Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Lucerne Festival 14-18 September 2004

Lucerne Festival Academy


A few dates first. Lucerne's festival was founded in 1938 by Toscannini when Salzburg had come under Nazi thrall. It thrived under a regime of top orchestras summering there, but in the early 1990s began to languish and the local festival orchestra was disbanded. It was ressurected in xxx by Claudio Abbado, who recruited orchestral leaders and leading ensembles to sit at its front desks. And now there is the Lucerne Festival Academy which has given Lucerne in 2004 a new excitement and international media buzz.


In earlier years the festival, one of Europe's largest, was patronised by well-heeled international audiences and celebrated for its procession of world-leading symphony orchestras and star soloists, their mainly traditional repertoire enjoyed even before the creation of one of the world's very finest purpose-built modern symphony halls (architect Jean Nouvel; acoustician Russell Johnson).


Attending the final week of Lucerne Festival 2004 enabled us to relish the culmination of the two-month work of the Lucerne Festival Academy, brain-child of artistic director Michael Haefliger, who has presided over his festival's leap into the 21st century, inaugurated under the artistic direction of Pierre Boulez.


The Academy has, in this its first full year, transformed the picture. Conceived as a comprehensive training exercise, 120 advanced student executant musicians were rigorously selected by a demanding audition process to be coached in contemporary music at its cutting edge, culminating in the three concerts of highest quality which we attended. It is in many ways the other side of the Gaudeamus coin; in Amsterdam last week the focus had been on young composers, their new music played by established chamber ensembles.


Importantly, the Lucerne public is welcomed free of charge to rehearsals, workshops and seminars in which all aspects of the music to be heard is shared; earlier in the festival there had been work with string quartets, master classes in piano (Brendel) and conducting and preliminary work on next year's Academy commissions (Boulez) one of them work in progress by the rapidly up-coming Dai Fujikara, now based in England and featured also at the Gaudeamus Week in Amsterdam. One of the most extraordinary events must have been Sciarrino's Il cerchio tagliato dei suoni with four soloists and 100 flute students with their teachers making sounds circulate, divide and multiply until space and time dissolves in them .


For the first full presentation of the Academy, the focus was upon more senior composers and 20th C classics. They were divided into halves for two astutely programmed chamber ensemble concerts. Pierre Boulez was in charge for Donatoni and Ligeti, a perfectly contrasted pairing, followed by works by Carter, Benjamin and Birtwistle's Secret Theatre, a daunting assignment for newcomers to all this music, accomplished with deceptive ease. In the other chamber ensemble concert Chicago-based Cliff Colnot impressed greatly with his group, giving us Nordentoft (a name recalled from Radio 3's memorable Danish season, now some years back), Berio's Requies and Boulez's Derive.


There was a soprano soloist in each of these concerts. Sylvia Nopper drew the short straw to repeat her previously admired 2002 performance of Carter's 1975 A mirror in which to dwell , when she deputised for Julia Banse. She did everything possible for it, but the angularity of its vocal line is perverse, rendering the words incomprehensible unavoidably; and how disconcerting to watch a soloist relying on her tuning fork to maintain pitch! By contrast, Tony Arnold (a she from USA) with Cliff Colnot in charge of his Academy Ensemble, made a palpable hit with Jonathan Harvey's Song Offerings , a performer and listener friendly setting of Tagore. Hers is a name to memorise and I hope we will soon have opportunities to hear those two Americans in London.


The entire 120 players were rehearsed together for seven intensive days by Cliff Colnot in Schönberg (piano concerto), Boulez (Notations), Birtwistle (Earth Dances) and Hanspeter Kyburz's Noësis , before Pierre Boulez took over the last stage of preparation and two of the showcase concerts. At the final rehearsal of Earth Dances only a few details required attention.


