Magic in the moonlight

In a little valley near the village of Cazedarnes, hidden away from sight, lies the Abbaye de Fontcaude.  This monastery was founded in 1179 as a Premonstratensian monastery, and stayed in the possession of the Premonstratensian Order until the dissolution of the monastery during the French Revolution, in 1791.  Today the buildings of the former monastery are in private ownership, and members of an association, the friends of Fontcaude Abbey, have been working on restoring what is left of the monastic buildings.  The church and remains of the cloisters are now open to the public throughout the year.  It is well worth driving down the winding roads to the hamlet of Fontcaude, and I will write about a visit to the abbey at a later date.

Fontcaude Abbey

My most recent visit was on the eve of the European Heritage weekend, which always takes place around September 21 each year.  It has become a tradition at Fontcaude that a concert is held at the abbey then, and this year the concert was by an ensemble called Aire y Fuego, air and fire.  The group was made up of two guitarists and two singers:  Ariane Wolhuter (soprano) and Philippe Mouratoglou (guitar) made up the “air duo”, and Sandra Hurtado-Ros (soprano) and Jean-Francois Ruiz (guitar) made up the “fire duo”.

The stage and seating were in the open air, against the magnificent backdrop of an old stone wall, with the apse of the Romanesque church to one side.

Backdrop at Fontcaude Abbey

It was a cool evening, and a lot of people had come prepared, dressed in warm jackets or carrying blankets.  As I sat waiting for the concert to start, I wished I had thought of more than just a scarf – but it turned out to be OK :).

The Aire y Fuego website describes the concert as follows:

Recital English and Spanish melodies
The passion for Spanish and English melodies, with the voices of two magnificent sopranos, is expressed here with talent and generosity in the duets with guitars : Ariane Wohlhuter, accompanied by Philippe Mouratoglou, sings John Dowland, Benjamin Britten, Dusan Bogdanovic and weaves ample arabesques under the Romanic vaults, and the Sevillane Sandra Hurtado-Ròs, with Jean-François Ruiz, inflames Manuel de Falla, Manuel Oltra, Antonio Machado and Federico Garcia Lorca’s songs… Air and Fire. It is an unforgettable moment !

An unforgettable moment it definitely was!!  Ariane Wolhuter sang the English songs with perfect diction and great interpretation.

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E-mail subscribers, please visit the website to view the videos in this post.

Sandra Hurtado-Ros’ interpretation of the Spanish songs was passionate and earthy – you could tell that she was living the songs she was singing.

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Both guitarists were fantastic, and the concert culminated with both duos singing and playing together.  Even the moon cooperated 🙂

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The concert was part of the 10th edition of the festival Les Troubadours chantent l’art roman en Languedoc Roussillon, which runs from May to October – watch out for next year’s edition!

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Below are three more videos to give you an idea of what a wonderful and magical  evening it was!

 

And then there’s music…

Music is as much part of the summer in Southern France as is the sound of the cicadas and the click of the petanque balls.  There are music festivals everywhere, ranging from the very large, such as the Festival de Radio France et Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillonto the more intimate, such as the Festival Pablo Casals in Prades, and to the modest, such as the classical music festival which was organised in Saint-Chinian this past July.

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The festival in Saint-Chinian took place for the first time this year – a week of concerts, nine in total, and all of them free to enter.  The programme was varied, and the music ranged from Baroque to modern classical music.  The concerts took place in two locations:  the Abbatiale, the former church of the former abbey, a beautiful room with plenty of space for concerts, and in the parish church of Saint-Chinian.  The concerts were all well attended and the next year’s edition of the festival is already being planned!

Hot on the heels of the music festival came the 5th Academie Musicale de St-Chinian, a week-long programme of lessons and workshops for students of the flute.  The academie  was based at the Maison du Parc, not all that far from my potager .  It was lovely to hear them all practising and rehearsing whilst I was working in the garden! 🙂  Having heard all those snippets of music, I was looking forward to the concert of the students at the end of the week.  Ahead of the student concert, there was a masterclass with Philippe Boucly, the solo flutist from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.  Following the masterclass he gave a mini recital, which was spectacular!

Here is a brief video clip of Philippe Boucly playing with Herve Hotier (flute) and Pierre Courthiade (piano).  The piece is the Concert Paraphrase of La Sonnambula Op. 42 by Franz Doppler.  E-mail subscribers, please visit the blog website to watch the video.

