Gstaad festival shows youthful zest

Vladimir Ashkenazy rehearsing in Gstaad

One of Switzerland's oldest classical music festivals is showing a youthful vigour in Gstaad worthy of its founder, the late Yehudi Menuhin.

This content was published on August 31, 2002 - 10:49

For the first time, the programme includes a concert by the European Union Youth Orchestra.

Founded in 1976, the orchestra, whose motto is "Fifteen nations - one language," is 20 years younger than the Menuhin Festival Gstaad.

Since its first tour in 1978 the orchestra has established a reputation as one of the best and biggest ensembles of its kind.

It is joining the usual line-up for the festival, which features many of the world's leading orchestras and soloists.

The festival president, Leonz Blunschi, told swissinfo that long-time Gstaad resident, Yehudi Menuhin, had throughout his life enjoyed making music with young people.


"That's why those of us on the board of directors also thought that now was the right moment to appoint a young artistic director, and if you look at the programme he has put together, it's fantastic."

Blunschi was referring to Christoph Müller, who already at the age of 32 has considerable experience as a cellist, orchestra conductor and administrator of cultural events.

Müller's first Gstaad festival has a number of innovations, including the reintroduction of master classes after a break of ten years and the appointment of Swiss jazz musician George Gruntz as artist-in-residence giving courses in improvisation.

"This is another aspect which would have pleased Yehudi Menuhin," says Blunschi. "He was a great advocate of the fusion of classical music with jazz and folk, as we saw in his recordings with Ravi Shankar and Stéphane Grappelli."


Another maestro who clearly enjoys working with young and gifted musicians is pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, who was in Gstaad this year to conduct the European Union Youth Orchestra - of which he is musical director.

"These young musicians are very receptive," said Ashkenazy in an interview with swissinfo. "Although not yet professionals, they behave as though they are. Whatever I ask them to do they remember it and try to do their best.

"It's fascinating to stand in front of a good symphony orchestra and this is a wonderful one. When a youth orchestra is so good the specificity is that its members are motivated and want to give everything they have. The enthusiasm and attentiveness is absolutely fantastic."

Ashkenazy now spends most of his professional life as a conductor, but is still recording "difficult Mozart and early Beethoven pieces" for Decca. He says that even a musician of his experience can benefit from working with a top-level youth orchestra.

Learning all the time

"My attitude is that I'm learning all the time. If a principal plays a beautiful phrase or a section produces a wonderful sound I remember it, and have thus learned something."

But it is difficult to imagine the vast scale of musical knowledge a conductor of Ashkenazy's stature passes on to the 140 members of the youth orchestra, who ages range from 14 to 23. Representing the 15 EU member-states, they are selected annually at auditions given by about 4,000 applicants.

Violinist Clare Duckworth, a 22-year-old student at the Royal Academy of Music in London, is leader of the orchestra. "To play in such a good and huge orchestra is always wonderful," she says.

The EU ensemble performed a programme of works by Mendelssohn, Berlioz and Mahler in the 1,830-seat festival tent, which has become a permanent fixture in Gstaad.

Balance sheet

By the time the festival ends, over 15,000 visitors will have attended 37 concerts there and in five churches in and around the Bernese Oberland mountain resort, generating revenue of more than SFr10 million (US$6.6 million) for the local economy of Gstaad-Saanenland.

But festival director Blunschi says just as important as a healthy balance sheet and attracting visitors is the idea of bringing good classical music to the people of this mountain region, who would otherwise have to make a three-hour round trip to attend a concert in the nearest city, Bern.

"Yehudi Menuhin summed it up," added Blunschi, "when he said that he simply wanted to make good music among friends."

by Richard Dawson

Key facts

The EU Youth Orchestra is considered one of the best around.
Youth Orchestra musicians are selected from a pool of 4,000 applicants.
The Gstaad festival attracts over 15,000 people.

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