Switzerland's Verbier Festival serves up one hot orchestra.
What is it with conductors and their incredible youth orchestras these days? Gustavo Dudamel rocked the Proms in London this summer with the Venezuelan Simón Bolivar National Youth Orchestra; Daniel Barenboim takes his Israeli-Palestinian West-Eastern Divan Orchestra all over the world; Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra are a dynamite combination; Riccardo Muti has his Luigi Cherubini Orchestra; and in the U.S. there’s the New World Symphony in Miami with Michael Tilson Thomas and, of course, the Chicago Symphony’s training ensemble, the Civic Orchestra. Another of these exciting groups comes to Chicago next week when the Verbier Festival Orchestra stops at the Harris Theater on its international tour with the legendary pianist Martha Argerich and conductor Charles Dutoit.
Each summer, Switzerland’s Verbier Festival hosts an international orchestra of musicians who haven’t yet hit the cutoff age of 29. (Technically, the orchestra is called the UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra, in recognition of the financial-services giant that sponsors it.) Some are pros, some are students, but all are still young enough not to be jaded by the routines of orchestra life.
“Everyone’s from all over the place, and their styles are from all over the place,” says trumpeter Rachel Simon, 22, a Juilliard graduate who now freelances in New York. She’s in her second year in the Verbier Orchestra. “Everyone’s playing their hardest,” she says. “It’s not like you’ve been in the [Chicago Symphony] for 45 years and have played Mahler’s First Symphony a hundred times. No one’s phoning it in.”
Dessi Kepenerova, a Bulgarian percussionist now studying at Berlin’s University of Art, seconds that. She’s played with several German orchestras, and says that unlike some of those, “the musicians in Verbier are happy to be there.”
As for the playing styles that Simon mentioned, all you need to do is look at the first violins to see that it might not exactly be a Live 8 level of harmoniousness and goodwill: 18 musicians come from 14 countries. Each of those countries has teachers who have specific styles of playing, and the musicians need to work out ways of compromising. Simon was playing second trumpet in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony her first summer, and trying to follow a British trumpeter. “He was using the British style of articulation,” she says, which wasn’t what she’d learned at Juilliard.
That’s a pretty specific difference, but flutist Koren McCaffrey, a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music who substitutes with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, finds that woodwinds have to compromise on even bigger issues. “Winds deal a lot with pitch,” she says, and some players are used to playing sharper or flatter than others. (Pitch is relative, and the players aren’t considered sharp back home.) But given the “amazing social atmosphere” of the festival, McCaffrey says, such compromises are common.
McCaffrey goes on to say that this orchestra is unique for being able to attract so many top conductors. James Levine, the Met Opera leader and music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is its conductor laureate, and Simon and McCaffrey speak of him in glowing terms. Levine has a way of “taking an orchestra that doesn’t play together very often, and making it sound as if it does,” McCaffrey says.
On this tour, they’re joined by pianist Martha Argerich, one of those soloists who sells out concert halls and leaves people wanting more—often because she had canceled. Simon heard her frequently last summer in Verbier. “It’s not physical charisma, but musical charisma,” that sets Argerich apart, Simon says. “No matter what she plays, you want it to keep going.”
The Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra released a CD last year led by violinist Maxim Vengerov, and it’s very good. The entire group live can only be better.
Dutoit leads the young players Tuesday 13.