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…

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?

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 !

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


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