On the Scene: Opening the 2009 Verbier Festival

Classic Arts Features   On the Scene: Opening the 2009 Verbier Festival
For six weeks in July and August, the Verbier ski resort 5000 feet up in the Swiss Alps plays host to one of the most famous music festivals in the world. Frank Cadenhead reports from opening weekend.


The Verbier Festival, now in its 16th year, is an annual meeting place for many of the world's musical stars and runs from July 17 to August 2.

The opening concert was played with a light but constant basso ostinato of rain on the roof of the grand tent which houses the main events, the Salle M_dran. Regulars at the festival know that summer storms can result in cool weather and always bring sweaters. There was actually snow in the upper elevations above the town, a famed ski resort in the winter. The chill in the hall was soon forgotten with Charles Dutoit leading the Verbier Festival Orchestra in the celebratory "Festival Overture" of Shostakovich, followed by the Brahms "Violin Concerto" with Russian virtuoso Vadim Repin as soloist.

Dutoit, the new music director of the Verbier Festival Orchestra this year, played Brahms with a expressive broad brush. Even Repin, always musically poised, flexed more musical muscle than usual. After the intermission, it was Richard Strauss' "Alpine Symphony" on the program, an obvious choice which complimented the striking views from every angle. A complex and demanding work which can test any orchestra, the young musicians of the VFO handled it with their usual aplomb and musical spark. The Straussian Alpine storm toward the end even drowned out the sound of the rain.

The sun was out the next day, July 18, for the photogenic pair of young stars, French pianist David Frey and the Russian violinist Valeriy Sokolov playing Beethoven and Brahms at an 11 AM concert at the Eglise (Church). At 2:30 in the same venue, 23 year-old pianist Jean-Fr_d_ric Neuburger demonstrated what an important piece the "Piano Sonata" of Henri Dutilleux can be for virtuoso pianist from the still composing, 93 year-old master. The evening had the emerging French conducting star Jean-Christophe Spinosi conducting a choral concert with New York's Collegiate Chorale in works of Mozart, Vivaldi and the Faur_ "Requiem" with the Festival Chamber Orchestra in the main venue. This concert was dedicated to the memory of Robert Bass, the long-time director of the chorale who passed away last year.

Some enjoy the game of "spot the star" as the concentration of great names in one small town at one time means pianist Evgeny Kissin might be sitting the next row down (as he was the opening night) or Joshua Bell might be checking his email at the internet cafe. Everywhere you see young people with instrument cases walking purposefully. Of the two orchestras, the Verbier Festival Orchestra has an maximum age limit of 26. The festival even keeps an informal count of the offsprings resulting from this togetherness since the orchestra was founded in 2000. The Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra has no age limit and becomes a frequent choice for the over-26 young people from the VFO.

Sold out for some months has been concert performance on July 20 with a semi-staged production of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni with Manfred Honeck conducting the Verbier Festival Orchestra. With a cast that even operas in Vienna or New York could only dream about, the grand Welshman Bryn Terfel sings the Don, with Ren_ Pape as Leporello and Thomas Quasthoff as the Commandatore. Another concert long sold out is the pianist Lang Lang's "carte blanche" evening the next night featuring these gentlemen along with Vadim Repin and cellist Mischa Maisky.

Along with the main concerts, there is a full daily schedule of workshops, lectures and chamber music performances each day of the festival. The Verbier Festival Academy is a training ground for young talent and offers coaching for aspiring virtuosos in several areas, this year including conducting with no less than Kurt Masur. As with every other year, first chairs from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra come to coach the members of the VFO. In the mix this year is the arrival on the 19th of the Tour de France in Verbier. At this altitude, it is one of the critical stages of that famed bicycle race.

All of this can be tracked on the festival's website, www.verbier-festival.com.

What is even more amazing is that 26 concerts from this festival - even those sold out - are available to watch free on the internet on the site www.medici.tv and the Franco-German television site, www.arteliveweb.com.

A sweater is not needed for all that.

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