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Queille Music Festival, 2017

Updated: May 10, 2021

This is my second and Mary’s first visit to the wonderful, even unique, Queille music festival, held every two years in the depths of the French countryside with the Pyrenees in the far distance.

This time, by happy accident, we are in the magnificent nearby Chateau de Camon, having managed to get a room because of a cancellation. We need a word of explanation. The festival is at a chateau (Queille) and its surrounding grounds, but the best accommodation is at another chateau (Camon). The latter chateau has nothing really to do with the festival although the performers stay there.

The Chateau de Camon calls itself an Abbaye-Chateau as in times gone by it was a monastery and a ducal palace, a somewhat unusual combination, one would think. It is now run as an up-market hotel, having been beautifully and lovingly restored by the couple who run it, Peter and Katie Lawton - he English, she South African. Peter says he never reads TripAdvisor, having had a bad experience at the hands of some Guests from Hell many years ago, but he needn’t worry. In recent reviews, no superlatives have been omitted.

Our room was apparently the duke’s private apartment, and it shows. To get to the room, on the top floor, you climb the 51 steps of a circular staircase, each wide enough, Peter explains, to allow a donkey to climb up bearing the duke’s necessaries.

We drive down to Queille for the first concert, preceded by drinks and much socializing. Almost everyone is English, mostly it seems from Blackheath – like our friends Bruce and Sara Mauleverer, who are the reason we are here.

The concert is held, as they all are, in the small chapel by the chateau: Haydn, Handel, Poulenc, Fauré, all lovely chamber music played to perfection and with great enthusiasm by top musicians. It is all to the credit of Rachel Lethbridge – also English – who runs it, that she gets performers of this high quality to come into the depths of the French countryside, apparently for low fees, to play for a group (largely) of Londoners. One of the reasons they do so is the warmth and enthusiasm of the welcome they get and the rapturous applause – as well as the gorgeous surroundings. They all seem to love it; and perhaps one should ask, why wouldn’t they?

One of the real stars, perhaps the star of the event, is Tom Poster (top left), a highly distinguished “internationally recognized” pianist, who was here last time as well and one has to hope will be a regular. He also happens to be a warm and delightful person into the bargain – and, I am proud to say, got a double first in music studying at King’s College, Cambridge.

A new recruit to the party is Elena Urioste (bottom left), an American violinist. The programme note

feels able to quote the Washington Post describing her as “a drop-dead beauty”, something I thought one wasn’t allowed to draw attention to these days, but I can confirm that the description is completely accurate. She also plays the violin superbly. We gather she and Tom are now an item. They both have eclectic repertoires and played some Gershwin with much sensuality.

There is, I think, always a quartet. This time it’s the Castalian String Quartet (below), who, I read in the notes, will be the “Artist in Residence” at Suzette this August (Suzette being one of the neighbouring villages to us in France).

Another star of the event has been a German baritone called Benjamin Appl (below), originally mentored by none other than Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He sang Schubert and also Vaughan Williams. Very moving.

On Sunday we attend Mass – or Communion or whatever; it is conducted by an Anglican archdeacon in an explicitly ecumenical style, mostly in English but some of it in French. The service sheet has it all in both languages. I had thought that one of my favourite coffee haunts, Pain Quotidien, was quoting from the Lord’s Prayer, but no, that’s “notre pain de ce jour”. Throughout, and adding to the informality, a large and friendly dog wanders around and inspects the altar.

We have lots of Schubert, including the Trout Quintet. The other pianist, Julius Drake, who also plays all over the world, introduced the Schubert songs and talked about the composer’s troubled and sad life. He was a little man, under 5 feet tall, which I suppose isn’t relevant to anything; but as is better known, suffered from syphilis for many years and died, after prodigious feats of composition, when he was only just over 30.

We also had an early Mozart piano concerto, No 12. The programme notes (which I keep quoting, as they are much better than the usual ones) quotes from a delightful letter Mozart wrote to his father when he had composed it, saying essentially that it wasn’t too difficult, but that there were some things that only the experts would appreciate, but that the others would be pleased - though they won’t know why.

We find out more about the finances. It was all started by Rachel and her husband Nico some 20 years ago. He was tragically killed and a trust fund was set up that has kept it going, every two years, till now. This year’s programme has the sad and rather ominous news that the next one will be in three years’ time. It turns out that this is solely because the funds have run out. Our friend, Bruce, got into action to see if this could be changed. Apparently, the whole event costs about £60,000, of which about £30,000 is covered by ticket sales. Can £30,000 be raised to fill the gap? Much discussion ensues and Bruce, with Sandi Rhys Jones (a lady with fund-raising expertise), made a short speech before the last concert, setting out the position and asking for support. He certainly got it in terms of loud applause and goodwill. He also collected many signatures. They will be striking, as they say, while the iron is hot, as it definitely is.

On the last evening we go to a dinner in the “Big Top”, a vast tent set up in the grounds. The event is – alarmingly, so far as I am concerned – in fancy dress, the theme being “characters of song” to be interpreted “broadly”. I am amazed at the trouble taken by most of the diners to find elaborate costumes: three little maids from school; a cardinal in full outfit (I’m not sure what song this was); the phantom of the opera (of course). I’m afraid I chicken out: a dinner jacket with a red shirt, inviting anyone to tell me what song or singer it might be – Noel Coward perhaps?

Bob and Elisabeth Boas, who are old friends and who’ve been coming to the festival for years, certainly don’t do fancy dress and opt for dinner at the Chateau. The restaurant gets into the Michelin guide, possibly with a rosette. I feel rather jealous of them. Next time we must try the restaurant.

During our last breakfast at the Chateau, Peter demonstrates his enormous skills as an ornithologist, even though possibly amateur. He was keen to identify for us the song of a nightingale singing away down in the valley. He could tell, at distance, whether the cuckoo was male or female. And we watched all the swallows, swifts, and house martins (yes, all three) swooping around in search of their breakfast.

I haven’t emphasized properly one of the great attractions of the festival: the general atmosphere of friendliness and bonhomie. We meet the other guests (obviously) but also the musicians and the helpers, the latter being younger people who come on reduced terms on the basis that they help with the arrangements, particularly the endless picnics.

As a result of Bruce’s rousing and excellent speech, we all feel confident that the Queille festival will be back in two, not three, years; and we’ve booked our room at the Chateau accordingly.

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