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.

 

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!

 

Four Stunning Cities (and Lots of Organs) in Southern France

When we finally scheduled practice time at the Conservatory, I asked for only weekday practice slots so I would have excuses to travel on the weekends! For some reason, I also asked for early morning practice times, which begin at 8:15AM. That may have not been such a wise choice, although it leaves plenty of time for extended lunches and long afternoons drinking espresso and reading my current page-turners: Baudelaire and Victor Hugo…

#1: Bordeaux: La ville du vin

This city is most famous for its wine, which I certainly had to try… but it also is well known among organists for the stunning instruments in the local churches. Packing my duffel bag, I bought a train ticket (it still surprises me that I can simply step onto a train and play these amazing historical instruments) and enjoyed the beautiful train ride between golden fields and warmly-colored fall leaves…

Immediately after arrival, I headed where most organists would naturally gravitate: the Abbatiale Sainte-Croix. This organ was built by Dom Bedos de Celles in the 18th century (c. 1750). It is legendary for most organists interested in French organs and musics of this time period. For a little history: Dom Bedos was a Benedictine monk (of this Abbey, in fact) who published the treatise L’art du facteur d’orgues (The Art of the Organ Builder). This is one of the most exhaustive references for organ building and theories about organ building in this period and is revered by organ builders and organists alike.

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Abbatiale Sainte-Croix

Many organs from the 18th century have been altered, some beyond recognition or repair. However, despite this organ being altered and even moved to the Cathédrale Saint-André (also in Bordeaux) at one point in its history, it retained enough of the original pipework, windchests, and so on (the stop names were covered with layers of paint) so that, in 1984, organ builder Paschal Quoirin was able to reconstruct the organ and return this musical masterpiece to the world.

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Console of Sainte-Croix

What a thrill it was to practice there for several hours, exploring the 32’ plein jeu, the thunderous Grands jeux, and the delicate solo stops. My heart already cannot wait to return!

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The belltower of the Basilique Saint-Michel

I attended a rehearsal for a concert of Fauré’s Rebecca, as well as works by Franck and Saint-Saëns, at the Basilica of St-Michel, performed by Paul Goussot and the Groupe Vocal Arpège de Bordeaux for the rest of the evening. This 1869 organ by Merklin-Schütze was a completely different beast from the organ of Ste-Croix, although no less beautiful. Its more romantic temperament fit perfectly with this program of music written when around when it was built.

Sunday morning found me at the masse at Ste-Croix, listening to the strange combination of typical Catholic “songs” with French Baroque improvisation for voluntaries. It was certainly impressive to hear Paul Goussot finding ways to make the anachronistically incompatible music and organ fit together with his creative accompaniments.

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Cathédrale Saint-André of Bordeaux

My next stop was the Cathédrale Saint-André, where I played the 1982 Danion-Gonzalez organ in this enormous space. I am not sure if this instrument has anything to do with why cathedral organist Jean-Baptiste Dupont is releasing recordings of the complete works of Max Reger (although it isn’t recorded on this organ!) but it seems quite well suited to that kind of repertoire.

These three organs certainly made for a thrilling weekend, which was punctuated with fantastic meals and even better wine….

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At the console of the Cathédrale Saint-André

#2 Rodez: La ville des vacances

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Yes, that is snow. Those are also two people dressed in snow man and ??? costumes. Welcome to Rodez!

Perhaps Rodez is not a vacation city, but it was a vacation for me! The two-hour train ride showed off more of southern France’s countryside. However, as it was now later in the season, the fields were looking more bare. Upon my arrival in Rodez, it had begun to snow! Naturally, I stopped to take refuge from the suddenly frigid temperatures with a noisette (espresso with a tiny bit of foamed milk) to watch these unexpected wet visitors came down from the sky.

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Cathédrale de Rodez

 

I was met at the Cathédrale de Rodez by organist Jerôme Rouzaud, who warmly welcomed me to the loft where the formidable case still bears the year of 1628, when a Poitiers organ builder, Antoine Vernholes, put it into place. While this organ has been worked on significantly since its first incarnation, it retains this French classical charm. It can also play Bach and even Mozart quite convincingly!

 

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Console at the Cathédrale de Rodez

The next day, after even more time on this beautiful instrument I met yet another one: the 1883 Puget organ at the Église Saint-Amans. Puget organs are found throughout the south of France as the Puget organ “dynasty” was centered in Toulouse. Many of these organs are in styles similar to those of the organs of Cavaillé-Coll and it is thrilling to play Widor, Franck, Vierne, and all the other great romantics (and even some moderns!) on instruments like this one.

Fewer than 20 hours after my arrival, I returned to Toulouse ready for another week of foie gras, fighting over practices organs, and red brick architecture.

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Église Saint-Amans
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Console at the Église Saint-Amans

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#3 Albi: La ville rouge

Like Toulouse, Albi is also made of red bricks, which earned it the title of the “red city.” I had a mere three hours there and these were on a Sunday afternoon—without a doubt the quietest day in all French municipalities! However, the charm of the old part of the city and its beautiful views make me look forward to returning and playing the organs in the Cathédrale and in the cloister. Alas, that will be for next time, as I was merely a “normal” tourist for this trip, wandering the beautiful streets and taking in the sights of the Tarn river.