I felt that the KKL hall had been waiting for this music to convey its craggy, monumental grandeur to a packed and appreciative audience. Sir Harry, actively involved for weeks as composer in residence, relished the tension that young players, stretched to the edge of their capacities, brought to music which is, he said, 'as hard as it gets'.


[Birtwistle's new Roche commission Night's Black Bird had been premièred there earlier in the festival season by the Cleveland Orchestra and Franz Welser-Most, before going on to Carnegie Hall. But having entrusted it to Welser-Most had a snag which Michael Haefliger shared with the press; the core festival audience, which is relied upon to come to the more traditional symphony concerts, insists on the most famous conductors to pay up to €186 (CHF 270) for their seats - without one of those on the podium, attendance drops towards 60%, which is uneconomic for blancing the festival's books, despite generous sponsorship. Perhaps the second Roche commission would do better entrusted to Lucerne Academy Orchestra, instead of being fitted into a visiting appearance by ' one of the best orchestras in the world '?]


Equally demanding, and a high spot of my week, was the three movement work by Kyburz which followed, the first of his for full orchestra I've heard. His explanation was typically abstruse, but the music not so to my ears, through which I sensed story telling as in a 19 C. tone poem or ballet though certainly none was vouchsafed nor, I suspect, intended. The teeming orchestration, additive and sensuous in its timbre and constant movement brought to mind momentarily the orchestral music of Ravel, even Till & Petrushka fleetingly; listeners who enjoy these will warm to Noësis , which should bring Kyburz's name before a wider public. I await eagerly hearing Noësis in UK and, soon surely, on CD.


In order to take in Ullmann's opera The Kaiser of Atlantis in a specially built lakeside theatre we had to forego Notations and Maurizio Pollini playing the Schönberg concerto. But in honour of Pollini, star soloist of the year, we received a festival special double-CD including the same concerto and Beethoven's 4th (DGG Lucerne festival Edition 476 249-7, with Berlin Philharmonic/Abbado). Abbado is a key figure at Lucerne, having founded the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, which played before we were there, and it was he who suggested inaugurating a Youth Orchestra which became the Academy which was undoubtedly the key success of this year's summer festival.


No problem for Riccardo Muti to completely pack the KKL for the final concert of the festival, a peculiar programme that appeared to have been compiled by a committee. An old-fashioned, null run-through of Haydn's London Symphony with an overlarge La Scala orchestra followed by an over-refined 'expressive' Schubert Unfinished which failed to speak to me, though the audience seemed well satisfied.


After the interval, further enlarged with 9 double basses and 12 1st violins and some wind doubling, they were galvanised, as if they'd actually had to learn Dvorak Op 76 for us. An easy flowing Italianate feel for the abounding melodies and dances, with a good attempt to make Dvorak's 'symphonic' build-ups convincing when he tries to emulate Beethoven's perorations. And finally the perfect encore for Lucerne, back to Italy and opera for the overture to William Tell,

presented back to the Swiss in its actual setting on the bank of Lake Lucerne. The orchestra must have revelled in playing the old war-horse on this ideal platform, emancipated from their pit in Milan, and it roused the Lucerners and their visitors to a standing ovation.


There had been one too for Zubin Mehta on the penultimate night after his dignified, measured account of Bruckner's Eighth, 129 sonorous minutes riveting for an unconverted, non-worshipper of this most serious of serious composers. Balance and blend were superb, the brass (including Wagner tubas) never brash or dominant - a very different Mehta face from the flamboyant, flexible conductor of the Three Tenors and the huge symphony was listened to in complete silence before it won fully deserved acclamation for the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra.


Bruckner's treatment of the orchestra always brings to mind the organ. It is a common occurrence in symphony halls to have a fine organ looking at the audience, silent and reproachful. This is so at the KKL, its marvellous new Klais organ tantalisingly beautiful to behold, but rarely heard (just two shortish recitals in the whole summer festival and one bizarre experimental conjunction of piano with organ in the November Piano Festival).


