Monday, March 1, 2010


For our anniversary, we spent a couple of days in Dijon, the capital of Burgundy. If you take the autoroute, it's about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Metz.

Dijon's cultural attractions span primarily the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment. The narrow streets of the city center wind past many half-timbered buildings before opening up into late-Renaissance plazas. The contrast between the cozy, informal medieval streets and the grand, formal squares accentuates their respective qualities. You can be walking on a narrow street, pass through an arch, and find yourself surrounded by symmetrical facades facing the Palais des Ducs.

The Palais des Ducs was for centuries the home of the dukes of Burgundy. Today it's both the Dijon city hall and the city museum of fine art. The museum's collection runs from Roman (and Egyptian) times through the present day. The building itself is interesting, with parts ranging from at least the 14th Century through the 18th Century. Some of the spaces are really grand, such as this room housing sculptures.

A short walk from the Palais des Ducs takes you to les halles of Dijon--the city's covered market. It's a light and airy structure in the best 19th Century style. Indeed, it was built in 1868 by the Eiffel company. This enormous market naturally includes multiple vendors of meats, cheeses, vegetables and fruits.

We were able to see only the exterior of Dijon's synagogue, which we later learned has been closed for services because of stones falling from its dome. The synagogue was built from 1873 to 1879, so it's roughly contemporaneous with the market. But the synagogue features a neo-Moorish style that looked back to earlier French synagogues. Interestingly, Violet le Duc, the restorer of Notre Dame cathedral and of the medieval city of Carcassonne, served as an architectural consultant.

Dijon, of course, has many churches, mostly Gothic. The city's own Notre Dame church dates from the 13th Century and feature a distinctive early Gothic style. The church's main facade features tiers of narrow columns rather than a big rose window and austere arches not laden with sculptures. The main dome is a gigantic lantern, flooding the interior with light during the day and shining as beacon during the night. Not much of the church's original medieval stained glass has survived. The church's modern reproductions in the medieval style, such as those in the large round windows at the ends of the transept, are both convincing and beautiful. Some original glass does survive, though, such as these windows from the north transept.

One of our evenings, we had the great luck to attend a jazz concert sponsored by the Dijon Regional Conservatory. The concert took place at an alternative performance space called La Vapeur that usually promotes modern and amplified music. The first half featured with saxophonist Michael Cheret, who had spent the day teaching at the Conservatory. The trio played great straight-ahead jazz. The second half featured the Conservatory's big band, directed by Gildas Lefaix, playing new arrangements of--believe it or not--songs by Pink Floyd: "Atom Heart Mother," "Money," and "Dogs." The result was, suitably for La Vapeur, modern and amplified. The music might be called avant-garde funk--chromatic, discordant, and rhythmic. In a word, terrific! The student performers were clearly having a blast. Gildas Lefaix exhorted the audience to join in by clapping to the beat, to get their hands warmed. As the audience began to respond, he shouted "Dijon n'est pas morte!" The concert lasted nearly till 11:00 p.m. We would have stayed even longer but that was all the music they'd prepared. Although M. Lefaix had announced that, for this reason, there would be no encore, they did play, after loud encouragement from the crowd, an excerpt of another Pink Floyd piece they were working on.

I really value this sort of experience--an unexpected encounter with something great in a regional conservatory thanks to people of imagination and talent. The instrumentation was that of a big band (plus some amplified strings), but this was moving big band music toward a living, modern idiom. February in Dijon proved to be way beyond "April in Paris."

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