Festivals as living spaces


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Should one analyse or formulate a contemporary festival concept, then Lucerne has an impressive prototypic festival life against a backdrop of several classical music festivals held in Switzerland such as Verbier Festival, Gstaad Menuhin Festival, Martha Argerich Project, Lugano, or the one in Montreux. The cliché happens to be true: Lucerne is exemplary when it comes to a festival city, to a strategy, management, initiatives and audiences. Strikingly, a city equal in size to such Bulgarian towns as Pernik or Haskovo, is not steeped in prejudice about provincialism, but rather develops a powerful concept of its own uniqueness. It is not just the attractive surroundings of the place that bring about it: the Alpine scenery; the world’s steepest cogwheel railway; the eponymous lake; the pristine natural environment, the medieval covered wooden footbridge; the Swiss Museum of Transport; Richard Wagner’s villa in Tribschen, where the composer spent 6 years. In fact, the festival as a themed, selected and concerted periodicity opts for the world’s premium quality. No ersatz is admitted to Lucerne.

Any music festival is a subject matter of a comprehensive commentary on an integrated cultural and civilizational concept, interpreted as investment in dynamic innovative thinking; high new art, upbringing and education, creating an wide-ranging social dialogue, deriving high social benefits. Such an event strives to achieve an all-embracing shared experience, personal development, a higher quality of life, a far-reaching urban effect and an urban environment adequately taken in, as Jan Gehl, for instance, would have evaluated it. Under the impressions gained at the festival and the burden of other festival traditions we are going to highlight here several significant aspects of the festival.

The festival spirit in Lucerne is a concept of everyday life. The Summer Festival is just one of the multi-stage events: Lucerne Festival at Easter, Lucerne Festival in Summer, Lucerne Piano Festival, that at Christmas, carnivals, various popular music festivals. The Blue Balls is one of Switzerland’s largest music and art events held in the second decade of August on the eve of the Summer Festival, accompanied by photography, street art, video, film and talks, where Blue stands for the blues, jazz, melancholy and sadness, while Balls evokes ballrooms, parties and celebrations. In combination, they make up the name of the renowned and wonderfully innovative music and art festival around the Lake Lucerne. This flurry produces a ‘lively, safe, sustainable, and healthy (city)’ as architect and urban designer Jan Gehl has put it in regard to the quality of the human living environment and incessant urban renewal and urban city planning concept in his Cities for People (Геел, Я. Градове за хората. С., 2016, p. 36):

Traditionally, the Lucerne Festival in Summer is held between mid-August and mid-September, consolidating the city life and permeating even church services through the new music, introducing themes and themed platforms such as ‘soul’, ‘faith’, ‘Eros’, ‘sin’, bringing up secular and spiritual topics for discussion; attaining long-term goals in quest of forward and even more avant-garde thinking. This year’s edition themed PrimaDonna was interpreted not only in terms of staging, but also taking a much broader perspective: from Eve, the first woman to Mary, the mother of Jesus, to all possible clichés such as ‘Ladies first’ or ‘first ladies’, i.e. the ‘prima donnas’ and divas, bringing female artists into the spotlight, to the women in the traditionally male-dominated fields. That was why mostly women took up the baton and stepped on to the conductor’s podium and the programme featured pieces by female composers.

Importantly, contemporary music at the Lucerne festivals is far from being isolated in an aquarium for connoisseurs and devotees, propagating the myth of its complicatedness and vagueness. The festival’s role as an exclusive promoter of contemporary music underlies the festival’s concept and for this reason masterclasses in composition are conducted, composer-in-residence are invited and commissioned to write a piece or two under the express condition these to be very innovative; all ensembles include in their programmes twentieth- and twenty-first-century music and contemporary liturgical auteur music permeating even church services. Eve and Mary: Prima Donnas of the Bible was the topic of the ecumenical worship service at Matthäuskirche, sounded by works of the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries from Ave Maria (2014), Еva Ave (2016) by German composer of Greek extraction Konstantia Gourzi (b. 1962) to Litanies à la Vierge Noire by Francis Poulenc to Maria Mater Gratiae by Gabriel Fauré and other pieces on the theme.

