summer heat that had suddenly fallen upon us and was obviously there to stay. But we had to quickly adjust our expectations at the sight of countless cars already parked in the designated open field, and many people lining up for tickets. It sure seemed like the waves of tourists that had lately been invading Dieulefit and its surroundings had even made it as far as blissfully inconspicuous Crupie. On the other hand, who could blame them? 
Inevitably, the chapel filled up quickly, and just as inevitably, the air was already hot and muggy when the three young yet seasoned musicians took the stage, and not a moment too soon either, as the repeated sciatica story of the voluble Marseillais concert-goer behind me was really starting to get old. 

The first piece was an arrangement of Handel’s Sonata in G Minor, Op. 2, No. 8 for two violins and basso continuo, and while I had never heard the Baroque original, I was ready to bet that it could not have sounded much better than the genuinely attractive take on it performed in remarkable unison that we got to enjoy on Sunday. We were off to a good start. 
While I had always admired Shostakovich’s music for its stark darkness, uncompromising intensity and bold modernism, I had never thought of him as a Romantic. Well, I do now, after hearing his deeply lyrical and wonderfully refined Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano, which had been arranged for two cellos and piano, and included a prelude, a gavotte, an elegy, a waltz and a polka. These irresistibly cinematographic vignettes were handled with plenty of entrain and humor by the trio, which was clearly having a ball. They also accomplished something I thought impossible: Associating Shostakovich with fun. 
After those two terrific smaller pieces, the musicians had to take a few minutes to regroup and tune up again as the humidity was playing tricks on their constitutions and their strings, before tackling the mystère du jour: Jérôme Ducros’ Trio for Two Cellos and Piano, which turned out to be an ambitious and sprawling work in three movements that confidently unfolded with big, splashy Romantic waves, highly agitated spells and delicately crafted rêveries à la Brahms or Rachmaninov, neatly combining beloved traditions and exciting innovation in the process. 
In fact, the wild roller-coaster that was the first movement was so engrossing that the audience spontaneously broke into frenetic clapping at the end of it, providing an unexpected break to the over-heating musicians, who actually looked grateful for it. Concert etiquette be damn! And then they valiantly resumed their marathon, which they vigorously carried on all the way to the finish line. They may have broken a sweat, but it all paid off in the end. 

After the official program was over, it is probably fair to say that we were all dying as much for fresh air as for more musical treats. Fortunately, the trio decided to soldier on for one encore, a truly delightful instrumental version of the Barcarolle from Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffman. Although invited to sing along, we thankfully abstained for the most part, except for the woman sitting at my right, whose not particularly in tune but admittedly discreet humming did not even manage to spoil the pure magic of the moment.

Friday, July 7, 2023

Association de la Chapelle Saint Jean - Hors des sentiers battus - Pasa Calle - 07/02/23

Jean-Baptiste Morel & Marion Picot: Preamble according to Bach choral music 
Nassam alayna el hawa (Traditional Lebanese song) 
Giuseppe Maria Jacchini: Sonata in A Minor for Cello and Basso Continuo 
Uskudar’a gider iken (Traditional Istanbul song) 
Bela Bartok: String Quartet No. 6 – Third Movement 
Cholzony od Jozefa (Traditional Polish song) 
Mordechai Gebirtig: Yankele
Maritime improvisations 
André Klénès: La rose des vents 
Eduardo Arolas: La cachila 
Jean-Baptiste Morel & Marion Picot: Inukjuak
Jean-Baptiste Morel: Bass
Marion Picot: Cello

