Our estival festival Tour de France © Bachtrack | Google My Maps
Our estival festival Tour de France
© Bachtrack | Google My Maps

The temperatures are rising, the first rays of sunshine are breaking through, and we're starting to ponder our summer vacations. To help lovers of music in France to sort out their diaries and buy those tickets, we're taking you on a brief Tour de France: twelve stages with a festival at each. It's enough to satisfy even the greediest, from June to September without a break!

13rd June au 3rd July : the Festival de Saint-Denis

For Parisians, it's the launching pad for the musical summer. Reachable by metro or tram, the Saint-Denis Festival draws the big names on the classical scene every year, and 2019 will be no exception. In an eagerly anticipated debut, Sir Antonio Pappano will be performing in the impressive Saint-Denis basilica with Rome's Orchestra de l'Accademia di Santa Cecilia and Sir John Eliot Gardiner will be closing proceedings with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in the Verdi Requiem. Music-lovers more interested in rarities will look to Sir Michael Tippett's oratorio A child of our time, to be conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who is already carving out a niche amongst the great conductors. By the way, Saint-Denis is one of the few classical music festivals that welcomes other genres: Rufus Wainwright and Gregory Porter are also on the bill.

<i>Blank out</i>, by Michel van der Aa, this summer at Aix-en-Provence © Priska Ketterer
Blank out, by Michel van der Aa, this summer at Aix-en-Provence
© Priska Ketterer

23rd June to 22nd July : the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence

When each of France's main opera seasons has run its course, Aix-en-Provence takes up the baton. In the sumptuous settings of the Théâtre de l’Archevêché and the Grand Théâtre de Provence, a carefully curated programme gives you things you've never seen – the Mozart Requiem staged by Romeo Castellucci, Tosca by Christophe Honoré – and dares to go where most opera houses fear to tread: reserving the lion's share for modern works. All this with the great artists of the moment: this year, Miah Persson will be performing Blank out, a chamber opera with 3D video projection, while the trio of Esa-Pekka Salonen, Ivo van Hove and Karita Mattila will be starring in an opera by Kurt Weill.

319th June to 6th August: the Chorégies d’Orange

For those left cold by Aix's programme, Orange presents a more conservative view of opera. France's oldest festival celebrates its 150th birthday this year in the city's timeless Roman Theatre, which can seat over 8,000. This year, as usual, we're on safe ground: Don Giovanni is juxtaposed with Guillaume Tell. But the casts are outstanding, and one just has to make a bucket list item out of attending an event in which the weather can add to the excitement. Do make sure that your stay is long enough to accommodate a performance being rescheduled for the following day, which is by no means unknown. 25 years ago, a memorable Tosca was drenched when a storm of biblical proportions thundered with rage at the exact moment that Scarpia was doing the same on stage. One detail not to be sneezed at: bring a cushion – your bottom will thank you.

<i>Carmen</i> at the Chorégies d'Orange in 2015 © Philippe Gromelle / Chorégies d'Orange
Carmen at the Chorégies d'Orange in 2015
© Philippe Gromelle / Chorégies d'Orange

419th June to 11th July: the Flâneries musicales de Reims

In Champagne country, classical music sparkles as much as the wine. Next year's Flâneries musicales will be the thirtieth, and they're not showing any signs of ageing. It's one of the most family-oriented festivals in France, with many free concerts and other events aimed at the very young. The prices are surprisingly affordable given the top quality of the artists (Arcadi Volodos, Edgar Moreau, Jakub Józef Orliński, the Labèque sisters, to name but a few). Musical walks and a closing picnic concert promise a delightfully relaxing experience.

512th to 20th July: the Saintes Festival

In the magnificent architecture of the Abbaye aux dames, the Saintes Festival also fosters a family atmosphere, emphasising the rapport between artists and their audience: here is a rare event in which all the rehearsals are open to the public, which even prompts some unscrupulous audience members to attend the festival without buying a ticket. Artistic Director Stephan Maciejewski is discreet, efficient, doesn't stand on ceremony and focuses every year on a programme that never fails to fascinate, with the traditional – lovers of Bach cantatas, this is your moment – and the innovative: this year, you will be able to get under the skin of Lionel Meunier, leader of the ensemble Vox Luminis, with the help of a virtual reality headset.

Philippe Herreweghe, a regular at the Festival de Saintes, is on the podium in the Abbaye aux Dames © DR / Festival de Saintes
Philippe Herreweghe, a regular at the Festival de Saintes, is on the podium in the Abbaye aux Dames
© DR / Festival de Saintes

610th to 26th July: The Festival Radio France Occitanie Montpellier

Every summer, Radio France takes up residence in Montpellier. A real powerhouse, the Festival Radio France Occitanie always brings in heavy calibre artists: this year, you'll see all of Nelson Freire, Nicolas Altstaedt, Vilde Frang, Bertrand Chamayou, Neeme Järvi and Tugan Sokhiev over the course of a fortnight. And there's an overall theme which is promising for those seeking the new: music from the North. There will be SIbelius, for sure, but also composers like Magnus Lindberg, Pēteris Vasks and Eduard Tubin, who will be just as much in the spotlight. Opera lovers haven't been left out and will be wishing to pounce on Vincent d’Indy's all-too-rare Fervaal, starring tenor Michael Spyres, on 24th July.

