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Festival Review: Verbier Festival and Academy


By Patricia Boccadoro

VERBIER, SWITZERLAND, 12 August 2002 - Verbier, which is situated just a short drive away and up from the picturesque Swiss towns of Lausanne, Vevey, and Montreux, is a sleek, well-heeled ski resort nestling at over 1500 feet up in the heart of the Alps. As far as the eye can see, snow glints on the majestic crags and slopes of the Mont Blanc, and chalet -style shops, hotels and restaurants line the steep winding road to the top. It leads nowhere, except to a large, white, purpose - built tent, set up to host a pleiade of international musicians who gather each summer for a festival.

The Verbier Festival and Academy was set up in 1994 by Martin T:son Engstroem. Born in Sweden, Engstroem first worked as an agent in both London and Paris, and the result of his long association with the music business was a very large address book. After a holiday in the Swiss Alpine village, he found the setting ideally suited to a music festival which he was able to establish with the help of all his contacts, not least that of his wife, Barbara Hendricks, now a regular visitor.

Verbier, Switzerland
Verbier, Switzerland

"I'm striving for the musicians to come and give at least three or four concerts on different evenings", he said. "I also want the music played to be rehearsed here, and I'm trying to put artists together, such as James Levine and Evgeny Kissin, who have never played side by side before. At the beginning, many artists came because they knew me, but now more and more come to perform chamber music as few other festivals provide opportunities for soloists."

Commenting on the tent, he pointed out that the acoustics were excellent, apart from when it rained. Then, he added, it was a total disaster. Consequently, the first thing listened to in Verbier was the weather forecast! He also admitted that an occasional dog might be heard barking , and the sound of distant cow-bells punctuate a concerto, but that was all part of the charm, as was the road which led to the improvised theatre, for once you arrive, there's nowhere else to go.

Evgeny Kissin and James Levine
Evgeny Kissin and James Levine

Arriving there anxiously an hour before the evening performance, with neither tickets nor hotel, I bumped into Fazil Say, the Turkish-born pianist and composer who was not merely attending the concert, but giving it.

Mozart: Sonata for Piano in A Major KV 331. Fazil Say did not merely play the piano, he made it sing. Music and man were indistinguishable. His fingers danced along the piano as the music burst out in a buoyant unbroken flow that had the audience laughing in delight. For joy is what the young Turk brings to his music, whether it be to Mozart or to Bach, the composer he reveres above all. His recent recording of Bach is, in fact, the only one of his recordings he feels totally happy with.

In the second part of the programme , he played Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major with Jean-Yves Thibaudet, an unfortunate coupling due as much to the undisputed brilliance and dominant personality of Say as to the fact that the two musicians had had little time to rehearse. Say, with his dramatic, mesmerizing delivery, "curious" to the eyes of some, seemed to be giving a master-class to the Frenchman.

"I began playing on a toy flute and a xylophone when I was five", he told me a few days later as we stood chatting in the sun before his next concert. "I actually taught myself to play the piano before I found a teacher who had been a student of the Swiss pianist Alfred Cortot. And then after studying at the Ankara Conservatory, I took lessons in Dusseldorf and in Berlin, before going to live and work in the United States for almost six years."

Fazil Say
Fazil Say

Direct, and very down-to-earth, he spoke to me of his special relationship with Stravinsky; he had heard The Rite of Spring when he was 19, after he had not been able to play the piano for a year.

"I went out and bought myself a four-hand version of the score, and although I hadn't been able to move my fingers for so long, I was able to play it", he said. "The recording I made some years later was acclaimed by the critics and helped my career, but I change quite a few things when I play The Rite of Spring in concert now. My aim is to bring the notes to life."

Like Stravinsky, Say is interested in composing ballet scores, and in addition to his own compositions, innovative and original, in which he uses all parts of the piano to the great amusement of his audience, he also enjoys playing and listening to jazz. Commenting on the previous night's concert, which began with the UBS Verbier Youth Orchestra's interpretation of Bernstein's Overture to Candide, conducted by Bobby McFerrin, and continued with the Chick Corea New Trio, he said that it was one of the best concerts he had heard in a long time.

Bobby McFerrin
Bobby McFerrin

"Jefferson W. Ballard is a fantastic percussionist, and Bobby McFerrin was extremely funny. I loved him singing Vivaldi, and the Verbier Festival Youth Orchestra is good. They are first class, whether conducted by Bobby, Kurt Masur, or whoever. The young people have been very well chosen, for they play with feeling. They made everybody laugh."

In fact, the Verbier Youth Orchestra, founded only three years ago, is already one of the highlights of the festival. Composed of 114 talented young musicians chosen from 35 different countries, they are coached for three weeks by Principals of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, New York. Led by musical director, James Levine, they play like young professionals, which , in fact, they are. Each year, almost a third of them join international orchestras, and each year auditions are held for new members.

"Recently there were over 800 applicants, all from the best conservatories, for only 55 places, so the selection is very hard", Michelle Denis, who works in the press office, told me.

"I've heard them conducted by very many personalities, from Zubin Mehta to Kent Nagano and Paavo Jarvi" , she added, "and each time the sound is different. They arrive from divergent backgrounds, cultures, and training, full of enthusiasm, fresh and unbiased, which makes for some extraordinary concerts."

Verbier Youth Orchestra
Verbier Festival Youth Orchestra

Helena Poggia from Spain, who studied at Indiana University, is one of the chosen few. "I began playing the cello when I was nine", twenty-four year old Helena told me. "And when friends mentioned the orchestra, I sent in a recording of my work, together with a résumé before going to an audition in New York. Although we are together for only seven or eight weeks, the atmosphere is wonderful; James Levine cares so much about us all, and he has such a wonderful way of communicating with everyone. I'm very happy here."

Moreover, as several other youngsters pointed out, it was a joy to perform amidst such magnificent surroundings. They felt at ease next to the lakes and mountains, and the beauty of the area explains in part the regular appearance of Evgeny Kissin, who has a chalet at his disposal for the whole fortnight. The Russian pianist, who attends all concerts, ever ready to applaud his fellow musicians, is always at his best in the more informal setting of a festival, and the three concerts at Verbier were no exception. With the combination of the pure mountain air, his enjoyment of, and generous participation in the poetry reading evenings, a relaxed Kissin in top form gave a stupendous interpretation of Glinka's The Lark, followed by Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. The audience went wild and after he had given five encores to tumultuous applause, the festival of Verbier ended for me with the vision of Evgeny Kissin submerged by an avalanche of flowers.

Verbier Youth Orchestra on Tour:

A November 2002 tour with James Levine and Mstislav Rostropovitch will take the Orchestra to Athens, Bologna, Luxembourg, Warsaw and Vienna.

Verbier Youth Orchestra Web Site

Patricia Boccadoro writes on the arts in Europe. She contributes to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and is a member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.com. .

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