sat 29/11/2014

10 Questions for Verbier Festival founder Martin Engstroem | Classical music reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Verbier Festival founder Martin Engstroem

On the eve of the 20th anniversary of Europe's starriest music festival, its founder explains its aims and achievements

Martin Engstroem: The man behind the curtain of classical music

He might not be a household name, but Martin Engstroem is classical music’s man behind the curtain, a quiet but significant force in the industry for some 40 years. Although his career has seen Engstroem by turns as major artist agent and head of A&R for Deutsche Grammophon, it is as founder and general director of the Verbier Festival – this year celebrating its 20th anniversary – that he has achieved perhaps his greatest successes.

What started as a boutique affair with only 17 concerts has now grown to its biggest programme yet, encompassing some 62 ticketed events as well as many more free concerts, open rehearsals, masterclasses and workshops. Yet the festival’s greatest draw is surely its roster of talent. A casual glance down this year’s programme finds Charles Dutoit, Anna Netrebko, Bryn Terfel, Evgeny Kissin, Elisabeth Leonskaja, Barbara Hendricks and Pinchas Zukerman among others – and that’s just in the first week.

So what keeps these extraordinary artists returning year after year to this tiny village in the Swiss Alps which would otherwise be dead until the return of the snow and ski season? Martin Engstroem explains his vision for the festival, discusses how it has evolved over the past 20 years, and gives some hint of what we can expect of Verbier’s anniversary concert – the biggest birthday party in classical music.

ALEXANDRA COGHLAN: Europe isn’t exactly short on classical music festivals, and by the general standard Verbier is a very young one. What were your aims in founding it? Have they changed much over 20 years?

MARTIN ENGSTROEM: Recently I actually came across the initial presentation that I gave to potential sponsors and donors for the festival, stating what I wanted to achieve. It is very much what the festival is today, although it has become much, much larger and grander. The notion of a performing arts community in an intimate mountain resort (pictured left) was central to my initial idea. I never wanted to create a festival in a city where once you leave the recital hall or the opera house you are anonymous. In Verbier there is one road up and the same road down, and this intimacy allows you to have completely different experiences to those at festivals in the big cities. Most bigger European music festivals are in towns, but if you look at the US most of their major festivals are outside the city. I really liked this idea of getting away, especially into the mountains where you are surrounded by the staggeringly beautiful scenery of Verbier and the Alps.

So you would really prefer the points of comparison for Verbier to be Tanglewood or Aspen rather than Salzburg or Munich?

Aspen was very much my model – their balance between academic activities, getting lots of young people involved, as well as major classical perfomers. It’s a good mixture between those who are of a certain level – stars sounds too flashy – but those who have experienced a certain success in the field, and those who are just starting out. I like that combination.

Is your vision for a democratic learning community shared by the artists? Do they behave differently in Verbier than elsewhere? Do they approach the festival with a different attitude?

At Verbier I really try and kick artists out of their comfort zones. Every time an artist at the festival goes up on stage I try to get him to perform a work that he has never performed before, or to perform with colleagues that he has never worked with before. I like that there’s a certain element of risk in chamber music, of novelty. We do give the performers plenty of rehearsal time, so nothing is done half-heartedly, it’s thoroughly planned. But the hope is that when the artist leaves Verbier that he will also take away something with him – hopefully a good experience. So that even if we are talking about a major international star, he feels as though he has achieved something new.

Education work has been an important part of the festival since the beginning, and over the years you’ve had some big successes. Who are your biggest success stories?

There are so many. Alisa Weilerstein, Leila Josefowitz, Lang Lang and Anna Netrebko (pictured right)all came to Verbier before they were well known and gave small recitals in the church before eventually coming back to do bigger things. Spotting talent and developing it has always been one of my greatest passions. Han-Na Chang was with us in the very first academy in 1994 when she was just 11 years old, and has come back almost every summer since. Renaud Capuçon was with us in 1995 in the academy. Khatia Buniatishvili started coming to the festival at 16 years old, first she played the piano in the orchestra and gradually moved onto chamber music and recitals. I always try to insist that these young super-talented musicians do chamber music. I always felt that it was an important remedy in their daily musical life. Just playing solo concerts and repertoire is not enough. These young musicians seem to like the workshop atmosphere of Verbier. It’s not a museum; all the programmes we present have been conceived specially for the festival and have been prepared here. These are not touring programmes from soloists who just come in and out. I think that appeals to some artists and especially to some conductors.

When you know that in your audience there are people who know the difference between good and great, you do give more

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