LUCERNE — Diversity has become a buzz word in the classical music industry while also mobilizing decision-makers to become more inclusive. The Lucerne Festival in Switzerland made the topic its slogan for this year (Aug. 8-Sept. 11) in what is the first full-range program since before the pandemic hit.
Recent editions tackled “Identity” and “Prima Donna,” which in 2016 gave the pedestal to female conductors. This summer’s agenda, with its emphasis on “people of color” (importing the English phrase), promised to be as thought-provoking as it is problematic.
The mood was festive Aug. 12 as the crowd filed into the festival’s main venue, the KKL, on the always stunning Lake Lucerne. During his opening speech in the main hall, the festival’s artistic and executive director, Michael Haefliger, pointed to the paradox of “wearing black and white” [tuxedos] while taking on the theme of “Diversity” but explained that he was convinced of the necessity. The events, he said, should open more questions than provide concrete answers.
The keynote speech went to Chi-Chi Nwanoku, founder of the Chineke! Foundation, a British organization that promotes young black players and other underrepresented minorities (it is comparable to the Sphinx Foundation in the U.S.). The double-bassist of Nigerian-Irish heritage emphasized that creating opportunities has only “enhanced what the industry previously had to offer” and the importance of challenging “the status quo.”
That the politics of diversity in the English-speaking world may not translate to a small, neutral country such as Switzerland emerged in the following speech by the President, Ignazio Cassis. He drew attention to the cultural variety of the nation (which has four official languages), comparing the interaction between its different regions to the harmony in classical music.
The ensuing program with the festival orchestra under its music director, Riccardo Chailly, juxtaposed works by three composers of different centuries and cultural backgrounds, but not to terribly inspiring results. The 70-year-old Wolfgang Rihm, director of the festival’s academy for contemporary music, had been commissioned to write a new work which was never realized. Instead, his Verwandlung 4 — the last in a series of orchestral works on the topic of “transformation” — received its Swiss premiere.
The 2008 work deploys primarily ricocheting textures and explosive attacks that coalesce into a structure of its own will. While the players performed with high energy and engagement, it seemed a pity that the score did not take advantage of the orchestra’s rich string culture. Nonetheless, Chailly led a performance of great precision, with first-class wind solos in the music’s more lyrical moments.
It was in Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony that the orchestra’s collaboration with Chailly first came fully to fruition. The opening movement brought forth burnished, arching lines, impeccably nuanced dynamics but also an appropriate weight. The inner Allegro molto unfolded with incisive phrases as the music sobbed and sighed (the composer wrote the work in self-imposed exile, having fled Russia for Dresden, Germany, in 1906).
The slow movement vividly captured a mix of passion and suffering, building with almost cinematic suspense to the reprise of the opening theme. The final Allegro vivace maintained admirable freshness and focus. Bombastic moments were kept perfectly in balance as the players communicated effortlessly with Chailly.
Less fully ripened was the Violin Concerto in A major by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, in its Swiss premiere. The 18th-century composer of French-Caribbean descent wrote in an essentially Mozartian idiom while producing original works as he pushed melodic possibilities to create at times heart-wrenching moments. Technical challenges for the soloist also abound.
The violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter — playing by memory and chic as ever in a hot-pink dress — produced a beautifully warm middle range while often struggling with intonation in stratospheric tones. The orchestra also did not consistently capture the music’s sensuousness in the opening movement.
The inner Largo was more convincing, and Mutter mastered the virtuosic runs of the final Rondeau. Weak moments aside, it was an exciting move to program the work, which deserves to be heard more often. Bologne has recently gained recognition in the French-speaking world but has yet to make serious inroads elsewhere.
Lucerne is as much a destination for experimental works as it is for standard repertoire in first-class performances. An afternoon concert on Aug. 14 featured two new works written for the JACK Quartet, which consists of alumni from the festival academy.
String Creatures, by the Chinese-Australian composer Liza Lim, sets out to explore the organic nature of strings in a range of contexts — with exciting results in terms of both timbre and form. The approximately 26-minute work will also travel to Columbia University’s Miller Theater and the Melbourne Recital Centre.
Scraping, squealing, and rasping textures may not be new for Lim’s music but are pushed to new expressive possibilities. The G-string of the first violin (Christopher Otto) is replaced with a low-octave string, producing unworldly tones. In the first movement, “Cat’s Cradle (three diagrams of grief),” the instruments evoked the friction of metal gears.
Ethereal sonorities reminiscent of birdsong also emerge, in connection with the image of a nest that is woven from the “inside out” in the third movement. Lim constantly plays with expectations as the instruments enter creative forms of dialogue, for example having the cello (Jay Campbell) play in the high range, only to sneak up under the rest of the quartet. The work has a dramatic climax as the instrumentalists sweep their bows with wide, at times circular gestures, eventually involving their entire bodies to evoke a film in slow motion.
Following Lim’s work was For Grachan Moncur III by Tyshawn Sorey, an “artiste étoile” (or resident artist) at this year’s festival. Grachan Moncur III was a jazz trombonist who died in June. The piece is written for string quartet alone with the option of including Sorey on percussion in what he considers not improvisation but “spontaneous composition.” As heard at the premiere, he contributed subtle effects to repeated chord patterns that recall the meditative works of Morton Feldman, playing mostly vibraphone but also bells, cymbal, and bass drum.
The work creates a somber, atmospheric space that achieves its purpose of allowing the listener to reflect — on the passing of time, the processing of grief, or turmoil in the world around us. But well before the approximately 45-minute work comes to an end, the listener has understood the gist. Sorey’s chromatic harmonies, which never rise above pianissimo, are at once brooding and inviting. Perhaps the same economy of style could be extended to the length of the piece.
That morning, András Schiff gave a recital in memory of conductor Bernard Haitink, a regular presence at the Lucerne Festival who died in 2021. The program of music by J.S. Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert was accompanied by personal anecdotes that created an intimate setting for the pianist’s sensitive performances.
“For me, every day has to begin with Bach,” Schiff said as he opened the concert, emphasizing the importance of being in service of the great composers and not “wasting time” on those who are “second-rate.” Only time will tell which of today’s creators enter the pantheon of immortals. But never before in history has such a wide range of cultural influences shaped Western classical music. Perhaps acknowledging these many complex strains would be more interesting than subsuming the full festival program under the somewhat wearied topic of “diversity.”