The Verbier Festival: An excursion in opulence

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Imagine attending an entire year of recitals at Carnegie Hall or Der Musikverein. At either concert hall you will no doubt encounter the pianists András Schiff, Barry Douglas, Richard Goode, Evgeny Kissin, Yefim Bronfman, Daniil Trifonov or Yuja Wang. Your listening path would also include at least one of the leading violin virtuosi of our time, perhaps Joshua Bell, Leonidas Kavakos or Janine Jansen. You may also add to your annual subscription the experience of hearing Pablo Ferrandez, George Li, or Daniel Lozakovich, three rising stars of their generation. And, as an opera lover your radar will meet Esa-Pekka Salonen or Charles Dutoit. Now imagine experiencing the artistry of all these musicians and twice that number in just seventeen days. Next, imagine walking from concert to concert in one of the most picture perfect Alpine resorts in Switzerland. This is the Verbier Festival.

As the festival veers towards its quarter century celebrations next year, founding Festival Director Martin T:son Engstroem has escalated his programming of star roster musicians for this 24th edition. Engstroem’s vision is a musical excursion of opulence.

Although A-list musicians take pride of place on the welcome mat, the foundational heart of the festival is the Verbier Academy. Every year highly auditioned young musicians and opera singers from across the globe gather to participate in learning experiences that are inspired by seasoned professionals.

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While the opening night stage performance of Strauss’s Salomé featured a strong cast, the night belonged to the Verbier Festival Orchestra. The expansive ensemble under the direction of Charles Dutoit performed Strauss’s voluptuous, decadent and vital setting of Hedwig Lachemann’s translation of Oscar Wilde’s play with daring adrenalin liberating the balletic sensuality and pulse of the dance drama. Strauss’s score calls for exemplar solos from every section of the orchestra­ – but in particular from the piccolo, contrabassoon, and E-flat clarinet. The musicians delivered, providing an electric canvas for the cast of seasoned Strauss specialists. With judicious and sufficiently demonstrative staging (there was no choreographed performance for the Dance of the Seven Veils) Gun-Brit Barkmin (Salomé), Jane Henschel (Hérodias), Egils Silins (Jochanaan), Gerhard Siegel (Hérode) and Andrew Staples (Narraboth) were steely in a collective resolve to draw out the depraved implications of the biblical text. Confident performances from the rising professionals of the festival’s Opera Academy contributed to the drama.

The Verbier Festival offers audiences the opportunity to experience chamber music daily, either from the professional artists or the Academy students. Far away from the concert hall at this alpine hideaway Verbier guest musicians are inclined to take more liberty in their choices of repertoire and their interpretations. For the opening chamber music recital, violinist Renaud Capuçon and pianist Denis Kozhukhin began their program with the rarely heard Rondo in B Minor by Schubert – unusual because most violin/piano duos opt for the Fantasy in C major. However like the Fantasy, the Rondo is a challenging work technically and interpretively for both instrumentalists since it is not only splashed with virtuosic writing but its concentration of multiple short themes and an expanded coda has an intense never resolving always searching quality, which the musicians must unravel. Capuçon and Kozhukhin were called to flex their muscles on further extended codas in the next work, the late Beethoven Sonata for violin and piano no. 7 in C Minor – a work that is more standard in the repertoire. The duo’s performance underpinned the romanticism of this work with the more sustained themes of the work allowing the musicians to breathe into the phrases.

The evening chamber music recital of the festival’s first full-day program brought together the credentialed Pavel Haas Quartet with Irish pianist Barry Douglas in the much-travelled Brahms Quintet No.12 in F minor. The unexpected, overly emphatic accelerations in the third movement and an overall determined approach drained the score of its natural progression.

The highlight of the opening weekend’s performance arrived on Sunday morning care of the elegant trio of musicians of Boris Kuschnir (violin), Lars Anders Tomter (violin) and Miklós Perényi. A perfect program of lightness and performance exactitude in Schubert’s Trio in B-Flat major and Beethoven’s Serenade for violin, viola and cello beamed with delight. The performance was a masterclass in showing how to reveal a score to an audience with wit and style, observing the intrinsic characteristics of each internal form.

While there is never a typical day at the Verbier Festival, you might expect to start the day with an early morning mountain gondola serenaded by chamber musicians, followed by an early morning masterclass with Thomas Hampson ending in the early hours of the morning with a jazz set. Wedged in between will be an orchestral concert, two or three chamber music concerts, perhaps a film – and all served with an obligatory fondue on the side.

At this 24th edition of the Verbier Festival the programming reaches its artistic peak at the end with Esa-Pekka Salonen, composer Lera Auerbach, violinists Janine Jansen and Leonidas Kavakos and pianist Evgeny Kissin providing just a sample of the starry artists on this schedule.



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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