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Celebrating a classical birthday in the mountains

Mischa Maisky and his daughter Lily interpret the piano music of Chopin at the 2013 festival Nicolas Brodard

The momentous crashing chords of Beethoven’s epic 9th symphony provided a fitting opening on July 19 to the 20th edition of the Verbier Festival in the Swiss mountain resort, described as “the greatest European festival outside a major city”.

The organisers of the classical music event are celebrating the visionary dreams of its founder, Martin Engstroem, a charismatic multi-lingual Swede who used to work as a concert promoter and record industry executive.

“I used to organise concerts in Paris, but in the mid-1980s Palestinian terrorists, groups such as the Black September, made it impossible to live in that city,” Engstroem told

“So my family and I decided to leave France and move to Montreux in 1986. Some friends of ours used to talk about Verbier, so I rented a chalet there in 1991 and fell in love with the place. I actually find the mountains more spectacular in summer than in winter.”

The Verbier Festival in the Valais Alps, which started in 1994, is one of the most prestigious classical music events in Switzerland, alongside the Lucerne Festival and the Menuhin Festival in Gstaad.

The festival is known for its music academy and orchestra, made up of musicians below the age of 30.

The orchestra director is Charles Dutoit. Young aspiring musicians are trained by some of the best artists in the world. World-class soloists also give workshops, where the public can attend.

The event is also known for the chamber music performances by solo musicians of international standing.

Over the past 20 years Verbier has welcomed many different stars from pianists Martha Argerich and Evgeny Kissin to directors Zubin Mehta (India), James Levine and Michael Tilson Thomas (US), as well as violinists Maxim Vengerov (Russia) and Gidon Kremer (Lithuania) and many actors, writers and artists.

The festival, which has a budget of CHF9.3 million, runs from July 19 to August 4.

Encourage summer tourism

At that time Verbier was not as exclusive as it is now. The local authorities gave Engstroem the job of creating an event to attract visitors in summer and to change people’s image of Verbier as a second-rate resort.

“They wanted a concept that would boost Verbier’s appeal for chalet owners, who are basically wealthy people. And I think that after 20 years I can say it’s been a complete success,” he says proudly.

“The idea for the festival came about as I wanted to create an event where I would have the last word.”

Engstroem was fortunate to enjoy the support of Avi Shoshani, secretary general of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and one of the most connected people in the small world of classical music.

“Avi is like a brother. He came to Verbier in 1991 to spend summer with his family and I talked to him about my project. He immediately agreed to support me.  It’s partly thanks to his friends and contacts that we have had such a high standard of artists ever since the first edition.”

The man from Tel Aviv

“At the beginning the musicians came because they were my personal friends, people like Zubin Mehta or Pinchas Zukerman. But later it was not really down to friendship but because the project grew and the festival became a well-known brand,” explained Shoshani on the telephone from Israel.

“I think we’ve hit upon the right formula. The greatest challenge will be to maintain the current high quality level. We have reached a highpoint which will be difficult to beat.”

For regular Verbier participants one of the attractions is that the festival allows them to spend a few days’ peace and quiet with their families and friends. These intimate moments also allow musical colleagues to discuss future projects, which is rare in a profession where stress, endless plane flights, rehearsals and lonely hotel rooms are the norm.

Verbier is not only a platform for classical musicians. Writers also make the journey up to the Valais resort, such as Yasmina Reza and Paulo Coelho, actors like Vanessa Redgrave and Marthe Keller and singers such as Ute Lemper and Rufus Wainwright, star of the current anniversary edition.

Festival Verbier

Unforgettable memories

Shoshani looks back nostalgically at some of the highlights of the past 20 years.

“There have been memorable times such as the visit by Icelandic pop singer Björk, the card-reading by Dmitri Shostakóvich voiced by legendary British actor Sir Ben Kingsley, or a recital by violinist Maxim Vengerov when the nearby storm was so violent that the audience had to sit around him on the stage to hear properly. The proximity and intimacy created a magical moment.”

Money is another essential theme at the Verbier Festival.

“I will never forget when Helmut Maucher, [food multinational] Nestlé’s CEO, gave his financial support even before we took the first steps. He told us, ‘I believe in you and your project and I will support you based on this trust’,” added Shoshani.

For future generations

“Money is always at the centre of all the problems and all the opportunities,” said Engstroem.

With an annual budget of just under CHF10 million ($10.7 million), projects like the musical education initiative, one of Verbier’s great successes, are on a roll.

“Our future will be tied to the permanent training of young musicians. Summer camps for children are extremely successful. Verbier is where young musicians can be stimulated and inspired. We also want to develop activities linked to dance and literature,” the director added.

Switzerland is home to many classical music festivals so just how difficult is it to keep organising such events in the current economic crisis?

“There are many musicians and every year the conservatories produce more and more, just like the huge number of architects and lawyers who qualify each year. In the end, only those with the most talent, the most creative, will survive. The same goes for music festivals,” replied Engstroem.

“We have built the greatest European festival outside a major city. We combine education, nature and cultural holidays, with children and young people. I think the people who criticize us for fueling the classical ‘star system’ are just jealous of our success.”

A veritable shower of classical music stars gathered on July 28th to celebrate the 20-year history of the Verbier classical music festival. The evening featured a memorable two-part concert given in a packed concert hall.

The first two hours included chamber music pieces performed by festival regulars. Chinese pianist Yuja Wang opened the event. She was followed by the clarinetist Martin Frost, and by violinists including Leonidas Kavakos and Ilya Gringolts. Also performing were pop musicians such as the Canadian crooner Rufus Wainwright and the Jamaican jazz pianist Monty Alexander.

The second half of the programme featured Chopin’s 24 Preludes. Originally written for the piano, they were played on various instruments, such as cello (Misha Maisky) and violin (Renaud Capuçon), in arrangements by Dimitri Sitkovetsky.

After the concert, the musicians joined festival founders Martin Engstroem and Avi Shoshani in a champagne toast. After the four-hour event, celebrations continued well into the night.

(Translated from Spanish by Simon Bradley)

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