Where do you begin to describe something as rich as the Verbier Music Festival? Two weeks of classical musical experiences in mid-July that will enchant you with their variety and excellence. It is an assortment of the world’s best talents – from promising young students to the cream of renowned virtuosos such as pianist Evgeny Kissin, conductor Sir Simon Rattle or soprano Ying Fang.
This idyllic mountain location a two-hour drive from Geneva offers artists breathing space to show their best side in settings such as the huge Salle des Combins, the distinctive church rising from the city, or in small Masterclasses throughout the village that nurture the artists of the future.
I was only there for four days at a friend’s cottage and tried to get in as much as possible, so let me selfishly start with my favorite – young Japanese Mao Fujita whom I first saw time last week playing Beethoven 2nd Piano Concerto with the festival’s large orchestra conducted by Verbier regular Gabor Takacs-Nagy. This adorable-looking 23-year-old boy, who has already won numerous prestigious awards and is part of the festival’s student academy, plays the piano with a confidence, sensitivity and maturity that could match any large workbench.
Fujita exudes such joy, an almost trance-like ease but fervor, with an angelic smile on his face, that he becomes one with the music. His little hands seem loose and springy, gliding like soft, friendly spiders along the keys, as if he’s written the notes. Or as if he were the composer and the piano itself, captivated by each rhythm of the melody.
Two days later, he played Ravel and Arenski at church in a trio with violinist Marc Bouchkov and cellist Zlatomir Fung. It was once again a sublime and energizing moment, with multiple reminders. He is an artist to see and follow.
But the festival has more than one shiny new find, so let me not get carried away…
There was a standout late-night performance of an adapted play called “Address Unknown” about a tragic 1930s relationship between two partners in an art gallery. One was Max, a Jew living in the United States, the other was Martin, a Gentile who had returned to Germany. Their letters describe the crumbling of their friendship due to their differing views on Germany’s new “Führer”, the fate of Max’s sister in Berlin, and subsequent revenge.
The surprising element of the evening was that Max was interpreted by the Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin, and Martin by the American baritone Thomas Hampson. Multi-talented, these artists!
And then there were morning and afternoon Masterclasses on all kinds of instruments, bands and voices. These are popular because they are free and especially welcome because concert tickets are quite expensive and one can experience the art of teaching music. It is the lucky young artists from all over the world who have been chosen to be part of the Verbier Academy, which aims to introduce future talent. They are also featured in various Spotlight concerts throughout the festival, always free of charge.
As an example, a delightful Masterclass was on Song, held on Monday mornings at the cinema in the middle of town. British actor and Masterclass leader James Garnon of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts had fun tuning his singers like the instruments they were.
They all started out with great vocals, but he lifted and shaped their performances through various ingenious methods. To one girl, he suggested that she sing directly to each audience member and have them feel the word “amor” she was singing. At another, he asked her to analyze why she chose the song, then told her to turn the room that was red velvet into a blue room, in her head. Through these various tricks, he both loosened their anxieties and strengthened their visions and ego. And with each sighting, he would often raise one leg for emphasis. He was both impressive and fun.
Another Masterclass on violas brought together the sympathetic German teacher in the group of five violists. It brought up some interesting insights from one of the more confident students who had some definite ideas about how their Brahms piece should develop. That’s the beauty of these events – they reflect so many diverse talents and perspectives.
There’s also a new parallel section called UNLTD which takes a more spontaneous take on music, including jazz, cabaret, interviews and even meditation, often for free. You can pick up their colorful brochure all over town and attend even more events, if you have the time.
As for restaurants, there are many large hotels such as the W or the Chalet d’Adrien, but most people hang out in the various cafes in the central roundabout of the city, to see and be seen. My favorite place for coffee and the best apricot pie is right above at the Milk Bar. The coziest and friendliest place to eat, drink and craft ice cream at the end of the night is at La Nonna, also on the roundabout. There is a spacious and trendy terrace at the back, you will not be disappointed.
The aim of all this effort is to get you up to Verbier while there is still time, with so many great shows and events until July 31, when it wraps up for this year. And on the way back, don’t miss the Cartier-Bresson photographs at the Gianadda Foundation in Martigny.
Jump in the car and go – for a day or for a week. But check their offers and schedules online before you go. It will be worth it, especially if you have a friend with a cabin up there.
Neptune Ravar Ingwersen does many film reviews for publications in Switzerland.
Click here for past reviews.
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