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?

And the dust begins to settle…

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The famed Toulouse sausage

This has been a week of “figuring things out” and settling into life here. I am very glad that the weekend has arrived, although it has come simultaneously too quickly and too slowly. The time here flies, especially since the majority of one’s time seems to be spent eating: wake up around 7 or 8am, eat breakfast about 9am, start lunch around noon or 1, continue enjoying one’s meal until 3 or 4pm and, of course, have an espresso. Drinks start flowing by 11am, at the latest, and continue through dinner, which begins around 8pm. The question of why the French are not overweight is truly a valid one. It seems like there is always time to simply sit, eat/drink, and watch people. However, it does seem as though about 80% of them still do smoke so perhaps that as something to do with…

This has also been a week of my discovering that I have more than enough French to get me into plenty of trouble but not always enough to get me out of it. Sometimes, I have a “joli accent” and other times, I have almost no accent. In either case, I typically end up receiving far more information in a short period of time that I can fully process!

Thanks to all of your positive thoughts and encouragement, I am about 99% sure that I have a bank account! I have signed a contract and am awaiting my account information and debit card, which will both come in the mail. Until then, it is just as though I do not have a bank account. French literature courses certainly didn’t prepare me for the speed at which the bank employee would tell me my account information, especially since this monologue was complete with a strong Toulousain accent. Asking for everything to be repeated simply tries the patience of somebody who is kind enough to help this poor international establish herself in a new country!

Funnily enough, my supposed bank account is with La Poste. This is just as it sound: La Poste is, in fact, the national post office. One of the stranger French cultural experiences I have had is entering that large, almost gymnasium-like room full of people trying to mail large packages, order cell phones, deposit and withdraw money, and open bank accounts. Who knew the French liked to multitask so much?

I have rented a charming vélo de ville, a bike on which I can easily cut down the 25-minute walk to the conservatory to under 10 minutes. However, riding a bike in Toulouse, especially downtown during the afternoon, is borderline suicidal. Not only do cars seem to go out of their way to try to push you off of the road, pedestrians have no problem at all walking out right in front of you. Now that I have had two days of riding back and forth across the city, I am feeling much more comfortable but I probably gave a few pedestrians and drivers miniature heart attacks during my first ride from the Maison de vélo!

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Don’t mind me, just waiting to have my hair cut!

I deliberately waited to get a haircut until after my arrival in France, forcing myself
to learn the necessary vocabulary and get over my natural fear of not being able to explain what I want to such a specific extent in a foreign language! I am so glad I did. For just 30€, I got 15 minutes in a massage chair with a head massage, an espresso and all sorts of chocolates (none of which I ate, unfortunately because it was 9:30 in the morning!), a consult on how my hair should look and how I should style it (apparently my face is square and my previous cut had been too square, leading to far too manyIMG_1757 squares…etc), a cut, a brushing (blow-dry), and tons of advice on where to visit in southern France during my time here. The two hairdressers in the shop, each of whom had their own charming yet difficult-to-understand Toulousain accents, absolutely loved comparing French and American ways of life and describing their favorite places to travel in both countries. I ended up giving advice of where to have brunch on Sundays in New York City! The name of the salon, Pourquoi ailleurs, is absolutely perfect, as it means “why anywhere else?” Indeed: pourquoi ailleurs!

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Giving up my “no selfie” rule for this posting. New haircut… en France!

Finally, I passed the harpsichord audition the Conservatoire yesterday and have been accepted into the deuxième cycle, troisième année, which seems to be about the equivalent of the final year of a Master’s degree…in harpsichord. After only one semester of private study five years ago and after learning two pieces in a week for the audition that I didn’t know about until I arrived in France, that doesn’t feel too shabby! I do look forward to trying to live up to the level and have already ordered a whole stack of repertoire I can’t wait to learn. Even better, there seems to be no lack of harpsichords on which to practice at the conservatory, I will be able to continue fortepiano studies with the same professor through that audition, and I have been exempted from solfège classes. The audition for the organ class en perfectionnement take place next Thursday on the stunning organ of St-Sernin so wish me luck–  I can’t wait to dive right into lessons in the coming weeks!

The amazing organ of St-Sernin
The amazing organ of St-Sernin