Lagrasse, Southwest France

Rupert Christiansen on Robert Turnbull

One of Robert Turnbull's closest friends, the writer and music critic Rupert Christiansen, posted the following tribute on his Facebook page on 27 December 2018:

"Robert and I met in the queue for the Ring cycle at Covent Garden 40 years ago: Wagner would remain a leitmotif of our conversation ever after, but through thick and thin, across three continents, we shared so much else as well. Our relationship wasn’t always easy and we were often geographically separated, but he was my Best Man and the nearest I have had to a brother. He drove me mad, I loved him deeply, and his death leaves a great void in my life.

Ceaselessly hungry for experience, he was an insatiable traveller, always open to adventure, gobbling up possibilities with impulsive gusto. Charming, gregarious, sensitive and generous — as well as stubborn, impatient and chaotic — he made friends wherever he went and styled himself, with good reason, a citizen of the world.

Music, especially the piano (which he played to professional standard) and opera, was his grand passion. Aside from his intermittently successful but somewhat erratic career as a journalist — specialising in opera and Asian culture and including some trenchant long-form pieces for Opera NowWall Street JournalNew York TimesSunday Telegraph and South China Morning Post among others — he could boast two more durable achievements.

One was his work in Cambodia, where in collaboration with Fred Frumberg, he spent a decade helping to restore the country’s classical arts after the horrors of the Pol Pot regime, as well as producing an epoch-making performance of The Magic Flute just before he fell sick in March; the other is the annual summer festival for young pianists he established in Lagrasse. Sustained financially by a foundation he has set up in his will, this wonderful event will be continued in his memory, guided by his unquenchable and mercurial spirit."

Robert Turnbull 1957-2018

Robert Turnbull, a great friend of our summer school, died on Christmas day at his home in Lagrasse in Southwest France. The village of Lagrasse is the scene of one of Robert's most inspiring musical projects, a piano festival he directed every summer in the tiny market square (picture, left) - piano music in the open air, under a timbered roof held up by ancient stone pillars, and all around the open shutters of the houses and glimpses of the mountains beyond. When I played there for the first time this summer the wind gusted, the birds cried, and Debussy's West Wind and Hills of Anacapri competed without suffering anything by comparison. My colleagues James Kreiling and Janneke Brits, performing as a piano duo, have been a fixture at the Lagrasse Festival for several years. 

Robert was himself no mean pianist, with an extraordinary facility, huge enthusiasm and immense knowledge of the repertoire. He signed up as a participant in our Advanced class some years ago when we were called Music at Ambialet - it was while at Ambialet that he first heard James and Janneke play, and he subsequently invited them to Lagrasse. He had also dropped by some years before when we were Music at Castelfranc and again more recently at Albignac. Robert has always been somewhere to hand in our past 20 years during the summer in France.

He was a challenge to teach, as all his friends would attest, having extremely strong views and manic enthusiasms. Teaching, in fact, is not what one tried with Robert, as willing as he was to hear one's opinions and to seek advice. His playing facilitated a kind of reciprocal provocation, a to and fro of multiple solutions to the technical and musical problems he saw in the music, which he would then try out again at enormous speed.             

Paul Roberts  

Robert Turnbull