Showing posts with label Lucerne Festival. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lucerne Festival. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Women in music: positive action works

I've got a piece in the new edition of Classical Music Magazine, responding to one last month by Alexandra Coghlan.

Here's Alexandra's piece, in which she asserts that women in music are being spotlighted for all the wrong reasons.

Here's mine, pointing out the inconvenient truth that sometimes affirmative action works...

In the late 1980s, my generation emerged from college believing we could have it all. We imagined the battle for ‘Women’s Lib’ had been won and we would be its beneficiaries. We thought that if we tried to put in place conditions for discrimination and prejudice to disappear, they would, by some kind of natural, progressive evolution. Ever since, we’ve been finding out how wrong we were.
That applies throughout society, of course, and classical music is no exception. With Suffragette receiving top billing in the cinemas as I write, it’s clear that there is a preoccupation with these issues in the world around us right now – and with good reason...
Read the whole thing here. (I'm happy to say that even if Alexandra and I may disagree, we're good friends and colleagues and we applaud each other's right to speak up.)
Meanwhile, if you were in any doubt that positive action can effect change, just take a look at the Lucerne Festival. Yes, mighty Lucerne; Lucerne the wealthy and beautiful; historical Lucerne, founded to counter Bayreuth and Salzburg beyond the Third Reich's reach; Lucerne where Wagner wrote Tristan, has announced that in 2016 its theme is "Prima Donna": a focus on women artists. And it is going to feature ELEVEN (11) conductors who are female, at the helm of top orchestras from around the world. 
Emmanuelle Haim, who will conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in Lucerne.
Photo: Simon Fowler, (c) Warner Classics

Marin Alsop will make her Lucerne debut with the São Paolo Symphony Orchestra. Barbara Hannigan is to conduct the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Susanna Mälkki will conduct the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra in the world premiere of a new work by Olga Neuwirth, who is composer in residence. A "day of adventure" [sic] brings in the conductors Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla, Anu Tali, Maria Schneider, and Konstantia Gourzi. And Emmanuelle Haim, the French baroque suprema, is to take the podium for the Vienna Philharmonic, which as we all know isn't exactly renowned for the number of women it admits to its ranks. (Well, renowned for exactly that. Because there are so few.) 
And in case you were in any doubt, there are plenty of men around as well. Riccardo Chailly, recently appointed music director of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, will conduct opening night, which is Mahler's Symphony No.8.
The risk of the "prima donna" focus, of course, can be summarised as "been there, done that, bought the t shirt". It's a super celebration, but what one wants is consistency: equality of opportunity that becomes normal and ultimately unremarkable because it is so accepted. The fact that Lucerne is doing this means that all the activism, the articles, the general "noise" about women in music is having an impact in the places it matters. The long-term effect, though, needs to be different. Lucerne is offering a chance for the movers and shakers of the music world to sample the excellence of great artists who happen to be female. We'd like them then to win enduring opportunities as a result. Things can't just go back to business as usual. 
Bravo, Lucerne, for biting the bullet and sounding the trumpet. And I look forward very much to seeing how Emmanuelle gets along with the Viennas. 

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Magic Mountains 3: a return to Lucerne

After visiting Gstaad (my review of this is over at I took an interesting train journey across the country to check out the latest developments in the mighty Lucerne Festival, which is still the big sibling to every other festival in Switzerland. It has introduced free pre-concert concerts: totally relaxed events, but with no compromise on the music-making. What I love about Lucerne (among many other things) is that although it could easily rest on its laurels, it never does so. 

My report is in today's Independent, but in the Observations section which isn't online. Director's Cut below. 

Lake Lucerne - from a former visit. It rained too hard for photos this time.

Torrential rain is driving down upon Lake Lucerne, but despite the soggy conditions a sizeable queue is forming outside the KKL (the Concert and Convention Centre Lucerne). Music-lovers bearing all shades of macs and umbrellas crowd under the waterside building’s substantial overhang, waiting to be admitted to the Lucerne Festival’s latest innovation: 40 Minutes, essentially a short pre-concert concert. But it’s a performance with a difference. It’s absolutely free.

Michael Haefliger, the festival’s artistic and executive director, intends this brand-new series to offer the public “music without borders”. “We want to attract everyone,” he says, “without any limits.”

It would have been easy for this long-established Swiss festival, founded in 1938, to rest on its plentiful laurels – after all, it is fairly evident, looking around Lucerne, that there is no lack of cash here. Yet Haefliger, surrounded over the years by such vital figures as the composer Pierre Boulez and the late conductor Claudio Abbado, has continually instigated new developments to refresh and renew the artistic programme and its audiences. This is the latest – and it seems to be working. Word has spread fast. Performances are held at 6.20pm in the KKL’s smaller concert space, and when the doors open it is chockablock in a matter of minutes.

