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By Patricia Boccadoro

GSTAAD, SWITZERLAND, 27 OCTOBER 2016 — For over half a century, the Gstaad Menuhin Festival was one of Switzerland’s best kept secrets, with annual concerts more or less reserved for the local population, but since Christoph Muller took over as the artistic director in 2002 with the mission of opening up the Festival to a more cosmopolitan clientele, things are on the move. Top international musicians such as Jonas Kaufmann last year, Evgeny Kissin next year, whilst this year, on what would have been Yehudi Menuhin’s 100th birthday, Lang Lang, Fazil Say, Philippe Jaroussky, and Bryn Terfel and Angela Georgiu with the London Symphony Orchestra, are attracting new audiences including people who have never been to concerts before.

"Yehudi brought us here on holiday in 1955, "Jeremy Menuhin, a gentle, unassuming man with the features, voice and manner of his father who, in the wake of his world-famous parent, has carved out for himself a career as a pianist, told me. "He’d play for us with his musician friends, and then in 1957 he was asked by the local tourist office if he would consider creating a festival here".

I was chatting to Jeremy Menuhin after an enjoyable chamber music concert with works by Brahms, Schubert, Lutoslawski, and the Norwegian violinist and composer, Henninh Kraggerud, in the enchanting small church of Saanen. He had been accompanied not only by Kraggerud, but also by his wife, Mookie, also a pianist, and the cellist Johannes Moser.

2016 Gstaad Menuhin Festival
Photo: Yves Boccadoro

He continued by saying how much his father had loved the green valleys and mountains around Gstaad and how his dream had been to bring music and musicians here. "I remember that only one program was given that first year; Yehudi played with Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, giving concerts of the same music on two evenings. His sister, Hephzibah who was a pianist, also gave a concert there in the early days, and so did I, when I was 13", he smiled.

Menuhin delighted in surrounding himself with his musical family of musicians and friends, and hence, for the 6Oth version of the festival, approximately 70 concerts over a period of 2 months, the theme was aptly "Music and the Family".

"Yehudi Menuhin was actually looking for a summer school for his children when he fell in love with Gstaad", Christoph Muller, the young , dynamic artistic director, told me in a brief interview at his hotel, the Grand Hotel Park, one of Gstaad’s famed palaces.

"The first thing he did was to check the acoustics and infrastructure in the churches of Saanen and Lauenen, and when he realized their potential, gave his first concert that very year."

Muller told me that he tried to understand Menuhin’s spirit in making music, wishing to continue as far as possible with the Menuhin tradition and to that effect, he kept a close collaboration with the institutions the world-famous violinist had founded. Young musicians from the Menuhin School and the International Menuhin Foundation as well as from the Menuhin Violin Competition are regularly invited to take part in the festival.

"I try to understand what fascinated him in Gstaad, and realizing how much he enjoyed playing with friends in a relaxed atmosphere, give the same conditions to musicians who come here. They are free to choose their own program, and for the chamber music in the churches, they also choose the musicians with whom they play."

Christoph Muller’s passion is music. A cellist, he has also run an orchestra in Basel, his home town, for almost 20 years, during which he came into close contact with many musicians. Music, he told me, was his world, and he had seized the opportunity to come to Gstaad when he learned that the Administrative Board were looking for someone new, someone young with fresh ideas to revitalize the festival.

"I arrived here in 2002 and was given free rein. I was able to develop my ideas and now we have amateur and children’s programs involving local schools.  Five years ago we started to have a series of Academies, The Gstaad Conducting Academy, which has just ended after three weeks, a vocal Academy, which was taught by  Silvana Bazzoni Bartoli* this year, a Baroque Academy with workshops given by specialists in Baroque music, and a Piano Academy with Lang Lang, who is here  for the first time."

Indeed, it was not only fascinating, but extremely moving to attend one of Lang Lang’s workshops. Known for his work with young people, the celebrated Chinese pianist, scarcely older than some of his students, coached four pianists. Recently returned from the favelas of Rio di Janeiro, where he had been working with the underprivileged children, bringing light and passion into their lives with music, he gave invaluable help and advice to the young musicians in Gstaad, first listening intently to them playing their pieces, and subsequently praising what was good, before suggesting ways in which they could advance in their chosen art.

Lang Lang and pupil at the 2016 Gstaad Menuhin Festival
Photo: Yves Boccadoro

Particularly interesting was to watch him working with 12-year-old Nicolas Salloum, a Swiss resident, pupil of the Geneva Conservatoire. The boy, an outstanding student, had chosen to play Chopin’s Scherzos, part of the very program Lang Lang presented the following evening, and the ensuing complicity between them was amazing.

"I’ve come here out of admiration for Yehudi Menuhin", Lang Lang told me later, this time at the luxurious Gstaad Palace, the magnificent 5 star hotel inaugurated in 1913, where he was staying. "A far cry from the slums of Rio", he commented looking round at the luxuriant gardens, "but I did sleep well. It’s also wonderful to be back in Switzerland in the midst of so much natural beauty. I love these fabulous mountains".

His concert in the ‘big tent’ the following evening, of Chopin, Bach and Tchaikovsky,  alone on stage in front of a crowd of 2,000 people, all seated on one level, was an enormous success despite the immensity of the setting. For those seated to the back, two giant-sized television screens had been erected on either side of the stage, and despite the cost of the seats, 240 Swiss francs a head, people were there who had only previously seen Lang Lang on the television.

However, the acoustics were phenomenal and I was told that the sides of the ‘tent’, a permanent fixture resembling a huge, modern auditorium, had been constructed with two layers of some specific material which blocked out all outside noises, not merely of traffic or storms, but also counteracted the sound of the river rushing by.

2016 Gstaad Menuhin Festival
Photo: Yves Boccadoro

Not only was the auditorium spectacular, but the glamorous main foyer or entrance hall was lined with large, emerald green artificial trees leading up to a series of select cocktail bars serving champagne and caviar to invited guests. For the less fortunate, a paying coffee machine was available.

There was quite a different atmosphere for the concert of countertenor Philippe Jaroussky accompanied by the Ensemble Artaserse, a group of musicians that he himself created in 2002. Jaroussky, who possesses one of the most beautiful voices in France, gave a sublime concert, a gala of Italian Baroque opera, in the medieval church of Saanen. The very construction of the church, with its exquisite late 15th century wall paintings, ensures that sound carries extremely well, as was also the case in the tiny Chapel in the centre of Gstaad where the brilliant young cellist, Stéphane Tetreault gave a stupendous morning concert, playing each note as if his life depended on it.

Born in Montreal, and pupil of the late Yuli Turovsky since the age of 9, the 23- year-old musician has had attention drawn to his immense talent since he was loaned a 1707 Stradivarius which formerly belonged to Bernard Greenhouse. He interpreted works by Schubert and Shostakovitch, giving meaning to each phrase of the music and justly received a standing ovation from the excited audience, many of whom were backpackers who had happened to be passing by.

For the area surrounding Gstaad, over and beyond the steep manicured hillsides, offers over 300 kilometers of majestic hiking trails. With the mountain railways and cable cars, and with glaciers, lakes and waterfalls to visit, Saanenland offers an unparalleled range of activities. Gstaad itself, despite its elegant boutiques, class and discreet charm has managed to conserve a certain authenticity, possibly more than any other Alpine resort, but potential motorists should be aware that the only two garages are Bugatti and Bentley.

Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is a culture critic and senior editor at Culturekiosque. She last wrote on the 2016 Paris Biennale des Antiquaires.

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