Former Aisne Church Becomes a Kit Armstrong Concert Hall and Artistic Residence

What might inspire a young international pianist and former child prodigy to transform an abandoned church in the Aisne, northern France, into his very own concert hall, home  and artistic residence?

Former child prodgidy Kit Armstrong has transformed a church into an artikstic centre in France(credit facebook)

Pianist and former child prodigy, Kit Armstrong has transformed a church into an artistic centre in France. (Credit Facebook)

Churches, with their high vaulted ceilings are frequently the preferred venue for classical and sacred music concerts across France thanks to their special acoustics, and it was this that attracted Kit Armstrong.

Following two years of renovation works Los Angeles-born, Paris-educated Kit Armstrong (22) recently performed the first concert in his new arts centre and European home at Hirson, (pop 10,000) in northern France, a town some 7km from the Belgian border, two hours from Lille, Brussels and Luxembourg and less than three hours from Paris.

Église Sainte-Thérèse-de-l'Enfant-Jésus in Hirson northern France (Credit Igmar911 Wikipedia

Église Sainte-Thérèse-de-l’Enfant-Jésus in Hirson northern France (Credit Igmar911 Wikipedia

The desanctified Roman Catholic Church, built in the Art Déco style by a local wealthy benefactor and civil engineer Aimé Bonna, was started in October 1929 and constructed from reinforced concrete, a business which made Bonna his fortune.

The young international pianist who praised the perfect acoustics of the building, acquired Sainte-Thérèse-de-l’Enfant-Jésus and surrounding outbuildings in September 2012 for some 150,000 euros, a bargain compared to New York real estate prices, he told one reporter and an investment likely to be rapidly amortised from the artist’s annual royalties of some 200,000 euros.

Kit Armstrong, who has given recitals in major centres around the globe and performed with many famous orchestras, appeared in the inaugural concert of his new home June 3, in a performance enthusiastically welcomed by a 600-strong audience.

Watch the concert in the video below:

Jean-Jacques Thomas, Hirson’s mayor who is also Vice-President of the Conseil général and president of the Trois Rivières Communauté de communes has welcomed the young international pianist’s initiative. He praised the benefits of the art centre project — designed by Jean-Jacques Hennequart a wellknown architect — and welcomed the arrival of a pianist of international reknown to the town.

The mayor told l’Express magazine: “I, a Mayor of the Left, wanted to save the old church building and restore it to the population, while the priest in charge at the time, wanted to demolish it. When I learnt that Kit was interested, we put all our efforts into ensuring the deal was done.”

Earlier on his mayoral blog he wrote the sale of the church to Kit Armstrong represented: “A wonderful opportunity to turn a former place of worship into a place dedicated to culture. In addition our close proximity to the Benelux and other northern European countries without a doubt offered considerable added-value to the project. This is a dream come true (for the community).”

Jean-Jacques Thomas, the  mayor, Laurent Poichotte, the bishop’s representative, Patrick Besse, the estate agent; Kit Armstrong and his mother May. (Credit:  The Mayoral Blog)

Jean-Jacques Thomas, the mayor, Laurent Poichotte, the bishop’s representative, Patrick Besse, the estate agent; Kit Armstrong and his mother May. (Credit: The Mayoral Blog)

Before buying the church Kit Armstrong who is fluent in Chinese, French, English and German, lived in Austria and according to the mayor, his busy schedule — some 24 concerts a year — hardly left him time to search for a permanent place to install his piano and make a home. But then he discovered the Aimé Bonna church: “A place of magic to practise and rehearse in and a wonderful location for an arts centre and concert hall. Churches are places of great intellectual and cultural value, full of history and emotion”, he says. “The music one plays in a church becomes transcendental, thanks to the perfect acoustics”.

Kit Armstrong, son of an English father and a Taiwanese mother was a child prodigy and has been a professional musician since he was eight. By age 10 had already composed 11 works for piano while studying science at the university of Utah. Later he was accepted at the Imperial College and at the Royal Academy of Music in London where he studied under Alfred Brendel. In 2008, he won first prize in the Morton Gould Young Composer Awards awarded by the American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers. He holds a master in pure mathematics from the Pierre-et-Marie Curie University in Paris.

Writing in L’Express Julien Bordier set the scene days before the pianist’s first concert in the new 900sqm arts centre: “Beneath a statue of St. Teresa and on a beautiful Steinway piano, the virtuoso performer launched into Souvenir a work by the French organist Marcel Dupré”. At Hirson the pianist told the magazine: “I can be my own artistic director, indulge in projects important to me and devote myself to polyphonic IVth century ars nova music. I’ve always admired the works of Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) which are almost never played on the piano.”

The pianist has made clear his gratitude for the support and welcome he has received from the townsfolk and local municipal officials and in return has made every effort to involve the local population in his project. A day before the free inauguration concert on June 3 he organised an Open Day at the centre. Later this year in September he will perform at a concert in Hirson’s ossuary — which dates from Roman times — as part of France’s national commemorations of the centenary of the start of the Great War.

The sale of disused churches is a growing phenomenon. The decrease in the number of church-going parishioners and high maintenance costs are forcing the Roman Catholic Church in France to sell off its assets. According to the Observatory of Religious Heritage, some 5,000 to 10,000 French churches could be sold, pulled down or abandoned before 2030″, Bordier’s report concludes.

Story: Ken Pottinger

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