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By Patricia Boccadoro

LILLE, FRANCE, 20 SEPTEMBER 2016 — "The audience was great, the auditorium was great, the acoustics were very good, and my concert was….. well, I really enjoyed it as there was such a fantastic atmosphere". So spoke the flamboyant Turkish pianist, Fazil Say, one of the most important artists of the 21st century.

He had just given a phenomenal concert for the opening of the Lille Piano Festival in the newly renovated Auditorium du Nouveau Siècle in Lille, an attractive city in the North of France. He opened events with a poetical rendering of Satie’s Gymnopédies, very slow moving with his fingers delicately skimming across the piano keys making the most beautiful sounds. In stark contrast came his own magnificent creation, Gezi Park 2, dark, violent, tumultuous, containing overtones of his Dark Earth, with just a glimmer of hope shining through the underlying pessimism. One might have thought there were four or five pianos there as his right hand frequently caressed or swept stridently through the air as if conducting a whole orchestra.

Mozart’s sublime Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major (K. 488) accompanied by the National Orchestra of Lille conducted by Jean-Claude Casadesus, the festival’s artistic director, completed Say’s official programme in which Say was left free to give his own, personal interpretation. Such was the ovation, the cheers, roars and stamping feet, that despite the fact there was another concert following, Bach’s Goldberg Variations played by Alexandre Tharaud,  both the orchestra and Casadesus encouraged Say to give an encore, a sensational jazzed up version of Gershwin’s Summertime. The spectators howled their approval!

Fazil Say
Photo: © Mustafa Toygun Ozdemir

"When I play", Say told me after the concert, "it’s always different because everything depends on one’s mood, my own, the atmosphere around me. I’m neither for or against the music; I don’t change the notes, I just play them differently. I have to be free, all artists have to be free, and this liberty is especially important today with the way the world is around us."

"Say has a unique personal language and I was happy with the complicity between us ", Jean-Claude Casadesus told me before he explained how the festival, the thirteenth of its kind, had come into being. "Although I was born and brought up in Montmartre in the centre of Paris and began my career as the musical director of the Chatelet", the conductor said, "I was invited here in 1976 to create the Orchestre National de Lille. I arrived as a last-minute replacement and was subsequently asked to stay. Then in the 1990’s, with the help of my cousin, the pianist Robert Casadesus, who worked in Cleveland and contributed to the International Piano Competition there, I organised a programme, "Les Rencontres Casadesus" in Lille.

"It was when Lille was named European Capital of Culture in 2004 that I decided to create a piano festival which opened with Maria Joao Pires. Since then, many well-known pianists have appeared, including Nelson Freire, Nicolas Lugansky, Boris Bérézovsky and Jean-Philippe Collard, as well as many young prize-winners from the big international piano competitions."

This year, Casadesus continued, there was Boris Giltburg, winner of the prestigious Reine Elisabeth Competion, 2013, with a Russian programme of Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Shostakovitch among over 40 musicians in the non-stop 3-day festival taking place in 10 different venues across the city. From Bach to Mozart, with, he added, a 14-hour non-stop programme of Satie’s Vexations played by young interpreters from the regional conservatoires. Events would end with the full Lille orchestra featuring Boris Bérézovsky playing Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto in F Minor.

"It’s a true piano festival with a vast range of keyboards including the harpsichord, the accordion, and electric synthesizers as well as the classic piano, playing jazz and tango with a whole farandole of styles and colours", he added.

This year, more than 16,000 tickets have been sold for what is rapidly becoming one of the most important piano festivals in France, while music is not the only thing the city has to offer. Lille, the birthplace of Charles de Gaulle, is also a city of charm with its 17th century Flemish style houses, while monuments not to be missed include the Citadel, constructed in 1670, the Triumphal Arch, completed a few years later, in 1692, and the Fort Saint Sauveur with its 18th century chapel. Also of interest is the Gothic style Church of Saint Maurice where the construction dates back to the Middle Ages as does Saint Catherine’s Church.

However, the finest building is probably the Vielle Bourse, the old stock exchange built in 1652 and decorated in the Flemish Renaissance style. There’s the Fine Arts Museum, housed in a superb 19th century building with its collection of masterpieces from the Flemish and Dutch schools, and the Hospice Comtesse Museum, founded in 1237 with architecture dating back to the 15th century. Several of these historical buildings hosts the festival, not least No. 9, rue Princesse, the house where Charles de Gaulle was born which has since become a museum.

Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is a culture critic and senior editor at Culturekiosque.

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