Read about our recent tour to the South of France with the West of England Youth Orchestra (WEYO) and the Wiltshire Youth Jazz Orchestra (WYJO).
After a very successful summer course with both the West of England Youth Orchestra and the Wiltshire Youth Jazz Orchestra, the day of the joint Tour to Provence finally arrived! Welcoming our young players with check-in with help from the whole Wiltshire Music Centre team, we handed out the tour polo shirts, chaperone packs and luggage labels and watched the piles of luggage grow, as all 76 participants arrived to start their French adventure.
After an afternoon of rehearsals, it was time to change into concert dress and perform for a sold-out audience of friends, family and other music-lovers. The concert, led by the incomparable Tim Redmond and Mike Daniels, included a selection of music that the orchestras would perform on tour and showcased the outstanding talent of the young players. There followed a flurry of post-concert farewells from family and friends, enthusiastically waving French flags, as at 11pm, the two coaches departed the music centre and began the journey to Dover to catch a (very) early morning ferry to Calais.
All aboard the ferry from Dover for our early morning crossing to Calais. Some went in search of coffee and pastries, whilst others used the opportunity to enjoy the gentle lulling of the boat to take a much-needed nap. Heading out onto the deck at the back of the ship, many of our group watched the sun rise over the French mainland, spending the time counting boats, admiring the white cliffs of Dover or taking part in some impromptu deck yoga led by one of the horn players. We were even joined briefly by a small pod of dolphins in a magical moment before we arrived in Calais and returned to our coaches.
Arriving around 5.30am French time, it was time to begin our long journey to Provence. Stopping every few hours to stretch our legs and enjoy the wonderful bread and coffee, we continued south past Paris, then Dijon, Lyon, waving hello to our Chief Executive’s home town of Valence before arriving in La Couronne, and to our new home for the next week the Bastide des Joncas. Despite the heat, we unloaded swiftly, distributed room keys and after a bite to eat we all turned in for the night for a much-needed sleep.
We woke to the sound of cicadas chirping in the trees and 30-degree heat. After a lovely French continental breakfast in the air-conditioned hall, the young players were straight into rehearsal where they spent the morning adjusting instruments due to the heat, re-tuning and practising set-up and take-down of the orchestra in a different space ready for our concert in Arles that evening.
Soon, it was the jazzers turn to play, and while they were rehearsing, some of the others took the opportunity to go to the beach down the road, where they were grateful for a swim in the cool water, which looked very much like something out of Mamma Mia!
After a three-course traditional provençal lunch we packed up the coaches and drove to the beautiful and ancient town of Arles. We were invited by the town council for refreshments (much needed in close to 40-degree heat) and some of the players took the opportunity to explore the ruins of the roman amphitheatre and other historic sites.
With an audience swiftly amassing in the main square, it was time to perform in challenging outdoor acoustics. The audience loved the orchestral classics with many of the locals and tourists attending commenting on the musical maturity of the players. One family from Mexico were particularly thrilled to attend a free orchestral concert on the last day of their holidays, while several of the older locals remarked that the two orchestras were some of the best they had seen in many years.
Then it was time for the jazz band to take the stage, and despite the brief promise of rain, they and the orchestra then accompanied talented vocalist Harry Apps. Their rendition of New York, New York got many people on their feet dancing as the sound of the orchestra rang through the side streets of the town. A standing ovation of nearly 500 capped off the evening and many players were approached by beaming audience members as they packed away their instruments and music stands. A quick trip back to Martigues and soon we were fast asleep!
The next day was sure to be a very busy one, with two concerts in different locations. After another wonderful breakfast, rehearsal and lunch, we headed off in the early afternoon to the city of Aix en Provence where the jazz orchestra were to perform a gig in a small square. The local museum allowed us to use their gallery space to store our belongings and were grateful for the free afternoon’s entertainment. As the square quickly filled up, the local café flooded with tourists and locals and must surely have done excellent business. Many passers-by stopped to enjoy the wonderful jazz drifting through the town and WYJO’s performance was rewarded with another standing ovation and generous support of the fundraising bucket collection.
After delicious gelato and madeleines, we hopped back on our buses for a short journey to the village L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue for the next concert at La Collégiale Notre Dame des Anges. The local church community gave us a warm welcome, and the head of the parish council spoke about the town’s excitement about our performance.
