In the shadow of ancient plane trees, as night falls, the buzz of the cicadas mingles with the sound of the world’s great pianists. In a sun-drenched medieval city, the most imaginative minds in opera congregate to stage their latest creations. Choral music fills the great church of a 13th-century Benedictine abbey. High above a great lake, in the grounds of a luxury hotel, a “tent in wood” hosts a crowd of illustrious musicians.

Loading image...
La Grange au Lac at Évian
© Marco Borggreve

France is truly the country of music festivals, unequalled in variety and in sheer number. In the summer, it feels as if you can hardly drive through a town of any size without seeing a local music festival advertised. Earlier this year, when the Bachtrack team made a list that we thought would interest our French reviewers, we listed 32 summer festivals; we could have doubled that number without difficulty. When I tried to count the country’s music festivals, I gave up at 150, with only a third of the country covered.

One of the things that I share with our French editor Tristan is a childhood love of French comic books, of which my favourite was “Le tour de Gaule”, in which the pint-sized Gaul Astérix and his oversized sidekick Obélix bet that they can tour a dozen cities around Gaul to collect the gastronomic specialities of each for the Roman general Overanxius (unsurprisingly, they win the bet). And so, when Alison and I decided to spend our summer in France doing the rounds of festivals, this naturally became our own musical “Tour de Gaule”.

We chose four very different festivals, each with its own distinctive atmosphere and musical focus. In addition, because we didn’t want to drive for more than six or seven hours in any one day, we added some stopovers, including a short stay in Paris, which allowed us to visit the Opéra Comique and the Philharmonie. You can read about the music in my crop of reviews from the trip; this short report is to give you an idea of the ambience of the places we visited.

Loading image...
La Grange au Lac at Évian
© Matthieu Joffres

Évian is a spa town on the south shore of Lake Geneva, where the Alps fall steeply towards the lake; its best known visitor attraction is the “Source Cachat”, home of the familiar mineral water. The Rencontres Musicales d’Évian is the luxury end of summer music festivals, located in the opulent surroundings of the Évian Resort, which gives breathtaking views across the lake to Switzerland. The property contains the five star Hôtel Royal, the four star Hôtel Ermitage, an array of sports facilities from golf to tennis to swimming to pétanque and, most importantly for these purposes, a fabulous concert hall: La Grange au Lac. 

It’s an all-wooden hall with a beautiful interior and a warm, enveloping acoustic, born out of the friendship between the resort’s owners and Mstislav Rostropovich, who had seen the festival tent in Gstaad and conceived the “tent in wood” idea. La Grange has been refurbished recently and will be augmented by a nearby chamber hall, to be called “La Source Vive”, which is planned to open in 2025. The 11-day festival brings in the big names: this year’s programme included, amongst others, members of the Berlin Phil, Zubin Mehta, Bryn Terfel, Martha Argerich, Avi Avital and the Ax/Kavakos/Ma trio.

Loading image...
L'opéra de quat’sous (“The Threepenny Opera”) at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence
© Jean-Louis Fernandez

The Festival d’Aix is a very different animal. Since 1998, a succession of artistic directors (Stéphane Lissner, Bernard Foccroulle and now Pierre Audi) have turned the festival into Europe’s hottest spot for new operas and novel stagings of old ones, an unmissable destination for opera cognoscenti seeking to stretch their boundaries. It’s rare to come here and adore everything you’ve seen, but it’s virtually impossible to leave without having plenty to think about and discuss. 

This year, I saw the latest opera from the pens of Sir George Benjamin and Martin Crimp (I loved it), a new production in French of Die Dreigroschenoper (I loathed it) and a new Wozzeck staging by Simon McBurney (mixed). Others reviewed Philip Venables’ latest opera (The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions) as well as various items of more standard repertoire. The festival also contains an important academy for young singers, musicians and production artists.

