World-Renowned French Arts Festivals Hit by Eighth Year of EU’s Austerity Diet

Two years ago San Francisco music conservatory graduate Robert Turnbull — a keen amateur pianist – set out boldly to create a piano festival in south-east France that would give young European concert pianists a free summer platform and career exposure.

The festival location En Blanc et Noir

The festival location En Blanc et Noir

The inaugural Fantaisie de Musique à Lagrasse set up in a small village of the same name, 30 kms from Carcassonne, was a remarkable success and rechristened En Blanc et Noir (EBEN), is now entering its third year.

Turnbull’s bold initiative launched however just as France’s fabled festival season that has for decades filled almost every corner of the land with the throbbing and thrilling sound of music and more, has been forced into drastic belt-tightening, the direct consequence of a long diet of pain for little gain fed Europe following the inexcusable criminal profligacy of rogue global bankers and complicit politicians.

As Brussels has dragged Paris, Athens, Lisbon, Madrid and other EU capitals into the eighth straight year of unyielding and mainly unfruitful austerity — France, with frighteningly high youth unemployment, is now limping through its longest recession since World War II, according to the New York Times  — the French summer extravaganza is just one area facing stringent central government budget cutbacks.

The severe pruning of once lavish state subsidies that have long enabled French Summer Festivals to flourish, promoting new and established talent around the country has started to take a toll.

Some indeed are even questioning whether France is not all “festivalled-out”.

Does France’s world beating annual summer festival programme have too many events was the question France Musique, the state owned broadcaster station posed recently noting the country runs 3000 festivals a year nationwide.

Discussing the ongoing difficulties facing the French arts world Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin recently confirmed that over the past 12 months alone 50 major festivals have disappeared from the annual calendar. However she claimed, the arrival of 44 brand new festivals in the 2015 season had offset this.

Reporting on the health of France’s summer feast of festivals and notably the most famous at Aix-en-Provence and Avignon, France Musique’s Jean-Baptiste Urbain said: “Between 2015 and 2017, the state will reduce its subsidies to the national arts budget which is delivered via local and regional bodies, by 11 billion euros and the inevitable cutbacks are hitting communities, towns, cities and regions across France.

Logo of the Festival at Avignon

Logo of the Festival at Avignon

In late June Journal du Dimanche, reporting on the findings of Emmanuel Négrier, a researcher with the CNRS-Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and author of a report about changes affecting French summer music festivals noted, “this year for the first time for many, many years the balance between the established festivals that have closed their doors and new ones that have replaced them, has been negative”.

Among reasons reported by Jean-Baptiste Urbain was that Paris has been forced to pull the plug on the generous subsidy programme that has long provided core funding for French cultural events over the extended summer holiday period.

Other clouds on the horizon include the merger and reorganisation of French regional authorities due for completion by 2020. This raises many questions about how new super regional bodies of different political colours will conduct existing cultural programmes, an issue the radio said was causing festival organisers many headaches.

Meanwhile the costs of staging festivals are rising as are cachets paid to performing artists, fuelled by increased competition from the USA and East Europe where certain sponsors and advertisers such as tobacco and alcohol companies, encounter fewer restraints on product placement and hence are more willing to provide funding.

Interactive map showing festivals cancelled around France

Interactive map showing festivals cancelled around France

Responding to these pressures French arts organisers are adapting of course and tailoring activities to what they can raise at the box office supplemented where possible by generous arts patrons.

Another factor impacting the scene was the outcome of this year’s local elections which saw thousands of local authorities change hands and new teams of political opponents seizing the opportunity to impose change often for changes’ sake. One such reported case was the French Basque town of Bayonne where the newly elected centrist mayor cancelled a subsidy for the long-held Translatines theatre festival, in favour of a sports event.

Earlier this year Emeline Jersol an arts organiser in northern France published an interactive crisis map on the Internet which showed that 200 festivals had disappeared from the 2015 calendar.

Thankfully all is not gloom and doom and fine examples of thriving festivals and musical events remain, some even offering performances for free. Robert Turnbull’s En Blanc et Noir (EBEN) festival is just one such example.

piano festival Lagrasse from Cromwell Films on Vimeo.

As he told Anita Rieu-Sicart Editor of the Var Village Voice on the Cote d’Azur: “When a few friends and I created the piano Festival En Blanc et Noir in the village of Lagrasse, our principle aim was to provide opportunities for young pianists at the start of their careers”.

Robert Turnbull, en blanc et noir festival organiser

Robert Turnbull, en blanc et noir festival organiser

The festival began as a humble affair. With a stage just big enough for two grand pianos, minimal lighting and no amplification, it was really a salon ‘en plein air, en pleine lune’, a stone’s throw from the Abbaye de Lagrasse, one of France’s most romantic monuments.