New art projects are launched seeking to familiarise the youngest through performances in specially adapted halls. The festival is committed to the cause of new and premiered music. Composers-in-residence of the Festival were: Unsuk Chin, Matthias Pintscher, Helmut Lachenmann, György Kurtag, Tōru Takemitsu, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh., Chaya Czernowin, Johannes Maria Staud, Toshio Hosokawa, George Benjamin, Hanspeter Kyburz, Chen Yi, Sir Harrison Birtwistle. This year’s composer-in residence was Austrian Olga Neuwirth; Peter Eötvös has been invited for the period 2016–2017.

Festivals as investment

According to information provided by the organisers, the Festival’s budget totals CHF24m; of them, the City and Canton of Lucerne direct subsidy amounts to less than 5%, and the rest comes from private funds. It is the KKL Luzern (Culture and Convention Centre Lucerne) costing about CHF200m to build and inaugurated in 2000 that provides an excellent venue for the festival. ‘KKL Luzern is vital to Lucerne, here events are held on a regular basis, Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova, an exclusive participant in a panel of guests discussing the topic PrimaDona or Diva, said.

Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel (designer also of Torre Agbar, Barcelona; Fondation Cartier, Paris; the Copenhagen Concert Hall; Le Nouvel Opéra, Lyon; Galeries Lafayette, Berlin among many other facilities) and American acoustician Russell Johnson, the Concert Hall fulfils the highest acoustical requirements with its acoustical canopy over the stage. The edifice boasts a remarkable spatial solutions creating an impression of interpenetration of land and water: the hall seems to jut out into the lake, while the water flowing underneath the lobby is like a tide surging from outside.



Apparently, the organisers are toying with much more avant-garde and bold ideas. During the festival, an uninterrupted multimedia representation of a new city project was made, that of a New Theatre Lucerne or Salle Modulable. This musical theatre is planned to be constructed next to the KKL Luzern and the Salle Modulable Foundation was established to raise funds for its construction, expected to commence after 2021. Technically, this state-of-the-art facility is designed to have two groups of seats moved to an underfloor niche so that to open up more space for the stage, intended both for traditional and groundbreaking performances. The organisers unyieldingly stick to their announced goals to ‘create the possibility for emotionally resonant exchanges to occur between art, artists, and the audience. Art can trigger feelings, it can revolve around social issues, stimulate discussions, and provoke or even simply entertain and inspire. Art is the mirror of an open-minded society that tirelessly interrogate its values and ideals.’ Consolidating their funds and efforts, the Swiss prove to be a nation with innovative thinking, investing in cultural assets to leave to posterity, planning reasonably and having clear goals for the future in mind, calculating risks and advantages, highly appreciating talents. The organisers state their mission corresponding to the realisation as follows: ‘We are an international music festival that is based on artistic ideals. Art is our love and our passion, and music is the focus of what we do. Our goal is to offer artists an optimal platform for their creative work and activities. /…/ We make fascinating cross-connections between tradition and innovation and champion young musicians and the music of our time while at the same time safeguarding artistic and financial independence. /…/ Famous orchestras, legendary conductors, and virtuoso soloists join together three times a year on the idyllic location of the Lake Lucerne to celebrate the joy of music. In the concert hall designed by Jean Nouvel, which is renowned for its phenomenal acoustics and its exquisite architecture alike, they encounter an audience that is no less international and sophisticated’.

An art venue

Lucerne is a historical place of music. Reviewer Tom Service reminds that in the final year of his life, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy found solace here following his sister’s death, and made a watercolour of Lucerne in 1847. Almost two decades later, Wagner lived here for a few years between 1866 and 1872, in a villa in Tribschen on the right-hand bank of the lake in the foothills of the Alps. Here he completed Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg; composed the Siegfried-Idyll; here the original score of The Ring cycle, a present for his wife Cosima’s 33rd birthday, is now kept; here again he published his essay Das Judentum in der Musik under his own rather than under an assumed name; his second daughter was born here and he married Cosima in 1870. In the villa, turned into a museum of Wagner, his original precious Erard grand piano from Paris is on display.


