It’s fair to say that Seren Winds can be justifiably proud that having only played together since January, we were invited to be a ‘teaser act’ for a new music festival in Quiberon, a small peninsula off Brittany in Northern France.
Pascal Gallois, the renowned bassoonist, invited us to perform in the town as part of the build up to his new ‘Musicales de Quiberon’ festival on the 19th-20th September, which involves performances of works by Schoenberg, Mahler, Varese, Kurtag and Boulez with the International Contemporary Ensemble of New York.
The trip itself was a fantastic opportunity for us, improving our ensemble playing dramatically and being tremendous fun. We flew from London City Airport early on the Tuesday morning and landed in disappointingly rainy and cold Quimper, to be met by Pascal and taken to our house on the southern side of the peninsula (or ‘isthmus’ as Pascal rather more accurately referred to it, despite a charming inability to pronounce the word ‘isthmus’).
The house made available to us during our stay was just off the beach and a couple of minutes’ walk from both a wonderful little restaurant bar and a surprisingly well-stocked little supermarket. Soon after arriving we were in the former, with Pascal buying us a lunch of mussels and Breton cider – both of which were delightful. The mussels were so delightful (and so plentiful), in fact, that it must have taken us at least an hour to work our way through all of them.
With supreme effort of will we then managed to drag ourselves around the town to decide where we’d be performing throughout the week.
At this point we should introduce Serge. Serge is the man in charge of finance in Quiberon (presumably with attendant title, but we couldn’t work out what that might be) and it was he, along with Sérine Barbin (the Culture Minister), who helped Pascal organise the festival.
It would be an understatement to say that Serge is a man of few words; he’s a man of no words, instead preferring to use that sort of French throaty noise which could mean anything. He wore incredibly dark sunglasses for the majority of the time, so none of us actually saw his eyes for the first three days of our stay. He also had an endearing habit of taking different routes between the town centre and our house every time he drove us, which was at least twice a day. He would take random turnings whenever he fancied, as if it was a game to find the most interesting route home.
Pascal (not a resident of Quiberon) also tried this, taking several turns of a roundabout on one drive home, but this was because he was lost. On occasion we took the Quib’bus into or from town, a circular bus service that cost us 1€ each for the entire day (the bus itself wasn’t circular, obviously, the route was circular).
Quiberon itself is a lovely seaside town, which looked far better in the sunshine we had throughout the week than in the rain on the first day. We found out from Pascal that we’d be performing three times a day (at 11am, 4pm and 6pm), each time in a different part of town, and that while we tootled away he’d hand out flyers and generally advertise his festival.
Our first session each day was in a charming little square called ‘la Place Duchesse Anne’; the second in a place whose only relevant feature seemed to be a metal fish statue; and the third next to a pharmacy in the main square of the town. We would turn up at the relevant time, cover our stands with clothes pegs to stop a catastrophic loss of music due to the wind, and play a light programme for perhaps half an hour or until we got bored of the breeze prematurely turning pages for us.
I’m quite sure that none of us wanted to see a clothes peg again at the end of each day, and it certainly made performances slightly more challenging – in one Danzi quintet I missed most of a page while wrestling with my pegs, and Eric played much of the last section from memory after the wind blew another page over the music we were playing.
Aside from these performances our time was our own and most often we’d head back to our house with the intention to rehearse but would end up on the beach or in the restaurant for lunch. Between the afternoon concerts we’d find a seaside café for an ice cream or crepe (or, admittedly, a bottle of wine).
The busy performing schedule allowed us to expand our repertoire, and in particular we found some of the June Emerson string quartet-wind quintet arrangements (Haydn and Mozart) both sight-readable and popular with the audience, who generally stopped to listen and chuck a Euro or two into our strategically placed instrument case.
Having prepared for one or two formal recitals we had works such as Françaix and Nielsen quintets but these proved to be slightly too avant-garde for the holidaying audience.
Another piece that we played a lot was Farkas’ Early Hungarian Dances, which we’d decided to take at the last minute. Not only was it popular with the families who stopped to let their children indulge in some interpretative dance, it was hugely popular with Pascal and Serge, who requested it at every opportunity. I think we played at least one movement of Farkas in almost all of the eighteen performances we gave.
One such rendition took place in an extremely old Citroën that Pascal had arranged for us to use. At first we had no idea what he was saying when he introduced it as a ‘deux chevaux’ but it seems that a ‘Citroën Two Horses’ is a well-known French icon.
Somehow we all crammed into this tiny orange car and just about got through the first movement of Farkas – from memory and trying not to collapse into hysterics. It drew quite a crowd, however, and there is a video available on our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/SerenWinds) for anyone who wants to inject some surrealism into their day.
Aside from the many performances the trip was also a great opportunity to meet locals and music lovers from the area. Many passersby stopped passing by in order to thank us, including a clarinet fanatic who hovered over Laura’s shoulder for quite some time, a bassoon fan who donated 10€ because he liked Bart’s staccato playing, and a horn in the Bordeaux Opera who handed me 2€ after a performance of some Gounod in which I’d temporarily forgotten how to transpose.
There were two ‘parties’ for us. The first was in a large garden just outside the town centre, where we were plied with whiskey, wine, beer, Porto, Grappa, some bizarre-smelling Framboise liqueur, Calvados, Cognac, cheese, meat and a variety of other apéritifs that I can’t remember before playing a miniature recital on the patio, which was received with great delight by the private audience.
I was cautious about possible noise complaints if we played the fourth movement of the Françaix quintet, but then our host ambled up with several cans of Heineken and we all became much less concerned.
On our last night in Quiberon guests came to our house for another party, this time involving a barbecue and copious amounts of French red wine. A strong sea breeze made lighting the barbecue a bit of a challenge but Pascal had a trick for this.
While I was prodding some coal and firelighters around he wandered up with a hairdryer and started blasting the coals with hot air, managing to simultaneously endanger nearby hedges while getting the barbecue, and the party, really going.
Many thanks are owed to Pascal Gallois, Serge Brosolo and Sérine Barbin for inviting us to Quiberon and for making our week extremely enjoyable, and we very much hope to be back in 2016! Thanks also to June Emerson Wind Music, who provided us with some of the most popular arrangements of the trip.