St. Barths Online


Jan 11, 2002

St. Barths Music Festival opens its 18th edition

If Christmas has December with its roasted chestnuts and sleigh bells, January in St. Barths has the St. Barths Music Festival. It is as ever, a marvelous time, much anticipated and ushered in by the particular sensory signature that befits this most special of cultural feasts.
The St. Barths Music Festival was born around a table in the island's folksiest and most popular bar, the Select. Charles Magras, who was then president of the island's business association, asked Frances Debroff, a professional American alto violinist, if she would invite some of her musician friends down to the island to furnish the island's bone-bare cultural calendar. Frances, who was the president of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra association, and no stranger to hard work or crazy propositions, easily agreed. Of course, it could have gone no farther than that-a good idea over a bar table-but because Frances is a woman of her word, the first festival actually did take place. Frances opened up her address book, got on the phone and convinced some awesomely talented professional musicians to play on a rock in the middle of the ocean, for free. That it happened once was surprising enough, but that first festival gave rise to sixteen others, and now prepares to unveil its 17th edition.
An intimate gathering at first, the Festival has grown to become an island institution that people now cross oceans to attend. Though it has, as one might expect, become more sophisticated in many ways, the festival has not strayed far from its simple down-home roots. And therein lies its perfectly irresistible charm. Picture Leonard Nimoy, narrating Peter and the Wolf-in French-to local middle school students, or Imre Pallo, conductor of the New York City Opera, using clothes pins from the local grocery store to keep his sheet music from blowing away. Or how about Aurelie Dupont, lead dancer with the Paris Opera, rehearsing on her stage- a wooden platform deck- set up on the tennis court in Lorient. The festival is full of moments like these. Indeed, one thing that the Festival has never sacrificed in its natural evolution through time is its capacity to affect and effect, which is a pretty good definition for art.
This year, the program will be a blend of traditional favorites and innovative surprises. Conductor Richard Buckley will succeed Akira Endo and Imre Pallo and conduct the Festival symphony in La Traviata and Beethoven's 5th, a special request from Loulou Magras. (Full stop. He is another article altogether.) Many of the festival's familiar performers are back and brass lovers will once again be treated to the Empire Brass Quartet whose first festival appearance last year wowed island audiences.
As for the innovations, one thing the Festival is never short of, it comes this year in the form of rock and roll. "I like rock and roll, but just couldn't figure out how to integrate it into the program," explains Frances. The answer came by way of the Hampton Strings Quartet who will be performing music by Jimmy Hendrix, the Beatles, Led Zepplin, Cream and the Doors. They're scheduled to perform an outdoor concert at the municipal stadium in St. Jean, a 'performance' space that will be able to accommodate many more people than the island's Catholic or Anglican church or the Ajoe tennis court in Lorient, the three habitual stages for the Festival.
Now that Frances has built this cultural Field of Dreams, she's hoping people will come; the zouk-dancing, reggae-swinging, calypso-loving locals who have, over the decades, slowly begun to attend the festival. Often, it has been the island children (daughters and sons, grandchildren) who finally coaxed elders into attending festival performances. Chalk it up to the amazing power of blood lines. About 25 young violinists, all members of the Suzuki violin school that Frances created here in 1995, will be performing in concert on January 20 as part of the festival program. It is hard to imagine what performing with great musicians means to local island kids, but aside from the performance skills they're able to acquire, it's an unforgettable high that has parents, kids and audiences beaming with unabashed pride and delight. Last December, the Suzuki school was expanded to include a small piano department and will soon start a cello department. So, don't be surprised if future editions of the music festival feature a children's orchestra.
Like every year, the festival has a treat for the island's school children. This year, it is Amelia Piano, a trio that will put on a period-piece performance to introduce children, some for the first time, to real musical instruments.
Says Frances, "The St. Barths Music Festival is familiar to performing artists and they all want to play here. Not for the money, obviously, because nobody gets paid, but for the pleasure of being on a magnificent island and being able to meet and work with fellow artists who they admire."
The festival will run from January 12 through January 22. We certainly hope you can make it.

Yves Bourel

Yves Bourel

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