The programme of events and activities for this year’s Verbier Festival – the 25th doncha know – was unveiled to UK press earlier this week at a delightfully stylish event at the Swiss Embassy.
All the attendees were stylishly dressed, except for one individual who arrived in jeans and a jumper. I must and will try harder next time.
Such events are phenomenally difficult to write about. Whatever is written in anticipation of a concert or festival will risk becoming nothing more than regurgitated press releases. Previews of festivals seem a rather odd notion given that concerts and masterclasses are one-off events, the enjoyment of which is as much down to the to the audience member as it is to musicianship of the performers on stage.
Verbier’s festival makes things a little easier.
There is no battle with Verbier. As a concert-goer, you’re not having to negotiate public transport not working. There isn’t a jostle for the bar or the toilets. There is calm order to proceedings. A natural buzz emerges as a result. An easy style is acquired just being up in the mountains too. For a town that necessarily largely attracts the moneyed, it is surprisingly low on pretension too.
There is a consistency to the experience. That’s in part down to the jaw-dropping beauty of the location (the twisty-turny approach to the town will knock you for six), the rejuvenating clear air, and the comparative simplicity staying there for a few days in the summer, intensifies listening. Attention at breakfast in any one of the hotels in the town is focussed solely on the priority of the day: which event to attend, how far away it is, and how steep the incline is. Distractions are left far below in the valley or, if you’re a pro, at Geneva Airport.
Verbier is where I finally appreciated the powerful connection of chamber music. The Église de Verbier is my preferred location. A capacity of 500 seats with concerts sometimes scheduled three times a day, the location has played host to some personally transformative performances, the most potent illustration of how the connection between audience and performer has been revealed.
Verbier has introduced me to the immediacy of live performance underpinned by a combination of proximity and clarity of thinking – a sort of hyper-live performance with an addictive quality.
Masterclasses – held in homes, restaurants, offices, and hotels – are held every day and free to attend. They also provide those of us with an increasing appetite to understand the mechanics of musicianship with rich insights. And its in masterclasses a nurturing connection is formed between audience and performer that extends throughout the festival and beyond.
Verbier speaks proudly of its ‘family’ of performers, the roots of which are to be found in the Verbier Festival Academy’s masterclasses and orchestras.
This year, 8 instrumental soloists per instrument, two ensembles, and around 16 vocal soloists will all benefit from masterclass tuition from 2018 faculty including Richard Goode, Andras Schiff (piano), Pamela Frank and Pinchas Zukerman (violin), Yuri Bashmet (viola), Nicolas Altstaedt (cello) and Thomas Quasthoff (voice).
From 1600+ applications 97 places for the Verbier Festival Orchestra will be awarded to training musicians between the ages of 18-25 from across the world.
The ‘family’ extends to the concert performances too. All the performers with a connection to Verbier – Academy alumni or visiting artists to the town over the Festival’s 25-year history – makes this experience almost unique. This festival isn’t a series of concerts with performers shipped in and out according to schedule. Verbier is a destination for performers to develop their art. We get to witness it.
It’s a big deal for the town too. Off-season, snow may only dust the peaks, but the financial return of a Festival with a budget of 10 million francs was in 2014 a cool 32 million. That budget comes from an impressive range of sponsors, including Swiss private banking group Julius Bar, Nespresso and Neva Fondation – a telling reminder of the financial necessities underpinning such an endeavour.
Highlights from the billings include Valery Gergiev taking on the role of the Festival’s third music director, a debut for conductor Christoph Eschenbach alongside festival favourites Ivan Fischer, and Giannado Noseda. Martha Argerich returns, plus Radu Lupu, Grigory Sokolov, and Evgeny Kissin. Daniil Trifonov also appears. On violin, festival stalwarts Maxim Vengerov, Janine Jansen and Leonidas Kavakos also return.