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!
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!
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!
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!
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?