Good to be well prepared for William Christie!” a member of his team had suggested by email as I planned my visit to Thiré, a small village in the Vendée region of France, an hour’s drive from Nantes. It has been the American-born conductor’s home since 1985, when he bought what was then an abandoned farm. In addition to resurrecting the building he designed an extravagantly beautiful garden around it, which now hosts a yearly festival, “Dans les Jardins de William Christie”.
Since 2012, the event has served as an intimate showcase for his pioneering music and vocal ensemble Les Arts Florissants. This month, the 2019 festival will stage some 100 performances — concerts and “promenades musicales” — for up to 9,000 visitors.
Just as Les Arts Florissants, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, travelled back in time to reinvigorate baroque music, Thiré seems to hold the 21st century at arm’s length.
When Christie welcomes me on a blistering July afternoon, the 74-year-old is every inch the gentleman farmer — down to the issue of Country Life by the fireplace and the tales of French countesses who invited him for drinks at their châteaux.
He also has, as I was subtly warned, the imperious manner to match. When I express admiration for the restoration of the lavishly decorated French 16th-century house we’re sitting in, he replies with a hint of disdain: “If you have any notions of architecture and historical style, it’s not that difficult.” I feel chastened — as one often does in the presence of the eminent conductor. His collaborators talk about him with the awed deference often reserved for older male artists who have been labelled geniuses, and he is clearly used to it. “Bill is a tiger, a predator, with a killer’s instinct,” one of his former protégées, the soprano Sandrine Piau, was quoted saying in a book about Les Arts Florissants. I’m worried he will pounce when I ask if he considers himself demanding, but Christie nods. “I impose what I think is a healthy discipline,” he says, before adding, deadpan: “Sometimes a temper is a good thing.”
Christie doesn’t exactly soften when his two passions — music and gardening — come up in conversation, but it’s clear they are genuine. His parents planted the seeds for both, encouraging him to learn the harpsichord and to spend time in the family’s suburban garden near Buffalo, in upstate New York.
“I had a little plot, three or four feet. I planted bulbs in the autumn and they turned into tulips and hyacinths.”
After studying at Harvard and Yale and teaching music for a year at Darmouth College in the 1960s, Christie left the US “under a cloud”, as he puts it, in order to avoid being drafted for the Vietnam war, which he opposed. His interest in early French music led him to settle in the country in 1971. “I wanted to drink at the source,” he says — and he soon found his way to the Vendée region.
He had long had a vision for a garden of his own. “The dream house had to be, essentially, a house that I could restore, it had to be old, and it had to have nothing around it,” he explains. “I didn’t want an established garden. If you’ve got pretensions of being a gardener, as I had, and still have, you don’t want a garden that’s been made by somebody else, as beautiful as that can be.”
He bought the property in Thiré in 1985, just as Les Arts Florissants’ plan to lift the 17th- and 18th-century French repertoire out of the doldrums was taking off. “French music simply couldn’t talk or speak, it had lost its eloquence, because people were applying the wrong tools,” Christie remembers. The next year, a historically informed production of Lully’s Atys at the Opéra Comique in Paris marked a turning point for the ensemble. Not that Christie’s fame was enough to mollify his village neighbours: he describes their reaction to his arrival as “cold fury”. “I came into it not knowing that it was one of the most difficult villages in the entire département in terms of the way it deals with people it doesn’t know.”
Three decades on, Thiré is mostly peaceful, not least because of Christie’s lasting commitment to the area. While he has always had gardeners to help, on the day we meet, he was up at 6am to weed and water, and he is at home as frequently as his conducting schedule allows. “I’ll come down for 24 hours if I haven’t seen the roses, or the irises, or if there are problems. A garden is like having a family.”
Over time, the garden has become several gardens in one. From the elaborate ornamental patterns that greet visitors in the cour d’honneur to a cloister and the gorgeous green theatre, with its yew hedge trimmed into elegant curving shapes, it feels both old and new, and was added to the Supplementary List of Historic Monuments in 2006. During the festival in late August, “musical promenades” take visitors around its parterres and alleyways for short afternoon recitals, with evening productions performed at the miroir d’eau, the water garden, and at Thiré’s nearby church.
“It’s Arcadia,” Christie says. “It’s the whole idea of the pastoral dream: you have songs, you have music, and it gets mixed up with wind, air, birds, water. There isn’t a baroque opera, from the mid-17th century to the end of the French Revolution, that doesn’t somewhere evoke a lovely, beautiful garden.”
The conductor’s pastoral vision is taking over the entire village: Les Arts Florissants now owns a dozen buildings near Christie’s property, and is planning for the future. In 2017, the company became a Foundation, with plans to preserve its methods and offer a growing number of year-round artist residencies. Several rehearsal studios are in the process of being completed.
Every other year, the festival also serves as a vehicle for the Jardin des Voix, an academy of young singers who come from around the world to train for three weeks with Christie and his team. Graduates include the Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva; this year, the academy will perform Mozart’s La finta giardiniera alfresco.
Christie, who defines himself these days as a “cultural, intellectual ostrich”, has little patience for the less idyllic world outside Thiré. “I don’t deal with that, you see,” he says of the anti-elitist sentiment sweeping across many countries. “Do I buy into it? Obviously not. And the people who try to involve me in crossovers, I simply just ignore.” Christie prefers what he calls “a good definition of being elite — that is to say, being one of the best.” The master of this house certainly expects nothing less.
August 24-31, arts-florissants.com