Music day and night: a summer festival in France
France is a favorite European venue for summer music festivals, attracting international artists and audiences from throughout the world. Somehow, despite the often-predicted dropoff in classical concert attendance, the festivals all seem to thrive. One of the longest-running events, the Festival de Saintes, recently concluded with record results – 11,145 tickets sold and an average 85 percent seats filled in 35 concerts and recitals.
Saintes, about halfway between Bordeaux and La Rochelle, is worth visiting even between festivals for its Gallo-Roman sites, Gothic and Renaissance architecture and well-run tourist facilities.
The festival this year, the 45th annual edition, ran from July 8 to 16 and featured choral, orchestral, ensemble and solo performances day and night. A free-access blog chronicled everything with praise, criticism and humor. For a sense of how the nine days evolved, here is the blog link.
One of the most attractive performances of the festival was an atmospheric late-night recital by U.S. pianist Ivan Ilic at the Abbaye aux Dames, an 11th century monumental site built from local stone and still functioning as a church.
The ambiance and acoustics of the old abbey were perfectly suited to the contemplative program. Starting at 10 p.m., the abbey went quiet as artistic director Stephan Maciejewski, dressed in the de rigueur festival garb -- bermuda shorts and a polo shirt -- strode onstage and made a surprise announcement. “Our artist, Ivan Ilic, has requested that you hold your applause until the last of the 17 selections on the program.” A murmur ran through the audience but the request was respected.
Ivan Ilic, a drawing by Michael Johnson
Gradually, Ilic’s purpose became clear. The hour-plus recital emerged as a single journey though a broad sampling of 19th and 20th century piano music, building to a shattering climax. He began with some mesmerizing John Cage, In a Landscape, a quiet number with full-pedal throughout, creating a symphony of sound that swirled and wafted off the stone walls of the abbey. Six Erik Satie miniatures followed, still in quiet mode. Three of the less-familiar Debussy Préludes came next, then another Cage gem, Dream and three more Debussy Préludes. Finally, around 11 p.m., the buildup of musical power from three short Skriabin pieces began, and Ilic made the seguë into the climactic Skriabin selection, Vers la Flamme (Toward the Flame) op. 72.
Ilic had tried this program elsewhere in Europe before, but the impact on this very musical audience in the hushed quarters of the abbey was something else. His sensitive relationship with the music brought out nuances rarely heard in recital. One prominent French critic called the program planante, which translates as somewhere between “in the clouds” and “mind-blowing”.
I spoke to Ilic after his three curtain calls and an encore, Variations for the Healing of Arinushka by Arvo Pärt. “The audience was incredible tonight,” he said. “Everything seemed aligned.” As in the case of his program, elegantly understated.
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