Getting a Festival education in Monte-Carlo

Just as one should never ask a lady her age, one should never be put in the uncomfortable position of being asked your impressions of the concert you’re politely applauding. This has only happened to me once, and thankfully not here in Monte Carlo.

In truth, judging by the audience last night  – well-cut suits hanging from trim frames – I suspect the question would never be asked. That’s not to say there’s no elitism about the place. Far from it. It’s just that here no-one really notices.

Tickets for last night’s concert in the Yacht Club designed by Norman Foster stretched to a jaw-droppingly reasonable 26 Euros – that’s just over double the amount of money I paid for a pint of Heineken in my hotel.

That surprises me because my assumption was that just as everything else is expensive in Monaco, so ticket prices would be too, especially given that some of the audience live in a location where the average net worth per capita is $1.5 billion dollars. In that way using the world ‘elite’ here is a statement of fact, and makes the tribalism and sometime self-loathing of the London classical music scene seem like a world away. That’s what money can buy.

Where Monte Carlo has differed from previous festival experiences is the programming. It is committed to expanding horizons including unfamiliar works that use a challenging language. Monte Carlo can afford to do that of course, but the consequence is often a rich set of new musical introductions. For those with a curious mind, it’s a rewarding experience. Just like last night.

That said, if I had been asked what I’d thought of last night’s concert I’d have struggled to come up with a response. Partly, because a range of different performers took to the platform with a similarly wide range of repertoire. What that meant in practice was that some performers didn’t have sufficient time to become accustomed to the performance space with the audience in it. Performances lacked the connection I’ve come to expect in chamber music concerts, meaning I left the Yacht Club feeling slightly disappointed.

The music I expected to more easily connect with – a Mozart Violin Sonata and a piano quartet played on modern instruments with baroque bows and a pianoforte – lacked definition and therefore impact. Conversely, it was the bookended works – Charles Ives’ Violin Sonata No. 2 and the long 11 Songs and 2 Harmonisations for Voice and Piano.

The concert was long. I was tired. The Ives songs went on longer than I had the stamina for in the end. That’s why I felt uneasy to sharing a view on what I’d heard (either in conversation or in a blog review). But there was something that piqued my interest in all of Ives’ music – the first time I’d heard it.

In pianist Anne Le Bozec and mezzo Isabelle Druet’s performance (above) of the Songs, Ives was revealed as the king of ambiguous endings. In At Sea, for example, Ives demonstrates an ability to translate the nuances of the spoken word into a harmonic language that creates something vaguely familiar even though the piece itself maybe completely new to listeners. He loves quiet poignancy, sometimes barely imperceptible sounds too – Serenity is a good example, so too the Housatonic at Stockbridge.

But this is what Festivals are good at. They break you out of your routine. They transport you to a different location. Different smells, different tastes, different conventions. Senses are turbo-charged. Awareness is heightened. New connections are wired up. New paths followed.

As I’ve written this, I’ve explored Ives further. First his batshit-crazy and hugely evocative Universe Symphony, the surprisingly orthodox late Romantic-esque Second Symphony, and the eerie and sometimes terrifying Unanswered Question.

There’s a lot in what Alexander van Ingen said in a recent Thoroughly Good Podcast about how new concert-goers need to be prepared to give a new concert experience time to take hold. It may take longer than you anticipate.

But, once you’re caught-up in the reward mechanism it delivers, music introductions and curiosity can take you deeper and deeper. And to my mind that will experience will be more potent at a festival.

The Festival Printemps Des Arts De Monte-Carlo runs until 29 April 2018

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