Verbier Festival

2011-08-05 / Haaretz, Israel / Uri Dromi

Every summer I go to Europe to listen to great music, and – let’s be frank here – to get away from the Israeli pressure cooker. This year I went to the recent two-week-long Verbier Festival in Switzerland, except this time Israel came with me.

First of all, contrary to my strict habit of always traveling only with my wife, I resigned myself for the first time to going with a group of friends. I armed myself with unusual reserves of patience, and swore not to get irritated by anything. Surprisingly enough, there was no need whatsoever for that: It seems that the breathtaking mountain landscape, the fresh air, the sublime music, the cheese and the wine – all conspired together to perform miracles on the group. Believe it or not, after a concert, over a glass of Baladin (mark that red wine, you’ll thank me forever), even the toughest Israelis mellow out.

On the street in Verbier, near Martigny, two hours from Geneva Airport, you hear Hebrew. I mean, everywhere. It turns out that Israeli music lovers discovered the place 15 years ago, when the festival was founded, and have since become addicts. And then there are the Israeli musicians: If there is a need for any proof that our musical empire stretches far and wide, the Ariel Quartet played Stravinsky here; five of the 45 young musicians in the amazing Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra this year were Israelis; and last but not least, Avi Shoshani, the director general of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, is the festival’s artistic consultant.

Nonetheless, this is very much a cosmopolitan festival, boasting the finest musicians in the world today. Where else can you find in one evening, on the same stage, pianists Martha Argerich, Evgeny Kissin, Yuja Wang and Khatia Buniatishvili; violinists Joshua Bell and Ivry Gitlis; violist Yuri Bashmet; and cellist Mischa Maisky? Martin Engstroem, the founder and director general of the festival, created for these extraordinary musicians a program that was a true celebration.

The festival’s beauty stems not only from the caliber of its musicians, but also from its spirit. You run around in the lovely village, from the main venue, Salle de Combins, to concerts in the church on top of the hill, to catch as much of the rich program as you can; you mingle with music lovers who don’t even get dressed up for the concerts, because they only care about music, not appearances; and in the street you bump into musicians whom you usually see only on album covers.

This is one great party, dotted with hilarious peaks. For example, Hungarian violinist Roby Lakatos showed up with his long mustache, dressed like a true tzigane (gypsy), but when his bow touched he strings you understood why he’s been nicknamed the Devil’s fiddler.” Petite Chinese pianist Wang astonished the audience by changing her dress three times during the evening, each time to something more stunning. She and Buniatishvili shared the same stool, and the two looked like two sensuous pussycats rubbing up against each other – that is, until they started playing, four hands, leaving us breathless.

Don’t get me wrong: We are talking serious music here. In what was to me the highlight of the festival, two great artists, French violinist Renaud Capucon and Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt (who has been performing for nearly 40 years, since the age of 4), played concertos by Bach and Mozart. When the slow, magical strains of the Largo from Bach’s Piano Concerto No. 5 floated through the church into our hearts, I had the feeling that the great meister himself was present there with us, nodding approvingly.

Last but not least, the Verbier Festival is about teaching. In its academy, the great masters are generously passing their knowledge and experience on to young rising stars at the festival. In one master class, I listened to the young Parisian soprano Norma Nahoun and thought she had a truly beautiful voice. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa agreed, but then, with a few pointed remarks, explained why Nahoun still has a long way to go.

Pianist Alfred Brendel also taught the vocalists, but devoted more time to correcting the poor soul accompanying them on the piano. At one point Brendel couldn’t take it anymore, got up from his armchair, pushed the accompanist aside and took over. Suddenly, there was magic. Young British baritone Toby Girling looked on in disbelief and then, while singing, couldn’t conceal his smile. Probably he was thinking: “How many singers my age can write in their CV that the great Alfred Brendel accompanied them?”

This is an unforgettable experience, and I recommend going with good friends. It might easily turn out to be a double pleasure.”