Let’s raise our glasses to Camille Saint-Saëns. I’ve been doing so for years – on account of his thoroughly likeable, beautifully crafted music, and because it was his Carnival of the Animals that converted me to classical music. Great news then that a Saint-Saëns Festival begins on 21 April – at the Wigmore Hall – a concert that includes that very menagerie.
Cellist Steven Isserlis is the Artistic Director. “I suppose Saint-Saëns outlived being fashionable, but I’m glad he did because he wrote some of his most beautiful works in his last years. He was constantly experimenting.” I ask how this Festival came about. “I was sitting with friends, wonderful musicians, after a chamber music concert. An agent made a snide comment about Saint-Saëns. Every musician leapt up and said, ’what’s wrong with Saint-Saëns? We love him’. That lodged in my brain. I’m always annoyed when people sneer at composers who’ve achieved as much as Saint-Saëns did. Even outside of music he was a phenomenon – in astrology, science, acoustics, travel writing, plays, philosophy and poetry: all these things he published on. The man was brilliant.”
Saint-Saëns died as comparatively recently as 1921 (he was 86 and travelling in Algiers) and was present at the 1913 riot-causing premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Think of that and Saint-Saëns’s portrait becomes in-colour rather than the black-and-white that might be supposed. Such assumptions also categorise him a classical composer. But! “He certainly thought music should express itself, but his music confesses a lot of emotion. He was great fan of Liszt who basically destroyed the classical mould. Saint-Saëns was the first major composer to write for film. And he wrote the national anthem for Uruguay. I wonder if it’s still used?”
On the 22nd, in the Barbican, Joshua Bell and Isserlis grace the Barbican to each play one of Saint-Saëns’s popular concertos; these are alongside the Symphony No.2, which is “a wonderful piece, a charmer.” Isserlis also enthuses about the two cello sonatas that he plays on 17 May lunchtime (part of a Wigmore Hall Study Day) – “the first is in memory of his beloved great aunt, a very dark piece, dramatic, and the slow movement of the second is really quite heart rending.”
Most of the concerts are at the Wigmore Hall. Steven has gathered some stellar colleagues “who adore Saint-Saëns. Joshua Bell thinks he’s one of the great composers, and Graham Johnson has devised a wonderful song programme.” (That’s on the 27th at the Wigmore Hall.) “You’ll find that a lot of musicians have a very soft spot for Saint-Saëns and care about him a lot. It’s usually non-musicians who turn their noses up; unfortunately it’s usually non-musicians who write about music.”
Au contraire! This writer is delighted to report and agree with Steven’s opinion. “Saint-Saëns had a wonderful imagination. I hope people will find him a more interesting character than they might think. In every programme there’s something famous with something not so well known.” The closing Wigmore concert on 18 May, “the most experimental,” includes some UK premieres! There’s also a play and opera double bill at the Royal Academy of Music on 14 May (part of an all-day Saint-Saëns romp). The former is Writer’s Cramp translated and directed by Simon Callow who “loves Saint-Saëns and just wanted to be involved.”
Saint-Saëns – “a composer who constantly challenges and surprises because his mind was so active. He was interested in so many things, and that comes out in the music – restless intelligence. Witty, sweet, cute and very attractive – music written to please and from the heart.”

 

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