Gala concerts can be self-indulgent, over-long, and a complete dog’s dinner when it comes to repertoire. But they can also be extraordinary – like the one last week that celebrated 25 years of the Verbier Festival in Switzerland.
A sort of music factory in the mountains, Verbier is famous as a glitzy meet for megastars. But as the festival will tell you, many of these stars were youngsters when they first started going there and became known as the “Verbier Artists”: it’s as much a place for nurturing talent as for genuflecting to the famous.
So this milestone gala felt like an elaboration on a family get-together, as there trooped onto the platform Maxim Vengerov, Evgeny Kissin, Andras Schiff, Valery Gergiev, Pinchas Zukerman, Thomas Quasthoff, Leonidas Kavakos … the roll-call rolled on. Only Martha Argerich was missing (she had cancelled). And it was fascinating to observe these super-soloists collaborate as they would never normally – assembling into chamber orchestras or 16-hand piano octets, even singing (sort of) in a makeshift choir.
Considering the egos rubbing up against each other there was bravery in the way the string-players muscled through a supercharged and only slightly out-of-synch Bach Brandenburg 3, while the pianists formed unlikely and exotic pairings. Schiff (drab, dour but magisterial) with Yuja Wang (sex-kitten of the keyboard) made an interesting combination. And for genuine magic amid all the razzle-dazzle there was Daniil Trifonov and Mikhail Pletnev playing Bach with tender stealth.
All you could say was “What a night” – except there was another one, less starry but as memorable, when Gergiev conducted the annual Verbier opera: Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur done in concert. A piece of second-rate verismo with one famous tune gracing an empty plot, Adriana is rarely staged and doesn’t promise much. But Verbier made it sound so good you barely registered what tosh it is. The orchestra – of young musicians from the Verbier Festival Academy – played lovingly. The soloists, mostly Eastern European, were a joy. And Tatiana Serjan, a soprano with instinctive talent for the grandly tragic, was outstanding in the title role, whose death – from sniffing poisoned pansies (like I said, tosh) – managed to inspire the audience to tears and cheers.
Both Adriana and the anniversary gala are available to download (free I think) on Medici TV, which was recording everything at Verbier. You won’t get the experience of the mountains, but it’s probably more comfortable to watch from home than in the oven-like tented enclosure where the Festival performs. At 25 you’d think it would have found itself a better venue.
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