Festival Gems

Posted by Anne & Kirk Woodyard – Music and Markets Tours

Applause echoes through the vaulted outer ring of the ancient cloister as a string quartet ascends the stage, a hush falls over the eager listeners, then the pure glorious notes of Haydn rise into the evening sky.

A smiling artist steps up to a gleaming harpsichord set in a corner of an antique shop, introducing us to Mozart played on period instruments mirroring the prized armoires, settees, and tables among which we sit.

AMS saxesLeaves rustle overhead in a tree-shaded garden as a talented saxophone trio wows the audience with musical intricacies.

Happily-recalled scenes from previous seasons in Provence and Amsterdam, these are just a few examples of the rich offerings of Europe’s classical music festivals, where the vigorous applause at the finale of each concert is perhaps as much in praise of place as of performance.

From baroque castles to world-class concert halls, from velvet-grassed meadows to historic vaulted cathedrals, the music flows out to audiences eager to enjoy the best of seasoned performers as well as new talent.

Many events, such as England’s Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Austria’s Salzburg Festival, or Germany’s Bayreuth Festival, are world-renowned and definitely discovered but Music and Markets Tours delights in finding the undiscovered and rarer gems, such as Amsterdam’s summertime Grachtenfestival (Canal Festival), where we’ve been thrilled by world-class performers on intimate terraces perched above historic canal-side homes, in lush private gardens, and even on stages floating in the shimmering lanes of water.

In addition to the concerts, featuring both new talent and some established artists in venues opened only for this special event, during the festival, guided walking tours are conducted along the cobbled lanes lining the canals where the festival takes place. These three canals, the Prinsengracht, Herengracht, and Keizersgracht comprise the sparkling elegant heart of the “Golden Necklace” of canals, where wealthy 16th and 17th century spice merchants built their imposing homes durHouseboat, Canal, Flowersing Holland’s gilded age. A world of gabled vertical facades and bowed bridges, bright geraniums tumbling from flower boxes, cozy cafés, and golden-tipped steeples awaits discovery.

Between concerts, it’s easy to fit in a museum or two – Amsterdam boasts more museums per square inch than anywhere else on the planet. The mother lode of Vincent Van Gogh’s work was donated by the wife of his brother, Theo, to the city, which displays them proudly in the Van Gogh Museum. And there are even Dutch Masters at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport to be viewed while waiting for a flight since the venerable Rijksmuseum has opened a small branch (with continually changing exhibits) there.

From early in the morning when the mist drifts above the water, to late at night when the twinkling lights rimming the hump-backed bridges shimmer in the dark canals,  surprises such as a floating flower market, an enamel tiled steeple, a bicycle-built-for-four, or a trendy restaurant serving Indonesian food lurk around every corner of this compact city.

In contrast to the tightly wrapped cityscape of Amsterdam, the vast and beautiful countryside of rural Provence is the backdrop for several summertime festivals. 108RognesQuarryJazzLa Roque d’Anthèron’s annual International Piano Festival, celebrating its 30th year in 2010, stages concerts in venues as varied as a cloister of a 12th century Cistercian abbey and a deserted rock quarry.

The twitter of birds, the fragrance of lavender, the rustle of leaves, or the whir of the ever present cicada, a symbol of Provence, are a soothing accompaniment to concerts ranging from jazz to baroque.

Sharing a venue or two with La Roque d’Anthèron, the Lourmarin International String Quartet Festival features outstanding artists from a variety of European locales such as Spain, Belgium, and the Czech Republic.

We still remember the Psophos quartet, four gifted young French women as inspiring to watch as to hear, who enthralled the eager audience in the hushed cloister of the Abbey of Silvacane, nestled in the countryside beside the Durance river. Their choice of program literature ranged from familiar Beethoven to intriguing Webern – and this variety characterizes the programs of the festivals, whose organizers typically include lesser known works and composers along with perennial favorites.

78SunflowersPerformances don’t begin until the evening, leaving daytime hours to be filled with explorations of the glorious countryside. Markets burst with sun kissed produce, pungent lavender sachets, colorful fabrics, and local cheeses; and a seductive variety of olives, breads, and honey are a daily delight, presenting endless variations on the picnic theme. Brilliant fields of golden sunflowers and hillsides of twisted olive trees bring to mind the canvases of Van Gogh and provide a cornucopia of inviting al fresco lunchtime spots.

From the green hills of the Luberon to the limestone inlets, the Calanques, of Cassis, there’s a never-ending abundance of dazzling countryside to enjoy in Provence. We love to fill our days with market visits, discovery of delectable cuisine in local bistros, and strolls in hilltop villages.

If you want to share the pride of neighborhoods in their own local festivals, these are ones you’ll love. The exhilaration of being carried to another place through fantastic music, combined with unforgettable locations, turns a week of concerts into a lifetime memory.

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2009 Anne and Kirk ViasThe best way to describe us (Kirk and Anne Woodyard) is that we’re interested in the stories that make the places we visit come alive.
We’ve visited Europe more times than we can count, learned some entertaining stories there, and met some warm and helpful people who also enjoy the wonders of music and life in Europe.

Between our music-related travels, we split our time between our homes near Washington DC and the Languedoc in the south of France. We look forward to sharing these stories and friends and experiences with our Music and Markets guests.

While both of us have experience in organizing travel and music groups Kirk’s background is in project management and competitive writing, and Anne is an accomplished pianist with over thirty years of teaching experience, and a travel and food writer specializing in France and Italy.

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