It was 2011 when I first went to the Verbier Music Festival and immediately fell in love. Nestled in the Swiss Alps, this popular winter ski resort gathers each summer, for two weeks, some of the best musicians in the world, and attracts thousands of music lovers from all around the world.
After settling down in a house with a breath-taking view of the valley below, and taking a well deserved afternoon nap (a must, if you really want to stay fresh at night), we headed to the Eglise, one of the village’s churches, to hear Mikhail Petrenko, the Russian Bass sing romantic melodies of his motherland. What followed is perhaps one of the peaks of chamber music – Schubert’s Quintet D. 956. What a start.
The following night we went to the Salle des Combins – the main venue of the festival. This is actually a huge hangar, not so perfect acoustically, and I’m told that the festival management is working with the village authorities to build a decent concert hall. Anyway, we heard pieces from Verdi’s opera Luisa Miller followed by Symphonic Dances of Rachmaninoff. Of the singers, I particularly welcomed Daniela Barcelona, my favorite Rossini Mezzo, and I was happy to find out that she hasn’t lost her beautiful, velvet voice, which I adored twenty years ago at the Pesaro festivals.
In another wonderful concert Tom Koopman conducted the excellent Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068, paved the way for two exquisite Mozart pieces: Renaud Capuçon played beautifully the Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K. 216, and then came the Requiem, which sent us to the fresh Alpine air breathless.
American cellist Lynn Harel could be heard not only in concert, where he played three suites of Bach, but also in master classes, which is another attraction of the Verbier Festival. Pianist András Schiff, organist Robert Levin and many other leading musicians spent their time sharing with young and upcoming musicians their experiences, insights and tips, much to the delight of the grateful audiences.
Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at the Salle des Combins was challenging. First, there was the courageous decision to have Thomas Quastoff not as a singer, but as conductor. Martin T:son Engstroem, Founder and Executive Director of the Verbier Festival, said that “in the 22 years of the Festival, this has been the most challenging and satisfying project I’ve ever been a part of.” Sitting on a high chair, Quastoff conducted this magnificent piece with authority, being rewarded with huge applause which threatened to bring the roof down. The roof, however, stayed, which was a double edge sword: A heavy rain in the first half made the listening difficult. Bach and Quastorff prevailed, however, no less with the help of British tenor Mark Padmore, who portrayed a humanistic, engaged Evangelist.
My Interview with the great Rumanian-born soprano Angela Gheorghiu was cancelled at the last moment, of course. Who on earth I thought I was, that she would keep an interview with me? This diva, who didn’t show up to grand rehearsals, who cancelled sold-out performances, should keep an interview with an Israeli journalist?
It’s a pity, because I prepared some pretty good questions for her. Not about her personal life, G_d forbid, like her turbulent marriage with and divorce from tenor Roberto Alagna, whom she met on stage at the Royal Opera House when they both sang La Boheme. I would have even skipped asking her what she had meant when she told the Daily Telegraph two years ago that “(b)efore me, an opera singer did not need to be beautiful. Because of me, the audience now expects everything: a whole package.” Now that’s what I call modesty. Forget about Anna Moffo, Kiri Te Kanawa, Renee Fleming and some other singers whose physical beauty matched their great voices.
Gheorghiu once said that she had been waiting for a composer to write a new opera for her. Well, it happened before, to another Rumanian soprano, the legendary Hariclea Darclée (1860-1939), who, at the turn of the twentieth century, created the title roles in Puccini‘s Tosca, Mascagni‘s Iris, and Catalani‘s La Wally. It is said that Darclée suggested to Pucini to add to Tosca one of the greatest soprano arias ever, “Visi d’arte, visi d’amore”, I lived for art, I lived for love, a motto so befitting Gheorghiu as well.
Anyway, without an interview, I went to the Eglise for the concert Gheorghiu gave together with guitarist Miloš Karadaglić, and believe me I’m not revengeful for her cancelling on me when I say I that was disappointed. Gheorghiu’s voice was wonderful, no question about it, especially when she was in her elements, singing a Schubert lieder or some operatic pieces. The problem was the program, a musical tour of Europe, with no clear sense of direction. However, the passionate Karadaglić produced magical music from his guitar, which caused me to buy all of his three DG albums displayed outside.
My Interview with the world-renowned cellist Mischa Maisky,
on the other hand, was terrific. I bumped into him just before the beginning of one of the concert, when I spotted him showing someone something on his Ipad and animatedly discussing it. With perfect Israeli manners I joined the two, only to be hugged warmly by Maisky, who holds an Israeli citizenship. Turned out that he had shown his friend a picture taken in the early nineteen seventies, shortly after his arrival in Israel from the Soviet Union. Sitting at the lobby of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem were two great musicians, 96-year old cellist Pablo Casals and violinist Isaac Stern, with the latter introducing to the former a young and promising cellist, Mischa Maisky.
Maisky and me (note the differences).
Later, Maisky gave me a generous interview. Priding himself of being the only cellist who studied with both Mstislav Rostropovich and Gregor Piatigorsky, he reminisced on his time in Soviet prison because of the family’s Zionist aspirations, his starting from scratch again in Israel, and the glorious career he has developed. Asked about prodigies like the 14-year old Swedish virtuoso violinist Daniel Lozakovitj, who stunned the Verbier audience, Maisky gave me a cautious smile. “It’s like a tree that grows too fast, without growing strong enough roots”, he said. “When storm comes, there is a trouble”.
The following night I met him again at the Eglise. He sat at the first row listening to pianist Grigory Sokolov, who gave us six encores, and clapped enthusiastically. But how could he possibly done it, when he was supposed to play Schumann at the same time at the main venue, Salle des Combins? Later he explained to me that he had asked to play only in the first piece, and then run an listen to Sokolov. When I commended him for this show of camaraderie he said: “Fifty years ago we both went to the International Tchaikovsky Concourse in Moscow. I’m a friend and a fan forever”.
That’s the beauty of the Verbier festival: So many great musicians and yet no pompousness like Bayreuth or Glyndebourne. It’s probably the ambience of the Swiss Alps that makes the difference.
If I were you, when planning your 2016 summer vacation, I would check out Verbier Festival (www.verbierfestival.com). You might be surprised to find out that there are organized groups of Israeli music lovers who go there frequently – I met one such group led by pianist Dr. Orit Wolf. And if you decide to go next year, good chances that you’ll be meeting me there as well. Finally, you’ll be back home in time for the Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival. And for G-d’s sake, don’t make comparisons. Just enjoy.