Pierre Liscia-Beaurenaut has one foot in violin playing and the other in music journalism. Every month, Pierre invites you to the other side of the curtain, to discover the daily life of a young professional musician doing the rounds of rehearsal rooms and auditions as well as meeting the great musicians of our time.

Pierre Liscia-Beaurenaut
© Leila Schütz

Where did the year go? It's already been a year since I started relating my musical travels in this column. After a tumultuous year of adventures and misadventures, where I've had to face the Covid-19 pandemic, the Victoires de la Musique classique and even a feline saboteur of competition videos, I had high hopes, in these summer months, for a bit of well-earned R&R. Fat chance! That would have meant forgetting that for a musician, "holidays" are a nebulous concept, a synonym for inactivity which plunges one into the anguish of maybe having passed over unmissable opportunities to perform...

For a young ensemble like my Quatuor Métamorphoses, the stakes were high this summer. A heavily loaded diary (twenty or so dates over the course of July and August), ambitious programmes and prestigious guests thrown into the mix: with audiences famished after a year of musical scarcity, it was down to us to prove ourselves – particularly since no festival works the same way as any other and this kind of mash-up requires musicians to have extensive faculties of adaptability. So I learned, to my cost, that if playing a Beethoven quartet in a concert hall is in itself one hell of a challenge, it pales into insignificance compared to what awaits musicians who are told, an hour before arriving on stage, that the concert has been changed and will now be outdoors.

In this situation, a classical musician behaves like a survivalist confronted with a hostile environment: in other words, one proceeds to a perimeter analysis. Is the stage raised, or on the grass? Is there a roof over the performers? Are there walls around us, which might help with the reverb? The sun is high in the sky, so will the varnish on my violin melt like a piece of camembert left on my kitchen table? Relief: we'll be protected by trees. But then trees have branches: moved around by the wind, are they going to blind our viola player, or cover us in the dew that we can still see glistening on the leaves?

The summer tour of a quartet
© PLB / Bachtrack

Sometimes, to compensate for the lack of projection of instruments outdoors, festivals resort to sound reinforcement. At this point, we really, really need the sound engineer to be a classical music lover. Let your imagination loose for a moment and you will see a baroque orchestra where the continuo harpsichordist (who is, after all, centre stage) is deemed by our esteemed sound guy to be the soloist and is mixed up to three times the volume of the rest of the orchestra... "It gets worse," relates one of my co-artists at the festival which suffered this misadventure. "Last year, we had a star cellist on the bill. At every pianissimo, the sound guy raised the level, which he brought down again at every fortissimo. The effect was a constant mezzoforte, as if an artist of this calibre was playing constantly at the same volume."

On that particular day, for my quartet, conditions seemed reasonable enough. But although the concert was already 15 minutes overdue, something crucial was stopping us from coming on stage: in our haste to arrive at the venue, we had – alas – failed to bring with us an indispensable item of equipment. We cast anxious glances at each other. The festival organiser gives us a sign full of compassion: with or without this item, it was time to get on stage. With death in our souls, we mount the platform, throats tight, bows ready for action. When suddenly...

A valiant, benevolent angel runs towards us, hands full of the precious object. The concert is saved! Reverentially, the man opens a purple plastic box to reveal the treasure: dozens of clothes pegs, of every shape and colour, shining in the summer sun, ready to lock our scores into place on our music stands. Because it's true: in an open air concert, the musician's most dreaded enemy is the wind, which can at any moment turn the pages of our precious music, propelling a musician in an instant from a held back Adagio to a ferocious Allegro brusco.

Saint-Saëns Quartet no. 1 for four stringed instruments and twelve clothes pegs

But why so many open air concerts? This summer, faced with the daily threat of closure of cultural venues and the sudden application of the pass sanitaire, many festival organisers have preferred to get ahead of the game: by moving the concerts outdoors, the risk of cancellations reduces. But that's not the end of the headache, I'm told by a young organiser of a festival celebrating only its second edition. "Two years ago, we had an average audience of 200 for each concert. With the abrupt imposition of the pass sanitaire [just a few days before the start of the festival], that 200 turned into 20. Festival audiences, in that part of France, mainly consist of people on holiday who take advantage of a free afternoon to take in a concert: they're not prepared to take a Covid test just for that. To limit the damage, we've had to cut things and limit the attendance to 50, which means we don't need to verify passes."

As is well known, a festival is first and foremost a place for musicians to meet. For us, the summer season started with a concert in the company of Alexis Descharmes, principal cellist of the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine. We had to sort out, over the course of several rehearsals, our interpretation of the Schubert String Quintet. No time to quibble: many of the decisions make themselves. Alexis has a broad, warm, generous sound: without stopping to think, the four of us all went in search of a more rounded, ample sound in order to better match his musical approach.

Speaking of meetings: there are also the ones that the audience never sees and which are often crucial to the proper operation of a festival, as well of the general well-being of the artists. I'm talking about the benevolence of all those people who lodge the musicians, come to pick them up from the station, prepare meals. Sometimes, true friendships are formed. What can I say about Claude, a benefactor of a festival in Picardy, who introduced me to the work of Pierre Duquet, an artist and teacher whose genius is unjustly neglected. From his village, Duquet experimented on a new form of artistic instruction which combined song and painting, putting the primary emphasis on the creativity of young people. Or what about those denizens of the North of France who confided to us that they had invited the Ysaÿe or Manfred Quartets when they were just starting out, with whom we discussed the Schubert quartets, or about Nicole, Anne, and the Demaison family in Arcachon, with whom I'm still in touch. All these people are generally very well informed about the music in their region and they often have some fruity anecdotes to relate from previous editions (such as the enormous Italian pianist who refused to go on stage and cried off sick – because he had a small stain on his shirt).

Now that I'm getting ready to start this next year, I can't suppress a smile: last year, I attended the Tignes Festival as a student. This year, I've been to another of these eminent Alpine festival academies, the Festival des Arcs, but this time, as a guest artist. Who knows what next year will bring?

Translated from French by David Karlin