Tuesday, April 13, 2004

My favourite festival

I've been to a few, Salzburg and Verbier included, but this one took the biscuit. And the chances are you won't have heard of it.

I haven't been able to write about this anywhere 'official' yet, because editors tend to say 'Where on earth is that?' when I tell them I had a great time in...St Nazaire. Fair enough: a depressed, sometime-shipbuilding little town on the Loire Atlantique coast of France, blasted to pieces (mainly by the Brits) in the war and a long way from the glitz and glamour of gay Paris doesn't sound like a prime-time travel feature to anyone. And if you have heard of St Nazaire, chances are that it's because there was a fearful accident there last November when a gangplank leading onto the new oceanliner Queen Mary II (which was being built there) collapsed and 15 people were killed falling onto the dry dock.

If, however, you want to join my campaign for Real Music, this is the place to go in September. The festival was founded 14 years ago by my friend, interviewee and favourite fiddler Philippe Graffin [see South Africa etc]. Last September he assembled a marvellous group of musicians to perform a set of fascinating programmes build around the idea of 'L'invitation au voyage' - appropriate because the building of the Queen Mary II was the most significant thing to have happened in St Nazaire in years. 'L'invitation au voyage' largely took the form of a pairing of English and French music; there was also the world premiere of David Matthews's specially-commissioned setting of the Baudelaire poem of that title.

It was only there, listening to Yuzuko Horigome playing The Lark Ascending with piano accompaniment in the beautiful chapel-turned-art-gallery where most of the concerts happen, that I realised how little British music is known outside our little island. The enthusiastic local audience lapped it up, but had never heard it before. The same went for Elgar's Sospiri, the centrepiece of the final concert. That was an event in itself: a large warehouse, right next to the nearly-finished Queen Mary II, was transformed into a concert hall for the evening. Despite a rather unusual acoustic, it proved a stunning setting. The audience was bussed in from the town and some people apparently queued all day to get there first and be in the front row.

Why is this my favourite festival? There are no 5-star hotels or gourmet oyster bars; no mountain views or hang-gliding; no composer house museums, specially made chocolates or champagne tents for corporate sponsors. And there's no pretentiousness, no posing, no money for marketing, no big-name circuit recitalists playing their year's programme for the hundredth time. Just wonderful, imaginatively devised concerts played by fantastic musicians for mainly local audiences who'd never get the chance to hear it otherwise. St Nazaire may not be the prettiest of French towns, but it's friendly, the locals love their festival, the food is excellent and the local wine splendid - and there's also a wonderful beach! It's genuine, it's real and it deserves all the attention it can't afford.

This year's St Nazaire Festival - the official title is Consonances - takes place from 18 to 25 September and some exciting Russian stuff was being planned last time I checked it out. See the link for more info.