720th July to 18th August: La Roque-d’Anthéron International Piano Festival

If you love the ivories, this is your summer meetup. For those in the know, the question isn't "if" one is going to "La Roque", but "when". And even when you get there, you have to make choices: Grigory Sokolov or Michel Dalberto ? Jean-Philippe Collard or Nelson Freire ? Claire-Marie Le Guay or Jean-Marc Luisada ? Arcadi Volodos or Sélim Mazari? You simply can't eat everything in this pianistic blowout – the only option is to come back the following year.

The famous acoustic shell at La Roque-d'Anthéron © Christophe Grémiot
The famous acoustic shell at La Roque-d'Anthéron
© Christophe Grémiot

826th July to 4th August: the Messiaen Festival in the Pays de la Meije

Here is the summer's most mystical festival and the one that's closest to nature. If you love mountains, wide open spaces, birdsong and – along the way – music, look no further. In this countryside which was a true source of musical inspiration for Olivier Messiaen, a festival was born which has spent the last two decades cultivating programmes of rare intelligence, centred around the French composer. This year, the Catalogue d’oiseaux, performed by Roger Muraro, in the Eglise de La Grave, will be one of the highest points of any festival in this musical summer. Countryside walks are frequently organised between concerts, including a musical one with Samuel Bricault, one of the most compelling practitioners of the flute.

925th July to 13th August: the Pablo Casals Festival in Prades

If you prefer the Pyrenees to the Alps, or if you like music with a Catalan accent, make your way towards Prades for this legendary festival. The concert locations are sumptuous (the Roman abbey of Saint-Michel de Cuxa, the Église de Prades and its gigantic baroque altarpiece), and clarinettist and artistic director Michel Lethiec assembles each year the towering figures of chamber music. André Cazalet, Patrick Gallois, Bruno Pasquier, Jan Talich, Boris Garlitsky, François Salque, Patrick Demenga: the list is lengthy. It's a festival much appreciated by students, who flock there each year to receive lessons from these masters.

The Orchestre de Bretagne opens the Dinard Festival, in front of the Château de Port-Breton © DR / Festival international de musique classique de Dinard
The Orchestre de Bretagne opens the Dinard Festival, in front of the Château de Port-Breton
© DR / Festival international de musique classique de Dinard

1010th to 18th août : the Dinard Festival

Given the French tendency for estival migration, most of the large classical music festivals take place in the south of the country. But what about further west? The summer months in Brittany pass to the rhythm of several festivals. We might have focused on the "Été musical" in the attractive mediaeval town of Dinan (25th July to 3rd August) or the "Semaines musicales de Quimper" (10th to 17th August), au 17 août), but their programmes aren't known at time of writing, so we'll go for a festival in one of Brittany's loveliest seaside resorts. The Dinard Festival has come out in the lead and it's a mouth-watering proposition: young talents (Bruno Philippe, Eva Zavaro, Jean-Paul Gasparian) rub shoulders with established artists (Bertrand Chamayou and Kun Woo Paik, not to mention artistic director Claire-Marie Le Guay). All this at the seaside, accompanied by the cry of the seagulls and the rhythm of the tides.

11 22nd August to 1st September: the Festival de La Chaise-Dieu

Concert at the abbey at La Chaise-Dieu © Virginie Giraud
Concert at the abbey at La Chaise-Dieu
© Virginie Giraud

Away from the great arterial roads, the Festival de La Chaise-Dieu is well worth the detour. For its opposing abbey, which dominates the surrounding landscape. For the next-door town of Puy-en-Velay, with its imposing cathedral, its chapel set high above a pillar of rock, its gigantic statue of the Virgin and its panorama. For its programming, tended with care by Julien Caron. As they often do, Jérémie Rhorer and his Cercle de l’Harmonie will be stopping there for no less than a Beethoven Ninth; Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques are doing a concert of Italian baroque; Mathieu Romano, Aedes and Les Siècles play A German Requiem; Damien Guillon and his Banquet céleste play the St John Passion. The festival may have trimmed its canvas compared with last year, but it remains of impressive stature.

1217th August to 1st September: the Berlioz Festival at La Côte-Saint-André

If you can only go to one festival this summer, this is probably it. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Hector Berlioz's death, festival director Bruno Messina, who has also been entrusted by the culture ministry with the co-ordination of the anniversary celebrations, has concocted a 2019 edition appropriate to the excesses of that most romantic of French composers. Berlioz's native town will host a Trojan village, stage a smugglers' masked ball and a parade including a gigantic Trojan horse, six metres tall and featuring a bending head (to get under overhead electrical cables), with musicians housed inside. And the roster of performers is decidedly out of the ordinary: apart from regulars François-Xavier Roth and John Eliot Gardiner, La Côte-Saint-André will be welcoming no less than five of the top French orchestras, as well as Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre in Roméo et Juliette. With this lot going on, there's a danger of Berlioz leaping out of his grave to come and see it. As for you, after this twelfth and final stage... there's nothing for it, you'll need a holiday!

The Berlioz Festival in full swing in the courtyard of the Château Louis XI © B. Moussier / Festival Berlioz
The Berlioz Festival in full swing in the courtyard of the Château Louis XI
© B. Moussier / Festival Berlioz

Translated from French by David Karlin