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Queille Festival, 2015

Updated: May 10, 2021

Music in the depths of the French countryside (near Mirepoix in the Languedoc) organised by an English woman, performed largely by English musicians, and for an audience almost entirely of English people. I was there at the suggestion of our friends Bruce and Sara Mauleverer and found myself surrounded by residents of Blackheath.

It’s a festival started some years ago by Nico and Rachel Lethbridge, he having made money in the City. They bought a chateau called Queille, and had the inspiration and energy to arrange a music festival. He tragically died by falling down some stairs at the chateau; the festival is now continued by his widow Rachel, once every two years.

We arrive on Friday afternoon, 22 May, and meet Katie Lawton, the owner, with her husband Peter, of a converted abbey in the nearby village of Camon. Peter and Katie run the abbey as a very up-market chambres d’hôtes. It is where the musicians and some of the festival-goers stay. By the time I signed up, the abbey was full, so the Mauleverers selflessly agreed to stay, with me, in the village house of Katie’s mother – although the deal is that we go up the hill to the abbey for breakfast.

We decide to go up to the abbey for a cup of tea – and have a surprise in store. As we go in I hear the name Boas mentioned and, sure enough, there is Elizabeth Boas. Her husband Bob (right) is reading by the pool in the middle distance. I have known Bob and Elizabeth for some decades partly as their children went to the same local schools as mine and partly because Bob was a director of Warburgs who I came across from time to time. They now run concerts at their house in London, often two or three times a week, for young and aspiring musicians. Why would it be a surprise to see them at Queille?

Our accommodation in the village is in some contrast to the magnificence of the abbey, but is lovely: a simple French village house, restored with its creaking wooden stairs, and duly equipped with the Wifi connections that are so essential for modern survival. I manage to hit my head on the ceiling of my bedroom at least three times before we move up to the chateau for the evening’s entertainment.

The Chateau de Queille stands proudly in dense-ish forests. From the chateau no other human habitation can be seen. In front of it the guests assemble. Almost all are English, a large number coming, like Bruce and Sara (left) , from Blackheath – where indeed Rachel also lives when she’s not at Queille. Over the two days I feel I’ve become an honorary member of a Blackheath mafia.

The concert on the first evening was some fairly demanding Ravel: first, a string quartet played by a group called the Navarra Quartet, all English in terms of residence, although two are Dutch. Highly impressive. It turns out that they are well-known to Bob Boas, having played at the Boas concerts in their early days. They now play all over the world. The other Ravel was La Valse, an immensely demanding piano piece played with truly amazing skill by the charismatic young pianist Tom Poster, also well-known to Bob Boas, and now also playing all over the world. He got a double first in music at King’s Cambridge; and is a modest, amusing, charming man into the bargain.

The concerts take place in a small chapel – perhaps ex-chapel – next to the chateau. Every concert was greeted with rapturous applause and standing ovations – as they should have been. Talking to the musicians, it is clear that this is one of the things that draws them to the festival.

The first evening was challenging in an entirely non-musical way: the cold. I had brought a jumper and a jacket, hoping to need neither. In an optimistic mood, I had also brought some shorts and even bathers. Even the thought of using them turned out to be traumatic. Outside the chapel, I found myself guiltily borrowing Bruce’s padded coat – Bruce being apparently impervious to the cold. It was probably partly psychological. Next day seemed warmer. And on Sunday the sun made a tentative appearance.

One of the stars of the festival was a counter-tenor, Iestyn Davies, pronounced yes-tin. He, being Welsh, might reasonably object to my saying that all the musicians were English. On Saturday he sang songs by John Dowland (a contemporary of Shakespeare, who wrote music for castrati), accompanied by Thomas Dunford on a lute. I have always thought that this sort of early music was not quite for me. A conversion took place. Delightful, tuneful, and amazingly varied – although the ambient atmosphere was well captured by the title “Art of Melancholy”. Iestyn explained that one of the songs, about darkness, had probably been performed in a basement of a Danish castle. The composer’s then employer, King Christian IV, had the charming habit of having his musicians play in a cellar beneath him, he opening a hole in the floor when he wanted to hear the music and closing it when he got bored. All this rang a bell. A novel by Rose Tremain called Music and Silence (bought by me some years ago, but shamefully not yet read) is based on it.

Iestyn, someone said, has been described as the best counter-tenor in the world, no less. Certainly his biography in the programme is impressive: it is difficult to identify a major opera house he hasn’t performed at – with engagements coming up at Covent Garden and the Met.

The chapel came into its own as a chapel on Sunday. (It had been converted into a nightclub the evening before.) There was a sung Eucharist, conducted by an amiable Anglican cleric, Robin Fairbrother, based in these parts, with, he said, a parish larger than Wales. It was all either Catholic or very high Anglican, made more informal by a large dog wandering around in a state of mild confusion.

Sunday evening was reserved for the Dinner in the Big Top. Alarmingly, the theme was fancy dress, Il Gattopardo, presumably meaning we should disguise ourselves as leopards or, following the novel (and Burt Lancaster film), Sicilian aristocrats or Garibaldi’s redshirts. Bruce and I had agreed simply to go in DJs – with, in my case, a red shirt. We were let in all right, despite our paltry efforts. Some – particularly the young – had taken immense trouble with exotic flowing dresses and male equivalents. There were also acrobats, who later featured at the dinner itself, wielding flaming torches and doing other things I’ve already forgotten.

A final word about the village of Camon and its surrounds. Sunday turned out to be a rose festival. Even without the festival, there are more roses in the village and climbing up the houses, and in neighbouring Mirepoix, than I’d ever seen anywhere. With the festival, there were also stalls with other flowers, as well as food and garden produce. We happily bought up a supply of geraniums for the garden in Beaumes.

Tony Herbert

27 May 2015.

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