The smell of new-mown hay in the air, a few chickens wandering free and 2,000 sweaty bodies in the summer heat would seem an unruly combination for some of the world's greatest piano music. But it all comes together under the stars every evening at the world's biggest open-air summer piano event, Le Festival International de Piano, at La Roque d'Anthéron in Provence, southern France.
I recently drove down to La Roque, near Avignon, to sample the 27th annual edition of this love-in for the "orchestra in a box", as the piano used to be known. The Steinway grand came to life for two hours under the urgings of Piotr Anderszewski, the young Polish-born, Lisbon-based pianist, considered one of Europe's most promising new talents. His Bach Partitas injected a dimension of real music into a set of pieces that other pianists sometimes perform as showcases of hollow technique. The audience roared its approval into the night.
The La Roque Festival draws about 75,000 paying visitors over its month-long duration to hear promising young artists and a selection of world-renowned players. The festival was started in 1980 by René Martin with only 12 events, expanding to more than 100 this year in La Roque and surrounding villages. Piano greats such as the late Sviatoslav Richter and Radu Lupu have performed at La Roque. Martin and a small team follow the world of piano music and choose each year's performers mainly from their bases in Russia, China and Europe.
The current program, running to August 22, features Alfred Brendel in one of his final pre-retirement recitals, and the Russian super-virtuoso Arkady Volodos. Sometimes Martha Argerich drops in for an unannounced gig but nobody could enlighten me on her possible appearance this year.
The attraction of La Roque and other European summer musical events seems to be the casual settings - the opportunity to hear great music without the stiffness of the old-fashioned concert hall. Formal wear is a rarity onstage or in the audience.
Vacationers may discover these venues by accident, but for those who plan their trips, the European Festivals Association lists just about everything on its website at www.efa-aef.org.
Some of the key events this summer include Verona, Italy, set in a Roman Arena with acoustics so good a voice can be heard by 18,000 people. This is probably the entertainment site with the longest history of continuous use. Or try Bregenz, on Lake Constance, Austria, where crowds gather for productions staged out in the lake, outlined against the night sky.
At La Roque, Anderszewski turned up smiling and relaxed in a black shirt, and many in the audience looked like they had come from a day of trekking around Provence. Almost everyone carried a bottle of mineral water.
The music wafts through the foothills of the Chateau de Florans foothills, dotted with 365 plane trees.
The crowd was representative of the current classical music scene, dominated by the over-60 set but still attracting some young enthusiasts. Youth attendance was boosted this year with a few jazz events, including an appearance by Herbie Hancock's quintet. Some 85 pianists were scheduled to play, performing at about 100 solo recitals and chamber concerts.
The classics, often dismissed as a 19th century museum, are under pressure from the popular arts as CD sales slump and some concert halls struggle to fill seats. Summer festivals in Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain and Britain, however, seem to have found the formula.
"It's not true that live concerts are going under," William Grant Naboré, director of the International Piano Academy in Dongo, Italy, told me. "Au contraire. These festivals have become a huge business and the big interest is the piano."
Four La Roque players this year were veterans of the Dongo academy -- Anderszewski, Nicolas Angelich, Alexei Volodine and Claire-Marie Le Guay (niece of former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin). Over the past five years, 18 pianists at La Roque have come from Naboré's mythic institution, by far the most fertile source of young talent for the festival.
Naboré missed La Roque this year, however, having been invited to perform and conduct master classes at the Berlin International Music Festival. There he took four young Chinese players under his wing, "bright as buttons and really prepared," he said. The Chinese youngsters, including two 13-year-old girls, were hand-picked by Yeundi Li, the second-hottest Chinese pianist after Lang Lang.
Lang Lang was busy playing at the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Beijing. The audience was a bit bigger.
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