“Musically”, he said, “we were all surprised by the results. One or two pianists, you could tell, were still finding their form, but the standing ovation inspired by James Kreiling and Janneke Brits’s piano duo version of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps gave us all the sense that we are onto something. The talent of over a dozen gifted musicians radiated long after the sounding of the final notes. The experience, we soon saw, must be repeated!”

Outlining the programme for this year’s event he said: “James and Janneke, both Guildhall (of London) graduates, return this year for a four-hand arrangement of Debussy’s tone poem La Mer, and – perhaps the most exciting item of the entire festival – the French premiere of Gustav Holst’s recently-discovered arrangement of The Planets Suite. Of course Holst adored France and spent many days walking in the Auvergne, dreaming up cosmic melodies.

“2015 also marks the centenary of possibly the 20th century’s most mystifying composer. Alexander Scriabin is perhaps most famous for his eccentric and unexecuted plan to mount musical extravaganzas in a temple in the Himalayas. But for pianists, the technical challenges demanded to conjure his unique sound world are very real. Having written a dissertation on the composer while recording a CD of his music, James Kreiling will share his insights at EBEN this year before performing the composer’s 6th and 10th sonatas.

“The Serbian-American pianist Ivan Ilic won multiple plaudits for his recordings of Godowsky’s fiendishly difficult left-hand ‘studies’ on Chopin’s Etudes. He opens 2015’s EBEN with a selection of Scriabin Preludes, sharing the stage with his pupil Paul Salinier, who plays Debussy’s Estampes. Together they end the concert as a duo – for Schubert’s Overture in F minor and Debussy’s rarely heard Divertissement.

“Responding to the suggestion that last year’s festival was too Anglophone, I have been on the trail of French talent. Francois Moschetta, a pupil of Michel Beroff, plays Schubert’s great A major Sonata and some Ravel. Guillaume Sigier, former RCM student has also chosen Ravel along with Brahms’s Opus 118 Intermezzi and something by the contemporary British composer Thomas Ades. Louisa Counarie has decided on a programme embracing 200 years of the classics: Schubert, Bach, Mozart and Mendelssohn’s sweetly affecting Songs Without Words. Lagrasse’s has its own resident concert pianist. Charley Felter’s debut for EBEN assembles Preludes by the Catalan composer Mompou, a handful of Chopin Mazurkas and two of his own waltzes.

“A handful of last year’s pianists are back, by popular demand. Bobby Mitchell, who charmed everyone last year with Liszt arrangement of Wagner’s Leibestod, returns with another eclectic programme that juxtaposes Schumann’s epic Kreisleriana and Gershwin’s eternal Rhapsody in Blue.

“The festival aims to showcase other pianistic skills, including accompanying. Nestor Bayon returns to accompanying his compatriot, baritone Alex Vicens, in a programme of Catalan folk songs, Tosti, and a group of operatic arias ending with Puccini’s bloodcurdling Nessum Dorma.

“London-based Yshani Perinpanayagam brings Johnny Herford, one of Britain rising stars who inspired rave reviews as ‘K’ in Philip Glass’s opera based on Kafka’s The Trial. He has chosen Strauss and Wolf lieder but is bound to delight a large part of the audience with the quintessentially British A Shropshire Lad and Britten’s Folk Songs.

“The soprano Marta Garcia Cadena has chosen an enchanting programme of Strauss, Faure, Schubert’s most popular songs, as well as one or two from her native Catalunya. For the penultimate concert violinist Lev Atlas and his pianist partner Stephen Adam bring a 26 year-old Russian baritone, an award-winner at a recent Rachmaninov vocal competition. Alexey Gusev is expected to hit the big time, which is why we were determined to engage him this year. He will be singing what he loves most – Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov songs”.

One of the most attractive aspects of this festival, adds Anita Rieu-Sicart, is that the concerts are free, people stage them and contribute just for the love of it, while still raising enough money to pay the young musicians.

Story: Anita Rieu-Sicart
Editor: VAR VILLAGE VOICE, A Monthly Subscription Internet magazine about the Var. Web:
Additional reporting by Ken Pottinger

Poster for the 2015 festival En Blanc et Noir

Poster for the 2015 festival En Blanc et Noir

The Festival:
One of the “plus beaux villages de France”, Lagrasse is known for its 8th century Abbey, its medieval streets, its concentration of artists and artisans, and its ability to showcase a variety of cultural events year round. In addition to a regular programme of events such as Le Banquet du Livre, Lagrasse has played host to once-in-a-lifetime special events courtesy of principal dancers from the London Royal Ballet, held in the grounds of the Abbey.
Read more on the website and on Facebook

EBEN – Sunday 26 July to Wednesday 29 July, 2015.
Following an opening concert on Saturday evening, July 25, the festival officially begins on Sunday July 26 and will continue until the evening of Wednesday the 29th of July.


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