The ambience is radically different from the more formal concerts in the main hall. The normal seating is complemented by some bean-bags at the front, which are rapidly snaffled by a few alert children. When the audience comes in the orchestra is already on location, the players wearing mufti and chatting to one another or practising quietly; present, too, are soloist and conductor, again in everyday clothes, ready to perform just one piece.

But there’s no compromise on quality. I am hearing the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, conducted by the 86-year-old grand maestro Bernard Haitink, with violinist Isabelle Faust the soloist in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.5. This is as world-class as anything in the entire festival. First, the music journalist Malte Lohmann, acting as host, interviews Faust and Haitink for the audience, discussing with the former the agonies and ecstasies of playing Mozart and with the latter his special relationship with this orchestra.  

Perhaps the key to the success of 40 Minutes is that the atmosphere is informal, the tone relaxed, but the artistry incomparable. There’s talk, but no talking down. 

Monitoring may be needed to see whether 40 Minutes helps to recruit new audiences for the big concerts too, but the demand is obvious, and with no excuse not to come in and give it a whirl, it’s hard to imagine why anyone wouldn’t. Lucerne doesn’t need to give away concerts for free – but it has the luxury of being able to do so, and one hopes that the effort will pay dividends in the long term, encouraging first-timers with nothing to lose. Other venues could do worse than follow suit.

The Lucerne Festival continues until 13 September.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Groundbreaking projects from UK and Switzerland win Classical:NEXT Innovation Award

Great, great news from Classical:NEXT! Southbank Centre's year-long festival of 20th-century music and culture, The Rest is Noise, has won the Innovation Award, together with the Lucerne Festival's Ark Nova, a mobile, inflatable concert hall that toured Japan's earthquake-blighted regions in 2013. More good news is that the first runner-up is the Morley College course for young women conductors. Cheers, all! Wish I was still there to help celebrate!

Around 2000 participants from the three previous Classical:NEXT trade fairs voted for two winners from a list of 21 projects all around the world. It's a list of remarkable scope and continual inspiration, from a street orchestra in Brazil to Alistair Campell - no, not that Alistair Campbell, but the co-director of the Tectonics Festival in Glasgow.

Classical:NEXT’s director Jennifer Dautermann says: “This award aims to give international recognition to the people who are doing the most to push things forward with daring yet intelligent, effective and successful ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking, planning and action.”

You can see a collection of video interviews by at Classical:NEXT here - including one with me, doing my bit for gender politics.

Chances are that if you're a regular here at JDCMB you already know all about The Rest is Noise festival, so here is a video introduction to Ark Nova.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Green light for Lucerne opera house

One of the stranger ongoing legal cases of the music world was resolved last Thursday - and seems set to clear the way for a new opera house in the bijou Swiss town of Lucerne, the site of one of Europe's finest concert halls and a renowned festival.

A flexible-space opera house was planned for the city years ago - an idea spearheaded by Pierre Boulez, no less - and one of the festival's major donors, Christof Engelhorn, pledged more than $100m to back its creation, but died before the donation could be made from his family's trust in Bermuda (the fortune was made in the pharmaceutical industry). The festival sued for the money, in Bermuda - and now it has won. Here's a little more background on the case. There's a long way to go still, of course, and the Salle Modulable's next hurdle will be a feasibility study. But it's a valuable green light and the space will be watched with interest.

Not that one needs an excuse to visit Lucerne, of course (pictured); ever since 1938, when the festival launched as an antidote to the hideous developments in Nazi-era Bayreuth and Salzburg, it has been a flourishing hub of first-class musical activity. The first concerts were held on the lawn outside Tribschen, the former home of Richard Wagner.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Victory looms for nascent Lucerne opera house

If you're in the know about the Lucerne Festival, you may have heard that its director Michael Haefliger's plans to build a new opera house, the Salle Modulable, for the Swiss lakeside town looked set to turn into fairy dust upon the withdrawal of necessary funds. This has been challenged in court and the opera house has won. We hope that in due course opera amid the mountains will become as vital a highlight of the European musical calendar as Lucerne's existing festivals are today.

Salle Modulable Foundation wins its case: withdrawal of funds was unlawful

Lucerne/Hamilton, 21 February 2014 The judge of the competent court in Bermuda has ruled that the withdrawal of funding for the Salle Modulable in Lucerne took place unlawfully and that Butterfield Trust (Bermuda) Limited must fulfil its obligations.

