Saturday 24 August 2019

The sound of music in lovely Lyon, France's second city

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

Master of orchestration: the National Orchestra of Lyon’s home auditorium is named after Ravel
Master of orchestration: the National Orchestra of Lyon’s home auditorium is named after Ravel

George Hamilton

In the south-east of France, where the river Rhône meets the Saône, stands the city of Lyon. Founded by the Romans, it has grown into the hub of the country's largest conurbation after Paris.

We've been here before, most recently in 2016 when it turned out to be the final stop on the Republic of Ireland football team's journey in that summer's European Championship.

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Back again for football, this time the Women's World Cup, which concludes tomorrow with the meeting of the defending champions, USA, and the Netherlands, I've been enjoying revisiting the cultural connections.

The city is home to one of Europe's finest ensembles, the 104-strong National Orchestra of Lyon.

Among its footnotes to musical history are a first visit by a European orchestra to China, and the first gold disc for a symphony orchestra for a 1984 recording of Ravel's Bolero.

Its home auditorium, inaugurated in the spring of 1975, almost exactly 100 years to the day after the composer's birth, is named after him.

That's entirely appropriate, for Maurice Ravel was considered the master of orchestration, the creator of sensational soundscapes, nowhere more in evidence than in his ballet Daphnis et Chloé.

One of his most intriguing compositions is a piano work which was performed in Lyon in the spring.

His Concerto for the Left Hand was a commission from an Austrian pianist, Paul Wittgenstein. He, like Ravel, lived through the horrors of the First World War.

Ravel was a short man, too small to see active service. He drove an ambulance, ferrying casualties from the front. Wittgenstein was a soldier who lost his right arm in battle.

The challenge was for Ravel to come up with music that could exploit the full potential of the instrument with only half the means that would normally be at his disposal.

Hearing it played, you would never know the pianist was deploying only one hand.

Lyon's musical history goes back a long way. The opera company, for instance, can trace its roots to 1756.

It's first home was designed by the same architect who would go on to create one of Paris's most famous landmarks, the Panthéon.

Two-and-a-half centuries on, the Lyon National Opera, with its own permanent orchestra and a sister ballet company, are based in a striking, purpose-built venue that ranks as one of the major sights of the city.

Lyon's prominence in music meant it was one of the venues on a lengthy European tour undertaken by the Irish pianist and composer John Field. He gave two concerts there in the summer of 1833, performances that were exceptionally well received - the Courrier de Lyon repored "a triple salvo of applause" from one of the full houses.

The composer Charles-Marie Widor was born in Lyon. His family built church organs, and he carried the connection into his music-making.

He was the organist at the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris - second only in size to Notre Dame and the top job for an organist - for 64 years.

As well as holding down two professorships at the conservatory, he wrote prolifically, with works for the organ featuring prominently.

It's in one of his 10 organ symphonies that you'll find his most recognised creation - the movement that's known simply as Widor's Toccata, one of the most popular pieces of wedding music.

Another Lyon native is the cellist Anne Gastinel. Making music since the age of four, she was performing on television by the time she was 10.

Top of her class in her home-town music school, she moved to Paris where her teachers included Yo-Yo Ma and Paul Tortelier.

Back home in Lyon, for some years she's been professor of cello at Lyon Conservatory and has a sizeable catalogue of recordings to her name with a repertoire that stretches all the way from Bach to the Romantics, touching most points in between.

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