By Rebecca Schmid
LUCERNE – Under the motto “Identity,” the Lucerne Festival this summer inspired new ways of considering both familiar and unconventional repertoire. Composers as different as Monteverdi, Mahler, and Michel van der Aa deal with the question of what it means to be human vis-à-vis social or spiritual values, and it is exactly the job of a leading festival to create unexpected connections between works as it presents them in first-class performances.
However, the densely-packed Erlebnistag (“day to experience” or “special event day”) on Aug. 27 was not entirely representative of the institution’s commitment to both tight dramaturgy and musical quality.
On the one hand, the festival deserves praise for tackling classical music’s role in an increasingly globalized society, where no one’s future – not even in a prosperous neutral country like Switzerland – is certain. “Change and transformation are the attributes of our existence – especially in these times,” writes executive and artistic director Michael Haefliger in his introductory notes. “More than ever more before, the world is in motion, and we should take advantage of this opportunity.” On the other hand, Lucerne has become synonymous with artistic excellence not by confronting geopolitical issues head-on, but by gathering leading orchestras, soloists, and conductors for listening experiences that are blissfully removed from the daily grind.
The day’s opening event, the European premiere of John Luther Adams’ Sila: Breath of the World, brought the young talent of the festival’s orchestra academy into dialogue with the scenic landscape around the festival’s headquarters, the KKL Lucerne. Originally commissioned by Lincoln Center, Washington Performing Arts, the Ojai Festival, Cal Performances, and the La Jolla Symphony, the 2013 work is scored for choirs of winds, brass, strings, voices, and percussion that can perform in any combination, individually or together. The Lucerne performance opted for just strings, brasses, and winds, with an open corridor on the KKL’s plaza through which the audience could walk and experience different combinations of sound. The brasses in particular resonated with the vistas of the mountains overlooking Lake Lucerne.
Music inspired by folk idioms was the theme of a chamber series in the KKL’s top-floor museum. In Enescu’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3, artiste étoile (artist-in-residence) Patricia Kopatchinskaja immediately captured a longing for the homeland in the simple melodies that are echoed by the pianist (Polina Leschenko). In the inner slow movement, the violinist – known for pushing a work’s stylistic boundaries – broke out into a hysterical timbre before winding down to a mere whisper. Kopatchinskaja became even more theatrical in the final Allegro con brio, gazing wide-eyed at the audience during a foot-stamping dance that first took on a sarcastic, then a desperate, quality.
The cellist Jay Campbell – a former academy player who rose through the ranks to become artiste ćtoile this summer – was more than able to hold his own in Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello, op.7, drawing on an enormous range of tone colors to either create sonic counterpoint with, or echo, Kopatchinskaja’s radical timbres. His cello growled with the intensity of an instrument twice its size without grating on the ear in the opening Allegro serioso, then opened the slow movement with a soulful quality that built into crying tones from both players. No matter how intense the drama, Campbell never lost control, bowing smoothly and responding instinctively to Kopatchinskaja’s sometimes explosive changes of mood.
Two current academy members (Diego Tosi and Lena Vidulich) opened a subsequent museum concert with Bartók Violin Duos in which the rhythms were lively but not colorful, although a purist might prefer their technically precise approach. Heinz Holliger’s Partita II for Solo Harp, performed for the first time in its complete version, pushed the technical boundaries of the instrument in innovative ways while maintaining a sense of narrative. In the second movement, “Les Agréments (Hommage à Rameau),” atmospheric trills across the strings gave way to spurts of sound, as if the soloist (Frédérique Cambreling) had been reduced to a stutter. In the following Aria, she bowed the strings with her right hand to create a continuous line over plucked, serial figures, only to stroke the instrument with a tuning tool in “Glisées,” drawing a timbre so winnowing and warped that the harp no longer sounded like a Western instrument.
A program in the main concert hall brought the songs of slaves together with both indigenous and European baroque instruments. Curator and viola da gambist Jordi Savall often watched humbly as performers representing countries such as Mali, Madagascar, Brazil, and Argentina moved across the stage in traditional costume to rhythms so vibrant that it was hard to sit still. The lyrics covered everything from the hangover after drinking wine during a Catholic service (“Fray Filipe da Madre de Deus”) to combing the hair of a female master (“Costa Chica de Guerrero”). Narrations between numbers, often accompanied by oud (a precursor to the lute), drew further attention to the inhumane treatment that African slaves received into the 19th century. But most of all, it was the musical performances themselves that made a statement about the need to respect cultures of all kinds.
An adaptation of Mozart’s Idomeneo interspersed the original score with dialogue that set out to modernize the plot and scenes with real-life migrants. Mezzo-soprano and Refugee Culture founder Cornelia Lanz both sang the role of Idamante and conducted interviews about the journeys which brought her subjects to Europe, while video interludes included a scene in which Idomeneo (Manolito Mario Franz) peeled potatoes in a shelter kitchen. As timely as these tableaus were, they had nothing to do with the grandeur of Mozart’s music. The orchestral ensemble BandArt – led by concertmaster Gordan Nikolić – and the vocal soloists and chorus struggled with the score’s technical demands.
Perhaps it would have made more sense to create a new work in which music, text, and social agenda were at one. Twisting an 18th-century opera into a vehicle for awareness of asylum–seekers’ social rights will neither solve the crisis nor uphold the artistic values of a festival as illustrious as Lucerne.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional reception of Kurt Weill.