World-class performances, cultured ports of call, fine dining and sumptuous comfort at sea... the annual Mediterranean Music Cruise hits all the right notes
Each spring, 20-odd members of the English Chamber Orchestra count their lucky stars. This is because they join some 70 passengers and a handful of world-class classical soloists on the Music Cruise – a week-long cruise in the Mediterranean onboard the luxurious, four-masted MSY (Motor Sailing Yacht) Wind Star.
In return for performing concerts exclusively for passengers each afternoon and evening, and submitting themselves to the scrutiny of some of the more dedicated guests during their rehearsals each morning, the musicians are able to soak up the Mediterranean sun and the culture of ports such as Calvi, Istanbul, Portofino, Athens and Alghero from the extreme comfort of Wind Star.
Wind Star is one of three elegant motor yachts in the American Windstar Cruises fleet. The company claims, with good reason, to be the “world’s best luxury cruise line”: the service, cabins, facilities, food and wine are certainly the best I have ever encountered onboard a cruise ship. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that many of the soloists, who include Maxim Vengerov, Sergei Krylov, Lisa Batiashvili, Alison Balsom, Paul Watkins and the conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, and ECO members are seasoned Music Cruisers.
The Music Cruise has been running onboard Wind Star for some 10 years, although the concept started back in the 1970s onboard the Paquet Lines ship, MS Mermoz. Although it’s by no means a budget holiday, 95 per cent of guests return at least once - several having been onboard since the very beginning - proving that the experience is well worth paying, as well as playing, for.
The cruise’s loyal following means that guests, musicians and crew greet each other like old friends. The first evening of the cruise I joined was spent excitedly catching up on the events of the past year. As the contented passengers chattered animatedly away, champagne in hand, the Wind Star’s sails unfurled in a gentle breeze and she slipped silently into the Med to embark upon a week of sublime music in exceptional surroundings.
The itinerary for the week-long Music Cruise is different each year, although the basic format remains the same. Typically, two days are spent at sea, during which passengers can relax with a cold drink by the pool, attend rehearsals, join seminars given by the onboard musicologist, chat with the musicians themselves and gorge themselves on the delicious food that’s available throughout the day.
When not at sea, passengers enjoy breakfast served under the shade of a sail canopy overlooking the port, before joining a guided tour of the port and/or nearby attractions. (The tours are included in the price of the cruise although participation is optional.) Lunch is served either onboard the Wind Star or onshore, and followed by an afternoon concert.
The onshore concerts tend to be the high points of the cruise: the exotic locations provide dramatic backdrops for world-class performances – Mozart's Symphony No. 29 in a 15th-century castle on Samos; Benjamin Britten in the courtyard of the 14th-century Greek monastery of Timios Stavros; Vivaldi's concerto for two cellos under the towering dome of the Byzantine church of Irene in Istanbul, where white feathers from roosting pigeons float gently down on to the orchestra.
The rehearsals and onboard concerts are held in the ship’s lounge, where you soon become accustomed to the gentle sway of the ship, the occasional creak and the slap of waves hitting the bow. Although one of the youngest passengers onboard, I was frequently the first to find myself nodding off each evening, blissfully content, with full tummy, lulled by the music and gentle rocking motion.
Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, another highlight of the Music Cruise is the rehearsals. Although initially dubious about the benefits of watching one, I soon became hooked and realised why many regular passengers prefer attending the rehearsals to the recitals. Watching the musicians in their bikinis, board-shorts and fluoro flip-flops repeating passages until they're perfect, pausing to scribble a note on the score and sharing a joke gives a unique insight into the music and music-making.
The final performance of my Music Cruise was a high-octane Prokofiev and Ravel violin and piano recital. Krylov arched and slumped violently over his instrument like a puppet in the hands of a drunkard, while Levit beamed with delight from the piano. Looking at them in black tie, it was hard to reconcile the violinist with the streak of red and white Speedo dashing from hot tub to pool, or the strapping pianist leaning down to let his concerned mother put sunblock on his nose. And yet being able to do so was precisely what made the music so much more meaningful.
It is, in my opinion, this insight into and familiarity with the musicians that makes the Music Cruise so special. Yes, the destinations are beautiful, the tours fascinating and simply sailing onboard Wind Star is a wonderful (and waist-expanding) experience. However, I defy anybody with even a passing interest in classical music not to be intoxicated and inspired by this unique combination of music, scenery, intimacy, culture and sheer luxury.
The Mediterranean Music Cruise is run in conjunction with Travel for The Arts and takes place each year in May. In 2009, the Cruise costs from $9,950 (c£7,045) per person for full-board accommodation, all concerts and tours onboard and ashore. All cabins on MSY Wind Star are identical but those on Deck 2 are more expensive than those on the lower Deck 1 as there are no lifts to provide access to the lower deck. Flights and accommodation the night before and after the cruise are not included.