Only the French have a compact term for music-lovers, les melomanes, a word that combines melody with mania. There is an element of truth in that, I must confess, as is proved by the fact that when on holiday in rural France my husband and I miss no opportunity to attend one of the rather rare classical music concerts that are given there. Of course, when we’re in our home base in Jerusalem we are regular participants in several concert series, and would hate to find ourselves without at least one concert a week.
With time and annual visits has come the realisation that in the region of central France where we tend to spend our summers in order to escape the heat in Israel a series of vocal concerts, known as ‘The Voice of Summer,’ (Voix d’Eté) is given. These are held in various churches around the region, many of which date back to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and still preserve a great number of their original decorative features. The architecture is generally romanesque, though there are also several gothic churches, and the acoustics of these structures tends to enhance the effect of the human voice. Information about the concerts, which are organized by ADIAM, the cultural arm of the regional government, is available at any local tourist office.
The artists who perform at these concerts are many and varied, though on the whole they are French even if they perform music of a different culture, such as Irish folk music. But we have also had the good fortune to attend concerts given by the magnificent choir of Kings College, London, an excellent Russian youth orchestra accompanying an amazing coloratura soprano, and sundry others. We are not always enamoured of the choice of program and singers (one evening of Corsican folk music is more than enough), but when the program and the artists are up to scratch the experience can be dazzling.
A couple of years ago we were privileged to hear a performance of Handel’s Messiah (sung in English by a French choir and soloists), to mark the inauguration of a magnificent organ in the church at Benevant l’Abbaye. The organ, supplementing the orchestra, gave the performance an added dimension which greatly enhanced the music. Usually, however, the performances are not on such a large scale, and the ensembles often consist of two or three artists who sing and play portable instruments. We have also been privileged to attend concerts of ancient music, demonstrating the skill and ability of many of the performers, who are almost always of a very high professional standard.
One novel feature of the ‘Voice of Summer’ concerts is the seating arrangement. Churches are not known for their comfortable seats, and often the audience finds itself sitting on hard wooden benches. Consequently, anyone who regularly attends these events comes equipped with a cushion. In addition, the seats at the front are reserved for privileged guests (usually local dignitaries) and anyone who has a subscription for all six or seven concerts of the series. Upon entering and presenting one’s ticket one is duly ushered to one’s privileged seat at the front.
We have come to recognise the other subscription buyers, and politely acknowledge one another, though refrain from the customary French kissing ritual upon meeting friends and acquaintances. This is just as well, as one gentleman, whose name we do not know, is known to us as ‘Mr. Garlic-Breath,’ and we try to avoid sitting close to him, if possible. Another habitué is ‘Mr. Bushy Beard,’ who also happens to be very tall, so it is advisable not to be sitting behind him.
On the whole, the French audience is very well-behaved, and refrains from coughing, sneezing or talking during the performance, and also applauds enthusiastically after each piece. I have never yet heard a mobile phone ring during a concert in la Creuse, though this is sadly almost a regular incident in concerts in Israel.
Concerts in rural France are definitely an added bonus to our annual holiday, and I for one do not intend to miss a single one.