The Salle Modulable Foundation has won its case before the Supreme Court of Bermuda: the withdrawal of funding for the Salle Modulable by Butterfield Trust (Bermuda) Ltd. (Butterfield) in October 2010 has been ruled unlawful. The presiding judge has found that a contract of donation governed by Swiss law was entered into in the summer of 2007 and that Butterfield must meet its obligations arising from it. If the Salle Modulable Foundation submits a feasibility study, adapted to the new circumstances, for a venue with flexible arrangements for experimental music theatre in the City of Lucerne, Butterfield is bound to honour the promise of finance it originally made in the amount of up to CHF 120 million. The feasibility study will be updated and adapted as part of the New Theatre Infrastructure Lucerne (NTI) Project.
Butterfield’s counter-claim was rejected in its entirety. The judge has not yet made any final pronouncement on other questions. This will entail a further hearing. The judgment may yet be referred to the Bermuda Appeal Court.

Hubert Achermann, Chairman of the Salle Modulable Foundation, says: “Naturally we are very pleased with the outcome and believe that justice has been done. Our expense and effort have paid off, and I thank everyone who has supported us in these lengthy proceedings. Still, we remain far from our objective. First, we expect the opposing party to accept this judgment and desist from further time-consuming and costly legal proceedings. Then we have to produce an updated and authoritative feasibility study, in co-operation with the Canton and City. For this purpose, we can build on the work done so far. We have a fine opportunity to create something unique for Lucerne, as the City of Culture and Festivals, and for its institutions, not least in memory of the great patron, Christof Engelhorn.“ 

Monday, September 02, 2013

Nice work

Been here, reviewing.

As locations for music festivals go, it really ain't bad. This is Lake Lucerne, snapped from the shore at the bottom of Wagner's lawn at Tribschen. I spent a happy afternoon there, working on the revision of my new play Sins of the Fathers, which is, at Tribschen. Pure coincidence, but nice. (The premiere, 24 November, is selling fast...)

I was really there to attend two concerts in the Lucerne Festival, one conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, the other by Jonathan Nott. Somewhat amused to see the heading "Viva la revolucion!" on the programmes. In Spanish. One concert was of Viennese and Russian music, the other was Wagner's Das Rheingold (part of Lucerne's first-ever Ring cycle). Few festivals have a less revolutionary atmosphere - the glorious lakeside and the wonderful acoustic of the KKL are populated by the sleek and meek of the moneyed festival circuit - but nevertheless, the programming is absolutely sterling and below the gleaming surface the waters are deep and fertile, especially where the Festival Academy is concerned. My review is out now in the Independent, here:

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Win a weekend at the Lucerne Festival!

The Lucerne Festival may have started life on what used to be Wagner's lawn, but it hasn't let the grass grow under its feet... Read my guide to this idyllic summer escape and enter the competition to win a dream weekend, over at

Monday, September 03, 2012


My interview with the man many consider today's greatest living composer was out in The Independent on Saturday. Read it here:

I found the Maestro on excellent form, despite the eye operation. He may be 87, but the fire of his spirit burns as strong as ever. And I'm not sure I have ever met anyone else who is so searingly intelligent, creative and wise, all at the same time. I'll be doing a longer feature in a few months' time, for International Piano Magazine, which will also involve Pierre-Laurent Aimard, but for now, I'm putting below the "director's cut" of the Indy piece, which includes a few choice out-takes: the bit about Waiting for Godot might intrigue, and, of course, I love Boulez's attitude that you can't just see something is wrong and do nothing about it.

You can see the New York Philharmonic concert in the Armory on Medici TV until 2 October, here. (Remember, JDCMB readers get discounts on Medici subscription.)


If Pierre Boulez is this energetic aged 87, imagine him at 30. Arriving at the Lucerne Festival, the composer, maestro and man of musical action is recovering from an eye operation; it obliged him to cancel his visit to the Proms, where the conductor Daniel Barenboim juxtaposed his works with the complete Beethoven symphonies. But he will not be kept back. “It forces me to stay quiet for an hour to let the eye rest,” he remarks. “But it is very difficult to stay quiet.”

Boulez remains the heart, spine and soul of musical modernism. Many consider him today’s greatest living composer. His music is demanding listening, but once you open your ears to it, it can reveal entire vistas of sonic imagination and spectral beauty. And he affirms that he would like listeners to find it beautiful. “Sometimes it’s difficult to go to this kind of beauty, which is different from other beauties,” he says, “but I want the music to bring you into a sphere where you don’t go generally.”

He is a figure wreathed in myth. Some suggest he is a “musical Stalinist” (a term used by the composer Pierre Schaeffer); others, notably his performers, praise him as the nicest person they know. 

