Guest column by Philip Hurst
The creation of a cruise ship itinerary around a particular theme, be it golf, bridge, music, gastronomy, wine, history or wildlife, etc. is quite common across many cruise lines, with varying degrees of intensity or focus. Nevertheless, there are few cruise lines that offer cruises entirely devoted to classical music; Hapag-Lloyd and Ponant are the exceptions to this general rule.
Ponant's fleet of chic small ships, carrying between 180 and 264 guests, lend themselves very well to cruises dedicated to particular themes. Throughout the year, Ponant offers cruises focussed on wine and gastronomy, fine arts, golf, and music; in addition Ponant offers a wide selection of expedition cruises, both polar and tropical, many in association with the National Geographic Society. Several music cruises are available every year. For example, between now and the end of 2020 there are no fewer than 13 such cruises offered, including the now-annual Festival of the Piano at Sea, in various regions around the globe: Europe, Japan, Southeast Asia, Australia, South Africa and the Middle East, each lasting between seven and 10 days.
Most of Ponant's music cruises are arranged in association with French classical music radio station Radio Classique, with the artistic content and the selection of the performers under the direction of the distinguished poet, author, and critic Alain Duault. Unlike themed cruises on some other cruise lines, the music cruises on Ponant are entirely dedicated to the music, with an evening concert every day of the cruise, as well as lectures in French and English. (As is the rule on Ponant, everything is done in both languages, including menus and the daily bulletins.)
The quality of the artists performing is very high, and they include virtuosi of international renown. Most artists are French, unsurprisingly, but others come from all over the world. Moreover, the guests on these cruises take the music very seriously; the theatre on the ship is invariably packed. Unlike evening entertainment on larger cruise ships, there are no waiters wandering about offering cocktails, nor do the guests walk in late and leave early. People are there for the music, and nothing comes between them and the performance they have come to hear.
Most recently, the Fourth Festival of the Piano at Sea was held on board the new Expedition class ship Le Bougainville, sailing around the Aegean Sea to Turkey and the Greek Islands. The performers were five outstanding piano soloists, including the legendary Brazilian virtuoso, Nelson Freire; two were from France, one from Monaco, plus the brilliant young Ukrainian pianist Anna Fedorova. Previous piano festivals on Ponant have featured, among others, eminent artists like Jean Marc Luisada, Khatia Buniatishvili, Anne Queffeléc, Jean Philippe Collard and Yves Henri.
The format is that during the day the ship operates like any other cruise ship following that particular itinerary. Usually at 7pm, one of the guest artists will give a solo concert lasting about an hour, after which everyone adjourns for an excellent dinner. On the final night, each of the artists plays one piece, and the finale is often a duet, or a piece for eight hands. At the last piano festival the closing item was a piano duet by Nelson Freire and François Chaplin. On other music cruises the performers may include violinists such as Marianne Picketty, classical guitarists such as Emmanuel Rossfelder, singers, flutists, cellists, as well as pianists.
In addition to the six or so concerts, guests on the Ponant music cruises also have the opportunity to spend a week or more with some of the world's top performers, sharing breakfast or lunch, joining them on excursions and so forth. It is a testament to the enthusiasm of the audiences and the respect accorded to the artistic director and to the artists who have performed on previous cruises that Ponant and Radio Classique can attract such outstanding artists to spend at least a week, often more, on board a ship to participate in the concert program
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