The Tale of a White & Black Minstrel

Jonathon Brown speaks to Robert Turnbull about his new Piano Festival in south-west France

Come what may, the concept of the bijou festival survives; perhaps, come what may, their hour is come to flourish. And here is a simple tale to tell, of a festival that brings Europe together round the familiar squeezed shiny shape of a piano, under the sturdily elegant and efficient wooden roof of a sixteenth century Market Hall, in the often scrawny territory of the Knights Templar, way down yonder in south-west France — think Carcassonne and head for Spain on your Quixotic nag. This is Cathar country, unforgiving in extremes of seasonal weather and eternal landscape: scarting rocky outcrops vie with the lushest-looking crop of all, the vine, destined for the ever-improving Corbières appellation.

The bijou festival in question is the work of writer Robert Turnbull who, despite the Scottish name, is an Englishman abroad. If in France he lives in Lagrasse, a curiosity even in that raw scrap of France, a town where in summer you are as likely to share a balmy tree-shaded restaurant terrace with the director of a national gallery in ill-advised holiday kit, as with a grunty vigneron in well-worn blue overalls; but a town now with its own, very special piano festival.

Lagrasse lurks by a bend in the Orbieu river as it slinks towards gorges, with a twelfth century abbaye on one bank, given its charter in 778 by Charlemagne, and the main walled town on the other; they are joined by an ancient apathetic arched bridge now seven hundred years old. Already blessed with a successful summer book festival, Le Banquet du Livre, and with the tongue-twister rock-reggae extravaganza Abracadagrasse, Lagrasse achieved kudos three years ago when young stars from the Royal Ballet danced on a makeshift stage in the grounds of the abbey. Thereupon Turnbull reckoned the lazy tight cat-infested streets could nonetheless easily manage another festival.

Pure village happenstance intervened. One warm evening, across the tall ancient stone walls, Turnbull overheard the rippling excesses of a Chopin Ballade; the occasional smudge and halt revealed that this was not a recording but an actual real living local pianist. Mon dieu! Chasing the source down the streets, Turnbull ventured to bang on a hefty old wooden door. The culprit answered, grinning, suspecting the cause. This moment gave Turnbull his inspiration, the dream was launched, and now, even if only for a few days in late July, the streets of Lagrasse resonate to the great gleaming gush of felt hammers on taut wire in a tin triangle.

I have just returned from the first festival and cannot remove from my memory many many moments, not least the final music, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, in the composer’s duet version, played by James Kreiling and Janneke Brits under the hall’s ancient roof and an appreciative dark blue sky.

The standing ovation was for a tremendous performance, but also for the triumph of the new festival, which crowns Turnbull’s life-long love of piano.

“My early years were devoted to attempting to be a pianist. But I only started at 14 and after a stint at the San Francisco Conservatory I realised it was too late — I resisted the discipline, all those scales, never mind the Chopin Études, while Asian prodigies played through Rachmanninoff concertos in the practice rooms. I mean, once I asked one of the prodigies to play me a Chopin étude, but to transpose it up a tritone; he just frowned and did it. My only great success was with Beethoven’s Waldstein sonata, which my mother adored. ‘Play me the Waldstein,’ she would ask. ‘Yes, Mother!’ I’d reply, and play Claire de Lune sometimes instead. ‘Oh that was lovely dear!’

“Nearly twenty years ago I wrote an article on the millions of Chinese kids determined to be the next Lang Lang, and I wondered what we are doing about this in Europe. I wanted to give them a better chance. So, they need a stage and a piano. That’s what we give them in Lagrasse: a stage and a piano. Yes, and we give them a decent fee and some expenses too, as much as we can, and the atmosphere of one of the most magical villages in France.”

Some clever chap then invented the name: En blanc et noir — the title of a piece by Debussy written a hundred years ago — and last year saw the first precarious try-out. Turnbull has no problem finding pianists, what with a long journalistic history of concert-going, and recent forays into Hungary, Catalunya and Latvia. All across Europe, they want to come. As for the locals, it’s true that, fearing the Peter Mayle effect, he was anxious about approaching the town council, the Mairie. It’s not necessary to itemise the possible prejudices and reluctances that may have reared their heads, but none did and the Mairie has proved very supportive. However alive the chaotic sleepy ghost of Jacques Tati may be in rural France, most towns now know that revenue has to happen and that tourism and events are how it happens. And, upon the close of this year’s festival, all the sponsors and donors pledged afresh for 2015.

“Lagrasse has become the retirement magnet to all sorts, arty sorts especially: we’ve got Royal Ballet dancers, stage managers, feminist publishers, war photographers, opera singers, and so on. If you hear strains of Puccini from a window, you know it’s that time of year the Catalan tenor is in town. Young energy is supplied by Chechen builders or Albanian refugees looking to restart their lives. Then monks jog down the road among them all in full habit!
“The festival has great ideals, but perfectly simple ones too. Pianists from all over Europe who excite us, we ask them to play! It’s not the Carnegie Hall, they know that, but they really want to come. At the end of the day, artists want to communicate, and to make something of all that practise. We want to keep the concerts free — there were three a day this year, over four days, and after each we pass a hat round. I was thrilled by people’s generosity, I have to say.

“Just as important to me as the quality of the artists, is the social aspect, how well musicians blend in with the existing community, and, if you like, share its values. This is very important to me. Many festivals begin in the entrepreneurial spirit we created here, but it can quickly turn into a revolving door of self-important artists with their agents in tow. Lagrasse has the sense of being a strong historical community, so my aim is to bring together a musical community to match that. This is what I hope is going to make this event special. I think we can both invite new faces as well as invite back those that have created a special place in our affections and have become part of our family here.”

I can testify to the team spirit; I was there to paint a back-drop, but became one of a band of page-turners, while idle holiday-makers ended up carting scaffolding when, moments after the Stravinsky had ended, every trace of stage, seats and piano had to be removed for the Saturday market. It was like a machine ballet from a military tattoo. Early the next morning the Hall sang to fruit and cheese and ham.

“The piano unites, it just does, and for Lagrasse to be a small focus of that bizarre but civilising magnetism is, well, something, after all.”

Even if those damned études elude you. Exactly.