AAM in France – Day 2, St Malo

Harbour in St. Malo

The day began quite cold, cloudy and windy; I almost bought an extra pullover but couldn’t overcome my prejudice that August in France should be hot and that pullovers should be unnecessary. And glad I was, too, as the day brightened and became lovely and sunny by the time our rehearsal began in the atmospheric yet dark cathedral.

We spent the lunch hours in one of our common tour activities: looking for a meal. Touring is a strange existence; regular life of family, home and hearth gets put on hold and you enter a pleasurably suspended existence. At its best, touring can be a heady mix of inspiring concerts, socialising with favourite colleagues and sight-seeing in world-class destinations. At its worst, it can be, well, not that. Some orchestral tours are, for purely financial reasons, an exercise in survival. Early departures, short nights, hurried meals, long bus journeys. One becomes expert at sniffing out cheap, quick and satisfying restaurants as very often there is less than an hour to eat before the bus departs/concert starts/flight check-in. But our tour this week is an utterly luxurious schedule. The morning departures are mid-morning, we have time in the hotel before rehearsal and plenty of time for a dinner break as the concerts begin at 9 PM.

Yesterday was no exception. Because we had all arrived the night before and the pre-concert rehearsal started at three, everyone had time for themselves in the morning. Some people practise, some go for a run, some walk around town, some sleep, some catch up on correspondence. A few of us met at 1 to find a relaxed, traditional multi-course French meal. We were thwarted at every turn. Places were either full, or too expensive, or filled with tourists (lots of those in St. Malo; of course we don’t count) or not atmospheric enough. In the end, we wasted nearly an hour trying to find just the right spot, ran out of time and ducked into a very crowded tourist creperie and had a quick galette which was nonetheless very tasty.

Off we rushed then to rehearsal in the cathedral – the Romanesque building is one of the main tourist attractions in town. When we arrived, the King’s College Choir was rehearsing with an immense crowd of onlookers. There was a steady flow of tourists throughout the rehearsal, which, combined with the furniture-moving in the background, made for a very noisy rehearsal.

It was a beautiful place, though, with a very encouraging acoustic and playing the piece is always a great pleasure.

Bill, Rachel and Judith with the choir

We had three hours for the dinner break but restaurants weren’t open until 7 PM so we had plenty of time to scout out a good one, book for 7 and still have a walk on the beach.

After a lovely French dinner, just what we’d been hoping for, we were well set for a beautiful concert. The audience was large and rapt and could hardly control their enthusiasm over the choirboys in their morning suits and gowns. After a number of curtain calls, it was time for our champagne reception, followed by a quick drink in a charming quirky pub near the hotel before collapsing for the night.

Rodolfo, Andrew and Bill after the show

AAM in France – Day 1, St Malo

Today is the first day of the AAM’s tour of France playing the Monteverdi Vespers with the King’s College Choir conducted by Stephen Cleobury – as well as the first day of this new AAM blog! I’ll be your tour host for the next six days; I’m Cassandra Luckhardt, and I’m playing tenor violin in this production – although usually I play the more familiar instruments known as “cello” and “viola da gamba.”

Usually the first day of an international tour involves an early start as we all have to get ourselves to the point of departure; in this case, the orchestra was picked up from Victoria and Heathrow and driven down to Poole on a bus, where everyone hopped on a five-hour ferry direct to St. Malo, the first stop on the tour. I myself live in Amsterdam so had a solo journey here involving two high-speed trains and one distinctly low-speed Metro ride in Paris. I arrived at the hotel at about 6.30pm and expected the group to arrive about an hour later, but in fact they had quite a delay and only arrived at about 9pm when everyone headed out for a well-deserved meal. I was lucky enough with the weather to enjoy the evening walking around the ramparts of the town. It’s a lovely walled city; unfortunately, it was almost completely destroyed by bombing in 1944 but was carefully restored, brick by brick.

A bit more information about this tenor violin I’m playing. We’re performing the Marian Vespers (Vespro della Beata Vergine 1610) by Claudio Monteverdi, arguably his best-known composition. Published in Venice while the composer was working in Mantua, the large-scale work is a masterpiece uniting exceedingly-varied compositional styles into a unique whole. The piece calls for solo singers, choir and an orchestra made up of cornetts, sackbutts, recorders, strings and continuo. I am playing tenor violin – although it is a bit unclear which instrument Monteverdi had in mind. The part is mostly a bit high for a cello, although in one movement is much too low for a viola. Generally, a tenor violin is a small cello tuned one octave below a violin, i.e. G-D-A-e. I borrowed an instrument and was unsure how it would fit into Monteverdi’s sound world – it has four strings, like a cello, but frets like a gamba. Imagine my delight when I saw the original of this instrument in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and discovered that it was built in Brescia sometime before 1609 – Brescia is about 65 kms from Mantua! So there is absolutely no doubt that I’m playing the correct instrument for this piece and very possibly the exact one that Monteverdi had in mind.

Our first concert is this evening in the Cathedral; I’ll let you know tomorrow how it went!