78 – L’Ensemble Orchestral du Pau conducted by Guy Brunschwig
Date – 2nd June 2017, 8:30 pm
Venue – Salle Robert de Lacaze, Billère, France
Tour of the Bearn in southwest France.
The magnificent courtyard of the Chateau de Pau was a fitting backdrop to the last in a series of Battle of the Somme concerts given by the city’s own Ensemble Orchestral de Pau (EOP). The orchestra played four concerts for the general public as well as putting on an open rehearsal performance for schools.
Following an approach by the municipality of Nay, the EOP decided on an ambitious programme of a series of concerts in the Bearn, a region of southwest France bounded by the Pyrenees. Nay had already hosted a very successful exhibition to mark the centenary of World War I and joining the Somme 100 Film Centenary Tour seemed a fitting continuation of the theme.
The orchestra, under the baton of Guy Brunschwig, professor of saxophone at the Pau Conservatoire, rehearsed Laura Rossi’s score for The Battle of the Somme for nearly three months before the first concert in Morlaas on 12 May 2017. Concerts in Nay, Billere and Pau followed. The biggest challenge for both the players and the conductor was keeping exactly in tempo by following the click-track. As Guy put it, “The music matches the film perfectly. If we make a mistake, we have to stop everything and reset the computer.”
The performances themselves went off without a hitch in very different venues – from multi-function community halls to an intimate theatre to the grandeur of the chateau. Although some of the audiences were smaller than anticipated, all those who came praised the musicality of the orchestra and the way the score enhanced the impact of the film. At each performance there were always a few audience members with direct links to the Somme, such as a father or uncle who had taken part. Paying homage to that generation’s sacrifices was a major factor in people’s attendance.
The open rehearsal at Morlaas was a huge success, with some 450 pupils of local schools and colleges attending both the run-through of the concert and also an after-show session in which members of the orchestra talked about and demonstrated the instruments they play.
For the final concert at Pau, the organisers were delighted to welcome both Laura Rossi and Dr Toby Haggith, senior curator at the Imperial War Museums., who each gave a short introduction in French to the film and the music. The full programme began with a number of pieces by Harmonie Paloise, a band of mainly brass instruments, followed by the EOP and The Battle of the Somme. The weather was very kind, allowing the concert to take place in the open air, framed by the magnificent courtyard of Henri IV’s famous castle.
Guy Brunschwig felt the EOP could take pride in the fact that they put on four concerts in the region – helping contribute in no small way to Somme 100 Film’s objective of 100 performances. Members of the orchestra were happy that all their hard work had paid off. As one musician said, “We all had some unforgettable moments, especially during the last performance in Pau. We don’t regret all the time spent working on the score – it was great!”
The EOP inside history
It’s total darkness in the auditorium.
“The only light is from the fireflies,’ jokes Guy Brunschwig, saxophone tutor at the Pau Conservatoire, conductor of Harmonie de Pau and, this year, of the Ensemble Orchestral de Pau (EOP) – a group of some 40 musicians (90 per cent amateurs) who each year take music into the countryside. It is they who are playing in a darkness pierced by tiny lights – the famous fireflies – fixed on to their music stands.
Why the dark? Because, while they play, The Battle of the Somme, a silent documentary of 1916, held at the Imperial War Museum in London and listed on the World Memory Register by Unesco, is being projected behind them. For 75 minutes the audience is plunged into this battle between British and French soldiers and the German army – one of the most important battles of World War I. The film focuses in particular on the British soldiers in the trenches, subjected to massive bombardments. A soundtrack accompanies these documentary images, following the tempo of the explosions: and this music is played live by the EOP.
This work for symphony orchestra was written in 2006 by the composer Laura Rossi, at the request of the British museum. After two concerts at Morlaas and Nay on the 12 and 20 May, the EOP will perform the piece a third time at Billere this Friday and at the Chateau de Pau on 9 June, in the presence of the composer and of Toby Haggith, representative of the IWM.
‘The music works perfectly with the film,” enthuses Guy Brunschwig, who has to concentrate hard for an hour and a quarter. “I have the tempo continually in my ear – it beats all the time!’ Fairly fast crescendos, tremolos, sounds of percussion …are perfectly synchronized with the images and the crash of bombshells. “It’s synchronised to close to a thousandth of a second!” The musicians have been working on the score since February, entailing a huge personal commitment to this technical and repetitive work, “Because, if there’s a mistake, we have to stop everything and recalibrate the computer!”
The conductor uses fairly big gestures to counter the darkness. Among the public, the film and the music inspire reflection and empathy for this episode of history in which the EOP is playing a part in its own way. The Somme 100 Film association, distributor of the film, set itself the challenge of having the music performed 100 times across the world, in the context of the centenary of the Great War. Guy Brunschwig is pleased to point out, “With the EOP alone we’ve played it four times!”