The concert given by the students and teachers that evening was wonderful too, and I am already looking forward to hearing them all again next year.

Walking past the open door to the parish church one day, I heard the sounds of the church organ.  I walked in and filmed a little video for you – only a little taster but you’ll get the idea.

The organ in Saint-Chinian is one of only three authentic 18th century organs in Herault, and it has been listed as an historic monument since 1976.  There is an extensive article on  Wikipedia (in French) about the instrument, with lots of technical detail, and here is another article in both French and English.  The organ is not a flamboyant or extravagant instrument to look at, but it has a beautiful sound, and it fills the church perfectly.  Bruno Fraisse and Henri Barthes, the former and present organists, produced a CD of the organ a few years ago.  You can also listen to the instrument during Sunday service, or at one of the concerts which are given occasionally.  The next concert is on September 6, 2015 at 4pm.

Another concert I recently visited took place in Serignan, where I went to see the exhibition of Pierre Regis Dides – see last week’s post.  The Regional Museum of Contemporary Art (MRAC) had the privilege of hosting this concert as part of the Festival Pablo Casals.  A Steinway concert piano had been set up in one of the galleries on the first floor of the museum, and the space was filled with chairs.  Those chairs were of course filled with listeners by the time the concert started.

The musicians were Bruno Pasquier (viola), Michel Lethiec (clarinet) and Yves Henry (piano).  Together they interpreted a programme of music by Mozart (Trio in E-flat major, K. 498), Schumann (Märchenbilder, Op. 113), Poulenc (Sonata for clarinet and piano, FP 184), Bruch (Pieces for clarinet, viola and piano, Op. 83) and Maratka (Sylinx).

The musicians’ love and passion for what they were playing was infectious!  Michel Lethiec played a solo piece called Sylinx, which was written for him in 2000.  In his introduction to the piece, he reminded the listeners that contemporary music is as important now as it was in Mozart’s time.  Audiences then were as little used to “new” music as we are now.  Mozart is “easy” to listen to for most of us nowadays, but it was probably fairly radical to the ears of people at the time.  Whilst I found the piece by Maratka to be challenging, it was also very rewarding to listen to.  Here is part of it – I hope you enjoy it too!

At the end of the concert, Michel Lethiec explained that he had to rush off to his next concert, as he is the musical director of the Pablo Casals festival.  He left Yves Henry to play another piece for us, a beautiful Chopin nocturne!!  What a lovely end to a great afternoon!

 

Let’s dance

On June 21st, the whole of France celebrates the Fete de la Musique, with parties and concerts everywhere – and who am I to miss out on a party!!?? 😀

So I rounded up a  few friends and together we went to Beziers to see what we could listen to!  We left fairly early, and as we walked from the underground car park up the Allees Paul Riquet, it became clear that we had arrived a little too early.  But still, it was good to be able to have a look around without missing anything!  The food stalls looked colourful and the smells were tantalising!!

We headed for Place de la Revolution, where the Sardanistes would be dancing later in the evening.  The plan was to have dinner at Brasserie du Palais, and be able to listen to the music and watch the dancers from the comfort of our table.  On the way to Place de la Revolution I came across some interesting details.

The atmosphere in Beziers was very summery and festive – lots of people out in the streets, all getting ready to party in one way or another!

Our meal at Brasserie du Palais was delicious!  A large plate of tapas to share, followed by great main courses, and nice desserts.

The restaurant takes its name from the former archbishop’s palace, which is just across the square, and today houses the local courts of justice.  Next to it is the cathedral, and we had a fine view of that from our table.

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We were just about finishing our desserts, when the musicians started to gather on the stage, and it wasn’t long before they struck up their first tune.

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And as soon as they started to play, the dancers appeared – at first only a few of them joined hands to form a small circle.

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Now a word about the music and dancing – the Sardana is a Catalan tradition, played on instruments of which a few are not found elsewhere in France or Europe.  The band is called “Cobla” and the dancers are called “Sardanistes”.  For the full explanation please have a look at the Wikipedia entry, which I think explains it all very well.

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I was watching in blissful ignorance, enjoying the uplifting sound of the music and watching the dancers with fascination.  It seemed as though anyone could join in, and the circle grew larger and larger, until it was all around the fountain and the square.  The steps seemed to be very simple – it was only later, when talking to a couple of the dancers, that I found out that there was a lot more to it! 🙂 .

