This year the Verbier Festival celebrates its 20th birthday. It has grown from 17 concerts in its first year to 62 this summer. But some things have remained constant: a focus on education and a determination to attract the biggest names in the classical world, as founder and executive director Martin T:son Engstroem explains.
You’ve described the Verbier Festival as a ‘performing arts community’. Can you tell us what you mean by that?
There are thousands of festivals in Europe and they have basically the same concept. I wanted a festival where the public is very much a part of the festival and where they can follow the build-up from rehearsals to performance. In Verbier, all the doors – to the Academy, to the lessons, to rehearsals – are open for the public. So the public forms part of the community, and the orchestral musicians also have the opportunity to go to all the masterclasses. It’s about trying to broaden the horizons of everyone who participates in the festival.
This year’s festival opens with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Why did you decide to programme that?
There’s actually a little Beethoven festival within the Verbier Festival as Charles Dutoit is conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and then all the Piano Concertos and the Choral Fantasy. But why did I decide to open with the Ninth Symphony? You can show so much in that symphony artistically and I felt that it was a big bone for the young musicians of the Verbier Festival Orchestra to bite into. And of course, it’s never a wrong moment for this symphony with its message of friendship – ‘Alle Menschen werden Brüder’ [Brotherhood unites all men].
Has education always been part of the festival?
From the first year it was part of the concept. I wanted to get the maestros with lots of experience and I was aware that if I had a regular orchestra in residence it be very difficult for me to get conductors like Zubin Mehta and Kent Nagano. I needed an element of education in the orchestra. Every year I try to get a balance between young people in the orchestra and big-stars in the festival.
What are the highlights of the 20th-anniversary festival?
There are lots of artists who have been important to us over the years – Barbara Hendricks, Valery Gergiev, Kent Nagano, Esa-Pekka Salonen and I wanted to do this sort of homecoming party for them. We have more musicians this year than we have ever had and it’s very difficult for me to pick highlights because I picked the artists, I picked the programmes – I’m really right in the middle of it.
Is this how you envisioned the festival 20 years ago?
I think we’ve stayed on track since the beginning but it’s obviously much bigger now. Our budget is 9.3m Swiss francs and it’s grown into a massive music festival. We’re also inaugurating a new orchestra this year – a music camp for 15-17 year-old kids. The whole festival is very much the same but much more of it than when we started. For the public, I think everyone who comes to Verbier is impressed by the fact that you can really go to so many events, rehearsals, lessons without having to pay. It’s a very democratic festival and there is really no wall between artists and the public.
Win a weekend break at the Verbier Festival. Enjoy a two-night break for two in the Swiss Alps. To find out how to enter pick up a copy of the May issue of BBC Music Magazine, on sale now.