Vive la Musique!

Spending  part of the summer in central France has constituted our annual vacation for several years now. We enjoy the peaceful atmosphere, the beautiful scenery, and the cooler weather. If there are any musical events we are happy to attend them, but they are not the main reason for our choice of location.

This year, however, there has been more music on offer in the Limousin region than ever before, although some of it goes beyond our definition of music in the traditional and perhaps somewhat narrow sense.

Every summer several members of the Paris Symphony Orchestra spend time in the region, from which some of them originate, and offer concerts to the public at large. The program of the one we attended in the nearby mediaeval church situated at Chambon sur Voueize consisted of instrumental works by Mozart and Vivaldi as well as two pieces for soprano by Handel and Caccini. The crystalline voice of the talented young soprano, Andrea Constantin, was enhanced by the excellent acoustics of the church, with its high, vaulted ceiling. The packed audience gave each piece an enthusiastic reception, applauding between the movements of Mozart’s clarinet concerto as well as at the end of each piece.

At one point the cellist who leads the ensemble, which consists primarily of several members of the orchestra’s string section, announced that they would be playing a surprise item, and went on to say that we would be hearing three pieces by Giora Feidman. The name is familiar to many Israelis as that of the man who has made klezmer (traditional Eastern European Jewish) music popular. Sure enough, the clarinettist who had starred in the Mozart concerto returned to the stage and proceeded to get the audience tapping its feet to the rhythmic and sometimes emotional music. It felt slightly strange to hearklezmer music in a church, but the audience gave it a decidedly enthusiastic reception and we certainly enjoyed it.

A few days later the same ensemble was due to give a concert of chamber music gems in the Orangerie of the nearby Boussac chateau. The structure itself was adorned with the stuffed heads of the various animals that the master of the chateau must have once hunted, as well as with some beautiful tapestries, which are produced locally.

The programme turned out to be a selection of individual movements from quartets and quintets by Borodin, Boccherini, Dvorak and Haydn, ending with the first movement of Schubert’s sublime quintet in C major. To hear it is to share the ecstasy and agony of Schubert’s short life, but to hear just one movement without the continuation is tantamount to being allowed to see the Promised Land from the mountain-top but not to enter into it. Still, it was an enjoyable evening, and we appreciated being able to partake of these precious gems in that very special environment.

In recent years an enterprising resident of a nearby village, with the support of the regional administration, has organised an annual music festival focusing on contemporary and world music of various kinds. Since one such concert was given in the church that is opposite our house I decided to venture forth and risk my sanity by attending a concert of experimental music for string quartet. To my surprise, the little church, which usually stands empty, was packed full with enthusiasts for this kind of music. The first piece consisted of the cellist playing some kind of music on the stage, while the three other instruments played occasional, seemingly random, notes off-stage. My first impression was of cats mating, but I confess to taking a jaundiced view of such music, and I wondered how any of them knew what to play and when since there was no contact between them.

For the second piece, however, all four musicians were on stage, and the piece (whose composer’s name I did not catch) consisted of their playing a somewhat monotonous tune by plucking the strings of their instruments. There was a melodic element, and after a while the monotony had a kind of hypnotic effect, which even found its way into my hardened heart. In a later piece, an elegiac melody for strings called ‘For Elise,’ the tender mood was shattered by the church bells striking the hour (four o’clock). When the piece ended the cellist said ‘I want to play it again,’ which they promptly did, to great applause. The concert ended with a piece by an American composer called Golden who hails from Alabama, and one could definitely detect elements of southern rhythms and negro spirituals in among the various sounds produced by the instruments.

The concert ended before the church bells could cause any more disturbances, and the members of the audience filed out of the church into the pale sunshine and were offered a drink of juice or wine. I hurried home, feeling badly in need of a reviving cup of coffee, and pleased at having exposed myself to a new and not completely unwelcome experience.