What’s certain is that he challenges everything, in music and in life, analysing issues with visionary exactitude. Besides, he is not a talker, but a do-er. “We don’t come to the world just to look at it and accept it,” he declares. In the 1950s he became notorious for the ferocity with which he called for the past to be swept away, seeking a blank slate for musical language to break with the preceding disasters of history. 

“The ‘tabula rasa’ was something of my generation,” Boulez says. “Works like Stockhausen’s could not exist in the years 1933-45: this part of musical life was banned completely in Germany. It was the same in the USSR under Stalin. Therefore I could not adopt the Communist point of view, because we have seen that already and we know what it produces. 

“It was not tabula rasa for pleasure. It was necessity, because this generation had, for us, failed to find something important. We did not want to prolong this kind of failure. We were radical in the sense that we at least tried to establish a new way of thinking. We did not succeed all the time, either – but it was important for us to begin from scratch.”

He was, moreover, a very angry young man kicking against the ultra-conservative musical establishment in his native France, where the music that galvanised him – Berg, Schoenberg, Bartók – remained unknown. Proving the point, it was down to Boulez himself to conduct the French stage premiere of Berg’s operatic masterpiece, Wozzeck, as late as 1963. He rejected France entirely until the prime minister Georges Pompidou used the promise of state funding for a new research institute for electronic music, IRCAM, to tempt him back from Germany, where a new internationalism in music was flourishing at Darmstadt. 

Boulez’s early pronouncements – burn down opera houses, kill the Mona Lisa, and so on – have clung to his image, perhaps excessively. Not that he has truly mellowed. “I was not more radical than I am now,” he says, “but I was, I suppose, more frank. Now I see that sometimes you have to be less direct – and more effective. But when things are wrong, insufficient, or not exactly the way it should be, then you have to tell it. I did tell it, sometimes with paradox or provocation. I did not stay at this point, but people think generally of me as a man of 1950, not of today – and I have to accept that.” His attitude is much as ever: “Something unpleasant exists: simply that. And you cannot just stay in front of it without doing anything.”

Among Boulez’s more prophetic demands was an upheaval in traditional concert environments and formats. Four or five decades ago, the world was not ready to listen. Today, though, the increasing popularity of ‘classical club nights’ – spearheaded by, for example, Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei) in London, Le Poisson Rouge in New York, and a series at the Lucerne Festival – echoes Boulez’s call for informal, communicative atmospheres between audience and performers. Still, he smiles when I mention a recent performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in a south London car park. 

“It has a double meaning,” he suggests. “It can be important, or it can be just a fashion moment. But I prefer a ‘fashion moment’ to doing nothing. Recently the New York Philharmonic has done, with concerts in the Armory, what I tried to do as its music director in the Seventies. I was not successful because the time was not right.” 

In June the orchestra gave a performance in this unconventional venue on Park Avenue, including music by Boulez himself. It sold out and is streamed on the Internet until 2 October. He keeps dreaming: “Today people like to change the relationship between the sound and themselves. You could bring in improvised elements involving people’s reactions to the sound, like a fountain of music: sometimes good, sometimes not, but always with the freedom of creating.”

He is still composing, too. Currently he is trying to finish his Notations – 12 pieces for piano, some dating back to 1945, which he has been reworking for orchestra. Rumour has it that he would like to write an opera. It’s true, he says, but his plans were always beset by bad luck: intended collaborations with Jean Genet and Heiner Müller were each cut short by the author’s death. He would love to adapt Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: “The great novelty of Wagner,” says Boulez, “is that of creating a myth – the myth of Wotan, the myth of Siegmund – and finally the story becomes less important than the myth itself.” Wotan in The Ring is very real in dramatic terms, but in the Beckett, the myth is Godot, who never appears: “You find yourself questioning the myth, but you cannot discuss its qualities because there is nothing there! Therefore I was interested.” 

Can we keep hoping he will tackle it – or would we be Waiting for Boulez? “If you can give me an elixir of long life,” Boulez twinkles. Still, I wouldn’t put it past him. This is a man who changed the world. Given a chance, he will not stop now. 

Pierre Boulez gives a week of masterclasses at the Lucerne Festival from 1 September and conducts the Academy Orchestra on 7 September.


Monday, March 26, 2012

How to conduct Boulez

Happy 87th Birthday, Pierre Boulez! Above, at the Lucerne Festival, the great composer-conductor helps budding maestros get to grips with his Eclat.

Unfortunately Boulez has had to withdraw from his planned appearances in London on 29 April and 8 May with the LSO - apparently he has an eye condition. Peter Eötvös will step into the breach. We wish Monsieur Boulez the speediest possible recovery.