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Surpassing Expectation

Surpassing  Expectation

As the Charente prepares to welcome the 4th International Festival of Chamber Music, Roger Moss profiles this world-class music event, and those who make it possible...

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If the countless experiences which underpin daily life here in western France have taught us anything then it’s surely to expect the unexpected. While in time it’s possible, to a degree, to take things like peace and quiet, a sense of history and a sunnier climate for granted, once in a while something comes along which suddenly snaps it all back sharply into focus and then adds some vital spark we thought we’d lost in exchange for the rural idyll. ‘La vie est belle...’ – and for lovers of classical music, it just keeps getting better, with a little help from some influential friends.

Witnessing the dazzling interplay of internationally-celebrated concert performers from the world of chamber music is a privilege normally available only to those who live in or near major European cities, yet it’s something we can all enjoy right here in the region, during the Festival International de Musique de Chambre en Charente. Now in its fourth edition, the Festival unfolds over five successive weekends during May and early-June, with concerts presented in a group of carefully-selected historic sites within the Charente département. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that ticket prices for all but the closing Gala Concert have been fixed at a refreshingly modest 15 euros, thereby ensuring that the performances are accessible to everyone.

Clearly, establishing and sustaining a world-class cultural event is a labour of love, to which must be added dedication, commitment and tenacity, combined with great sensitivity (plus an ability to pull more than a few strings from time to time). Deploying this rare combination of talents and abilities is something which appears to come naturally to the event’s artistic directors, brother and sister Nathalie and Jacob Shaw (violinist and cellist respectively) and their father Julian, a well-known viola soloist and chamber musician, who began playing together almost twenty years ago in their London family home. But how, exactly, did Charente come into the picture?

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Intrigued to know more, I recently arranged to meet Julian’s wife Sarah (an accomplished concert pianist in her own right) at home in the gently-undulating hills near the historic town of Chalais. While Julian deployed his newly-acquired skills behind the wheel of a venerable tractor in an adjacent field, Sarah recounted with infectious enthusiasm how, after much deliberation, the couple had settled here some five years ago: ‘If you’re a serious professional musician then you really have to be in London. Eventually, though, both Nathalie and Jacob followed in their father’s footsteps, establishing their own very successful careers as international soloists and were travelling all over the world – but they always made time to continue working with Julian as the Trio à Cordes SHAW.’ Sensing that perhaps the moment had finally come to consider a change of life in totally new, less-pressured surroundings, Julian and Sarah began looking at France, an appealing choice with lots of options.

So how, given the wealth of possibilities, did they decide upon this particularly idyllic spot as the place in which to put down their roots? ‘We wanted to establish something of world-class quality, musically, and first considered Provence – perhaps around Avignon – but there was so much happening already that we decided to keep looking. This part of Southwest France looked promising, with good communications, and we soon realised that Chalais has a long and colourful history. When we found an interesting property with eleven hectares we just knew that this was just what we were looking for.’ Five years on, the results of an immaculate and stylish renovation prove the decision to have been an inspired one.

The Festival is arguably even more so. Founded by the Trio members as recently as 2009, the event has already proved spectacularly successful in attracting top international musicians, including Argentinian virtuoso pianist José Gallardo and French clarinetist Michel Lethiec, Artistic Director of the Prades Festival. The resulting collaborations span several generations and languages, united by a common love of chamber music. Sarah is modest about her contributions, but it’s clear that managing such major events involves tireless efforts on her part: ‘We’re hugely fortunate in having lots of friends and contacts at a top international level, but once they know what we’re doing, musicians are really keen to come. But it involves a lot of careful planning and consultation to make it all come together. For example, we know that local people work during the week, so we arrange concert dates at weekends, when everyone is free – we’ve even had to take into account less-obvious things like the local farmers’ regular milking times!’

Eglise-St-Martial-Chalais-sextuor-à-cordes--photo-Nikolaj-Lund

Clearly, this characteristically practical, down-to-earth approach is a far cry from the elitist label which is often applied to classical music. The choice of venues, too, reflects some careful planning on the part of the organisers, as Sarah explains: ‘We’re lucky to have some really atmospheric settings – the Eglise Saint-Martial in Chalais, for example, which is an historic Romanesque church but with a timber ceiling, rather than the usual stone vaulting, giving it exceptional acoustic qualities. It also has cloisters, where we can follow concert performances with art exhibitions and dégustations of local produce. It also gives everyone a chance to meet, enjoy a chat and make new friends.’

In fact, the event has its own Amis du Festival, who enjoy some interesting benefits, including opportunities to share thoughts and ideas with the Artistic Directors. Friends can also become more actively involved in supporting future editions and taking them to even greater success. Talking of which, this year’s Festival gets under way at 8.30pm on Saturday 5th May in the 14/16th-Century Carmelite Convent of Les Carmes de La Rochefoucauld. It promises to be quite an occasion.