#4 Toulouse: La ville rose

Naturally, I end this post with my beautiful city, Toulouse, here in the heart of southern France. I was honored to perform an Advent concert on the 1880 Eugène Puget organ only yesterday. The program of J.S. Bach and Widor was a thrill to present for the warm audience of amateurs d’orgue and this instrument is really one of Toulouse’s jewels. Its warm foundations, singing flutes, and nearly deafening tutti are sensitive to the organist’s touch (which is, in term, shaped by how the organ wants to speak—expect a post on that at some point in the near future…).

I would certainly say that my third month here has ended on a high “note” with this concert and these amazing trips. I can’t wait for the next one… especially since the Christmas market of Toulouse opened two days ago!

 

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It’s oyster season!
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Toulouse is getting in the festive spirit…

TANGENT #2A: Musical Music, Attacks, and Release: Creating Expression through the Organ Machine

If you ever sang in choir, you probably were forced to try the insufferable exercise of singing on only vowels. This is much-loved by choir directors, likely because of the undeniable entertainment for somebody who gets to hear Orff’s O Fortuna become Oooo ouuaaa and Handel’s Hallelujah as aaaaeua, but it doesn’t allow the words to be immediately comprehendible.

Although instrumental music has no words, we still have consonants. The attack of each note creates the opening consonant. It would be challenging to have a note without a beginning, so the importance of the attack goes without question. The speed and style of this attack (starting with a t-like or an m-like sound) is extremely important in all instruments, especially the organ.

Unlike the piano, however, the organ’s release is equally important as its attack (and arguably even more so, since it is far easier to forget about the release when your conscious thought has already moved further along in the phrase). Since neither the pipe’s timbre nor its volume changes throughout the duration of the held note, it is only during the beginning and end of the note that you can shape it to further a musical phrase.

Attack

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A beautiful example of mechanical (tracker) action from http://www.die-orgelseite.de/funktionsweise_e.htm
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Electric action, from http://www.pykett.org.uk/response_speed_of_electric_actions.htm

With a tracker-action organ , you can control the exact speed at which the pipe opens. If one tries slamming down on the key as quickly and as hard as possible, the pipe will get a lot of air very quickly and, sometimes it will overblow (play a pitch higher than intended) or have a rather unattractive beginning sound. Conversely, if one takes care to lower the key as slowly as humanely possible, they can hear the range of sound between the fully open and fully closed pipe (like closing to an m when singing). Of course, neither of these is really the desired attack when playing organ music. Being aware of this range and the level of control possible can allow more gentle attack (slower opening of the pipe) for a more sensitive musical line and a firmer or even nearly violent attack (quick opening of the pipe [think t or d]) for something more majestic or dramatic.

Additionally, tracker organs sometimes have unstable wind (especially if they’re from an earlier organ building tradition). Listening becomes even more important here, as you have to determine if it’s better to strike all notes together, to make the attack more based on weight than on speed, or if it’s better to slightly arpeggiate to stop the wind from giving the organ some unintended “vibrato.” If that “vibrato” furthers the musicality, then by all means!

These kinds of attacks can be imitated on electric and electro-pneumatic action, where there is no “range” between the pipe being open or closed: there are only the two options. However, they must be done more with timing than with physical opening of the pipe. For example, if one desires a strong opening chord that would call for the pipe opening more quickly, then it is best to play all notes exactly together. If one desired that the same chord be gentler, a nearly undetectable arpeggiation would help to execute the desired effect. Timing the notes of a solo line to arrive just after the accompaniment (not consistently, but on particular notes!) can give the illusion of a slow opening, and thus a more musical phrase.

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You deserve a photo of the beautiful Place de la Bourse in Bordeaux. The “pool” in front is just a shallow puddle: it’s quite fun to walk across the water, which is only a few centimeters deep!

Release

One might think of the release as the attack in reverse. It can be equally controlled, whether fast or slow. Slow releases, again, work well with solo lines and with gentler music. Additionally, with solo lines, an overlegato may be used with slow releases. You might notice that overlegato doesn’t sound terribly good when playing a chromatic scale but it creates a beautiful effect the further away from each the notes get. For example, when ascending a sixth, overlapping the two notes for a brief millisecond can create a cantabile or even a portamento effect! Ah, the illusions of music-making on the organ…

However, you may notice that this effect does not work so well when descending, because the ear so readily attaches itself to higher notes. Thus, it is often best to keep to a “perfect” legato when descending with a solo line.

Again, listen for the wind if it happens to be unstable. Sometimes releasing quickly will be best for stability, other times, an undetectable arpeggiated release (usually with the lowest notes releasing last) will give the desired effect.

