Discovering Colin Davis's Nielsen in Aix

James InverneFri 22nd July 2011

Adventures of a couple sitting next to me in the stalls


Back from Aix. There is a definite air of a facelift about the festival. That might be a strange thing to say given that this was my first visit. But the feeling is inescapable. It's there in the fact of a community opera with local groups (a work which reportedly – I missed it – blended opera with slam and other modern musics, a result of the London Symphony Orchestra's Discovery outreach activities, happily bankrolled by Vivendi). It's there in the freshness of the La Traviata production, which I reported on in an earlier blog. It's there in the newly commissioned music theatre piece, Austerlitz.

It is most definitely there in the concert hall, still only four years old. The auditorium is bright and swoops round in a dramatic circle (with just a whiff of an international UN-style forum about it). Although the lack of a central aisle in the stalls hardly facilitates a swift entrance or exit (woe betide anyone who might need to excuse themselves in the middle of a Bruckner symphony!) the seats are comfortable and the sound warm and clear.

The Aix audience seems essentially conservative but open. They come for the mainstream operas, but once there they willingly explore the lesser-known or the more challenging. London or New York audiences may not now blink at a Nielsen symphony – indeed my colleague Andrew Mellor has penned a fascinating article on the Danish composer's new-found popularity for Gramophone's forthcoming September issue – but it seemed to be a rare wonder in this corner of France. The couple sitting next to me at a concert featuring Nielsen's Fifth Symphony (also some Haydn and Mozart) were eager to know about the work and specifically why Sir Colin Davis had programmed it.

So I told them a bit about Nielsen and explained how Davis had long wanted to tackle the composer but had only recently found the time, how the music has even somehow seemed to reinvigorate the conductor (not that he was waning, but there does seem to be an extra spring in his step lately). They listened and nodded, and after the music decided "It's very modern." I wasn't sure quite how this was meant. I suspect they were glad to make Nielsen's acquaintance, but would probably pass up the chance to do so again. 

It's a shame as the LSO had relished this strange and compelling work. Thanks to Davis, originality was held together with a strict sense of the great symphony's architecture. But fine. The couple had listened, they had quite liked, but only quite. Next year and for that matter maybe this week, whether for Schnittke or Salonen, you can bet they'll come back. And maybe they'll make a discovery they like.


James Inverne

James Inverne is former editor of Gramophone. He now runs a music management + PR company, Inverne Price Music Consultancy, writes a culture column for the Jewish Chronicle newspaper and his byline can still be found from time to time in other places about subjects that get him exercised.

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