Review: The Verbier Festival (July 26–29, 2016)

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Verbier, Switzerland

July 22 – August 7, 2016

Verbier Festival

View on the mountains from the Combins terrace, Photo: Nicolas Brodard

For 23 years, Artistic Director Martin T:son Engstroem has curated the Verbier Festival with a dedicated commitment to intergenerational music making, encouraging the precocious energy of youth to collaborate alongside the cultivated gravitas of the some of the most respected musicians on the roster today. The famed Academy hosts young musicians and singers from across the globe assembling for orchestral, chamber music, and opera performances with the A-list. In the case of the 2016 edition the long-list red carpet roll out includes conductors Charles Dutoit and Gabor Takács-Nagy, pianist András Schiff, violinist Kyung Wha Chung, and singers Nina Stemme and Bryn Terfel. Engstroem’s philosophy promotes both a thoroughfare experience and a handshake. With a vision of creating a 360-degree experience, Engstroem extends the encounter with an open door policy, allowing audiences to witness masterclasses, open rehearsals, and preparatory and postscript lectures. The Verbier Festival crosses borders and promotes the kind of cultural citizenship that only the democracy of music can offer.

The postcard perfect ski resort town of Verbier in the Swiss Alps offers a summer experience that is quietly restrained, setting the rhythm of its daily customs to a seemingly unwavering metronome tempo. So, when a group of young musicians descend on the local square to perform an impromptu performance of Ravel’s Boléro, the slightly interloping feeling of this carefully stage-managed happenstance alerts you to the flashpoint understanding of why Engstroem’s programming choices have resonated with the town for almost a quarter of a century.

Engstroem’s festival dips its brushstroke with patina that is dripping with recognition, both in repertoire choices and artist names. The chocolate box is boastful and each chocolate in the assortment is gold-leafed. Fortunately, I am fond of chocolates. In this, my first, brief four-day encounter of the festival (July 26–29) I was very happy to indulge in the various caramels of shatterproof virtuosity.

In her steel-edged precision reading of Schumann’s paradoxical Kriesleriana op.16, pianist Yuja Wang brought the intensity of a woman determined to climb a steep rocky cliff in stiletto heels. In his collaboration with the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra as director and soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 5, András Schiff brought a whimsical approach to the too often high drama default interpretation usually associated with the work. Instead, Schiff’s conspiratorial handshake with his demonstratively effusive young ensemble dished a soufflé for Beethoven.

On one particularly composed morning, I was very pleased to receive my chamber music injected with a virile dose of machismo. From the opening moment of the velocity-driven solos of Mendelssohn’s Trio no. 1 – care of Daniel Hope (violin), Torleif Thedéen (cello), and Marc-André Hamelin (piano) –  the musicians were resolute on delivering an interpretation articulating clarity and boldness. The experience continued in the second half of the program in Chausson’s Concerto for piano, violin and string quartet. With Hope now in the soloist chair, and Hamelin remaining, the duo was joined by the impressive and lithe Quatuor Ébène. This time, the full-bodied approach embraced the sinuous outlines of the Chausson with a responsive athleticism, subtracting a narrative that fostered both the epic and the fragility from the score. Far from the maddening crowd of the city concert hall, the Verbier experience seems to offer the musicians a voucher to risk taking. The audience is the happy recipient.

Daniel Lozakovich

Daniel Lozakovich

As with any indulgence, there is a consequence. In the case of a surfeit of musical virtuosity, the chocolate box effect promotes a curiously inuring quality, so that it is difficult, after being spoiled with an almost immodest quotient of richness to become easily disarmed. Fortunately, a moment arrived. When 15-year-old Swedish violinist Daniel Lozakovich quietly came to the stage for his solo recital ­­– gracefully, slowly placing the violin under his chin, a serene transcendence enveloped the hall. In his flawless performance of Bach’s Partita no. 2 in D minor, Lozakovich’s sweet, luminous, and equal parts old world and other-worldly vibrato guided an interpretation, with a purity and tenderness that allowed unfiltered emotions to rise and fall without force or compulsion – as if these emotions were being discovered, firstly in a moment of reckoning and subsequently in felt wonder.

Favourably, Lozakovich’s innate composure and musicality does not sway to superfluous performance gestures. I hope he does not succumb. The power of Lozakovich’s performance arises from a connectedness of heart, mind and soul that most performers only hope to achieve. For those in the audience, it was a captured moment – a young musician on his way to becoming – offering innocence and wisdom in a solitary glide of the bow. Yes, the inexplicable transpired. I felt a certain privilege to be a witness in this immobilizing moment – a moment spoiled only by the almost contemptuous barracking applause from the audience – raping beauty of its grace.

Lozakovich is an alumnus of the Verbier Academy. If this single moment was an embodiment of the Verbier Festival and its vision, then I have experienced it.

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About Author

Xenia Hanusiak is a cultural journalist and critic, essayist, poet, writer for stage, and festival curator whose work is published and performed across the globe. Informed by her practice as an opera singer and scholar, Xenia has given the world and country premieres of some of the most influential composers of our time including Kaija Saariaho, John Harbison, Elena Kats-Chernin and Zhang Xiaofu for some of the world’s leading festivals including the Next Wave Festival, (New York), Kennedy Center (Washington), Singapore Arts Festival, Gruppo Aperto Musica Oggi (Florence) and Beijing Music Festival. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing & Literature and, is a visiting scholar at Columbia University (New York), Peking University and Kookmin University (Korea). Her works for the stage include: the play Ward B; Un_labelled (Elena Kats-Chernin, Young Peoples’ Chorus of New York City); the libretto A thousand doors, a thousand windows (Melbourne International Arts Festival, Singapore Arts Festival); Earth Songs (Homart Theatre) and the dramatic monologue, The MsTaken Identity (Adelaide Festival of Arts/Australian String Quartet). Recent journalism publications include contributions on Laurie Anderson, Marina Abramovic, Anri Sala, Philippe Parreno, singers Dawn Upshaw, Kiri Te Kanawa, Leonard Cohen, composers Tan Dun, Nikko Mulhy, Lisa Gerrard and writers Clarice Lispector and Rita Dove.

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