Boutique event shines at Whitsuntide.
If the words Salzburg Whitsun Festival evoke thoughts of a little-sister festival in awe of the real deal (the Salzburg Festival), think again. Since the powerhouse diva and top-selling Italian mezzo-soprano, Cecilia Bartoli, took Whitsun’s artistic reins two years ago and worked her magic on a weekend festival that’s sat on the sidelines for nearly a century, Whitsun has grown into an ultra-intense musical feast. It takes its place on the concert boulevard as a sparkling boutique event under the Salzburg Festival brand.
The city of Salzburg emits the charm and mystery of a storybook setting. With its main concert halls set tight against the cold stone of Festungsberg Mountain, crowned with Hohensalzburg Castle to the south and the Salzach River coming in from the north, the city acts as a natural cradle for the arts. The birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is surrounded by a soft landscape of woods and lakes. With roughly 150,000 inhabitants, Salzburg creates an intimate setting for a festival that welcomes upward of 288,000 sophisticated guests and music aesthetes to 14 opulent venues (both festivals included). Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal writes that at the midway point between north and south, mountain and plain, between Switzerland and the Slavic countries—Salzburg is the heart of the heart of Europe.
“The small size of the city gives it a very unique atmosphere,” said Salzburg Festival President, Dr. Helga Rabl-Stadler, in an interview prior to the performance of one of two Whitsun staged operas this year. “The whole town is transformed by the festival, which doesn’t happen in bigger cities. Here, you can encounter star artists in local restaurants after a concert. It’s personal.”
Girded with an education in journalism, political science, and a degree in law, Rabl-Stadler is the festival’s ‘Foreign Minister’, and has developed an impressive network of sponsors. She is also Austrian to the core, and knows better than anyone what makes the town tick.
Jewel in its crown
In the past, the Rolex-sponsored Salzburg Whitsun Festival rolled out a series of concerts only, but according to Rabl-Stadler all that has changed in recent years to include opera, theatre, and concerts under a single theme. This year Rossini steals the show with a programme coined ‘Rossinissimo!’ Feasting on the works of one composer would be impossible for the more prodigious Salzburg Festival, which runs 270 performances from July 18 to August 31. Whitsuntide is a chance for visitors to spend four to five days completely immersed in a musical ‘hype’ that this year roared to a close with a Rossini-Gala showcasing 11 of the biggest names in opera, a world premiere joint performance by Cecilia Bartoli and Juan Diego Flórez, and a special appearance by the beloved José Carreras. Only Bartoli could bring together so many superstars for a single concert, a success that speaks to her acumen as artistic director.
“We are producing operas rather than adopting them from others. In Salzburg we are trend setters,” says Rabl-Stadler, whose passion it is to keep tradition alive but in a constant state of evolution.
Those looking for an alternative to the bustling Salzburg Festival come to Whitsun for a boutique event that waxes elegant but intimate. Six concerts, a gala dinner, and a Rossinimania exhibition rounded off an affair that presented two Rossini operas: ‘La Cenerentola’ and ‘Otello’. Some 14,300 concertgoers from 54 countries are reported to have attended this year, notching a 6% uptick in attendance—Swiss visitors ranking third among all nationalities.
The pedigree of a brand
What Salzburg is to Europe, the Salzburg Festival is to music. Rabl-Stadler says she’s been asked repeatedly why with the leading international classical music and theatre festival Salzburg hasn’t applied to be a European Cultural Capital.
“Because we’re it!” she explains. “What is so special about Salzburg is not only the festival. It is not only the artistic performances. It is the landscape, the architecture. The best of science, economy and the arts from all over the world meet here in Salzburg.”
These create a special atmosphere, she explains, that is anything but regional— it is a brand. The Salzburg Festival has long sought to be an international event that attracts a broad audience, with 73 countries represented last year. Where an average tourist stays an average of 1.5 days in a city, festival visitors stay an average of 7.5 days.
“We have often asked professionals why they come from New York, London, Milan, to meet here on the same date every year in Salzburg. What we hear is that this is a perfect place to mix business with pleasure.” Salzburg effervesces with understated elegance and a provincial flair that shift easily into high gear. Traditional Austrian hospitality surely adds to the appeal as the Salzburg Festival unwittingly spawns projects—both business and artistic—in its unique, relaxed atmosphere. “Music is the only language without borders,” she said. “It is the language we speak.”
A tradition of peace and quality
Quality is what Rabl-Stadler says has been the driving force behind a festival that offers the most comprehensive programme of any other festival worldwide, with the founding watchwords: “opera and theatre: the best of both.” The creativity that comes with turning to free artistic programming—unique to the festival—has contributed to propelling Salzburg into a thriving brand.
“As a festival in the city that gave birth to one of the world’s greatest composers, people expected our founders to choose Mozart as a central artistic theme,” explains Rabl-Stadler. “But they wanted to have a wider focus, opting for quality in high artistic performance instead. Thus we have greater freedom in our choice of music and composers—and I think this sets us apart.”
The genius of Mozart remains a central theme to the city of Salzburg nonetheless, and this summer’s programme emphasizes that with a new production of the opera ‘Don Giovanni’, alongside a celebration of festival founder Richard Strauss with ‘The Rosenkavalier’.
Born in a post-war era, the Salzburg Festival was founded in 1920 to promulgate peace and give hope through the arts. “Our founders believed in one of the darkest hours of the last century that the arts could change something,” said the President.
With Mozart’s conception of fraternity and his humanitarian penchant, this year’s programme aptly underpins the festival’s founding philosophy.
Quality and the tradition of peace are what Rabl-Stadler insists will lead both the Salzburg and Whitsun Festivals into the future.
Sponsored primarily by Nestlé, Audi, Siemens, and Rolex, the 2014 Salzburg Festival focuses on Richard Strauss this year in celebration of his 150th birthday, with the Rosenkavalier opera led by Harry Kupfer and Franz Welser-Möst. If you missed ‘La Cenerentola’ at the Whitsun Festival, Bartoli gives additional performances in August; but if you’re looking for something really Austrian, ‘Jedermann’ by von Hofmannsthal is on the Cathedral Square Stage.
Some of the world’s top orchestras will appear the last week of performances, so keep an eye out for the Vienna Philharmonic with Daniele Gatti, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra with Mariss Jansons, and the Berlin Philharmonic with the celebrated Sir Simon Rattle.
In a gesture of sustainability, longtime sponsor Nestlé powers the ‘Nestlé and Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award’ that selects three candidates to conduct concerts in Salzburg for a prestigious award. This August, winning candidate Maxime Pascal will conduct the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. The festival closes with a highbrow Festival Ball at the Felsenreitschule.
The Whitsun Festival looks to 2015 with a programme titled ‘Thus I will call upon all Gods’, which Bartoli says conjures a meeting of divas and divi.
For more details: www.salzburgerfestspiele.at
Article by Allison Zurfluh