I’d love to share with you a second extract from ‘Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen’ in which I describe the sharp contrast between concert giving in small-town France and that in urban life. I hope it makes you smile and I’d appreciate a share. ‘Extracting Goats… is published by Kellan Publishing on January 27th.
During my formative years as a classical guitarist, I soon came to understand that a formal concert in a British, urban environment is a structured and rather predictable affair. There is a code of conduct which attendees follow religiously: it is inappropriate to applaud between movements of a piece, a concert will start at 7.35pm if it is billed as 7.30pm and the performer will receive an encore – regardless of whether the audience enjoyed their evening or otherwise. How different my experiences were in our little corner of France.
Upon arrival in theDordogne, I was a musical unknown. I needed to expand my pupil base pretty sharpish and to present myself as a guitarist for concert work as there were mounting bills looming on the near horizon. The music schools for which I worked were kindly and energetic in organising events where I could showcase my playing. One of my first concerts was in the beautiful Eglise Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix in Ribérac. Here I was to share the programme with an organist, a pianist and also accompany a violinist. Upon arrival a couple of hours before the event I was thrown into a world of loosely-organised chaos, more akin to a rock gig than a classical concert. The pianist was using an electric instrument and brought along a degree of sound equipment better suited for Megadeath at Glastonbury rather than Chopin at Ribérac. There was also the preparation of the microphone for the Master of Ceremonies or, as he/she is known, the animateur or animatrice. This was my first of, sadly, many experiences of the phenomenon I refer to as Monsieur/Madame Micro. Attendees of concerts in small French towns appear to believe an evening is incomplete without a local ‘character’ bellowing benign information down a microphone at a volume akin to strapping one’s head against the landing gear of a Boeing 747 in take-off mode. More on this in a moment.
As the starting time of 8.30pm approached – notably later than in the UK – I was prepared. I had changed into a snappy suit and red shirt, completed my warm-up routine, and was poised purposefully on a pew to the left of the stage. At 8.35pm, the pianist was still unloading more equipment – reversing up a truck to the ancient oak door and gathering a team of roadies to stagger in with a second batch of bucket woofers. There was no audience. By 9.00pm, I was anxious and my normal zen-like pre-concert state had evaporated. I felt uneasy at such a casual disregard for the starting time. At least though, the church had gradually filled up nicely. It seemed the French audience knew the protocols just as a British audience knows theirs – they were just singing from a different hymn sheet. In small-town France, there is no way that a concert starts at the billed time. It is mutually understood that at 8.30pm, an audience is tucking into dessert which will be followed by an espresso and the obligatory digestif.
Eventually, at 9.15pm, Monsieur Micro took to the stage to rapturous applause. I sensed his performance was of equal, or perhaps greater importance to that of the musicians. He proceeded to introduce the performers at a volume which would have made Pete Townshend wince, giving lengthy biographical details of each of us. This was completely unnecessary as he was simply reading the same programme notes which had been handed to every audience member in print, but it was all a necessary step in the procession of events. Whereas I was bored and mildly vexed at this further meaningless delay to the music-making, the audience appeared enraptured, nodding encouragingly at every already-communicated fragment of information. I soon found myself staring vacantly at the ancient stone domed roof above us, concerned the massive vibrations emitting from the PA may cause structural collapse and kill us all before a note was played. Suddenly, I became aware of a sustained round of applause. I looked at the audience and saw all eyes were on me. I had been introduced and, due to the mixture of 10,000 watts of power and my rudimentary knowledge of the language, I’d rather missed my cue. I hastily stood, grinned gormlessly like a kid with his hand caught stuck in the cookie jar, and took a bow.
The first performer was the organist. He was around ninety-seven years of age and barely able to lift his upper body, never mind place the necessary limbs on the organ’s keyboards and pedals. Once he had installed himself at his instrument, with generous help from a couple of gentlemen in the audience, I looked at the programme to see the works he was proposing. With considerable surprise, and admittedly some apprehension, I read that he would be offering pieces by Charles Gounod. These virtuosic and massively musically-complex works seemed an extraordinary choice of repertoire for an audience who looked more as if they were up for a touch of easy listening, and a performer who would perhaps have been more at ease in charge of a Zimmer frame.
