Christmas in Concert

It has been just under a month since the Marché de Noël in Toulouse opened and it is Christmas Eve day. Where has time flown?

While I have become somewhat habituated to winding through the marché stalls in order to get to the Conservatoire and I am getting better at navigating the hundreds, or thousands, of people who block the narrow streets, the minute the sun dips below the horizon, the Christmas lights are illuminated and I can only marvel at the sights (and the people)!

During the last week in Toulouse, I have enjoyed only a few of the plethora of musical celebrations of Christmas.

Travelling with some lovely friends 45 minutes southwest of Toulouse to the small town of Poucharramet, I attended a beautiful Concert de Noëls du monde performed by Lyre et elles, a sextet of female singers led by conductor Henri Lavel. This ecumenical program featured everything from the John Rutter What Sweeter Music to traditional OccitainGreekEnglish, and French Noëls. The 13th-century church was adorned with candles, a part of the concert’s experience as they were lit upon the entrance of the singers, and Lyre et elles were wearing beautiful gowns and shawls of white with red accents.

The singers were joined by excellent instrumentalists playing the ocarina, cromorne (!), recorder, guitar, pan flute, and, naturally, the accordion (France!). This felt like such a genuine and warm way to open the Christmas season, as the friendly audience welcomed even this cold New Englander with open arms – even inviting me to join them for a wonderful dinner of soup, pâté, cheese, and at least 5 kinds of cake following the concert at the home of the director. Naturally, The meal was accompanied by endless music-making and we returned to Toulouse long after my normal bedtime!

A few days later, I made a point to attend the concert: Heinrich Schütz, Les Histoires de Noël. I’m missing my Oberlin Collegium Musicum days and needed an early music fix.

The concert took place in Saint-Pierre-des-Cuisines (“Saint Peter of the Kitchens”), which is titled because of a mistranslation of the original Conquinis, which only means “small-scale artisans”! This 5th-century church was built over the 4th-century necropolis of a  PaleoChristian basilica (no, this isn’t Christians who only ate food as “early humans” did…) . It was given to Benedictine monks in the 11th century and, many years later, was repurposed as a performance space for the Conservatoire de Toulouse. Its very original history makes this amalgamation of historical building styles and of modern performance apparatus fascinating to examine, even during a concert!

Certainly one of the greatest pleasures of this program was seeing some of my friends perform! Selections included the Weihnachts-Histoire, SWV 435, Hodie Christus natus est, SWV 315 (of course) and the Magnificat, SWV 468. The program, punctuated by the singing of Christmas carols halfway through, was completed with an encore of Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen (the pronunciation was almost perfect, except for the tendency of the French singers to avoid enunciating the ending consonants) superposing Il est né, le divin enfant! Everybody left smiling. Christmas, glowingly represented through the combination of an traditional African American spiritual from 300 years ago, or so, and a traditional French Christmas carol. Who knew they could come together so easily?

The Maîtrise of the Conservatoire de Toulouse is its premier choral group, which puts on nearly a half dozen concerts each semester. The trebles are made up of children, with a few adult women as well, and the tenors and basses tend to be conservatory students. Directed by the Englishman Mark Opstad, this is based on the British choir school tradition and it sounds as though one of the Anglican choirs has been brought down to southern France. Their Christmas program included old favorites (such as Veni veni Emanuel or Rachmaninoff’s Bogoroditse devo) as well as some more unusual selections (from the Langlais Messe Solonnelle). Michel Bouvard entertained all of our ears with some Noëls on the grand orgue while two of his students: Jemima Stephenson and Makoto James (both of which happen to be my roommates… and both of which are English!) collaborated to play the two organ parts of the Langlais mass and accompany some of the motets.

Of course, I was roped in to turn pages and pull stops…

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The master at work.

