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Queille – 2019 24-26 May

Updated: May 10, 2021

A visit to the biennial music festival at Queille in southern France, characterized this time by even more exceptional music than before, but also by dire weather, so dire that they had to change the programmes a bit, though happily not the music.

We arrived for the drinks and socializing on Friday afternoon to be confronted by the immediate effects of the appalling weather. The whole event takes place around the ancient chateau of Queille, run by its English owner Rachel Lethbridge, with the concerts in the little chapel by the chateau. The welcoming drinks get served outside. Oh dear! The rain had started the night before (the previous few days having seen glorious sunshine). It had not relented. The various helpers (apparently 80 of them) had managed to rig up tarpaulins under which the intrepid music lovers were able to shelter and enjoy their drinks.

I have to stress that this will not be a weather bulletin. And nor should it be. The whole weekend was hugely enjoyable. As indicated, the music was superb; and no one showed any sign of being downcast by the weather.

So, on to the music and, first, the performers. The festival manages to attract outstanding musicians. The stars are: the Castalian String Quartet, who came last time and obviously love the place and the event; Tom Poster, a fabulous pianist with an international reputation, who also came last time; and a newcomer to the festival but also someone with a great reputation, the soprano Mary Bevan.

It’s mainly, but not exclusively, chamber music: Schubert, Mendelssohn, Shostakovich, Chopin and, what I believe is something of a speciality of the Castalian quartet, Haydn. Mary Bevan sang a Bach cantata, which she elegantly introduced by explaining that recent research indicated it was written for his own wedding. One of the most moving things she sang was an encore, identified by knowledgeable members of the audience (not me) as an aria from a Handel opera – opinions differed as to which one.

This year’s festival had an ambitious novelty, not made any easier by the weather – an opera, specifically Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, arguably the first ever English opera. The idea had been to do it outside. They had to do some urgent restaging. They did the first Act in the chapel. Then Dido, superbly sung by Mary Bevan, told us all to follow her down to the big top (already set up in the adjacent field for the final knees-up) for Acts 2 and 3, involving witches and sorceresses that wouldn’t have been possible in the tiny chapel. We all duly trooped down and took our seats in the big top. Dido and her then still loving fiancé Aeneas arrived at the gallop on horseback. Aeneas of course then leaves her, leading her to sing the famous aria known as Dido’s Lament. Interestingly, the opera has him protesting that he would stay with her, in disobedience to the God’s command, and forget all about founding Rome. But Dido kicks him out even so – for so much as contemplating leaving her.

The festival has the most beautifully produced programme, containing the best and most informative notes on all the pieces performed that I have ever seen. They were written by the father of one of the cellists, David Byers.

The event should have involved picnics and barbecues, as well as a tug-of-war. All had to be cancelled, of course. We were fed in a recently constructed barn-like structure attached to the chateau, packed in on benches at long tables. It lacked perhaps the bucolic touch, but we had to get to know each other better. And one of the great joys of the festival is the way you can easily meet the artists.

We were lucky enough to stay at the nearby Abbaye-Chateau de Camon, luxuriating in the Charlemagne room with its four-poster bed. It is run by Peter and Katie Lawton in great style, preserving its history as a monastery and ducal palace. It serves excellent food, which on previous occasions we had failed to enjoy, feeling we ought to join in the fun of the last evening’s fancy dress party. This time we succumbed. We joined our friends Bob and Elisabeth Boas (who have been coming to the festival almost since its inception nearly 20 years ago - and who don’t do fancy dress) for an excellent dinner in the chateau. We were also with Konrad and Elisabeth Schiemann, he having recently retired as one of the British judges at the European Court. He spent his childhood in Berlin during the war (before escaping and being adopted in England) and told us how he had asked his mother why they (that is, we) couldn’t bomb them during the day so that they could get some sleep at night.

The reason we know about the festival, and so the reason we go, is that our friends Bruce and Sara Mauleverer are key participants. They live in Blackheath near Rachel Lethbridge (as do many of the others) and Bruce has been instrumental in encouraging people to support the festival, particularly two years ago when it seemed to be running out of money. They, in contrast to us, were adventurous enough to go to the final fancy dress dinner – although not very obviously dressed up as either Cupid or Psyche, as I had thought was required. They were in good shape for breakfast next morning, having got to bed after 1.00 am, armed with photographs of the amazing fancy dress offerings, including Tom Poster as an obese penguin. So perhaps it wasn’t compulsory to be either Cupid or Psyche.

Tony Herbert

30 May 2019

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