Photo: Private archive

Speaking of history, the villa in Tribschen witnessed the birth of today’s Lucerne Festival: on 25 August 1938, Arturo Toscanini conducted an elite orchestra, specially assembled for the occasion and believed to have played a seminal role in the inception of the festival. Its later successor, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra made its public debut in August 2003 under Claudio Abbado’s baton to become the major performer in the main initiatives. In 2016, it was Riccardo Chailly, who took on the position of Music Director; earlier he was assistant to Claudio Abbado at La Scala; principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra; principal conductor of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw until 2004 and then, of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and since 2015 he has been at the helm of La Scala, Milan.


The same year, 2003 was vital to the role of contemporary music as well: Pierre Boulez founded the Lucerne Festival Academy. ‘This is something I have always wanted to do’, Boulez told Michael Haefliger, the festival’s executive and artistic director, when the latter came up with the idea of founding the Lucerne Festival Academy in 2000. Since it has been founded in 2003 until 2015, the Academy has received over 1,000 young composers who had the chance to be coached, advised and influenced by Boulez. Michael Haefliger believes that Pierre Boulez was the ultimate universal musician, going further to say that the Lucerne Festival was grateful to Pierre Boulez for countless hours of musical bliss and for his tireless commitment, which will live on. ‘And if we can turn to the words of the poet and his friend, René Char, whom he so revered, Pierre Boulez has left behind him many dreams and much that remains unsaid about the future. Dreams that it is necessary to continue dreaming and making a reality: Un poète doit laisser des traces de son passage, non des preuves. Seules les traces font rêver.’ This year’s edition, held after his demise in the early 2016 said a farewell to Pierre Boulez. Starting from the summer 2016, German composer Wolfgang Rihm assumed the overall artistic directorship of the Lucerne Festival Academy.


Following an animated discussion of the Festival’s theme about the onstage, professional, political and everyday life of divas and prima donnas, Vesselina Kasarova gave her résumé: ‘What does ‘prima donna’ mean to me? A person, who has been onstage for years now, as an artist blessed with individuality, charisma, an individual voice, intelligence, aesthetics, having a way with people, having probably all it takes to be classed as a prima donna; still, I have never been and do not want to be a prima donna, because conventionally speaking, it is mostly sopranos who are prima donnas, while I am a mezzo-soprano. Unfortunately, there are artists, who have all the above makings, but are the so-called divas, i.e. difficult to communicate with both as singers and people. Still, we live in a time of prima donnas. With all these differentiations, it is one’s personality that matters.

Presently though, it is the director, who is of great importance as part of the opera houses worldwide. I believe that nowadays the director is much more significant than singers. It is the director, or the crew who decides on what the staging should be, on the costumes, the stage aesthetics, etc. It is the director, who creates the present image of an opera house, while the so-called prima donnas are far from what they used to be three or four decades ago in terms of their significance. At the time, singers would travel with their costumes and regardless of the stage either in Munich or in London or in Paris, they’d ask where the perfect acoustics were to stand there and sing. That was the time of the great prima donnas and of those, who have invented that myth. Should a prima donna be defined, it was in all probability Maria Callas, who in my opinion sparked a revolution in operatic art both as a singer and an actress. She was a dramatic actress, who sang, who was able to express herself and make a difference. To me, the highest achievement of a singer is the ability to move the others. I have worked with the greatest directors of the 1990s. I would have not made it to the top without them. It depends on circumstances if a singer could be styled a prima donna. An artist is an outcome of his or her development: he or she has to find the proper environment regardless of his/her makings, or else he or she would never achieve what she or he was born to do’.

As for the discussion panels within the Lucerne Festival, the organisers once again broke with conventions: functionally, the discussions calling Let’s Talk About Music!, came in fact to replace the traditional theoretical conferences, offering different formats in partnership with the Catholic Church of the City of Lucerne, i.e. a series of lectures were given on PrimaDonnas of Theology, Maria. PrimaDonna of Church Music or Gustav Mahler’s Image of Women and the Eighth. Other forms of discussion were focused on female composers (using specifically the music by Olga Neuwirth) or female conductors in the context of traditionally male-dominated professional areas.

To be continued…

Festivals as living spaces

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