Similarly, when working with electric or electro-pneumatic, these arpeggiations or slight displacement of attacks and releases can create the effect of slow or fast releases. Since the pipes naturally open quickly with this kind of organ, it is in the slower, gentler moments when one will need to pay extra attention. Often, with a solo line, releasing the note a sixteenth note too “early” will create the illusion of a decrescendo and a slow release.

Repeated notes of the same pitch need extra attention to both the release of the first note and the attack of the second. Most frequently, a slow release followed by a fast attack creates the desired effect. However, the most important thing I can stress in this, and a in all entries about music, is listening to the effect of what you are doing!

It’s also worth listening to how these attacks, releases, and articulations work with different stops and different combinations. The slower attacks and releases tend to work best with flue pipes, while reed pipes call for fast attacks and releases, because of the need for them to sound “cleaner” with these more piercing timbres.

All of these things are just tools. A slow attack, a fast attack, or any attack in between should not be used all the time, without any variance (especially since, if one did that, they would become predictable—the horror!). The importance is in making the informed choice of when to use which and for what reason. The peak of the phrase (after the length of the phrase is determined) may call for a different kind of touch, or there may be a reason to bring out a particular harmony or unusual note.

Above all, remember that, while it’s important to “smell the roses” and illustrate the phrase, every “rose” cannot be “smelled.” We’d never get anywhere!

Some needlessly detailed definitions of vocabulary words that I find somewhat interesting and that pertain to this subject:

Acoustic – the only “stop” on the organ that can never be turned off. This refers to how the room (hall, church, performance space) affects the sound of the organ. A cathedral made of stone with wooden chairs will have a significantly more “live” acoustic than a small, carpeted living room with overstuffed sofas. A large (or live) acoustic means that the sound will continue for several seconds after the organist releases a note, while a small (or dead) acoustic means that the listener can sometimes even hear the pipe closing when the organist releases the key. These dead rooms can even appear to have “negative” acoustic to an organist who is used to playing with a bit more “room.”

Articulation – the aural distance between notes. This can range from a large separation between notes (staccato) to overlapping the notes (over-legato). Pipes can also have their own unique articulation, through an audible attack or chiff.

Attack – after the key is struck, the moment when the pipe speaks

Bloom – when a pipe’s sound does not remain static but expands into the room. This mostly only occurs in large acoustics, as the pipe’s sound changes when it has large spaces in which to travel and a long time in which to do so.

Chiff – when a key is struck and the pipe associated with it makes a consonant-like sound before beginning the tone (quite similar to the ch in the onomatopoeic word of chiff). It is articulation before the vowel-like sound of the pipe.

Legato – this denotes a smaller range of articulation, when there is little or no separation between notes. So-called “baroque legato” denotes the tiniest of separation between notes, while 20th-century organist and composer Marcel Dupré’s “perfect-legato” implies that, as one note ends, another begins, and “overlegato” describes releasing one note after the next has begun.

Staccato – noticeably detaching each note from the next. (N.b. there are numerous other kinds of articulation [that I am sure most of you know about] and it would be a shame to bore you with those details.)

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The beautiful Jardin Public in Bordeaux

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Dear Russia: Love, America

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The view of sunrise from the plane as I left Toulouse

Russia: the only country to span two continents, featuring twice as much landmass as the United States and half the population. Undoubtedly, Russia was a place I never thought I would visit. Krasnoyarsk: an even more unusual destination. This city is the second largest in Siberia and is located in the center of Asian Russia, north of Mongolia. I think I was in denial about the total distance, as I avoided looking it up in Google maps until after I had already arrived!

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The view from our floor at the hotel in Krasnoyarsk

My journey began at 6:30AM with a flight from Toulouse, accompanied by my mother. Her stalwart assistance proves the adage: “two heads are better than one.” She helped to navigate foreign airports (with non-Arabic alphabets) and generally alleviated much of the stress that accompanies traversing six time zones with two recitals at the other end! After our first layover in Amsterdam, we arrived to pandemonium in Moscow and to announcements in heavy Russian accents describing “technical difficulties.” The computers were down, which meant that nobody was able to get their tickets at the ticket counters or kiosks throughout all of the Sheremetyevo Airport. Thanks to some quick phone work and some probably insanely high-priced data (I’ll look forward to getting that bill in three weeks), I managed to get us mobile boarding passes and we made it to the plane, just in time for the five-hour flight to Krasnoyarsk.

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The fantastic Krasnoyarsk Philharmonic Hall “team”

We landed in complete darkness at 5:30AM KST (Krasnoyarsk Standard Time—11:30PM Central European Time) on Friday morning. This seemed all the more intimidating when surrounded by a completely foreign language (especially one so closely associated with television villains, thanks to American media) after 18 hours of travel and with only a Facebook photo to help identify the person who should pick us up. However, this was when the organizers of the Krasnoyarsk organ concerts showed their deft management of scheduling and planning ahead as we arrived at the hotel (45 minutes from the airport), were able to sleep for three hours, and had a wonderful breakfast. We then arrived at the Philharmonic Hall in time for my first rehearsal, which took place at noontime that same day for the concerts of Sunday and Monday!

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Ah yes, the complications of the mechanical musical instrument!