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The band, as well as the dancers I spoke with, had come from Perpignan, where they had already performed earlier that day.  They explained that the Sardana is a traditional dance, as opposed to a folkloric dance, so nobody wears any special costumes.  Both the dancers were wearing the traditional espardenya shoes though – you’ll be able to see these shoes in the video below (e-mail subscribers, please visit the webpage to view the video).

 

Did you notice how the flute player also plays the tiny drum, which is strapped to his arm?  The double bass has only three strings, and its player is really going for it!  We sat and listened and watched, and enjoyed every minute of it!!

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It was getting dark and the lights came on, and with the whole square alive with music and dance, it was just magical.

When we had had our fill of the Sardana, we wandered over to the cathedral, where another concert was just coming to the end:  Nicolas Celero at the piano, playing music by Franz Liszt, and Michael Lonsdale reading in between the musical performances.

On our way back we walked down Rue Viennet and passed Place du Forum, across the road from the town hall, which had all been transformed with strings of lights into the most magical of places.

The Eglise de la Madeleine looked very majestic, lit up against the black sky.

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And then we reached the Allees Paul Riquet once more, and wandered amongst the many people who were either watching the act on the main stage in front of the theatre, or just enjoying the start of summer.

Mark your calendar for next year, and plan to be in Herault around June 21st – I promise you’ll enjoy the festivities!

Good vibrations

Last week a friend from St Chinian called with an invitation.  There was a concert at the Guinguette Le Tournebelle that evening, and she would be happy for me to come along.  I had driven past the Guinguette, on my way from Narbonne to Gruissan, a couple of times, but had never actually stopped there.  A quick look on the internet showed that the music would be right up my street, so I gladly accepted the invitation.

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Guinguette translates as tavern, and the tavern at Tournebelle is right by the Canal de la Robine, just past the Mandirac lock, outside of Narbonne.  If you plan to go, make sure you look at a map first; it’s easy to take a wrong turn.

We arrived in time to eat dinner, before the concert, and my friend had booked a table for the four of us.  The Guinguette Le Tournebelle is basically one large room, possibly a former barn, with a raised stage at one end, and a bar at the opposite end.  Along the outside of the building, and overlooking the canal, a covered pergola has been added, with the open sides closed in with see-through plastic for the winter months.  I imagine that it will be a perfect spot for sitting out, as soon as it gets warm enough.  Inside though, a number of people were already at their tables, amongst them the musicians for the evening, and the mood was relaxed and friendly.

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Dinner that night was a three course fixed menu, all freshly prepared, with the dishes selected by the chef.  The starter was a creamy soup made with sweet potato and coconut milk, subtly spiced, and accompanied by a gratinated salmon toast.

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The main course was delicious too: slices of filet of pork which had been covered in a hazelnut and breadcrumb coating and fried, served on a bed of sweet red cabbage. Alongside was a little mound of truffle flavoured whipped cream, a cherry tomato roasted with balsamic vinegar, and some roasted potato wedges.

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Dessert arrived just as the concert was about to start and the lights were dimmed, so I’m sorry there is no picture.  It was a delicious and refreshing tiramisu, where the usual sponge had been replaced with speculoos, spiced shortcrust biscuits.

The musicians for the evening were Jorge Rossy from Barcelona, Gabrielle Koehlhoeffer and Joel Allouche, both from Montpellier.  They had met at a festival the previous year, and decided that they should play a gig together, since Barcelona and Montpellier are not that far away from one another.  We were privileged to be in the audience for that gig!

Jorge Rossy, who headlined the evening, is a very talented musician, well-known as having been the drummer for the Brad Mehldau Trio.  He has also studied trumpet and piano, and this evening he was playing piano and vibraphone.  Gabrielle Koehlhoeffer, on double bass, is a passionate musician with a doctorate in pharmacy, who came to playing jazz when she was 15 and has enjoyed herself ever since.  Joel Allouche is a mover and shaker in the regional music scene, as well as a composer, and a very good drummer!  I hope you’ll enjoy the video below.

The Guinguette Le Tournebelle is open for lunch throughout the year Tuesday to Sunday.  Live music is played every Friday night, and if you want to go for dinner on a concert night I would strongly recommend that you book your table in advance.