J-L Florentz is definitely a composer to explore further, and Willi's perfectly executed recital prompted the perhaps all too obvious suggestion that he might be one with whom to discuss the possibility of expanding Lucerne's Academy to incorporate a contemporary organ element? A comparable module of coaching, master-classes and shared recitals at Lucerne's KKL could materially help to bring the King of Instruments, and its expanding repertoire of genuinely new music, out of its organ ghetto and into the concert mainstream (in Amsterdam, two new organ works had sounded curiously out of place all on their own in a large church; in the KKL the effect would have been magnificent and the audience hopefully far larger).


Tobias Willi demonstrated with one pair each of hands and feet that a thousand [?] organ pipes can offer satisfactions which can well bear comparison with those provided by a hundred musicians, so my idea must hold the additional crucial attraction of cost-effectiveness?




Music itself is the focus at Lucerne but in our week we encountered two music theatrical experiences, one unexpectedly. Russian cellist Emil Rovner with Soguro Ito, piano, demonstrated usefully that Schubert's 1816 violin sonatas (published as 'Sonatinas' D 384) go well on the cello; No. 1 was a welcome change from the rather idiosyncratic Arpeggione sonata - itself originally composed for a now obsolete instrument - which is best heard not too often. Next was Miaskowsky's demanding but dull Op 80 sonata; this duo did not persuade us that its revival was worth while, but Rovner brightened us all up with movements from the Nishnij Novgorod composer Evgeny Shcherbakov 's Trio for Two (without piano) in which the debutante cellist revealed that he is also the proud possessor of a mellifluous, resonant true Russian bass voice. Rovner accompanied himself on his cello whilst singing Gebet, a prayer, and then let his hair down for a riotous Tango which reflected the festival's overall theme of Freedom and its Denial . A violinist appeared playing from the back of the hall, coming on stage to complete the Trio of Two ; wild music with Rovner's uninhibited singing reflecting the miseries and tensions of Russia's pre-1918 social upheavals. To end, and send the morning debut recital audience off to lunch in a good mood, some Klezmer dance music. A debut cello recital not to be quickly forgotten!


The main theatrical presentation during Lucerne Festival, and a resounding success, was Viktor Ullmann's The Emperor of Atlantis, given by Lucerne Theatre in conjunction with Lake Lucerne's shipping company in a temporarily converted dry dock in the maritime industrial part of the lakeside, which you pass when walking to Wagner's villa Triebschen, now a fascinating museum not to be missed. Composed in Theresienstadt, the 'cultural' Nazi concentration camp, it never reached performance before Ullmann and his cast were deported to Auschwitz where most of them were murdered. The only survivor was the singer who took the part of 'Death' who, in librettist Peter Kien's reversal of actuality, lamented his powerlessness; no-one was dying in Atlantis.


The manuscript found its way to England and the first production was in Amsterdam, 1975. The one act opera is at one and the same time located everywhere and nowhere specific, referring clearly to Nazi politics but transcending the historical elements bound up with Nazi persecution and ideas of world domination. The Emperor entered from the sea, in one of Dominique Mentha's production's several coups de theatre , isolated 'to rule better' in a protective floating glass cubicle. He could be any paranoid, power-obsessed dictator, anywhere, anytime.


Excellently acted and sung under John Axelrod's sharp musical direction, the presentation did not shy away from the uncomfortable implications of this fable, and it managed to upstage some of the more traditional offerings of the festival under its Freedom and its Denial rubric with an emotionally intense and intellectually reverberating work treating a paradox in which death's work is temporarily in abeyance. When the Emperor has died, normality ensues - Death recovers his power and the world resumes its mindless killings way. This production finishes with Death apparently walking away on the waves, an allusion to Christ walking on the water perhaps? Beyond the action we watched the peaceful scene across the lake, with brightly lit steamers carrying partying passengers on their evening cruises around Lake Lucerne.

© Peter Grahame Woolf