For those of you who have never encountered an organ quite like this one (please do see the picture to the right), allow me to briefly explain. There are three combinations, in addition to the handregister (where the stops themselves move). Each combination (A, B, and C) corresponds with a color (green, yellow, and red, respectively) and each stop has a pin in each color. In order to have the first manual’s (Great’s) 16′ Principal (stop #12) on combination A, you must pull out the tiny green pin associated with that stop (found above it on the photo). Several pins had broken in half, making it difficult to see which pins were drawn. With a program of Escaich, Ives, Vierne, Reger and Dupré, I certainly had my work cut out for me to select registrations for each concert! The managers of the Philharmonic Hall were most accommodating, giving me an abundance of practice time and two excellent stop pullers. I was also fortunate that the neo-classical quality of the organ worked extremely well for the repertoire I had chosen.

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View from the balcony at Sunday evening’s concert

I really cannot speak highly enough of these managers, who arranged for a translator to be available to help whenever needed, a driver to take me to and from the Philharmonic Hall for rehearsal and concerts and take me on quick tours of some of the beautiful sights of Krasnoyarsk. The driver(s) also indirectly showed off some of the driving of the area—I’m still not sure what exactly is considered a “lane” in this part of the world, especially in the roundabouts. The translator even took my mother and me to the market to pick out some stunning Russian scarves as souvenirs to bring home.

Some choice tidbits from this most recent travel:

Offering cake... again!
Offering cake… again!

Believe me when I say that tea and coffee is always offered, and this ritual is highly respected. If you refuse, it will be offered again…and again… and again!

The above statement also applies to champagne. Hide your glass, or it will be topped off continually.

Again, the same thing for cake, which was required upon arriving at the Philharmonic hall, during intermission, and following the concert. I think I somehow still lost weight during this trip.

Same view from our window. The weather ran the gamut from low 50s to low teens during our 4-day stay!
Same view from our window. The weather ran the gamut from low 50s to low teens during our 4-day stay!

During the celebratory cocktail hour following each concert, the conversation somehow always somehow ended up in describing my beauty (the wonder of recital gowns!) in vivid detail in Russian (so I did not realize what was happening until the conversation was well underway and they had finished discussing my eyes and were onto my ears and goodness knows what else). One sure way to make me feel flattered but extremely uncomfortable…

Not only is the organ in the Krasnoyarsk Philharmonic Hall the only organ in the city of Krasnoyarsk, it is the only organ in the entire Krasnoyarsk Krai, the region of which Krasnoyarsk is the political and administrative center. This region is the second largest of the 92 federal subjects of Russia!

Americans do say, “thank you” and “I’m sorry” a lot, to the extent where “thank you, yes” and “thank you, no” became a fond joke among the Russians. Even my mother learned these phrases… in Russian.

IMG_2216Apparently a popular thing for young people in Krasnoyarsk to do is to visit the beautiful mountains nearby, where you can drink, eat, and party… as long as you avoid the bears. And the “giant rats”?!

In order to visit beautiful Mongolia, which lies but a mere 1200 kilometers from Krasnoyarsk, one has to drive through a city where all residents ride horses, have knives, and hate Russians. Needless to say, few people drive there.

“Russian men say that they like thin women, wine, and Hindemith when they really like fat women, vodka, and Tchaikovsky.” Said in a roomful of stunningly gorgeous, thin women.  This is why they try to feed everybody cake all the time.

While in Russia, I experienced some of the most meaningful toasts (especially after a half glass or so of champagne) about intercultural friendship and appreciation of music, which transcends international borders.

The ambivalent façade is just that: a façade. Russians are some of the most welcoming and passionate people I have never met.

Boarding the huge plane to go home from the tarmac at the small Krasnoyarsk airport
Boarding the huge plane to go home from the tarmac at the small Krasnoyarsk airport

Most Russians speak some English, as it is taught in grade school. However, they are shy about making mistakes so they are much more likely to respond positively if one adequately butchers a few Russian words first.

When arriving at the philharmonic hall from the frigid weather, it is perfectly acceptable to change from your stiletto boots, which seem extremely perilous to wear in the icy streets, into your stiletto shoes.

Rooms are kept around 78 degrees Fahrenheit (25-26 Celsius), even when everybody is sweating.

All stairs are uneven. Beware.

Russians have monuments and statues for everything. Sometimes they don’t even know what these monuments commemorate.

Organ recitals seem to be date night for young couples

Organ recitals have “groupies,” who collect the signatures and photographs of recitalists, as well as selfies in front of the organ.

One of several children who ran out immediately following the last piece (not even waiting until people finished clapping!) to get autographs and photographs. What enthusiasm for the organ!
One of several children who ran out immediately following the last piece (not even waiting until people finished clapping!) to get autographs and photographs. What enthusiasm for the organ!

A lot of middle-school-aged children attend each concert, also collecting signatures. Even more interesting, very few or none of these children play or will ever study the organ.

