Nuits d’été, concerts gratuits: music in the Marais (Hôtel d’Albret)

Something I’ve found no matter where I go in France, from Paris to Aix-en-Provence: if you pass a cobblestoned courtyard and the heavy 17th-century doors are flung open and there are people milling about, it pays to find out what the action is, and whether you ought to get in on it. Often you’re a welcome guest, and sometimes it’s magic what goes on in these courtyards.

Like me, you may find yourself wandering through the 4th arrondissement with an unmanageable falafel in one hand and a rogaleh in the other, and follow the strains of ethereal singing down Rue Francs-Bourgeois to the breezy courtyard of the Hôtel d’Albret, where you happen on a rehearsal for a free concert less than two hours hence. By the time you’ve finished stuffing your face with pita and pastries, a large crowd will have gathered to secure their seats in the intimate open-air stage, surrounded by 18th-century Louis XV architecture.

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A few enquiries later, and I’ve learned that I’m jostling people for a chair at the launch of France Musique’s concert series of daily direct broadcasts: same time, same place until August 30. “Shall we wait here and make sure we get our two seats in paradise?” two ladies joke in French behind me. I follow the crowd — it’s clearly a family affair — as they surge forth to claim their spots, then relinquish mine for a frail but sprightly spectator who resembles the elderly woman in Amour. No matter; even a sore ass from sitting on the hard, uneven pavés has a certain authentic charm, especially when you’re looking up at the perfectly framed blue sky.

Although the line-up was  announced in advance, there was a refreshing spontaneity about the way the musicians threw it all together. The poster gave me the impression there would be three short sets:

Henri Demarquette, violoncelle

Pascal Bertin, contre-ténor, et Pierre Gallon, clavecin

Thomas Enhco, piano jazz

In fact they all played together in various combinations – combining, too, their respective styles. Opening proceedings with a solo jazz improv on Schumann’s C-Major Arabeske Op 18 was the 24-year-old pianist Thomas, who took an electrolyte-charged, effervescent approach to reinterpreting classical repertoire. Bobbing up and down at the keyboard, boyish energy tempered by impeccable ear, he was my first exciting new discovery in what I’m sure will be many in the concert series. Henri Demarquette followed with an interesting contemporary selection from the Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher for solo cello by the late Maître Dutilleux.

During relaxed interviews with radio presenter Arièle Butaux between acts, it was revealed that Thomas had cut short a windsurfing holiday to rehearse with the other musicians in counter-tenor Pascal Bertin’s apartment the day before. The advertisement for the radio broadcasts promises classique, jazz et chanson; I assumed that would be across the series as a whole, not all in the one concert. Because the musicians pass so many posters amateur performances of The Four Seasons between the métro and the venue, they decided to make their own clever little Vivaldi mash-up as a quartet. Thus their punchy opening to the Presto from Summer segued into a sultry rendition of Gershwin’s Summertime, sung in sensual high voice by Pascal, who crooned Les Feuilles Mortes after a snippet of the Red Priest’s Autumn intro, and Winter’s Allegro seamlessly melted into Purcell’s The Cold Song. (By now, appropriately, Thomas had fetched his blazer and Henri was applying pegs to his music stand in a light but chill wind.)

It certainly wasn’t windy enough to curtail their fun, or to discourage me from returning to the courtyard of chance musical encounters – tomorrow it’s Cédric Tiberghien and friends. Allons-y!

Thomas Enhco’s album Fireflies is out now.

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