Entertainment Music

Friday 23 February 2018

Classical: Musical thread that runs through the streets of Nice

Final season: Leonard Slatkin, the American conducter in charge of the Orchestra National de Lyon.
Final season: Leonard Slatkin, the American conducter in charge of the Orchestra National de Lyon.

George Hamilton

Our football odyssey this past week has taken us away from the delights of Paris on a southerly trajectory. First stop was France's third city - Lyon - where the Irish adventure came to an end - and from there it was on to the sunshine of the Riviera. As always, music is never too far away.

Lyon, where the rivers Rhône and Saône meet, is a major metropolis with a thriving cultural scene. At its heart is the Orchestre National de Lyon, which is directed by the American conductor Leonard Slatkin.

An indication of its rude health is that, since 2011 when he took over, audiences at the Lyon concert hall have increased by almost 40pc. Slatkin, who turns 72 in September, will then embark on his final season in charge.

What I didn't know about Lyon was that it had been one of the venues on a concert tour of Europe undertaken by the Irish pianist and composer John Field in the summer of 1833.

He'd already delighted audiences in Brussels, Toulouse and Marseille. In Lyon, he got a triple ovation, the full house uncertain as to which had been better - his music, or the way he played it.

Field's tour then took him on to Geneva. Our next stop was Nice. There's an area of the city, not far from the main square, the Place Massena, which is called Musiciens.

These streets of Belle Époque apartment houses date from the time when Nice was becoming accessible to the British upper classes, who had the means to escape the English winter and take themselves off to a more agreeable climate on the Med (hence the name of Nice's seafront boulevard, the Promenade des Anglais).

The quartier known as Musiciens is so called for its streets - presumably to give them an up-market air - and were named after prominent composers, some of whom, like Mozart, have no connection with the place at all.

The Rue Rossini runs through Place Mozart. Intersecting it and the Rue Verdi are the Rue Berlioz, the Rue Gounod, and the Avenue Auber.

There's a bust of Berlioz in Nice, marking the fact that he stopped off in the city on the way back from Rome where he'd been studying on a scholarship.

He was heading for Paris to do away with his former fiancée, who'd dumped him while he was away, but he was so charmed by Nice that he gave up on the idea and stayed in the sunshine instead.

There's a Berlioz connection to another composer who visited Nice, though the circumstances were somewhat bizarre.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov had followed family tradition and joined the Russian navy. He was already composing music when he set off on a 30-month tour at sea aboard a military clipper, the Almaz.

Part of his travelling library was the Treatise on Instrumentation by Berlioz, required reading for anybody interested in orchestration as Rimsky-Korsakov was. He was well into the writing of a symphony when he set sail. Nice was one of the ports of call for his ship.

Daniel Auber's connection with the south of France is more with Marseille, where we changed trains en route to Nice. The second act of his opera, La Muette de Portici features a duet - Amour Sacré de la Patrie (Sacred Love of the Homeland) - a line taken from the full version of the revolutionary song that became the national anthem of France - La Marseillaise.

Given the times that were in it - La Muette was first performed in 1828 - it became a touchstone for revolutionary action too.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday and Sunday from 10am.

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