Apparently Parliamentarians also attend organ recitals. I not only met two, but they presented me with a suitcase-sized souvenir box full of Russian candies. I’m still not sure how I got it home (perhaps I speak too soon as I am at my final layover at CDG… hour 16/20 of travel today!) and I definitely had to check my bag.

Flying from Moscow to Paris and leaving just as sunset begins, you will literally experience a 4-hour sunset, arriving just in time to see the sun disappear over the Eiffel Tower.

Bienvenue à Paris

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Photo from the plane leaving Krasnoyarsk
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Photo from the plane arriving in CDG

TANGENT #2: Musical Music and Duration: Creating Expression through the Organ Machine

Well-known as the “king of instruments,” the organ is also unquestionably the largest music-making machine of all instruments (although computers can be even bigger, arguably). The fact that we can actually produce music with such a complex contraption seems a minor miracle!

However, it seems that this unique quality of our instrument, which fascinates both performers and listeners alike, can sometimes be its Achilles heel. The very mechanisms that draw aural life from inanimate objects can also cause the player to play mechanically, in imitation of that which they are controlling.

How do we overcome this aspect of the organ, coaxing musicality from a combination of metal and wood? What does “musicality” really mean when applied to the organ and how can we use it to bridge the metaphysical gap between the mechanisms of the organ and the desired emotional effect of the music?

I hope to explore this through several entries, and really need your thoughts and opinions on this very pertinent issue for both organists and musicians of all types! Only through us sharing our experiences we can really learn from each other.

It’s worth looking at our cousins, the pianists, to see how they express their musicality and how their instrument differs in musical expression to learn more about how to play our own. One of many ways in which pianists express musicality is through volume, which they vary to highlight the musical phrase, point out important moments, and carry the listener to and from musical climaxes.

1) Note duration. Because the organ’s pipes are set at their volume long before an organist ever strikes a given key, we lose that aspect of expression (besides being able to select ranks of pipes to use alone or with others for color or volume changes. We lose the subtleties of adjacent notes being louder or softer to bring out a phrase). However, what we lose in volume, we gain in being able to completely control the duration of notes. This allows us to use articulation (how to connect or separate adjacent notes) to make a musical phrase. While any note struck at the piano immediately begins to die away, the continuous winding of an organ allows any note to resonate forevermore, if desired (See this link  for an organ performance that will literally not end for another 600 years or so). Thus, the release of the note becomes equally as important as the attack, since the note hasn’t changed a bit since its beginning.

This kind of musicality is one of the hardest things for young organists to begin to hear and put into practice, since volume changes are things we encounter far more regularly and consciously, such as screaming babies, yelling angry people, or whispers, than durations of invariable sounds. Even a siren, which sometimes seems indeterminable, changes in volume (and often pitch!) depending on its proximity to the listener. How do you help students to begin understand the importance of note duration on the organ, and how do you introduce them to beginning to manipulate it?

Now, I will also include some lovely photos of the French (and/or Russian, as I travel there on Thursday!) countryside. Perhaps that will save us from the terrible ennui that may result from this exploration. After this explanation, you certainly deserve a photo or two of la belle France!

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L’église rupestre de Vals in Ariège Pyrénées. This church, partially constructed in the rock that you can see at the foundations, has three levels, each from a different historical time, with the earliest from around the 10th century.
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The view of the small town of Vals from the “terrace” of the église.

Une fête de l’orgue

Toulouse les orgues is the only festivals of its kind in the world. Where else is there a city with a 10-14 day annual spree of concerts and presentations all featuring (some more than others) the organ? From a pop singer who calls himself “The Organ King” to Cameron Carpenter to Olivier Vernet, Toulouse les orgues (TLS) showcased some truly unusual views of “our” instrument. The best part of inviting such a variety of performers (even, and perhaps especially, some controversial ones) was that TLS managed to access an audience of concert-goers who might never attend a “typical” organ recital without being exposed to the instrument through another means, such as those offered during the festival. Through heavy advertising in nearly every way possible, having a theme (the great machine of the organ), an extremely descriptive and well-written program book that was available at every church, every school, and goodness where else, program notes (verbal, visual, or written), family-focused events, and countless other ways of getting listeners, TLS got audiences who were excited about the music in a myriad of different ways and came from many different financial and musical backgrounds.

Unfortunately, I missed much of the festival because I had to return to Paris for my Russian visa in the middle of the events! Anybody who has ever had to try to get a visa for another foreign country, while already living in a foreign country, knows how overly complicated the process can be. However, despite being frustratedly asked “do you even speak French?!” when I was stumped by a question after successfully carrying on a 15-minute conversation in French with the heavily-accented Russian visa services woman, I have indeed received my visa for the concerts in Krasnoyarsk on 1 and 2 November. That will be a blog post… or two!

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Place des Vosges, the oldest place in Paris, found in le Marais

Because the 5 ½-hour train ride to Paris makes it seems as though I should stay for at least two nights in the city of lights, I did just that, experiencing parts of Paris I had never been able to before and attending two fabulous concerts. However, to be honest, I am happy to not be living in this huge city—I would be tempted to simply camp out near the Philharmonic Hall and attend every single orchestra concert!

