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Verbier Festival and Academy 2004: In Company With Evgeny Kissin


By Patricia Boccadoro

VERBIER, SWITZERLAND, 27 September 2004—Evgeny 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
Evgeny Kissin at the Verbier Festival and Academy 2004
Verbier, Switzerland
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 on!"

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."

Certainly, in 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 "improved" interpretation.

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 enthusiastic audience.

Renaud Capuçon and Corey Cerovsek
Renaud Capuçon and Corey Cerovsek
Photo: Mark Shapiro

"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".

Comments on 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.

There 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.

Denis Kojoukhine
Denis Kojoukhine
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!"


Verbier Festival
Photo: Mark Shapiro

Verbier Festival Orchestra Web Site

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. .

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