It’s a beautiful Saturday morning in the Swiss lakeside resort of Ascona and Beethoven is wafting out of the 15th-century church of Collegio Papio.
Inside, on a specially built stage set against a background of beautiful frescos, a trio of international musicians is rehearsing for the opening concert of the Ascona Music Festival of chamber music.
Seated at the grand piano is the Argentinian musician Daniel Levy, also the artistic director of the festival. He is joined by Israeli violinist Yehezkel Yerushalmi and Italo-Polish cellist Franco Maggio Ormezowski.
The music halts. A rapid discussion takes place in Italian and then play – of Beethoven’s trio Opus 1 number 3 – resumes.
The festival, which opened on July 9, runs until August 27. There are nine concerts in all which are taking place in and around the Italian-speaking village in the southern canton of Ticino.
“The fact of having several friends to do chamber music puts this festival in a very special atmosphere of something we can call musical friendship,” Levy told swissinfo.ch as we stood outside the church after the rehearsal while the piano was being tuned for the evening concert.
Levy is himself a pianist of international standing. Of his musical friends, Yerushalmi is first violin at Zubin Mehta’s Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence, and Ormezowski is considered one of Italy’s leading cellists.
“What we’re trying to do is to be like in times gone by in places like Vienna, where people used to come together in an intimate setting to listen to and to make music,” Levy explained.
Ascona’s dolce vita
Ascona may seem like the ideal place to hold a chamber music festival. Set on the Lago Maggiore and against the arc of the Alps, the resort’s sunny climate and Mediterranean charm attract tourists, especially the Swiss, in their droves.
Indeed, walking along its narrow, cobbled streets and along the lakeside promenade, you are almost more likely to hear Swiss German than Italian. In addition, Ascona already has a well-known Jazz Festival.
For Levy, however, it is Ascona’s beauty which makes it such a good setting for chamber music.
“It’s not just the lake, but the mountains and the trees which all combine to give the right atmosphere compared to big halls or auditoriums,” he said.
The festival is only in its second year, with 2010 having been devoted to Schumann and Chopin – both marking a 200th anniversary of their birth. This year’s event started with a Beethoven cycle, which includes the great German composer’s trios for piano, violin and cello, as well as the ten sonatas for violin and piano.
“We are honoured to play all the Beethoven trios,” Yerushalmi, who was performing for the first time at the festival, told swissinfo.ch.
“We’re playing the Opus 1 until the Opus 97, which spans all of Beethoven’s life more or less. And to play in a church, he was a very religious man as well, there is some religious ‘movement’, it’s really fantastic,” he added.
Other highlights include a free outdoor piano concert given by Levy in the square in the neighbouring village of Ronco sopra Ascona on August 20, which as its name suggests, is perched above Ascona. Schumann and Liszt are on the programme.
“Bridge of communication”
Also playing is the Carmina Quartett, a Zurich-based quartet of international reputation, which is giving a concert of Schubert and Dvorak towards the end of the festival.
As for his hopes for the festival, Levy said he would like to attract new audiences to chamber music. For him, there is currently a crisis in classical music because younger people are losing interest.
“My hope is that music can be really a bridge of communication, where you can really feel that music is like a fountain which is very rich for every one of us,” he said. “That’s my main hope not just for the festival but for all activities in music.”
Later that evening, the musicians, all clad in black – Ormezowski’s shirt sporting dashing silver pinstripes – treated the audience to a rendition of three of the Beethoven trios, including the eerie Ghost.
The audience, although not totally filling the church, was certainly enthusiastic, calling Levy, Ormezowski and a beaming Yerushalmi back for several bows and an encore. It seemed that in this case at least, Levy’s hope for classical music had been noted.
Next concert dates
July 30 and August 6: Beethoven cycle continues with sonatas for violin and piano performed by the American violinist Robert Zimansky and the pianist Daniel Levy.
August 5: concert by Luis Paniagua musician and luthier.
August 13: the Harmonia Piano Quartet will perform works by Mozart, Mahler and Brahms.
August 20: Daniel Levy will perform an open-air Piano Recital in the square of Ronco sopra Ascona, including Beethoven, Schumann and Liszt. Entrance is free.
August 27: Carmina Quartett with Daniel Levy on the piano will perform the Quintet for piano and strings op. 81, Dvorak String Quartet No. 14 "Death and the Maiden" by Schubert.
The Festival is organised by the International Academy of Euphony, Switzerland, of which Levy is co-founder and director.