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.