The lively acoustic of the church hall provided another unique performance experience for the young players and gave the impression that an entire battery of snare drums had taken up residence in the vaulted atria of the hall, lending the performance of Bolero a remarkable power throughout as the piece built to its climax. The young players did us proud again, performing through the uncomfortable heat, and were rewarded with another thunderous reception and a large bunch of flowers for the principle violinist.
The next day, the orchestras used some free time to relax down at the beach, in the cool water of the French riviera. We were due to perform at a ruined chateau later that afternoon, but unfortunately there were storm clouds brewing as we made our way across the countryside and we arrived to a distinctly overcast Tour d’Aigues.
On arrival, our lovely hosts provided us with a French buffet of cold meats, pizza, salad and many different cheeses as well as fresh peaches and nectarines. After the meal, and a brief photo opportunity in the stunning surroundings, the now well-practised orchestra set up ready for the performance later that evening.
However, just as the players had changed into their concert dress, sure enough the heavens opened, drizzle turned to rain and much to the disappointment of dedicated audience members, with umbrellas in hand, the concert could not go on.
However, all was not lost, as a swift decision and a discussion with a local bar owner led to an impromptu jazz gig in a nearby venue, even featuring a guest performer on Orange Coloured Sky! Spirits suitably lifted, we returned to Martigues, damp but happy.
Our final concert day approached, and after another dip in the Mediterranean, we headed off to the Abbey at Frigolet in the heart of the parched countryside. After a winding journey up to the twin spires of the abbey, we trekked across the dusty car park and entered the incredible setting of our next concert. The interior is painted in a vibrant cobalt blue, with red arches and gold leaf adorning the intricate embellishments. We sat for a while to listen to the rehearsal of fellow young orchestra from South Korea, the Gwangju YMCA “Dream” Youth Orchestra, perform pieces from La La Land and other film classics.
After a stellar performance of Scheherazade and an encore of Walton’s Crown Imperial, the jazz contingent packed up and headed off to Martigues to set-up for the final performance of the tour, in a small square in the centre of the town. In the setting sun, the beautiful town looked glorious with all its different coloured buildings.
Soon the small square was full of locals as the jazz orchestra began the final performance of the tour. Many people were dancing and tapping their feet to the music. Residents of the buildings around the square leaned out of their windows, enjoying the best seats in the house. After a rousing encore from the whole orchestra including our WEYO players who joined to provide extra musical power, it was finally time to head back to our accommodation.
Upon return, we all headed down to the beach to have a much-deserved beach party celebrating the Tour and everything our extraordinary young players achieved. There was even a special end of tour rap from Karl, the Head of Creative Learning and thank you speeches from the young players to the organisers, bus drivers and chaperones. With the knowledge that we would shortly be heading back to the UK after another long coach journey, we turned in for the night.
There was plenty to do on our last morning, as we packed the coaches and vans and began to prepare for our return journey to Bradford on Avon. After saying goodbye to some our fellow players and several staff, our young players hopped on board and began the long journey home. While many decided to take the opportunity to sleep, many watched films on the on-board television including Top Gun! A sleepy and uneventful day with several stops and 16 hours later we arrived at the Calais port. A short hop across the Channel and a chance to stretch our legs and it was time for the last leg of our journey.
Upon our arrival back at the comforting orange walls of Wiltshire Music Centre, the WMC staff had laid on a spread of croissants, breakfast muffins, brioche bread, tea and coffee for our tired players and staff and some parents eagerly anticipating our return.
Our great French adventure had now come to an end. After an intensely rewarding week of unique musical experiences in some of the most stunning venues in southern France, sleepy players made their way home after a few teary goodbyes from some of the older orchestra members who had now come to the end of their time in the Youth Orchestras.
We hope all of our young players enjoyed the experience as much as we did. It was truly a wonderful experience, and every single audience member was consistently impressed by the high standard of playing, the musical maturity and stamina of our talented musicians. They combatted high temperatures, stormy weather, tacky resin, sandy feet and dusty roads, long journeys and the French language to perform six amazing concerts for over 2,000 people over the course of four days. We managed to raise just over £1,000 from bucket collections around the concerts, and this will help towards our total fundraising for the tour.
Thank you to the entire team at WMC, directors Tim Redmond and Mike Daniels, our colleagues Tamsin and Davide in France, our fabulous and cool-headed bus drivers, the team at Les Joncas, Rob and Robin our unflappable van drivers, our chaperones and finally to each and every one of the 76 outstanding young people for their commitment and drive and mostly, their music.
If you would like to donate to our tour fund, or find out more about our Youth Orchestras please feel free to email Kirsten (email@example.com) or call 01225 860100.