Where does one begin to describe something as rich as the Verbier Music Festival? Two weeks of classical music experiences in mid-July that will enchant you in their variety and excellence. This is a smorgasbord of the world’s top talents – from young, rising students to the cream of renowned virtuosos such as pianist Evgeny Kissin, conductor Sir Simon Rattle or soprano Ying Fang.
This idyllic mountain venue two hours drive from Geneva gives artists breathing space to show their best sides in settings such as the immense Salle des Combins, the distinctive church going up from the town, or in small Masterclasses all over the village that nurture the artists of the future.
I was up there for only four days at a friend’s chalet and tried to get in as much as I could, so let me start selfishly with my very favorite – the young Japanese Mao Fujita who I saw for the first time this past week playing Beethoven’s 2nd piano concerto with the grand festival orchestra conducted by the Verbier regular, Gabor Takacs-Nagy. This diminutive, adorable-looking 23-year old, who has already picked up many prestigious prizes and has been part of the festival’s student Academy, plays the piano with an assurance, sensitivity and maturity that could match any of the established greats.
Fujita exudes such joy, an almost trance-like ease yet fervour, with an angelic smile on his face, that he is simply one with the music. His small hands look loose and elastic, gliding like gentle, friendly spiders along the keys, as though he had written the notes. Or as though he was the composer and the piano itself, enthralled with every lilt of the melody.
Two days later he played Ravel and Arenski at the church in a trio with violinist Marc Bouchkov and cellist Zlatomir Fung. It was once again a sublime, energizing moment, with multiple encores. This is an artist to watch and follow.
But then the festival has more than just one brilliant new find, so let me not get carried away…
There was an exceptional, late-evening performance of an adapted play called “Address Unknown” about a tragic relationship in the 1930s between two partners in an art gallery. One was Max, a Jew living in the U.S., the other was Martin, a gentile who had moved back to Germany. Their letters to each other describe the crumbling of their friendship due to their diverging views of the new “Führer” of Germany, the fate of Max’s sister in Berlin, and a subsequent revenge.
The surprising element of the evening was that Max was performed by the Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin, and Martin was played by the American baritone Thomas Hampson. Multi-talented, these artists!
And then there were the morning and afternoon Masterclasses on all sorts of instruments, groups and voices. Those are popular as they are free and especially welcome as concert tickets are quite steep in price, and one gets to experience the art of music instruction. These are the lucky young artists from around the world who have been chosen to be part of the Verbier Academy, which has as its goal the introduction of future talents. They are also presented in various Spotlight Concerts throughout the festival, again for free.
As an example, one delightful Masterclass was on Song, held on Monday morning at the Cinema in the middle of town. The British actor and Masterclass leader James Garnon, from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, had a whale of a time tuning his singers like the instruments they were.
They all started off with fine voices, but he lifted and further moulded their performances through various ingenious methods. To one girl, he suggested she sing directly to each member of the audience and make them feel the word ‘amor’ which she was singing. To another, he asked her to analyse why she had chosen the song, and then told her to turn the hall that was in red velvet into a blue room, in her head. Through these various tricks, he both loosened their anxieties and bolstered their visions and egos. And with each observation, he often kicked up a leg for emphasis. He was both impressive and fun.
Another Masterclass on violas had the friendly German teacher joining in the group of the five viola players. That brought out interesting views from one of the more self-assured students who had definite ideas on how their Brahms piece should develop. That’s the beauty of these events – they reflect so many varied talents and perspectives.
There’s also a new side section called UNLTD which takes a more spontaneous view of music, including jazz, cabaret, interviews and even meditation, often free of charge. You can pick up their colorful brochure around town and partake of even more events, if you can find the time.
As for food and drink, there are many top hotels such as the W or the Chalet d’Adrien, but most people hang out at the different cafés on the central roundabout in town, to see and be seen. My personal favorite place for coffee and the bestest apricot tart anywhere is just above there at the Milk Bar. The coziest and friendliest place for late-night food, drink and artisanal ice cream is at La Nonna, also on the roundabout. There’s a spacious, trendy terrace in the back – you won’t be disappointed.
The point of this whole endeavour is to get you up to Verbier while there’s still time, with so many excellent performances and events left until July 31st, when it ends for this year. And on your way home, don’t miss the Cartier-Bresson photographs at the Fondation Gianadda in Martigny.
Jump in the car and go – for a day or for a week. But check their offerings and schedules online before you go. It’ll be worth it, especially if you have a friend with a chalet up there.
Neptune Ravar Ingwersen reviews film extensively for publications in Switzerland.