Provence! Blessed expanse of land between the mouth of the Rhone and the Alps, where pines, cypresses and olive trees grow, where the lilacs shine in the midday sun and the roofs of the rocky limestone coast seem to glow with a particular red. The region in southeastern France is known for its good herbs, great paintings and its A cities, for example Arles, Avignon and of course Aix-en-Provence, the historic capital of the region, the birthplace of Paul Cézanne.
The opera festival, which takes place every July in the courtyard of the archbishop’s palace, was founded more than 70 years ago as the “Salzburg of the South”. And since a setting like Aix is too beautiful to be used only in summer, there have also been Easter celebrations here for several years, as in Salzburg. The Festival de Pâques was animated in 2013 by the busy violinist Renaud Capuçon as artistic director and by Dominique Bluzet, director of the Grand Théâtre de Provence in Aix.
This is a modern building opened in 2007 with Wagner’s Die Walküre. In which enthusiastic applause bursts: the Easter Festival with the 7th Bruckner Symphony has just ended. Nine musicians hug each other on the podium, laughing and relieved, including a current (principal clarinetist Daniel Ottensamer) and a former (double bassist Alois Posch) member of the Vienna Philharmonic.
wait a minute, nine? In a Bruckner symphony? That’s right, it’s a version of chamber music, with piano and harmonium, arranged by Hanns Eisler. And suddenly this colossal cathedral-like music sounds incredibly fine, light and accessible, the voices and their evolution are much more understandable than in the heavy sound of the orchestra. Capuçon later said, “I’ve wanted to recite this for a long time.” His goal is to surprise his audience: with young talents or rarely performed works. In designing the program, he compares himself, very French, to a chef.
Finally again with an audience
The festival lasted two weeks, with over thirty concerts. The total of 25,000 visitors didn’t pay much money. Compared to other Easter holidays, Aix is cheap with ticket prices ranging from ten to sixty euros. Exclusivity is not the priority, everyone should be able to come.
Capuçon considers the fact that there is an audience as the biggest event of the year. As everywhere, the Festival de Pâques 2020 was completely canceled, in 2021 it was held in streaming. After two years of pandemic, he now wanted to offer French orchestras a stage, such as the Orchester Philharmonique de Radio France. In the opening, Das performed Mozart’s Requiem, with Barbara Hannigan on the podium, in her special discipline: conducting and singing the soprano part at the same time.
The thought of a requiem, a requiem mass, couldn’t be further from a stroll through Aix. The city is incredibly young, thanks to the various faculties of the university in nearby Marseille and its conservatory, where professionals who came to the Festival de Pâques gave master classes, a nice way to build bridges in the academic scene. The avenue of plane trees Cours Mirabeau shines in the light of an afternoon when Emmanuel Macron once again manages to save France from a right-wing populist president.
But there is hardly a trace of politics here. The Cours Mirabeau is the most important promenade in Aix and, like so many avenues (the term goes back to the word “bastion”), it is arranged along the city walls. At its end there is a fountain, the Fontaine du Roi René. A smiling statue looks at the viewer: René I of Anjou, also called “René the Good”, was the last Provençal ruler in the late Middle Ages before the territory was incorporated into the Domaine Royale, in other words: in the Kingdom of France.
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Fountains, springs in general, characterize the urban landscape, even the Romans loved to swim here: the name “Aix” derives from the Latin “aqua”. The water often flows directly from the facades of the plastered houses of a wonderful light yellow, even in the Mazzarino district, which was built on behalf of Michel Mazzarino, brother of the famous cardinal. Stroll through neighborhoods that have existed naturally since the Baroque period – a revelation for visitors to Berlin, where the architectural memory dates back at best to the founding of the Reich in 1871, but mostly only to the fall of the wall.
Living history in a historical context
The rupture between tradition and modernity here is much sweeter, the continuity is much greater than in Germany, where much of what hasn’t been bombed has been senselessly demolished or neglected for decades and then hyper-correctly renewed. Now it stands there like the Kaisersaal of Potsdamer Platz: sterile, cut off from its history, devoid of any spirit.
(www.festivalpaques.com. Three concerts are available on Arte Concert, including the opening concert with Barbara Hannigan. The summer opera festival opens on July 4th with Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, followed by productions of Strauss’ “Salome” and “Idomeneo” by Mozart “and two world premieres. Info: www.festival-aix.com)
Luckily it also comes from Germany: great music, it plays an important role alongside the French repertoire (Ravel, Franck, Messiaen) at the Festival de Pâques: Bach violin concertos, Schumann’s symphonic studies or Brahms’ Liebeslieder, sung by Rachel Harnisch and Marina Viotti in the small Théâtre de Jeu de Paume. Then in the evening: Beethoven, the complete boom. First the triple concert with the Trio Zeliha on the three solo instruments, then the Eroica. Gabór Takács-Nagy conducts the Orchester National des Pays de la Loire – and rarely has anyone on the podium been seen throwing themselves so fully into the music. With the nearly 70-year-old, literally not a bar goes up in smoke – the result might sound terribly frenetic and artificial, but no, it works, musicians indulge their Beethoven with a passion that is aware of the details.
The next evening, Renaud Capuçon takes Martha Argerich to the Steinway. The two have known each other for 20 years and can be heard: in Schumann’s Sonata for violin and piano op.105, in Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” – and in César Franck’s Sonata in A major. Two people who know each other very well are making music by themselves on the big podium: she is almost Buddhist and meditative, he is energetic. A touching experience. Capuçon says he would like his parties to have “gravity”. Tonight it becomes clear what he means by this.