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M. Escaich takes a bow

The first evening, after a celebratory 3-course menu of escargot, cuisse de canard, and tourte aux pommes, I attended Thierry Escaich’s recital at St-Étienne-du-Mont celebrating his induction into the Académie des Beaux-Arts. After showcasing a kind of progression of musical composition from Handel and J.S. Bach through Mendelssohn to Vierne, this master of improvisation showed his skills with a 4-movement symphony. This was what the audience had come for and this showed through their rapt attention and the standing ovation, calling for an encore, following the conclusion of the fourth movement. I found out later from M. Escaich that it truly was an improvisation—he had only arrived the day before and had little to no time to prepare it!

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Le penseur at the Musée Rodin. Perhaps he is thinking about the lovely weather!

After a full day of (finally) buying French chocolates and caramels (oh my gosh are they amazing…), wandering throughout left bank, visiting the Musée Rodin’s gardens, and sampling 4€ crêpes, I decided to take advantage of France’s kindness towards its students in offering 10€ tickets for concerts at the Paris Philharmonie. Stopping by the Place des Vosges and getting fantastic falafel from l’As du Falafel and apple strudel from a Jewish bakery on rue des Rosiers in le Marais (thank goodness I’m still running), I made my way to the 19th arrondissement to see the Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig, directed by Riccardo Chailly, at the new Paris Philharmonie. Their stunning interpretation of Richard Strauss’s Mort and transfiguration took my breath away, However, this was followed by the Mozart Clarinet Concerto that simply stole the show. Martin Fröst, a Swedish clarinetist, walked onto the stage and immediately took charge, flooding the concert hall with his palpable personality and love of the music. Although often moving a distracting amount and sometimes in ways that had absolutely nothing to do with the music, Mr. Fröst continually communicated with the other musicians on stage, making the concerto into a real collaboration of artists. His control was unbelievable and the audience was enthralled, calling for an encore at the end of the first half of the concert. Mr. Fröst obliged, announcing from the stage that he would improvise a “sort of bridge to the second half of the concert,” which would feature Strauss’s Métamorphoses Till Eulenspiegel. Unfortunately, I had to leave after intermission, missing what I am sure was an overwhelmingly beautiful performance. What an evening!

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The gorgeous Paris Philharmonie

Alas, my time in Paris, for this visit, was over. However, I returned to the end of the Toulouse les orgues Festival! As a Conservatory student, I was able to turn pages and pull stops for various performers, including an “organ workshop” by Toulouse Conservatory student Julie Pinsonnault, a fascinating transcription of excerpts from Brahms Piano Concertos for 4 hands and orchestra, Op. 83 and Op. 15, by Olivier Vernet and Cédric Meckler, performed by the transcribers and by pianists Isabelle and Florence Lafitte (it was quite the endeavor to coordinate eight hands on two keyboard instruments, one upstairs in the loft and the other about three stories below, on the floor of the nave!), and the final concert, entitled “The Night of the Organ,” performed by four young international organists in St-Sernin. For this final celebration of the festival, the Basilica was packed and at least five cameras broadcast different angles of the performers (and the organ, since two cameras were devoted solely to watching the trackers, showing the machine that is the organ!) onto a screen placed at the end of the nave. Of course, the workers of TLS were celebrating the end of these stressful two weeks long before the end of the 2 ½-hour long concert, pulling out wine bottles to enjoy in the narthex!

If anybody from the U.S. is reading this—let’s start some festivals like this in the States! Boston, New York, Chicago, any takers?

Cultural Encounters

Picture this: sitting quietly at the kitchen table, enjoying breakfast and watching the early morning light filter through the windows while listening to roosters crow and birds start to sing. Suddenly, your unflaggingly energetic hostess enters the room, jumps when she realizes that somebody is sitting there, and asks why in heaven’s name one would be in the kitchen without any lights on. Upon hearing your response of “enjoying the tranquility of the early morning,” she immediately agrees and then proceeds to turn on the radio as loud as it can go (to the morning’s Christian talk show), flip on the lights, and take several pounds of figs off of the tray where they have been collecting fruit flies for a few days.

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A display of…umbrellas?? in downtown Toulouse

Needless to say, my living situation is quite the experience! My hosts, a retired couple who have an astonishingly large house a mere 20 minute’s walk from the conservatory and from the center of town, rent out five of their rooms to students and internationals like myself. This makes for continuous excitement throughout the house… and for some interesting mealtimes, since having more than one person in the extremely narrow kitchen requires some serious coordination.

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Graffiti on the way to school “Ne travaillez jamais” = “never work”

On another, completely different note, I have discovered what pompiers are. Despite their rather unfortunate name (to English speakers), pompiers are French firefighters, who also serve as EMTs in such cases as, for example, when one falls off of their bike, as I did just last week. There’s nothing like, following a crash landing off of a bike, one’s body deciding to take a dive bomb in the Conservatory lobby because of shock and then having three pompiers show up to confirm that your blood pressure is fine! Not to worry, I have only a few scrapes, as well as a newfound respect for the promptness of French medical personnel. Several lovely conservatory employees now consider me to be an adopted daughter and I have proven that I can indeed speak French and answer questions through blurry vision and a splitting headache!

