The orange sunset had faded to salmon, but aftersounds from stately Bach cantatas still lingered in the old cha~teau as we sat down to a tarte of aromatic herbs accompanied by foie gras.
The evening was gliding in twilight from the harmony of music to the harmony of gastronomy, without leaving the harmony of 18th-century architecture preserved in the Abbaye de Villeneuve in the French village of Les Sorinie`res.
We had discovered, my wife and I, the elegance of a weekend in France, carefully planned to please simultaneously the ear with a concert, the eye with a restored cha~teau and the palate with a gourmet meal. In the process, we discovered several French men and women who also pleased us with their good company and sense of style.
Visitors to France almost always come back with stories about something beautiful and old they saw, or something beautiful and delicious they ate. Paris and other French cities also have a full schedule of concerts to give visitors something beautiful and classical to hear.
But Philippe Savry and his friend Jean-Pierre Berlingen have come up with a formula that brings all these enjoyments together under one pedigreed roof in the French countryside. By reserving in one of Savry's four chateau-hotels on the right night -- scheduled through the fall and winter -- a visitor can show up Saturday afternoon for a kir, move a few yards to a concert and then head for the dining room for a fine meal accompanied by graceful wines and surroundings. The weekends can be a welcome diversion for visitors seeking a serene pause from vacation touring, or for those who would like to live a little in a French cha~teau rather than just visit one.
For many of us Americans, with short heritages and bloodlines boasting more vigor than grace, the joy of being surrounded by beauty so old and sure of itself may be particularly intense. But the several Frenchmen I talked with seemed to be having a grand time as well, as did a Canadian getting away from his job of representing the Quebec provincial government in Paris.
Getting to the cha~teau concerts can be a quick trip from Paris -- ours took four hours by train, plus a short taxi ride. Or it can be a detour of tranquility and tradition from the highways leading to French holiday destinations such as Riviera or Brittany beaches.
However visitors arrive, neckties and dresses should have a place in their suitcases. It quickly became apparent to us that shorts mix poorly with cha~teaus, except around the pool.
Putting together an evening like ours might seem easy in such a setting as this. The Abbaye de Villeneuve, founded originally in 1201 by Duchess Constance of Brittany, lies in the verdant Vende'e countryside, in western France about 10 miles south of Nantes. Daisies salt the lawns, which slope to a pond fed from a quiet stream where cows come to drink and frogs leap away at the approach of intruders.
In addition, the Vende'e area stretching south from here has gone down in French history as a place where nobility and such appurtenances as cha~teaus are particularly well regarded. Led by obstinately royalist noblemen, and upset at the beheading of Louis XVI, the population fought a bloody war against the French republic that set itself up in Paris after the 1789 revolution.
The site's present cha~teau, severely classical in gray stone, dates from the beginning of that fateful 18th century. Stone fireplaces and floors grace the common rooms under high French ceilings of wooden beams. The building, with its columned gallery along the back and a little porch in front, has been restored and outfitted with a discreet swimming pool and 17 guest rooms.
All are furnished with antiques that lend dignity and with modern bathrooms that preserve it. Where the ancient refectory stood has risen a new wing for dining, receptions and concerts, constructed with antique wooden beams found at an auction in Provence.
The refinement of a weekend here, however, does not come automatically. Savry, who owns the cha~teau-hotel and six similar establishments around France, has restored the place with affection and care. Running the cha~teaus as hotels, he claims, is only a pretext for buying and restoring what he calls "old stone."
Savry bought the Abbaye de Villeneuve, for example, as it lay in near ruin. His pleasure over the last several years has been returning the old palace to its former elegance and, in his words, making it live again.
These days he is watching uneasily as a patina of age settles on the cornice of his recent additions to the original cha~teau at Abbaye de Villeneuve. Until it weathers suitably dark, the harmony will be imperfect, he says.
Savry wears his own elegance with such nonchalance that his black Ferrari is left with mud on the fender. But an unschooled visitor hearing an apology about the new cornice here senses that Savry will notice the difference, even if nobody else does, until the patina reaches exactly the right tones.
Berlingen and the Haute-Normandie Orchestra Group have taken the music in hand with equal care. On the night of our visit, they accompanied the widely known Saint-Eustache Singers from Paris in a program of liturgical music by Mozart, Rameau and Bach.
The Saint-Eustache chapelmaster, the Rev. Emile Martin, recalled that the composers played in cha~teaus similar to this during their own lives. Savry "is receiving us in an elegant setting worthy of the century from which we have extracted several sonorous pearls for you," Father Martin said before turning to his singers.
During 75 minutes of music, the sky behind the singers turned from yellow to the red and orange of a brilliant sunset, then died away toward darkness with the final strains. To an audience of only a few dozen, the musicians and singers seemed unusually close and intimate, as if they were playing a command performance and we were the noblemen who had summoned them in.
"This is much better than a concert hall," Father Martin said afterward.
He had only time enough to tuck in his black shirt, which had pulled loose from his trousers as he gestured to the singers, before white-coated waiters began pouring wine for the first of a four-course dinner in the nearby salons. Berlingen, meanwhile, tucked away his violin and changed his white tie to a black one before sitting down to join us.
The menu, adapted from medieval cookbooks, was 300 years older than the music or the cha~teau.
It began with arboulastre en tartre, the herb tarte with slices of foie gras and magret de canard lying by its side. The fish was chaudumel au bescuit de sandre, a slice of pikeperch cooked in ginger sauce.
The main course was mamonia, braised mutton with honey and almonds, as described in a medieval cookbook. And for desert came taillis, a raisin and apple pudding, from another cookbook dated 1393.
Father Martin, a music historian as well as a musician, matched each course with food for our minds, recounting stories that seemed to confirm Mozart's reputation as a raucous cutup. Abundant wine helping along the dialogue, it seemed by the end of the meal that Bach had also had some crude moments.
WAYS & MEANS
Evenings combining music and gastronomy are being scheduled through the fall and winter months in Philippe Savry's four chateau-hotels: Chateau de Chissay in Touraine; Abbaye de Villeneuve, near Nantes; Chateau d'Arpaillargues, near Avignon; and Chateau de Brecourt in Pacy sur Eure. (Gastronomy evenings also are scheduled at the three other Savry resorts that are not chateaus: Hotel du General d'Elbee and Punta Lara, both on Noirmoutiers Island, and Hotel d'Entraygues, near Nimes.) Savry partner Jean-Pierre Berlingen says he has lined up several well-known artists, including flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, guitarist Alexandre Lagoya and cellist Cecilia Tsan -- although the dates for their performances have not yet been determined.
Prices for the weekend range from 1,400 to 1,700 francs for two persons ($235 to $285). This includes a kir royal at dusk, the concert, dinner and a room or suite for one night. Wine is additional.
For those who want to try listening to Mozart among Sahara rock formations before tackling a mechoui (sheep roast), the Maurice Bourgue wind group has scheduled a concert-barbecue expedition into the Algerian desert for October. Logistics are being handled by the Explorator travel agency in Paris, phone 42-66-66-24.
INFORMATION: The Abbaye de Villeneuve and Chateau de Brecourt, members of the Relais et Chateaux association, are represented in the United States by the David Mitchell Co., 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016, (212) 696-1323. They also are listed in the Relais et Chateaux guidebook, available at Travel Books Unlimited in Bethesda. Information on programs at the other chateaus is available through the Savry group, "Les Hotels Particuliers," in Paris, phone 48-04-86-28.