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The International Writers Magazin: Water Music

Classical elegance
8 days, 4 ships, 3 concerts and 7 locations –
a magical musical tour through the French countryside
• Words Nick Constance
Excellence

Photo: Marie Springer (of Orchestra)
Ship photo: Ship PR. (With permission.)

There’s no doubt that the Vienna Symphony Orchestra makes a glorious noise. So imagine, after experiencing one of their concerts, you could sit with the musicians to discuss it, over a meal. On River & Music – MS6’s latest adventure – you have the chance to do just that.

This wonderful project was the brainchild of Michael Springer, chief executive of MS6, whose idea it was to charter four river boats to sail in convoy along France’s mighty Rhône and Saône rivers.

MS6 is an Austrian-based, family-run tour operator presently hitting all the right notes when it comes to classical music cruises. Springer is a true entrepreneur, with a spirit of adventure in his blood. “The idea is to bring together like-minded people, for an eight- day celebration of some of our finest classical music,” he told Cruise International. “We have guests from all over the world, but the music cuts through any language barrier.”

River & Music is a chance to pamper both the body and soul, whilst simultaneously experiencing something of the legendary French savoir-vivre. I can certainly vouch for this, as I was fortunate enough to experience two of the four ships, MS Swiss Pearl and MS Excellence. As you would expect, the food on both ships is outstanding and the service is a perfect blend of professional and friendly.

The Swiss Pearl departs from Martigues (30km from Marseille) and calls at Arles, Avignon, Vienne, Lyon, Macon, and Chalon-sur-Saône. We sail past some of the most beautiful landscapes the French countryside has to offer. We explore the celebrated region of Burgundy and the sun-baked lavender fields of Provence. We sample the provincial cuisine of Lyon, visit the Roman Amphitheatre and walk the same cobbled streets where Vincent Van Gogh worked on some of his most enduring paintings.

Make no mistake, though, the guests on this cruise are here for one thing – the music. Enjoying the proximity to all things musical is the key: the concerts, the ‘meet and greets’, the open rehearsals and the unique photo opportunities.

Perhaps the reason music cruises are so popular is that the concerts are usually of the highest musical standard – the repertoire is no different from what you’d expect to hear in any major city. Indeed, the on-shore venues are often the same concert halls the world’s great orchestras would normally perform in.

Vienna Orchestra In addition to the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, River & Music’s illustrious line-up includes the French-born conductor Bertrand de Billy, who held the position of Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of Vienna’s Radio Symphony Orchestra from 2002 until 2010. Violin soloist Joji Hatori, who is presently Music Director of both the Tokyo Ensemble and the Kittsee summer festival in Austria, joins him.

Soloists Sebastian Bru, (cello) Karl-Heinz Schütz, (flute) and Zorian Zwiauer (violin) are on hand to regale us further. It is, in fact, an extraordinary array of talent, entertaining us both on board and in such splendid venues as Lyon’s stunning 608-seat Salle Molière, a building named after the French writer and actor Jean-Baptiste Poquelin – more commonly known as Molière. We’re also fortunate enough to enjoy concerts in Lyon’s more modernist Auditorium, in addition to the Opera d’Avignon – world-class venues by any measure.

Our first concert, in Avignon, is an absolute delight. Conductor Bertrand de Billy injects humour into proceedings without the music becoming whimsical. Performing works by Bach, Schubert and Mozart he captivates the audience. Later on in the cruise the Doremis Quartet – members of the orchestra playing flute, violin, viola and violoncello – enthral us with works by Mozart, Schubert and Rossini, in Swiss Pearl’s intimate lounge. They encore with an impressive rendition of Desafinado, sending us all happy to bed... or, to the bar.

River cruising is making a huge comeback, not just in Europe but around the world. On this trip, excursions and all concerts (both chamber and orchestral) are included in the price and you begin to see the attraction. As it turns out, river cruising is probably the most stress-free, fun, yet elegant mode of transport there is. Admittedly, the sea-going leviathans pack in more amusements, but these are generally man-made, ‘inside’ distractions, such as shops and bars. On a river cruise most of the action takes place on the other side of the railings: shifting landscapes, remarkable architecture, bridges, churches, rivers converging and linking with lakes and canals – all in super-saturated, high-definition colour.

MS6 is based in Klagenfurt, Southern Austria, with partners in Germany, Spain, Mexico, Tokyo, Canada and the UK. Last year they toured with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra along the Baltic coast, ending with concerts in both St Petersburg and the Russian enclave of Koenigsburg (formally Kalliningrad).

For me, River & Music was a magical introduction to the world of river cruising. Everything was just right – the weather, the route, the music programme and of course the ships. The combination of music and sightseeing was perfectly balanced – neither obsessively musical, nor boringly touristy.

On the music side, the aim of any orchestra is to inject the score with new life, energy and colour – the Vienna Symphony managed this with aplomb. I doubt I’m musically savvy enough to critique the complexity of the score or the quality of musicianship but let’s just say that, during the concerts, something good and optimistic hit me in the solar plexus.

It’s difficult to know who gets more out of these cruises – the guests or the musicians. Many guests are what are known as ‘repeaters’ – people who come year after year. With eight blissful days of music, peace and panoramic splendour it’s easy to understand why.

Of course, it’s hard to pick the highlight of such a thrill-packed itinerary, but it was probably the Avignon concert, with Bertrand de Billy conducting. The orchestra exuded positivity and played with an infectious glee. It was just as it should be.

© Nick Constance April 2012
nickconstance@gmail.com

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