An inspiring musical offering to an often under-served minority
Monday, June 12, 2023
David Fray’s L’Offrande Musicale festival brings world class music-making to hundreds of disabled people, and the result is magnificent and moving
Time creeps up, doesn’t it? Next year will mark a decade since I first began writing Gramophone’s Festivals Guide, an effort that began as a listings job, but has become a year-round obsession with discovering festivals large and small the world over, in an endeavour to point our readers towards musical experiences that will remain with them long after the first chill of autumn has set in. Yet until a visit last July to the second edition of pianist David Fray’s L’Offrande Musicale festival, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to list ‘seeing the entire world with new eyes’ as a possible festival take-home.
Named after JS Bach’s Musical Offering, L’Offrande Musciale presents two weeks of concerts in and around Tarbes, in France’s Hautes-Pyrénées region – where Fray is from. At first glance online, it looks very much like any other highest-level musical festival trying to do things creatively: a 2023 programme themed around the voice, opening with Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Orchestre national du Capitole (ONCT), Accentus choir and soloists in a Mozart gala in Tarbes’ Halle Marcadieu; subsequent events including Schubert’s Schwanengesang from baritone Matthias Goerne and pianist Markus Hinterhauser in Château Montus, plus evenings combining music with the spoken word from Gérard Depardieu and pianist Gérard Daguerre, and Chiara Muti with Fray himself; the final year of a three-year artistic residency from violinist Renaud Capuçon; pre-concert talks and post-concert dinners; piano masterclasses from Fray.
Look more closely, though, and you’ll spot that the festival has a completely unique commitment to disabled concert-goers: a minimum of 20 percent of tickets free to any disabled person plus a companion upon presentation of a disability card, no matter where you’re from in the world; all festival venues accessible to those with reduced mobility; a free shuttle service with specially adapted vehicles; access to dress rehearsals – and meetings with the artists – for those whose carers feel couldn’t cope with a standard concert; certain concerts streamed into care homes, to reach those who genuinely don’t have the physical capacity to come.
L’Offrande Musicale festival has a dedicated commitment to disabled concert-goers (photo: Yvette l’agence / Doud Photo)
These are not just empty or caveat-filled words on a website either, for when I turned up at Lourdes’ Salle Padre Pio last July to hear Capuçon play-direct the ONCT, it was to witness multiple minibuses pulling up outside the entrance, a whole front section of the hall filled not with standard rows of seating but instead wheelchairs (something that’s possible when not in a traditional fixed-seat concert hall or theatre), and a sell-out audience significantly more diverse than the classical concert norm in terms of physical and cognitive abilities, who then listened intently, and brought the house down with their applause.
It’s this combination of a creative offering of the highest international level, and a gift to the disabled that’s genuinely worth something, that is Fray’s guiding principal. ‘Financially speaking, for instance’ he says, ‘I didn’t want to create a “charity” festival where you ask artists to come for free because there will be some disabled people. I wanted the best artists, which you cannot have if you say, “Come for charity” – and this is why charity concerts for disabled people are generally lower quality. Philosophically also, I didn’t want to say to disabled people, “These musicians are playing for free because it’s for you”’.
Essentially, Fray is offering them the same artistic standards, logistical ease and sense of being valued that ‘normal’ audiences take for granted.
Another point being neatly made is that it isn’t only the able-bodied who create highest-level art. For instance, last year’s festival programme featured a specially-written short novel from writer and columnist Philippe Lançon, left in a wheelchair after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre. This year meanwhile features a screening of the Stéphanie Pillonca film, Invincible été (Invincible Summer), following photographer Olivier Goy’s life and work following diagnosis with multiple sclerosis, followed by an onstage interview with him.
The results of all the above speak for themselves. In attendance terms, around 20 percent of visitors at the first two editions were disabled, which works out at somewhere between 600 and 700 people. Impact-wise, there have been welcome surprises for families and carers – for instance, the ability to bring someone to a rehearsal has enabled families and carers to discover they could in fact manage and enjoy a full concert after all.
More widely, when the Hautes- Pyrénées is notably culturally underserved, the festival is also attracting a fascinated and enthusiastic local audience of new fans for classical music. Then, crucially, almost 100 percent of the visiting artists have immediately expressed a desire to return, having felt the special atmosphere while recognising that the quality is also there. Fray concludes, ‘The goal was to create something that everybody would like to be in, despite the fact that we are speaking about a subject that in general people find difficult’. Or to bring things back to the festival title, ‘In the same way that Bach’s Musical Offeringwas both his gift to the king, and a challenge from the king to him, we created this festival as a challenge from music and disabled people towards society.’
Which brings us neatly back to that first point about new attitudes, because if my own experience is anything to go by, as an able-bodied concertgoer, beyond memorable musical experiences, you should prepare to return from L’Offrande Musicale suddenly noticing how rarely one bumps into people with disabilities in normal everyday life, and in fact actively missing the sight of multiple wheelchairs in concert hall. And this, surely, is right.
As Fray finally summed up to me last July, ‘In a world in which minorities are increasingly being recognised, the minority that is disabled people still isn’t. These people are the invisible. They’re not protesting on the streets, but I know that they are each day fighting against themselves, against their own diseases – and with the additional burden of how they are looked upon by society, when we really should be trying to make their life easier. So, without trying to make people feel uncomfortable, we are trying to create a society where people are aware, and who are open and welcoming. I think it’s time to change.’
So, head to Tarbes to be changed. Although, speaking as a Brit, it feels time too for something similar on UK soil.
L’Offrande Musicale festival takes places from June 28-July 11. Full details here