My favorite “concerts” of the season have been those in the homes of my amazing new friends. I have been so lucky to be invited to several “house parties,” at which I almost always get to play the piano, sing, and even play the flute (that hasn’t happened in a half-decade or so)! On top of this, the food is always fantastic and I meet simply fascinating people who don’t shy away from talking to this American fighting to hide her accent (for a few examples: a British baroque flutist, French woman who happens to know somebody who commutes between Boston and Toulouse for work, a musicology professor, a retired doctor …). After a few seconds of attempts to pronounce my name (Katelyn simply doesn’t work with a French accent so, after a brief attempt at my normal accent, I give up and translate it to “Kat-lin”…) we dive into wonderful discussions of Franco-American relations, music history, or simply Toulousain food specialties. What more could I ask for this holiday season?

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Bûche de Noël. French pastry magic. (I stole the photograph from “Why’d you eat that” wordpress blog because it’s always gone before I get the chance to photograph it!)

I have now officially escaped the city to the rural French countryside. The small town of Parisot (population < 600) is situated an hour and a half north of Toulouse.

I have been here twice before, as I have very generous friends (one of whom is an Oberlin grad!) who live in the area. Their home is a 10-minute drive from the actual town of Parisot and is nestled between two of the rolling hills amid fallen leaves, verdant green moss, and ancient trees. If I didn’t know that I were still in France, I would think this to be another whole country. Although I am fighting a cold brought on by trying to do too much on too little sleep, this is the perfect way to refresh myself in preparation for the next round of travels in January!

So, I will be toasting you and wishing you all Joyeuses fêtes and a Bonne année from my French retreat dans la campagne. I’ve heard rumors of perhaps a Christmas Eve mass at the local church, and a few country dinners with hospitable neighbors.

Quelle belle vie !

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Baba au rhum: cake drenched in rum. Somehow the waiter even knew to put a treble clef on my plate.

 

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Chasing Christmas

The Christmas season Europe is like nothing I have ever experienced, and it’s only the second week of Advent. Every corner is bedecked with lights (most of which are flashing in one way or another), bows, stuffed animals, and goodness knows what else. Christmas trees made of chocolate, pretzels, spice bread, macaroons, more Christmas lights, or stacked boxes of mulled wine abound, and the typical “consumeristic” spirit is found in everybody perusing the shops downtown.

I already know this next month will be like none I have ever experienced.

Advent began with my recital on the 1880/1893 Eugène and Maurice Puget organ Notre-Dame du Taur in Toulouse, featuring the Bach Leipzig chorales on Nun komm der Heiden Heiland and the phenomenal Symphonie Gothique of Widor, with its Puer nobis est. This chant for Christmas day may have appeared on the wrong end of Advent (since my recital was on the first weekend of the season) but, together, the Lutheran Advent chorale- and Gregorian chant-based works made a glorious combination of “styles in G” on this stunning organ.

Not only was I able to simply play the program, I was also able to briefly talk about it on Radio Présence, a Catholic Radio station of the Midi-Pyrénées region of Toulouse and its surroundings. My first radio interview was not only on French radio—it was in French! Feel free to listen to it here, although you will have to forgive me for the mistakes, a few references, and for my accent—I learned so much and I hope to have the opportunity to do it again at some point… I already know a few things I would improve!

This past weekend consisted of another unforgettable trip across the country. I travelled with Katie Minion, another Fulbright organ scholar studying alongside me in Toulouse, up north to Paris where we pursued two things: beautiful organs and Christmas.

Strasbourg

Even after a 7.5-hour train ride on Friday afternoon, we were still up for the 2-hour trip to Strasbourg Saturday morning, the (almost) northeastern-most point of France and the capital of the Alsace region. This city also claims the title “the Capital of Christmas” and held the first Christmas market in Europe: in 1570 under the name of Christkindelsmärik (market of the Infant Jesus). Rather an auspicious beginning for our “search” for Christmas.

Walking out of the train station in Strasbourg, we were greeted with one of the eleven Marchés de Noël that can be found throughout the city. Snacking on spaetzle and drinking mulled apple juice, we explored the dozen or so dozen stands only a dozen yards from the train station exit… before realizing we should probably go further into the city.

