Every July since 1985, a French music festival has showcased top international talents featuring hundreds of mainly free top classical, opera, jazz and DJ music concerts. This year’s edition of the Festival Radio France Occitanie Montpellier featured 707 artists, including six orchestras and four choirs. And the festival hosted the important Eurovision Young Musicians competition, for the very first time in France. Despite Gramaphone’s praise of this year’s festival, as “the jewel in Radio France’s crown,” it remains relatively unknown in the English-speaking world. It’s one of the most brilliant musical experiences and deserves to be much better known than it is outside of the south of France.
This festival offers a huge program, with national and international talent in picturesque venues, in and around the ancient city of Montpellier. It’s a musical, multi-genre feast presented in a modern concert hall, an historic opera house, grand churches and in open air spaces. The Festival Radio France Occitanie Montpellier offers symphony concerts, operatic performances, chamber music, performances by young soloists as well as jazz, world music and electronic music.
A classical highlight this July included a concert in a gallery in Musée Fabre, surrounded by 18th-century paintings. Headed by Ophélie Gaillard on cello, the brilliant Ensemble Pulcinella performed Handel, Vivaldi and a “curious collection of Scots tunes” by James Oswald, with Pablo Valetti and Nicolas Mazzoleni (violins), Clotilde Guyon (bass) and Paolo Zanzu (harpsichord).
The festival prides itself on showing new talents in their Discovery lunchtime concerts at the Corum concert hall. The sparkling duo of Violaine Despeyroux on viola and Olga Kirpicheva on piano performed pieces with great sensitivity by Schumann, British composer York Bowen and a modern work by Franco-Ukrainian modern composer Dimitri Tchesnokov.
With emerging talent as a focus, it was appropriate that the Festival hosted the final of the Eurovision Young Musicians competition for the first time in France. The classical music contest, held every two years since 1982, offers the broadest possible stage to talented young classical musicians to help them embark on an international career. The first Eurovision Young Musicians was held in Manchester. Since then it has been held six times in Vienna, twice in Cologne and Switzerland (Geneva, Lucerne) and once each in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Brussels, Warsaw, Lisbon, Bergen and Berlin. The eleven musicians in the 40th anniversary edition of Eurovision Young Musicians in Montpellier was judged by five industry professionals. Violinist Daniel Matejča won for a brilliant performance from Shostakovich’s 1st violin concerto. He was awarded a cash prize and given a professional concert. The second place prize went to Germany’s Philipp Schupelius with third place going to Norway’s Alma Serafin Kraggerud.
In the glorious St Pierre Cathedral, Les Éléments vocal ensemble paired with Les Ombres orchestra under the direction of Joël Suhubiette to perform a brilliant selection of 17th-century English songs, and choral pieces by Handel and Purcell.
“Jazz en plein air” is a special experience at à l’Amphithéâtre d’Ô, in a pine-filled forest. Two concerts run every evening for the three weeks of the festival. Touted as an unmissable gig at the outdoor venue, British jazz pianist Liam Noble did not disappoint. In fact, he ably performed an unexpected additional gig when one act cancelled last minute. With Tom Herbert on bass and Seb Rochford drums, Noble performed an eclectic mix of standards, originals and improvisations. This mixture of approaches has always characterized Noble’s music. You can hear the influence of Thelonious Monk and he also creates asserts unusual electronic sounds.
Tohu Bohu, the electronic music part of the Radio France festival, is expertly run by director Pascal Maurin, a veteran music promoter who also runs Festival Résonance in Avignon. Tohu Bohu is built around established artists and DJs from capitals such as London, Paris or Berlin. Since its launch in 2001, Maurin has been bringing big names who’ve wowed the crowd, including Detroit techno pioneer Derrick May, the late great Andrew Weatherall, French giant Laurent Garnier and German DJ Ben Klock. This year British DJ and producer Archie Hamilton brought a spectacular set of deep house to thrill the crowd in the large square outside the town hall. Also on the lineup this year were fellow Brits, Or:la, breakthrough DJ of the year and veteran Daniel Avery.