The weeks of punishment that we have endured have been hard to take, and although the fifty shades of grey that we have been experiencing in London have no end in sight, I have to tell you that here in Aix-en-Provence the rain has been beaten into submission. As I write this, the sky is unblemished blue, the lime trees are gently swaying and I am about to enjoy lunch with a friend in a beautiful courtyard before the rehearsal.
Yesterday was unusual for us as we had arrived the day before for a rehearsal in the evening; a late morning check-in ensured that we arrived refreshed rather than frazzled. The following day, after a dip in the pool – sorry – we had six hours of rehearsal with Valery in a space which can be described as retail park chic. I hadn’t been here before, but as the coach stopped next to a furniture store, tyre centre and a DIY store, I thought we had blindly been following sat nav, but no, this is where we have been for two days. However, once inside, the large white space we had to work in at least had air conditioning and skylights, although it was very loud playing Prokofiev in there. Outside was a walled area, a suntrap complete with lavender and a gazebo with lilac flowering fragrantly as it does. It was a bit like being back on a youth orchestra tour but with better food and playing, but fleeting as we had work to do.
Prokofiev’s Cinderella was first on the menu, not a piece we are familiar with and so Valery played it though with us under tempo. If you don’t know it – the music, I’m assuming you’re familiar with the story – it is typical Prokofiev, the soaring string lines, characterful woodwind and melodies which soar to unimaginable heights and plunge to the bass of the band rendering them totally unsingable. As it is a ballet score there are several passages which are very descriptive, particularly the final scene with a musical portrayal of the clock approaching midnight. As it is a selection, we are not spanning the whole story and bizarrely we stop before the end; however in the Proms later this summer we will do the whole thing and you can hear Prokofiev’s pumpkin wordpainting at work.
After this, Dutilleux. The luscious orchestration combined with Renée Fleming singing the vocal line increases the temperature in the room. Valery is in his element balancing chords, taking time to make sure we here all of the notes of the accordian – yes, an accordian. He picks out details,
“I need to hear the E here. Harp! No, strings don’t crescendo.”
The E sings out in the bassline and is instantly shrouded in the cool heat of the string section.
“Now just muted trumpets and basses, take over from one another.”
The two sections play and all of a sudden you can hear the unexpected similarity in sonority.
“But trumpets? You have the Robinson mutes?”
“Ah OK, good.”
He picks details like this and holds the orchestra back in restraint to allow Fleming to soar. And soar she does as the orchestra is held back by Valery’s steady left hand flicking from side to side as she swoops up to her top register. This piece seems particularly at home here in the south, it is slow, colourful and languid and I’m sure tomorrow will bring the house down. Tonight however, we have Firebird. As the heat of the day gradually fades later, the fire of Russian legend will again heat up Aix-en-Provence and with Valery in charge, the heat will be intense and totally unrestrained.