I heard with great concern the news that Russian oligarch Roman Abramowitz planned to make his permanent European residence in the tranquil village of Verbier, in the Swiss Alps, home to the prestigious Verbier Festival. Together with thousands of music lovers – many of them Israelis – I breathed with relief when I heard that the Swiss authorities had denied his request. The last thing we needed, between a master class by a world leading musician and a magical recital in the local church is the scream of sirens from a Mercedes motorcade. I don’t mind him settling in Jerusalem though: We are already used to the frightening motorcade of our Prime Minister. But please, leave Verbier alone.
This year, the Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary, and what a celebration it was. If in any of its past years the Festival has managed to assemble some of the greatest world musicians, this year the organizers seemed to have gathered ALL of them. Here is just a partial list of the great music masters who participated in the Gala Concert this summer: Renaud Capuçon, Amanda Forsyth, Valery Gergiev, Evgeny Kissin, Mischa Maisky, Denis Matsuev, Thomas Quasthoff, Andras Schiff, Daniil Trifonov, Maxim Vengerov, Yuja Wang, Tabea Zimmermann, Pinchas Zuckerman. And I repeat, this is only a fraction of the list of musicians who participated in this glorious event.
Some of my Israeli maven friends, however, musical purists as they are, came out at the end of the concert shrugging their shoulders. Show of force, they concluded; not enough depth. I disagreed. Since Martin T:son Engstroem launched this brainchild of his 25 years ago, he gave us plenty of depth. There is nothing wrong in parading to the stage those great artists for a joyful party. And what prompted my admiration was the camaraderie these geniuses, who fill halls by themselves, showed to each other. I was even more impressed, even touched, when at one point they sat at the rear chairs of the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra, and played with the young musicians like peers. Just think of Mischa Maisky playing third cellist in an orchestra.
There was no lack of depth in this year’s festival either. In the first concert I attended, French conductor Marc Minkowski, who specializes in Baroque music, gave us a special overture to the festival. Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang played the beautiful third violin concerto of the 19-year old Mozart. Listening to her I could understand why she had been awarded the Credit Suisse Young Artist Award in 2012. The next singer had won another, no less worthy accolade. Swedish baritone Peter Mattei made the music critic of the Observer write about his Don Giovanni at the Metropolitan Opera: “(He) gave what was probably the most impressive ‘in a vacuum’ performance of any opera role I’ve ever seen.” In Verbier he sang the gloomy Bach Cantata BWV 82, “Ich habe genug,” ( I had enough, I am content). His soft and warm voice still rings in my ears. And then came the Requiem by Gabriel Fauré, with Chinese soprano Ying Fang joining Mattei, both softly wrapped by the Berlin-based RIAS Kammerchor, which sounded like heaven, but then, you don’t expect less from a German choir.
Faure once said that “(i)t has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience.” When I walked out of the église, the village church, to the breathtaking Alpine landscape, the last thing I thought about was death. On the contrary, I was rejuvenated both by the beauty of the music and the energy of the festival.
One of the feathers on the Festival’s cap is its Academy, which gives young and promising musicians the chance to study with and be coached by the greatest musicians. I went to a master class where Pinchas Zuckerman generously shared his craft with young violinists. At times, I felt pity for them, because Zuckerman seemed to be too tough on them, but one of them told me later that for him it’s a lifetime opportunity. In another master class, Russian mezzo-soprano Ekatirina Semnchuck seemed to be more merciful. The night before she had sung the role of the Princess of Bouillon in Francisco Cilea’s opera Adriana Lecouvreur, under the colorful conductor Valery Gergiev (rumors ran high that when his private plane lands in the nearby airport, he will come out with a surprise: his favorite Diva Anna Netrebko, but it didn’t happen). Anyway, I was touched by Semnchuck’s tenderness and patience, and by her sincere willingness to give the young singers lessons and tips she had acquired in decades of hard work.
The climax of the Festival, not only for me, obviously, because it was sold-out from day one, was the piano recital with Grigory Sokolov. He played three Haydn sonatas and four impromptus by Schubert. However, the encores lasted almost as long as the program itself. The audience just wouldn’t let this magic end.
This feeling, of wishing this summer to last forever, prompted me to look at another musical event, this time in Southern France. Usually, music lovers go to the popular festival in Aix-en-Provence, but I looked for something else, away from the crowd, and bingo, I found one: The opera and theater festival of Saint-Céré, a village in the Lot valley, with 3500 people who managed to preserve their old heritage while enriching their otherwise mundane rural existence with an exciting festival.
Unlike the more known festivals, where there is a strict division of labor between the audience and the musicians (you sit quietly and listen to us, while we impress you with our talent and then you cheer), Saint-Céré was like a big family party, or rather a barbeque. Before we entered the town sports hall (Plan B for the open stage at the nearby Chateau, because of a thunderstorm), we all had a joint dinner – singers, conductor, musicians and the audience. But make no mistake: when the lights went off, there was a superb and highly professional and entertaining Tales of Hoffmann. The singers – many of whom had made their debut at Saint-Céré – may not rank among the leading in the world, like in Verbier, but they were good and lively, and the audience rewarded their loyalty to Saint-Céré, returning even after making a career on bigger stages. The locals, by the way, defied any stereotype of the rudeness and foreigner-hating French (which perhaps may still be valid in Paris); instead, they were extremely nice and welcoming.
I can’t even start counting how many La Traviatas I have seen, and yet, the one in Saint-Céré stunned me with its innovative edge. It started surprisingly with the final scene, when the sick Violetta is lying on her deathbed in Paris, lamenting her young and turbulent life which was nearing its end. Then the first act started, but whenever Violetta was not present on the stage, she retired to the same bed, with a video cameraman filming her continuously. With her face projected on a big screen, we actually saw her agonizingly reflecting on her life in hindsight. Later I spoke with the singer, Turkish dramatic soprano Serenad B. Uyar, and she said that it had been the toughest role she had ever sung or acted, because the audience looked at her closely every minute of the opera. This, by the way, after playing and singing the night before all three women of the Tales of Hoffman – Olympia, Julietta and Antonia – quite a feat in itself.
The highlight of the festival was reserved for the last day, when I saw The Marriage of Figaro in the most extraordinary venue: Château de Castelnau-Bretenoux. This 12-century castle was conquered by the English in the Hundred Year War, and returned to its owners when the war ended. Devastated by fire in 1851, Castelnau was brought back to life by Jean Mouliérat, a tenor at the Opéra-Comique. Between 1896 and 1932, he restored and installed an important collection of furniture and objets d’art to return the château to its former glory. The locals told me with pride that an Englishman tried to buy it but was rebuffed (“Castelnau will not fall again”). Having dinner at sunset on the castle’s terrace, overlooking the serene landscape below, was something to remember. Then followed Mozart’s joyful opera, sung and played vividly by a superb cast. What an epilogue to a great musical summer.