Cooper’s London



The Hills are Alive!

The 19th Verbier Festival and Academy ended on 5 August 2012. For the general public it was two weeks of world-class concerts by world-class musiciansthe same people you can hear in Salzburg or at the Proms. In Verbier they are usually trying out something new that will later appear elsewhere; the setting is a Swiss village that is a ski resort in the winter and hence full of hotels, cafes, restaurants, ski lifts and some extremely expensive shops and restaurants. Dress tends to be casual smart all day, and I have never seen so many thin people in one place before in my life. Or so much cashmere.

But the real heart of the event is the Academy, which lasts over three weeks; a place where the same musicians you hear each evening at the big concerts are teaching, giving master classes and generally encouraging the next generation of fine musicians just starting their careers. There are literally a couple of hundred of them working in town throughout the period.

The Verbier Festival Orchestra has auditions all over the world each year, and the “chair” of each orchestra section rehearses its members, who have to be under 30, and who usually get four or five rehearsals for each concert. One-third of the orchestra is turned over each year; many of them graduate to the Verbier Chamber Orchestra.

As well, luminaries such as Martha Argerich (who was performing for the public), Alfred Brendel (who was not performing), Ileana Cotrubas, and Leonidas Kavakos (who performed a stunning Korngold Violin Concerto at the final concert of the season) are living in Verbier, shopping, chatting with fans who run into them in the street, and giving personal tuition and Master Classes. While I was there, the Hagen Quartet was in residence, teaching—and playing—Beethoven quartets. Earlier in the season, audiences could hear Elizabeth Leonskaja in recital, Dutoit conducting a stellar cast in Debussy’s Pelleas and Melisande, the Capuçon brothers, Mischa Maisky, Simone Dinnerstein, Paul McCreesh conducting Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Nathalie Stutzman, among others. all there to teach as well as to perform. The students get free tickets for any concert they want to attend. The public gets free entry to a range of classes, recitals, lectures and Master Classes. There is a daily Festival newspaper listing and explaining events, and you need to consult it regularly or you will miss something you really wanted to see. Everything is casual except the musicianship and professionalism.

Martin T:son Engstroem, who founded the Festival/Academy and runs the whole shebang, tells the students every year that if they are not exhausted by the end of it, something is wrong.

Their every moment is scheduled with private study, chamber music sessions, and just going to the concerts. There is hardly even time to practice, the schedule is so full. For the music-loversthere are at least two major concerts to buy tickets for every day. Everything else is free and there are also pre-concert talks you can choose to attend. You can hear Academy students and sometimes their mentors in concerts at 11 every morning and 11 every night in the church. There are people who attendeverythingevery day, with very short breaks for food and drink.

The town is very small; you can walk to its outer limits from the centre within ten to fifteen minutes. While walking you are bound to run into a musician you have just heard play, as well as friends you did not know were in town, or the person you have sat next to at a couple of concerts and wanted to talk to. It is, of course, high up in the mountains and everywhere you look the scenery is stunning. Also, by the end of a week or two, you get pretty fit; everything is up or down. They do not do flat in Verbier, physically or musically.

The architecture is generic Swiss chalet, and because the Swiss franc is comparatively strong, everyone else finds it on the expensive side. But it’s worth the visit. The atmosphere’s relaxed—all that clear, clean air!—and you experience a complete lack of city angst or rush. There is nothing much to do other than listen to lots of music; shop in the interesting boutiques that cater to that skiing crowd in winter; eat in the fine restaurants (some of which require a second mortgage on your home to pay the bill), or go up the ski lifts and walk down the mountains. If you prefer, you can jump off the mountain clutching one of those quasi-parachutes the size of a handkerchief and glide down into the valley hundreds of feet below.

For the young musicians in the Academy there are huge benefits—not just in what they learn—but also in the networking they can do among themselves and through their mentors. For the public, there is also the excitement of discovery. On 3 August Yuja Wang cancelled a recital and therefore we heard 26-year-old Dennis Kozhukhin, the 2010 winner of the Queen Elizabeth Prize in Brussels and an alumnus who studied, as a teenager, in Verbier from 2001 to 2003. His pianism and technique was perfection, matched by his emotional understanding and strong personal interpretation skills.

But that morning we had already heard the teen-aged David Kadouch, one of the piano students in this year’s Academy who stunningly played, among other things, all of Chopin’s 24 Preludes.

Pamela Frank was teaching this year; Pamela Frank was also performing. And huge praise must go to Manfred Honeck honeck, who runs the orchestral programme and who also gave two brilliant concerts in the final week (one as a last-minute substitute), who elected to play the advertised programme at short notice so as not to throw the orchestra – or René Pape, who gave us masterful moments of Wotan monologues.

The overall winner of the Academy Prize this year was a young violinist named Noë Inui who played in a Brahms Piano Quartet at 11 AM in the church on the final day and was there not only to accept his prize at the final concert in the evening, but also to play Bartok Duos with Leonidas Kavakos just to show us why he had won that prize. Julia Fischer was once a Verbier violin Academician, and Anna Netrebko was a student in the vocal school. Martin Engstroem has plans to keep expanding the work and size of the Academy as well, and next year will launch a music camp. Like Aspen and Tanglewood, Verbier’s big concerts take place in a huge tent that seats 1500 at the moment. Bur the city of Verbier has plans to construct new hotel facilities soon and a permanent theatre for the festival will be part of the deal.

Next year, for the twentieth anniversary, luminaries such as Netrebko and many more of those whowere once Verbier students are returning there to teach and perform. The tradition is for the established stars to do something they have never done before; Netrebko, I hear, will do her first Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello. And Verbier will also be celebrating two hundred years since the birth of Verdi and Wagner, and one hundred since the birth of Benjamin Britten.

For an insider’s view of the plans:


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