He commenced, with the volume predictably turned up to eleven. As he crashed his way through the rich, dissonant harmonies – some Gounod’s, others of his own inadvertent invention – I found my face wincing into a range of contorted expressions of which I had no idea I was capable. I lost three years’ worth of tooth enamel due to a subconscious grinding induced by each wrong note. At every page-turn, he would stop, raise an arm, and agonisingly turn the sheet before continuing his war with the keyboard. The time taken to do this necessitated a substantial pause which suggested a somewhat elastic interpretation of Gounod’s rhythms. Some pauses occurred for no immediately apparent reason. At one point, I wondered if Monsieur l’Orgue had met his demise at the instrument which would, I suppose, be quite a rock ‘n’ roll way to go, but no, happily (or otherwise, depending on your musical tastes) he jerked back into life and launched into a new phase of his attack. At least these pauses allowed us respite to grab a tissue and dab at the blood discharging from our eardrums. Monsieur l’Orgue’s performance was met with rapturous applause – a standing ovation even. I have no idea who was more surprised, me or him.
From this, I learned an audience in the Dordogne love to hear works by a French composer. It is perhaps a reassertion of the might of their culture. Bearing in mind many in the audience were elderly, it’s possible they remember the war and therefore value their ‘Frenchness’. Secondly, I learned the French like to see a bit of effort – they recognised the gladiatorial element of the performance. Yes, all the notes were there but the audience wanted blood, sweat and tears – as if they were watching a monstrous bearded-bloke from Latvia pulling an articulated lorry in The World’s Strongest Man rather than marvelling at the subtleties of phrasing in Gounod’s melodic counterpoint. I think it also relates to the passion they have for a good spectacle, the artistic consequences being immaterial. Interestingly, the French also adore music of a Celtic origin. I arranged many traditional Celtic songs and melodies for solo guitar and placed these within a classical programme. They went down a storm. Some of them, such as the beautiful song The Water is Wide, have been rewritten with French lyrics. The original meaning is usually completely disregarded and new stories created. The other items, including my own offerings, passed off very well – the audience loving my attempts to tell them about the pieces (Bach, Weiss and Villa-Lobos I believe) in French. Monsieur Micro looked rather affronted as I was stepping into his territory.
I was interested to see and hear the courteous and reverential silence which one habitually experiences during the actual pieces was absent during this concert, and the dozens of similar events I performed at afterwards. It was regarded as perfectly acceptable practice for a group of ladies to noisily drag a table across the back of the church during the slow movement of a sonata, in preparation for the inevitable post-concert aperitif, digestif or rather charmingly named pot d’amitié (pot of friendship) which is a diplomatic way of saying ‘any excuse for a glass of hooch’. To omit this element would be akin to omitting the presence of musicians or even worse, Monsieur/Madame Micro.
Concerts were habitually of
agonisingly-long length. I would frequently share programmes with choirs in the
area and, during pre-concert planning meetings, I would drop to my knees and beg
them to discard some of the proposed items. The response would be that the
audience would enjoy such-and-such a piece or this would be a nice contrast to
that piece, but when buttock has been installed on hard pew for an hour, Monsieur/Madame Micro is in full flow and
you had that second glass of wine during the pre-concert aperitif, believe me, an unbroken hour of music is too long. I
played at a choir festival in Perigueux and the well-meaning organiser allowed
a young folk singer with a guitar to do ‘a small spot’ at the beginning of the
already-groaning-at-the-seams programme. The result was the young fellow,
charming as he was, did that maddening thing all folk guitarist/singers do
where he mumbled indistinct introductions, telling stories which went nowhere,
all the while strumming airy chords and making meaningless adjustments to his
instrument’s tuning. We heard about half-an-hour of chit-chat and seven minutes
of songs, all before the actual scheduled programme had begun.
Dan goes on to explain why pretending to be French at a boozy chateau weddings is a bad idea, how one should avoid flippantly offering to perform at a French funeral and how he is repeatedly mistaken for a celebrity at pop/rock gigs.
Extracting Goats from Jean-Claude’s Kitchen is available for digital pre-order now and in can be ordered in print from January 27th 2019.