The year, 1938. The location, a splendid Alpine town in Switzerland. The orchestra, an ensemble specially assembled for the occasion. The conductor, the legendary and outspoken antifascist Arturo Toscanini. The occasion, the inaugural concert of the Lucerne Festival. From this complex but nonetheless auspicious set of circumstances was born a festival that has stood as one of the most prestigious in the world, presenting a wondrous lineup of stellar symphonic orchestras. Though the direct descendant of Toscanini's ensemble was dissolved in 1992 — the home band had lost its raison d'être and simply could not compete with the visiting virtuosos — the new, reimagined Lucerne Festival Orchestra has taken up the mantle brilliantly.
Indeed, in 2000, Claudio Abbado approached Lucerne's Artistic and Executive Director, Michael Haefliger, with an idea of putting together a new orchestra for the Festival. What if he could line up a starry array of eminent soloists, such as cellist Natalia Gutman; former members of the Berliner Philharmoniker, including clarinetist Sabine Meyer; and members of the esteemed Alban Berg Quartet and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (another orchestra Abbado created in 1997)? It was hard for Haefliger to turn down such a tempting offer of guaranteed quality.
So when the newly formed Lucerne Festival Orchestra debuted at the Festival in the summer of 2003 — aptly, with none other than Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony — it made a splash. And then waves. This was serious music making at the highest level, capturing every nuance of Mahler's clamorous and lyrical universe under Abbado's fiery, focused direction — all the more extraordinary as the maestro had just recovered from a life-threatening bout with stomach cancer. The LFO was a contender. The newly minted ensemble has since been televised all over Europe, turned out several DVDs, and traveled to Rome and Tokyo.
Yet the Lucerne Festival Orchestra's Carnegie Hall debut is something altogether special in its evolution.
"It will be one of the greatest moments of my life," asserted Haefliger in a phone call from Lucerne. "Carnegie Hall is one of the most important stages in the world, not only for historic reasons, but simply because it is one of the best concert halls anywhere, with the best American audiences you can possibly have."
The orchestra's performance for Carnegie Hall's Opening Night Gala on October 3 includes Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major with Murray Perahia as soloist. The second half of the program is Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, with an encore performance of that masterpiece the following night. It's one of Abbado's favorite pieces to conduct — and a piece that can showcase the orchestra's sure-fire virtuosity. For the choral finale, the Westminster Symphonic Choir will be joined by soloists Melanie Diener, Anna Larsson, Jonas Kaufmann, and Reinhard Hagen.
Mahler's Symphony No. 3, another pillar in Abbado's repertoire — just listen to his glorious, spine-tingling recording with the Berliner Philharmoniker — will be performed on October 6 with contralto Anna Larsson, the Women of the Westminster Symphonic Choir, and The American Boychoir. Not to be missed, it will be a repeat of their performance during the Lucerne Festival, which takes place August 10 to September 16.
"It's so great to hear this orchestra with a Lucerne audience and then go to another continent and see the players interact with a different audience," says Haefliger, who came on board to the Lucerne Festival a year after it received its stunning new hall, designed by French "starchitect" Jean Nouvel.
"This first-rate concert hall opened a new chapter in the life of the Festival," observes Haefliger. "Of course, it's been terrific for the Festival's profile. On the other hand, you have to create the content, and that was a challenge."
Haefliger rose to the challenges by creating a symphony-centered Festival poised for the 21st century. And in its brief seven years, this Festival has also presented a staggering 88 world premieres, a tradition that continues this summer, as Anne-Sophie Mutter plays the world premiere of Sofia Gubaidulina's Violin Concerto No. 2, and Akiko Suwanai plays Seven, a new piece for violin and orchestra by Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös, a memorial for the Columbia astronauts.
The Lucerne Festival Orchestra's Carnegie Hall appearances, however, take a break from contemporary music — even for the concert given by the orchestra's smaller ensemble, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Pierre-Laurent Aimard. As many know from his phenomenal Perspectives events at Carnegie Hall last season, Aimard is a daring pianist with a repertoire ranging from Bach to Boulez and is known especially for his fierce performances of Ligeti and Carter. On October 5, he shows a different perspective, leading the orchestra in Haydn's Symphony No. 102 — and then serving as both conductor and soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 13 and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2.
The other three concerts opening Carnegie Hall's new season are savory chamber music programs that offer musical close-ups of some of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra's excellent players. The diverse programs include such riches as Rossini's Duo for Cello and Double Bass in D major; Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence for string sextet; Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony, Op. 9; and Brahms's String Sextet No. 2.
"It's not only that we invite the best," Haefliger asserts about the Lucerne Festival, "but that we produce the best. Our Festival has its own ideas and creates its own artistic projects."
And that is an accomplishment that would certainly make Toscanini proud.
Robert Hilferty is a frequent contributor to Playbill.