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Lucerne festival strikes a challenging note

Exploration of the self lies at the heart of this year's festival.

The Lucerne festival could alienate some of its traditional audience this year with an intimidating mix of musical heavyweights and contemporary composers.

But a glittering new festival orchestra and the usual fare of world-class performers should be enough to tempt classical music fans to take the plunge into a world of new sounds.

The new Lucerne festival orchestra is guaranteed to be a crowd pleaser thanks to its star soloists and the Italian virtuoso at its helm, Claudio Abbado, long-time director of La Scala in Milan.

“It was Claudio who originally came to me, saying it would be his dream to create a festival orchestra together with his friends and other top musicians from leading orchestras,” festival director Michael Haefliger told swissinfo.

“And we were very excited to return to the original raison d’être of the festival, which was the orchestra here in 1938 under the direction of Arturo Toscanini, created in much the same way.”

Many of the orchestra’s musicians also seem delighted to be involved.

“It’s exciting to be part of something that might help put Lucerne up there with the really big music festivals,” says Jonathan Williams, who plays the horn.

“And playing with Claudio is fantastic, he gives us lots of freedom for us to find the music.”

Me, myself and I

The Lucerne festival orchestra will be playing an eclectic mix from the classical repertoire, from Johann Haydn to Rudolf Kelterborn.

Some works, such as Gustav Mahler’s thundering Second Symphony, “Resurrection” – the composer’s take on death and Christianity – have been chosen to illustrate this summer’s theme, “Me”.

“It’s probably the most difficult theme we’ve done so far, and to bring it down to the world of music isn’t the most simple thing to do,” Haefliger admits.

“That’s why we’ve classified works under four sections: mirrors, portraits, borders and wanderers, all of which deal with the self.”

In the “Wanderer” section, Wagner’s opera “Der fliegender Holländer” (Flying Dutchman), tells the dramatic tale of an ill-fated sea captain whose existence is blighted by a curse from Satan.

Meanwhile, star conductor Simon Rattle will be directing the Berlin Philharmonic in a little-known Mozart opera, “Idomeneo”, based on the legend of the King of Crete who unwittingly vows to sacrifice his own son.


A substantial part of this year’s programme is devoted to contemporary music, with the challenging works of Lucerne’s two “composers in residence”, Heiner Goebbels and Isabel Mundry, being performed throughout the five-week run.

“Our goal is to bring contemporary thought and music to Lucerne, to integrate the spirit of our time,” Haefliger stresses.

“Goebbels is one of the great protagonists of contemporary music. He can bridge [the gap] between avant-garde and rock without ever falling into a cheap crossover style.”

Haefliger adds that the festival can afford to explore the world of new music without jeopardising ticket sales, with a “solid base” – around 80 per cent of the audience – returning every year.

On a lighter note, vocalist Bobby McFerrin, best known for his hit “Don’t worry, be happy”, will also be adding a fresh twist to the classical repertoire, when he takes up the baton with the Vienna Philharmonic playing Gershwin, Mozart and Beethoven.

“I expect that he’ll challenge the orchestra’s traditional thinking. I think it’ll be very interesting,” Haefliger smiles.

Modern milestones

Another mission of Haefliger’s is to bring key 20th century works to the festival that have never been performed in Switzerland.

This year, Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s “Requiem for a young poet” is likely to cause a stir thanks to its bewildering mix of choral music overlapped with extracts from radio reports and readings in different languages.

“This is one of the big pieces of music from last century and it’s a shame that Switzerland has not performed it,” Haefliger says.

“We can’t afford just to overlook certain things and it’s important to bring these milestones to Switzerland.”

The festival runs until September 20.

swissinfo, Vanessa Mock

Star attractions: Cecilia Bartoli, Simon Rattle, Bobby McFerrin, James Levine, Ingo Metzmacher.
Top orchestras: Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Concertgebouworkest.
Brand new: Lucerne Festival Orchestra, under the direction of Claudio Abbado; new works by Heiner Goebbels, Isabel Mundry; Pierre Boulez.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR