Lucerne Festival keeps it playing with Michael Haefliger.
When mid-summer happens in the lakeside mountain town of Lucerne, a unique summer festival opens on the heels of Bayreuth’s dazzling renown and Salzburg’s lavishly funded splendour. The Lucerne Festival —much like the country it represents—is a glimmering diamond on the concert boulevard. In typical Swiss fashion, the festival takes its place discreetly among the best in the business, billing top-selling conductors, orchestras and soloists, and inviting a gamut of young musicians to make their European debuts in this charming city.
In his fourth story office on Hirschmattstrasse, Executive and Artistic Director Michael Haefliger is in the driver’s seat of a prestigious cultural offering. On the horizon is a time of artistic transition as the administration regroups after the death of Maestro Claudio Abbado, founder and driving force behind the elite Lucerne Festival Orchestra that the Italian conductor created in 2003. Abbado propelled the festival to even greater international standing when he handpicked a 120-member ensemble from among the principle musicians in Europe’s top orchestras and chamber ensembles for an unparalleled elite that would perform at top-drawer performances as far away as New York, Tokyo, Vienna, Paris, even Beijing. Quality has always mattered in Lucerne, and in a country that prides itself on excellence.
In an address given at the opening concert of this year’s edition, Ueli Maurer, Member of the Swiss Federal Council, said that “there are three fundamental values in Switzerland: quality, professionalism and a forward vision.” As a summer festival that bills over 60 high-powered concerts, quality comes as naturally as the international brand it embodies. What’s more, outdoor public concert viewings, free early evening performances by young artists, a late-night lounge that pairs succulent musical offerings with a pub setting to attract a broader—younger—audience, and a string of street performances fan it all outward in a gesture of cultural sustainability. The festival’s colourful, innovative programme lines up with Helvetia’s long-time values, and the national identity embraced by its leadership.
According to Haefliger, a core commitment is to reach out more consistently beyond national borders. “The festival has a strong emphasis on symphonic and contemporary music,” he said, “but equally important is the support of young artists.” In 2003, Haefliger and French Maestro Pierre Boulez jointly founded the Lucerne Festival Academy where exceptional musicians from all over the world come to study contemporary and modernist scores before forming the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra for each festival season. This year, the top-selling Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan was invited to perform as the ‘artiste étoile’, giving a master class in collaboration with the Lucerne Festival Academy before performing in the summer festival’s final concert of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. Haefliger says that the academy helps musicians into the job market by creating a platform where they can work with leading artists. “We are currently working on building more alumni projects with different ensembles, and supporting a range of interrelational projects worldwide,” he says. An extensive alumni network keeps students in touch and facilitates the sharing of ideas and potential projects. Some of the more illustrious include Pablo Heras-Casado, Kevin-John Edusei and the Mivos Quartet.
Home to some 80,000 inhabitants, the baroque and renaissance city has long been parented by foreign philanthropists, not only Italian. It was as early as 1868—in an uncommonly sweltering month of August—that Queen Victoria first visited the city following the death of her husband, Prince Albert, for a 3-week stay. Her visit spawned the building of a compendium of luxury hotels along the lakefront as the British upper class flocked to the city in the footsteps of their queen. The city swiftly catapulted into a flourishing tourist town, and with a string of 5-star establishments in place, the landscape was primed and ready for the founding of the Lucerne Festival in 1938. It was in response to the Nazi Occupation of Salzburg that the acclaimed Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini created a free space for artists of renown who either could not or would not perform at the Salzburg Festival. The inaugural concert was held at German composer Richard Wagner’s former villa at Tribschen, where an attendance of 1,200 was gathered on the lush front lawn for a gala concert. On the programme, Wagner’s ‘Siegfried Idyll’, originally composed at Tribschen and conducted that year by Toscanini. Years later, Abbado would rekindle that early fire.
In 1994, the electorate of the City of Lucerne approved a CHF 94 million project for the construction of a new concert hall, the KKL (Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzern), designed by French architect Jean Nouvel. The project was controversial, imposing, and has had a major impact on the community. A lavish 1,898-seat concert hall, rumoured to have some of the best acoustics in the world, was inaugurated in 1998 with a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic—conducted by Maestro Abbado—in the context of the festival. Small town, meet the world!
Today, the festival’s economic impact on the city and canton in general weighs in at around CHF 30 million in high-endtourism, with Credit Suisse, Nestlé S.A., Roche, Zurich Insurance Company Ltd, and Bucherer AG for watchmaking, in the elite sponsor line-up. 65,000 visitors were reported in 2013, with an average seat occupancy of 94%. With Abbado’s absence as of this year, Italian attendance was down, but 66,000 patrons attended in 2014 (all countries included) with a seat attendance of 95%.
As for the future of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Haefliger is certain it will go its own way and develop its own identity. “The orchestra will no longer be that of Abbado,” he said of the beloved conductor known for ‘making music in friendship’, “and there will be some challenges to face in that regard. But Claudio Abbado will be a guiding light for the festival for many years to come.” Haefliger’s recent contract renewal that extends through 2020, making it his 21st year of tenure, does much to ease the transition.
As all eyes turn toward 2015 and a theme of ‘Humor’, ties are strengthened with Zurich Insurance Company Ltd in concrete efforts to support young audiences. A new modular, configurable space that would house the Lucerne Theatre, the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and the Lucerne School of Music in a single Salle Modulable continues to be an iron in the fire that would allow musical and theatrical productions to be staged in a unique and innovative fashion. And Friend circles are consolidated in New York, Germany, Japan, as the festival strives to project to the outside world that more than just precision, Switzerland is home to incredible artistic talent. That kind of quality is Swiss made.
Coming up: Lucerne Festival at Easter: March 21-29, 2015
For more information: www.lucernefestival.ch
Article by Allison Zurfluh