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St-Pierre de Chartreux. I still can’t believe I can simply walk in and play this lovely organ almost anytime I want to. 1683 Delauney, 1783 Micot, restored 1983 Grenzing

Just as an example of the famous French bureaucracy, I am happy to share the story of how I managed to get my student card. These could only be given out this week, although Conservatory classes started a week ago Thursday. Practice rooms can only be accessed through exchanging these cards for keys. Thankfully, Michel Bouvard granted us poor organists special permission to use practice rooms for the last month, or we would likely have been climbing the walls to just get a keyboard!

All of the students received an email that, in order to get said student card, we had to have French social security, which is actually health insurance. This email stated that we had to get it through one of two companies, not mentioning that one could also simply get health insurance through the Conservatory. After one frightening visit to one branch of each company, where I looked at the list of “required items” (including a testimony of a treating physician, copy of a birth certificate, proof of acceptance into university [which I still don’t have, somehow], and several other scary things) and chickened out before trying (and likely failing) to talk someone into taking my money and giving me a social security card, I went to talk to the woman at the Conservatory who apparently could give us the cards. She directed me to somebody else, who was absent that day. The next day, I was able to see that other person, who was, in fact, able to take my money for social security (thank goodness!), and give me a student card (why the other woman, who was supposed to give out the student cards, could not do so, I have no idea!). However, this student card required a photo (which I thankfully had with me, since nobody had mentioned that those might be needed), the signature of somebody else, and a few official-looking stamps. After paying some more fees and visiting a few more administrators in the Conservatory, I now successfully have the cardboard, yellow carte d’étudiante that has a photo of me (not a photocopy, since photos are so hard to illegally copy these days), a red stamp of the Conservatory with “organ” and “harpsichord” hand-written to authorize me practicing in rooms that contain those two instruments, and a hand-written phrase indicating that I have, in fact, paid for social security. The Oberlin ID card seems quite a bit more high-tech now and it’s been quite the week!

Fin septembre et fin 1e mois, 2e partie

As I write this, I’m on a train travelling from Frankfurt to Paris Est, from one meeting (more of a “convention”) to another meeting (more of an “orientation”). I think it will always feel strange to be able to travel to another country in fewer than four hours.

This past weekend, I attended the European chapter of, perhaps ironically, the American Guild of Organists’ (AGO) Fall meeting in Ingelheim am Rhein, Germany. Indeed, my first trip to Germany was not only for an organ event, it was for an AGO event! (I will enter my own name into the drawing for the most “nerdy” 20-somethings of 2015.) Even more ironic, the instrument featured for the weekend was a 1930 Skinner (Op. 823) installed by Kleis in 2008!

Bakery in Frankfurt airport
Bakery in Frankfurt airport

What a way to visit Germany for the first time. I flew through Brussels, admiring the fantastic bakeries and cafés at all of these European airports and the lack of Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts (although both of these may be found in Frankfurt’s Hauptbahnohf!). The first difficulties arose when I landed in Germany, discovering that I had absolutely no 3G and no maps. I had hoped to visit the early instrument museum in Frankfurt, since I had several hours before I was expected in Ingelheim. However, after successfully navigating my way into the city and discovering the Historische-Museum, I was unable to find this particular exhibit. Let me know if you’ve had better luck than I, as it sounds fascinating!

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Frankfurt

I did go to the Historisches-Museum and, along with the mere two other visitors I saw while there, explored some of the more unusual and seemingly random collections of items I have seen (although that château in the Midi-Pyrenées might rival it with the mammoth’s tooth!), which included porcelain pots, medieval armor, some paintings, and coins.

Through some broken English and even more broken German (on my part), I procured a map and wandered to the train station, successfully buying tickets, finding the right train, and arriving in Ingelheim am Rhine, which lies about an hour’s train ride west of Frankfurt.

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1853 Dreymann organ in the Saalkirche
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1930 Skinner, also in the Saalkirche and the star of the weekend’s convention!

Perhaps two-dozen people attended the meeting, hailing from places like the Finland, France, Germany (of course!), the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Poland. These are some of the kindest and most generous people I have met and I look forward to seeing all of them in the future! The two recitals, played by Johan Hermans (Belgium), Giorgio Parolini (Italy), Carston and Iris Lenz (Germany), Christa Rakich (USA), Fabrice Muller (France), Pawel Wróbel (Poland), and Agnes Goerke (Germany), really showed off the instrument in unusual ways. Coming from such diverse musical and cultural backgrounds, each player had unique ways of singing through the beautiful organ.

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The organ pipes in the middle of the traffic circle near the organ museum
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Orgel-ART-Museum!

