By Patricia Boccadoro
VERBIER, SWITZERLAND, 27 September 2004Evgeny
Kissin, Maxim Vengerov, Vadim Repin, and Martha Argerich headed a star-studded
list of musicians this year at Verbier. They were there last year, and plan to
return next year too. If one includes James Levine, musical director of the
Verbier Festival orchestra since 2000, Valery Gergiev, who conducted the
orchestra for their opening concert and recitals by Mischa Maisky, Sarah Chang,
Corey Cerovsek, Joshua Bell, Lynn Harrell, and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, to name but
some, and the programme of the Verbier music festival reads like a Who's Who of
music. If one adds to that the originality of the programmes with the surprise
pairing of many of the artists in the magnificent setting in the heart of the
Swiss Alps, it is hardly surprising that the festival, now into its eleventh
year, is recognised as one of the finest in Europe.
Since its creation
in the summer of 1993, just what does the director, Martin Engstroem do to
ensure that not only do these big-name soloists return happily year after year
with a planned recital, but also take on fresh repertoire with new artists in
what virtually seem to be improvised evenings? Could anyone else persuade
Evgeny Kissin to play chamber music?
Evgeny Kissin at the Verbier Festival and Academy
Photo: Patricia Boccadoro
"I come back because I
love it here", the Russian pianist told me in an informal conversation one
sunny afternoon. He spoke to me of his admiration for the achievements of
Martin Engstroem and those who helped him, and of the concert he had given the
previous evening culminating in probably the most brilliant interpretation of
Stravinsky's Petrushka I have heard."
Few people know that Igor
Stravinsky composed the score for Petrushka, one of Les Ballets Russes' great
successes, at Lausanne, a short distance away on the shores of Lake Leman at a
time when he was commissioned to create The Rite of Spring. The story
goes that he was inspired by two chords based on C and F-sharp which brought to
his mind the image of a puppet who springs to life, and when Serge de Diaghilev
came to visit, he played two piano pieces, Petrushka's Cry, and
Russian Dance which the Russian impresario persuaded him to extend into
a ballet. At the time, it was intended to be part of a complete work,
complementary to Alexander Benois' scenery, and Fokine's choreography inspired
by Nijinsky himself.
"It's the character of
the music which interests me", Evgeny Kissin said. "I think of the story when I
play, not the decor, costumes or choreography of the ballet, which I've seen
several times. "But I am not so fond of ballet as I could be had the music not
been disturbing me. If the music is bad, and there are many ballets with bad
music, then it distracts me, and if the music is wonderful, then subconsciously
I don't need the ballet. And I'm afraid I wouldn't like it at all if people
danced while I played. But there again", he suddenly declared, "Stravinsky is
not my favourite composer; it just seemed a good piece to end my concert
Be that as it may, when Evgeny Kissin played Petrushka, both
at the Théatre des Champs Elysées in Paris in March, and in
Verbier in July, he brought to life not only the unhappy puppet, but the all
the excitement and colour of the Russian Butterweek Fair at Saint Petersburg in
a way that no dance production has that I have seen. Alone, he created the
decor and atmosphere with his music. Commenting on the two interpretations, the
pianist said that his own mood together with the place he was in always
affected his performances. "I plan to play in a certain way, but then it comes
out differently. It's been like that since I was a child."
Paris, the emphasis was on the anguish, anger and rage of Petrushka, whose
plaintiff cries were clearly heard as the cruel drama unfolded inside the
little theatre, while in Switzerland, at ease and happy, Evgeny Kissin seemed
to concentrate on the joyful outbursts of the crowds in what he considered an
It was a first visit to the Swiss ski resort
for Canadian violinist, Corey Cerovsek, best known to a French audience as the
young 17-year-old who played at the inaugural concert at the Opéra
Bastille in Paris. He was, he told me, one of the boys in the band that
evening. He joined Renaud and Gautier Capuçon, Béatrice Muthelet
and Michael Collins in a superb rendering of Carl Maria von Weber's Quintet for
Clarinet and Strings in B Flat major op.34, highly appreciated by an
Renaud Capuçon and Corey Cerovsek
"I've been seduced by
everything here", Cerovsek commented after the concert. "Despite the fact that
it is unabashedly very high-profile, with big star musicians, the working
atmosphere is wonderful, and the setting in the midst of these mountains works
its magic on you. And in the quietness of night, there's the gurgling of a
brook running past. It affects your whole state of mind".
the sights and the pureness of the air as well as the thrill and challenge of
working with the mighty James Levine came up time and again with the young
members of the UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra, UBS being the Swiss-based global
investment bank which funds them. Composed four years ago of over 100 of the
most talented young musicians from thirty countries, the orchestra, which has
recently dropped the word "youth" from its title, has become a fast-growing
musical phenomenon. Now 130 strong, the youngsters aged 17 to 29 come to
Verbier for 6 weeks, rehearsing and then giving their concerts, before going on
a four-week tour of Europe. The aim now is to extend tours and generally
perform for a wider public and it is fortunate that Levine, who is not only the
principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York and Boston
Symphony, is whole-heartedly committed to the project. He, like many of the
musicians who come regularly, is a personal friend of Engstroem.
are open master classes, conferences, cultural hikes with impromptu
performances on mountain tops, as well as morning and late-night concerts in
the church. Music wafts out from many an open window as one walks the streets.
Opportunities to listen to brilliant young musicians, such as the extraordinary
Denis Kojoukhine, an eighteen-year-old Russian pianist who had previously come
to Verbier as a student of the Academy, are also given. He is surely an immense
artist of the future. The fact, too, that the main concerts are held in a
billowing white tent seating 1700 only adds to the charm and spontaneity of the
setting for many.
Photo: Mark Shapiro
But it remains a source
of regret for Evgeny Kissin who has been coming here since the festival first
began. "The one thing missing here is a proper concert hall ", he told me.
"Musicians often have to compete with a deluge of rain or overhead aircraft,
and acoustics are poor in certain seats. This has become one of the foremost
festivals in the world and it deserves its concert hall!"
Photo: Mark Shapiro
Verbier Festival Orchestra
Patricia Boccadoro writes on the arts in Europe.
She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and is a
member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.com. .