The streets were adorned with trees (both the real kind and the made-out-of-lights kind), Christmas ornaments, and countless other colors and lights from store windows. The famous Christkindelsmärik Christmas tree, at a mere 30 meters or so (about 100 feet tall), drew us right to the center of town, where we proceeded to stumble upon Christmas market stalls on what seemed like every corner, interspersed between the beautiful half-timbered architecture. These stalls were bursting with French, German, and Alsatian specialties (we had to sample the white sausage, traditional cookies, and the mulled white wine, of course!), as well as unique (or kitschy, if desired) Christmas ornaments, all sorts of Christmas or New Years cards, sweaters, hats, candles, and an unlimited number of handicrafts. Thankfully, I had come to Strasbourg more to look (and, naturally, to eat) than to buy, or I would probably have very little pocket money left for the next few months!

Overlooking one of the largest markets in the city was the Cathedral of Strasbourg, with its nearly 600-year-old façade looming behind these gaudy stalls selling food, drink, and other such items. It was certainly an anachronistic arrangement and I couldn’t help wondering, while sipping a hot chocolate overlooking the thousands of people browsing the merchandise, how many different Christmas markets this façade has seen since the 16th century… and how different they all must have been.

Versailles

Sunday found me back at Versailles, where I met the beautiful organ Chapel of the Chateau once again. This time, I was able to play for over an hour and a half, in the middle of the day. Quel rêve ! The singing quality of the stops and the “rightness” of the registrations coupled with the music made me wish I could stay for another twelve hours and simply bathe in the sound. I think a few hundred tourists probably have pictures and videos of me playing de Grigny and Couperin…

Even better, Michel Bouvard gave a presentation of the organ to musicians and non-musicians alike, inviting visitors to the tribune of the organ to see and hear the instrument. He also played four-hand organ pieces with his wife, Yasuko Bouvard, and they were joined by their daughter—a wonderful violinist—for some other stylistic works. After playing the instrument, being able to hear it in the room and listen to the interplay of the acoustic was even more of an education, especially beneath the fingers of these phenomenal musicians.

Paris

On Monday, we explored Paris or, rather, parts of Paris, since the city is far too overwhelming to tackle in a lifetime, let alone in a day! I visited St-Étienne-du-Mont, of course, and then met Katie at the Basilique Saint-Denis, where we explored this Gothic masterpiece and the Royal necropolis beneath. Standing somewhere that has experienced so much of the past, and that holds so many memorials to these major players of history, is a humbling experience. What a privilege to be able to learn just a little bit about it all.

Some of the best parts of Paris are those seen while walking, so we proceeded to walk nearly halfway across the city, from the amazing Crêperie Le p’tit Grec near the Pantheon (I didn’t really need to eat for the rest of the day after lunch—I visit this crêperie every time I come to the city), past the Louvre and the Opera, all the way to Haussmann Printemps to watch the sunset over the Eiffel Tower. And what a sunset it was.

To finish our day full of touristic exploration, we braved the crowds at the marché of the Champs Élysées and did some window-shopping on this “fifth avenue” of Paris. I think I found a few New Years Eve dresses that I could put up with… but most were at least a few hundred Euros out of my price range!

On our final day (of this trip) in Paris, Katie and I headed to the 19th arrondissement, where you can find the Cité de la Musique: the Paris Philharmonic, the Musée de la musique, and the Paris Conservatoire. We spent far too little time (only an hour or so) exploring the Musée de la musique. This houses thousands of musical instruments (the website boasts over 7,000, with about 1,000 on exhibit) from the last six centuries. Visitors are given headsets through which they can listen to the instruments and their history as they pass through the five floors of the carefully organized collection. Of course, I had to take pictures of all of the keyboard instruments, as you can see below. If only I could have tried the pianos instead of gazing at them longingly! My one criticism is that the museum has only a few small positiv organs, but perhaps that is simply from lack of space, since I’ve heard that real estate in Paris can be rather expensive. A church-sized concert space with a dozen instruments might be a bit much…

Thanks to the generosity of the Parisian Christmas spirit, I was let onto the plane even without my passport, which I had left in my apartment in Toulouse. I mean, why carry it with me when I might lose it and not have it when I need it… like at the airport?!

I’m still chasing Christmas, although I’m now looking closer to my French “home” in Toulouse, rather than all the way in the north of the country in Paris and Strasbourg. This season in Toulouse is one to remember and I can’t wait to share it with you all!