Time has been flying as I have been having fun (and a few passing frustrations) traveling through Italy and France for the past couple of months. But while touring various cities, towns and villages have been richly rewarding in terms of visual and gastronomical pleasures, live music has been sorely missing in my life, essentially due to limited offerings, bad timing, as well as professional and personal obligations. 
Finally back in Dieulefit for a while, and just as the summer concert season was shifting into high gear too, the time had come to get down to business. Hence, my mom and I spent quality time carefully reviewing local cultural programs, occasionally lamenting the conflicting schedules of equally attractive events, and eventually coming up with a few alluring prospects. 
Last Sunday was one of those days where three tempting musical happenings were scheduled at 6:00 PM in three different locations. Our choice, however, quickly turned to Pasa Calle and its promise of a special journey from Europe to the New World and beyond, courtesy of bassist Jean-Baptiste Morel and cellist Marion Picot, AKA Hors des sentiers battus (Off the Beaten Track), in the endearingly petite and exquisitely restored Chapelle Saint Jean, standing proudly on its wind-swept little hill outside Crupie, a tiny community that makes Dieulefit look like a hectic metropolis. 
We could hardly think of a better way to spend our Sunday evening, and apparently neither did the rest of the small but dedicated crowd, which counted about as many Dutch nationals as French locals. The bucolic setting, the gorgeous weather, the light-filled chapel, the respectful audience, and the promising program, all contributed in making us feel that we had made the right choice. 
The actual playlist, which had not been available until we got there as if to test our spirit of adventure, contained a highly unusual mix of original and reworked compositions from a wide range of times and places—the repertoire for bass and cello being rather limited—and would be accompanied throughout the performance by insightful introductions provided by Morel. So we all buckled up and got ready to enjoy the ride.
We took off with a piece written by Hors des sentiers battus based on Bach’s choral music, and sure enough, the duo wasted no time proving not only their compositional skills, but also their musical chops, as well as the excellent acoustics of the intimate space. The combination of cello and bass sounded even more exciting live than it had on paper, the vibrant spirit of the former counterbalancing brilliantly the darker hues of the latter. 
Just when we thought it could not get any better, the two musicians transitioned seamlessly into “Nassam alayna el hawa” (The breeze blew upon us), a popular traditional Lebanese song whose best-known version is probably the one by superstar singer Fairouz. Moving from German rigorous exactness to middle-eastern exotic entrain cannot be an easy task, but on Sunday evening it was effortlessly accomplished. 
Next, we jumped to Bologna, Italy, with Giuseppe Maria Jacchini, eminent Baroque cellist and composer, who tirelessly promoted the use of the cello as solo instrument (Bless his heart!). Vaguely reminiscent of Vivaldi’s infectious joie de vivre yet resolutely standing on its own, the sonata made smart and truly persuasive use of the instrumental combination. 
From late 17th-century Italy we moved to 16th-century Vienna, Austria, as the Ottoman empire was indefatigably trying to take over the city, and the Turkish army was routinely launching into a türkü through which they expressed their ever-present desire to “go to Uskudar” (Uskudar’a gider iken), a district of Istanbul, their longed-for hometown where East meets West. Since then, the catchy tune has been famously adapted throughout the world, including the superbly soulful version we heard on Sunday. 
Although he was not mentioned in the printed program, 19th-century Hungarian composer Bela Bartok made a surprise appearance with the “Burlesque” movement of his sixth (and last) string quartet. Updated for cello and bass, his trademark Gypsy-flavored music did not lose any of its rusticity or vivaciousness. 
Sticking to Eastern Europe, we then got to happily indulge in a traditional Polish song with “Cholzony od Jozefa”, the kind of happy-go-lucky music played at wedding celebrations, as well as a Yiddish foray into the boundless imagination of Polish poet and songwriter, and holocaust martyr, Mordechai Gebirtig. 
After barely a pause, we went on a search for more exotic fare, sailing away to the sounds of some deceitfully hypnotic maritime improvisations, before Belgian contemporary composer and bass player André Klénès provided the impressionistic touch of the evening with his delightful “Rose des vents”. 
We eventually made it to Argentina for—What else?—some hot tango courtesy of Eduardo Arolas and his “Cachila”, “small bird” in high-brow language and “old car” in low-brow language. Regardless of the intended meaning, Morel and Picot’s version stood out for originality and appeal. 
From South America we flew all the way up to the Canadian Artic with Hors des sentiers battus’s “Inukjuak”. Based on the 1922 Franco-American silent film Nanook from the North by Robert Flaherty, cello and bass made truly beautiful music together evoking the stark beauty and unforgiving harshness of the Nordic landscape. 

Ralph Emerson once said that the voyage is the destination, and on Sunday evening, the audience got to experience a fabulously eclectic voyage thanks to our endlessly resourceful and virtuosic guides. As for the parting gift, the fearless duo evoked sunny and warm Algeria with the tango-infused chaabi song “Ana el warka” (I am a leaf), which concluded the concert on a dazzling and uplifting note.