On Saturday, following an excellent lecture by composer and organist Bernard Sanders on the “Rise and Fall of E.M. Skinner” (unofficial title), we all packed up and went to a place that really could only be found in Germany: an Organ Museum. The Orgel-ART-Museum in Windesheim (20 minutes from Ingelheim) houses dozens of historical and copies of historical organs, pianos (fortepianos), and two harpsichords. All of these instruments can be played (although none were in very good tune). Needless to say, we made quite a lot of noise, both harmonious and not-quite-so harmonious, exploring the exhibitions!

After yet another astounding weekend full of meeting new friends, seeing and hearing beautiful instruments and musicians, and visiting a corner of Europe I have never before seen, I’m headed to the Fulbright orientation meeting at the Centre de conferences ministériel in Paris, which will occur tomorrow. Perhaps it’s time for another visit to the music store, La Flûte de Pan!

The Broadwood piano in the museum!
The Broadwood piano in the museum!

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Based on the painting of the organ in Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, by Oberlinger Orgelbau

For my first trip outside of an airport in Germany, I definitely discovered a few things:

-knowing German chorale tune titles does not prepare one to try to travel through Germany and try to speak the language

-apologetically telling the very nice café waitress you don’t speak German will only result in her speaking more German, even more quickly

-the German word for “turkey” sounds exactly the same as a very strong French swearword

-train tickets are rarely checked and everybody seems to trust each other, even to the extent where they leave bags unattended while going up to get a cup of coffee!

-passports don’t seem to be needed while travelling by plane within the EU, although all airline carriers say that they require them

-“mit Musik” means “with onions,” with the implication being that the raw onions make music in your mouth… hours later. Thankfully, I did not try anything “mit Musik”IMG_1967

-pizza in Germany is very inexpensive and quite good

-Germans seem to eat a lot of cake

-I need to learn German.

If you think of somewhere I should try to visit, whether music-related or not, or some instruments that I should see, please leave a comment or send me a message: katelyn.emerson@gmail.com!

Fin septembre et fin 1e mois, 1e partie

I’m dividing the last two weekends into separate “journal entries,” one for each, since I have gotten behind on updating you, my wonderful family and friends both in the US and elsewhere, of my most recent travels.

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One of the completely horrible views I have to see while biking to the conservatory…

During the first full week and a half that I spent in Toulouse, I found myself beginning to establish a daily routine and having to make a conscious effort to see the sights off of the “beaten path” of the commute to the conservatory, boulangerie, or grocery store. It’s amazing how quickly I can fall into a pattern in a new place—or even in a new country! I also successfully opened a bank account, auditioned for and was accepted into the conservatory on organ en perfectionnement, and had my first organ lessons (on Widor and Vierne) in St-Sernin—what a dream!

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View atop Cordes-sur-Ciel
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Cordes-sur-Ciel

This newfound comfort within the city was broken up by an incredible trip of only three days (September 18-20) into the French countryside in the Midi-Pyrénées. I took a train from Toulouse to Cordes-sur-Ciel, a town constructed in a mere eight years by a Toulousian count in the early 13th century as a place to protect his Catalan people from the attacking French during the Albigensian Crusade. At the station, I was greeted by an Oberlin alumna and her husband who, amazingly, live a mere hour and a half outside of Toulouse. They were already showing yet another Oberlin alum around their favorite haunts. Where two or three Obies are gathered…

We explored this part of southwestern France, seeing places I never would have otherwise, including Nejac, yet anther medieval town, and Villefranche sur Rouergue, where I met the organ at the Collégiale Notre-Dame, which was first constructed 1506-1508, essentially replaced with a new instrument in 1626 by Claude Guillemin, and worked on later by both Pujol de Montauban and Théodore Puget in the 19th century and Maurice Puget in the 20th. It was such a thrill to play this stunning instrument between visiting these amazing places.

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Châteaux, SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESwhether large or small, are as common as rolling hills in this part of France, since nearly every spot of high ground has one. They appear around every corner as you drive through the countryside, each featuring a unique history. We visited one where Queen Margot apparently stayed for a single night in September 1585. The whole château was filled with objects with unlikely stories behind them, including a mammoth tooth, dinosaur bone, and an early 16th-century Bible that was set out in the open air to be thumbed through as the visitor desired.

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Coffee!

The marchés (markets) in France are truly something to be witnessed. In Toulouse, I have discovered a huge fruit and vegetable one that is completely overwhelming. I brought home the best mango and strawberries I think I have ever had. However, the marché at St-Antonin sur Val was another thing entirely. The center of this smaller French town bustled with tens of vendors selling meats, cheeses, wines, condiments, fruits, vegetables, coffees and teas, baskets, bonbons (candies), and even more. I left with three kinds of goat cheeses (from the vendor whose goat farm we visited only the day before!), a delectable mustard à l’ancienne (tastes like Dijon, but is not made in Dijon), and three kinds of saucisson (dried sausage, although if you ask three Frenchmen to tell you the difference between saucisse and saucisson, you will likely receive three different answers).

For a first trip to the French countryside, this was more than I had ever dreamed.

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Signing the guestbook at Villefranche sur Rouergne (photo credit: Andrea Rothman)