Aix-en-Provence, a former regional capital, is a thriving city and a tourist destination packed with places to see and things to do when you’re not listening to music. There are numerous hotels, the restaurant scene is vibrant, and a particular attraction is the Saturday market, which spills into numerous medieval squares in the city centre.

Loading image...
The main stage at the Château de Florans in La Roque d’Anthéron
© Festival International de Piano de La Roque d'Anthéron

La Roque d’Anthéron is a small town on the edge of the Luberon Natural Park, some 40 minutes drive northwest of Aix. It would be relatively unremarkable except that 43 years ago, the wealthy Onoratini family, owners of the Château de Florans in the centre of town, set up a festival in the grounds that has become a pianistic Mecca. Everyone who is anyone in piano plays there – French pianists this year included Bertrand Chamayou, Alexandre Tharaud, Alexandre Kantorow and François-Frédéric Guy. They were augmented by international regulars like Grigory Sokolov, Arcadi Volodos, Maria João Pires and Vikingur Ólafsson. Most of the events in the month-long festival are solo recitals, but there are also plenty of piano-with-orchestra and chamber concerts.

Around half the events are in an open air stage in the grounds of the Château, which is equipped with a half-dome of acoustic panels which gives surprisingly good sound projection. The atmosphere is lent a special magic by the giant avenues of ancient plane trees and the buzz of the cicadas as the sun goes down – to a fault, perhaps, as they’ve been getting louder in recent years as temperatures rise. 

The remaining events are at the Centre Marcel Pagnol in La Roque, or scattered around venues in the surrounding countryside – the Théâtre des Terrasses in Gordes, on a rocky outcrop overlooking the whole Luberon valley, is particularly spectacular. Since the area immediately around La Roque is short of top-end hotels, the festival doesn’t attract the glitzy crowd like Évian. Rather, it’s something like a BBC Proms audience: many people come every year, and for some, it’s their only annual fix of live classical music. It gives the festival a warm, family feeling, with plenty of picnics in the Château’s park and the concert catering done by the owner of the bar across the road.

Loading image...
Théâtre des Terrasses, Gordes
© David Karlin

A short detour from our route home brought us to Normandy and the Promenades Musicales du Pays d’Auge, a festival on a far smaller scale and with a very different intent. It’s an outstanding example of the hundred or more festivals which bring music to places in France that are remote from major cities, where top class classical music would never normally reach. Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives, where we stayed, is a textbook example of a rural village depopulated by agricultural mechanisation. The population is mostly elderly, almost everything is closed by 9pm, and the most obviously thriving building in the environs is the John Deere tractor depot (the surrounding cornfields are rich and on a huge scale). 

But music flourishes here, because of the commitment of Sébastien Daucé, founder of the Ensemble Correspondances and of this festival. In the imposing Gothic surroundings of the abbatial church at Saint-Pierre, we saw Les Métaboles, one of the top chamber choirs in France or anywhere else. In a repurposed convent in nearby Orbec, we saw one of France’s most exciting pianists, Adam Laloum. Both concerts displayed music-making at its finest.

Loading image...
Église abbatiale de Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives
© David Karlin

Admittedly, taking in this number of different places made this a difficult trip to plan. Some festivals announce early, but many programmes aren’t finalised until April or later, by which time the best accommodation is fully booked, especially in popular holiday destinations like Provence. But the approximate dates of the major festivals are pretty well known, so with a bit of flexibility, we ended up with a wonderful itinerary.

Our particular choices gave us lakeside glamour, innovative opera, atmospheric piano and a couple of specific artists we wanted to see. We could just as well have opted for chamber, early or contemporary music, or women composers or young talent. There are festivals in locations from the German border to the far south-west, in mountains, by the ocean, in vineyards or in ancient castles. Whatever your taste, France has a wealth of musical destinations to add to your bucket list.

David and Alison’s stays in Évian, La Roque d’Anthéron and Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives were funded by their respective festivals.