The Verbier Festival is a classical music festival which encourages encounters and sharing between great musicians and young aspiring artists from around the world. With its different orchestral programmes, the Festival strives towards excellence in music education. The audience is invited to live a special experience at the heart of the Swiss Alps by attending prestigious concerts, witnessing unique encounters and participating in a wide range of free activities.
A Chronicle of success
In the early nineties, after twelve years working as an artists’ agent, Martin T:son Engstroem had an ambitious idea-to create a summer festival in the heart of the Swiss Alps, far from the major cities where most festivals take place. Verbier had the intimate atmosphere he felt was necessary to encourage musical excellence, and at the same time be open to the world. He imagined a festival with a resident youth orchestra and an academy where renowned artists would teach the next generation and audiences would have a wide choice of activities from early morning until late at night. In 1994, his vision became a reality.
With help from his friend Avi Shoshani, Secretary General of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the first season’s line-up was spectacular. Evgeny Kissin gave his first piano recital, and violinist Maxim Vengerov ended his concert with the audience gathered around him on stage – a magical moment of pure intimacy. Dmitry Sitkovetsky, Mischa Maisky, Gidon Kremer, Yefim Bronfam, Yuri Bashmet, Natalia Gutman, Isaac Stern and Frans Helmerson were also present, and the Festival’s musical family began to take shape. In this idyllic setting, artists who had never played together before agreed to collaborate in programmes of original chamber music -the now-famous “Rencontres Inédites”.
The Verbier Festival Academy’s reputation also began to grow: with legends such as Isaac Stern teaching the very young David Garrett and Renaud Capuçon, long before they became household names. Music poured out from everywhere in Verbier – even from the mountain-tops – in true festival style!
In 1996, Barbara Hendricks, the Orchestre Mondial des Jeunesses Musicales and Antonio Pappano opened the Festival in front of a packed concert tent. An ever greater number of famous conductors started to make regular appearances on the programme. A long friendship began between Yuri Temirkanov and the Festival, which continues to this day. Kent Nagano talked pop star Björk into performing Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Other legendary performers put in an appearance: Martha Argerich, Radu Lupu, Ida Haendel, Igor Oistrakh, Dimitri Bashkirov, Lynn Harrell and Gary Hoffman.
In 1998, a whole series of parallel free events sprung up: Fest’Off was born!
In 2000 another landmark was achieved: the creation of the Verbier Festival Orchestra (VFO) under the musical direction of James Levine. 110 musicians aged from 16 to 29 of many nationalities, coached by section leaders from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, came together for six concerts during the Festival, before setting off on an international tour in the autumn.
In 2003, to open the 10th season, James Levine conducted Strauss’s monumental Elektra, and Luana Devol captivated the audience with her commanding performance. At a crazy “Birthday Extravaganza” evening, the maestro appeared alongside Evgeny Kissin, Martha Argerich, Leif Ove Andsnes, Emanuel Ax, Lang Lang, Mikhaël Pletnev, Nicolas Angelich and Staffan Scheja for a selection of piano works for 4, 8 and 16 hands, including Bach’s famous concerto for four keyboards accompanied by an all-star string orchestra.
2005 was marked by the inauguration of a series of recitals at 8pm, with some of the world’s greatest performers: Garrick Ohlsson (performing the whole cycle of Beethoven sonatas), Ivry Gitlis, Piotr Andrszewski, Nelson Goerner, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Janine Jansen and more. A tradition was established, with some artists returning virtually every year, such as Joshua Bell and Leonidas Kavakos.
In 2006, the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra (VFCO) was created from amongst the most talented musicians of the VFO, to perform chamber repertoire alongside great solo performers. Educational activities for adults and children, called Verbier Festival Discovery, were added.
By 2007, Gábor Takács-Nagy took on the musical direction of the VFCO and Verbier was buzzing from morning to night. The number of events on offer had doubled in just five years. To top it all off, a new partnership signed in 2008, allowed some 760,000 people around the world to watch concerts live from Verbier on the Internet.
In 2009, Charles Dutoit was appointed Music Director of the VFO, which to this day is considered one of the best training orchestras in the world. A remarkable performance of Don Giovanni, with a cast of some of the greatest baritones of the day – Bryn Terfel, René Pape and Thomas Quasthoff – gave a stellar performance of gluttony, derision, insolence and sheer cunning – the undisputed high point of the summer.
In 2010, the Festival moved from a tent to a semi-permanent auditorium, la salle des Combins which welcomed the Béjart Ballet Lausanne for an evening of Stravinsky in 2011.
In this, the summer of 2013, Verbier welcomes for the first time sixty talented young musicians aged 15 to 18 as part of the new Verbier Festival Junior Orchestra (VFJO). They will take their first steps towards a career in music and have the opportunity to train under the musical direction of British conductor Daniel Harding. This latest initiative, 20 years after the first, is further proof of Engstroem’s foresight and ambition; which have created a platform for young musicians and great artists, as well as offering international audiences a dynamic, music-centred experience. Verbier’s magic continues unabated, and there are surely more surprises to come…