Take the road to a musical paradise

August 24, 2001

Students with a bit of money can escape for a summer of music among the stars. Christopher Wood reports.

Music students not constrained by poverty to toil in a pub or a burger bar during July and August could have done a lot worse than to spend part of their holidays at an international music festival, whether in the alpine pastures of Switzerland or the equally languid surroundings of an English country estate in South Devon.

For those who prefer the lure of the continent, the Verbier Festival and Academy has it all. Located in the shadow of the Alps in the Valais region of Switzerland, where meadows abound with wild flowers and butterflies, and the bells of Alpine cattle compete with crickets and babbling mountain streams, Verbier is a paradise of a peculiarly Swiss variety. Even without the music festival, the sharpened, pure air would make the place an essential retreat from stifling practice rooms and the urban pollution that cloaks most conservatories.

But there is music: the hills are positively alive with it. For which thanks are due to Deutsche Grammophon executive Martin Engstroem, who decided as he skied down the mountain one winter a decade ago that Verbier would make a good festival site. "I liked the fact that it was a dead end: there was one road up and the same road down," he says. "You could work with the atmosphere here."

Far from being a dead end, the festival, now eight years old, has become a multimillion-franc operation, with more stars than Albert Einstein's physics homework book. This year, several of the world's most celebrated musicians - Martha Argerich, Evgeny Kissin, Arcadi Volodos and Mikhail Pletnev - gave concerts - and that was just the pianists.

While stars may be a major draw for some of the gold-dripping Swiss who attend the evening concerts, Verbier is about more. Engstroem explains: "I wanted to create a performing-arts community, a big workshop - really the antithesis of Salzburg where, as a soloist, you go when you have something to show off. Here in Verbier you're trying things out. It's more about risk-taking than anything else."

Risk-taking in terms of contemporary repertoire may be a rarity at Verbier, but projects aimed at the music student reveal its more adventurous side. The "academy" of the festival's title is a series of masterclasses where even the accompanists are well-known professionals. Gifted students send a recording of their playing, concert reviews if such exist, and a mission statement. Successful applicants come to the festival - with financial support if necessary - attend the concerts, meet the stars if they are persistent enough, and study their instrument with a leading professional. Britain's sole academy student this year was Jack Liebeck, a 21-year-old violinist at the Royal Academy of Music. Although he already has a concert career, Liebeck relished his few weeks in the Swiss mountains. "Great social life, meeting some of the world's top musicians, the contacts, the classes, the atmosphere... everything has been the most amazing experience," he says.

The other opportunity for students is to play in the festival's youth orchestra, formed last year under the directorship of another star, the director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, James Levine. A mailshot to conservatories around the world is followed by auditions in nine cities. Those who get through arrive in Verbier several weeks before the festival to work with musicians from the Met orchestra, and are then conducted in concerts by a variety of maestros (this year Levine, Yuri Temirkanov, Kent Nagano and Wolfgang Sawallisch), and also go on a winter tour with dates all over the United States. They even get SFr400 (£170) a week on top of accommodation and food, to compensate for that forgone burger money.

Like many orchestral members, horn player Isabel Schmitt, 22, who will enrol at the Royal Academy of Music next month, finds working with great conductors the chief boon. "You will never get that chance again," she says - wrongly, we hope. Again, there is only one Brit in the orchestra, violist Rob Brophy, who as a result of meeting Nigel Kennedy at last year's festival, ended up playing on the punk virtuoso's latest record. Such contacts are all part of the Verbier plan. As Engstroem says: "Always network the best you can. I really want students to have met people who are useful to them later on."

To keep a show such as Verbier on the road requires a Swiss bankful of money and, in addition to donations from festival friends - "the spine of the festival", Engstroem says - a Swiss bank is a major sponsor. UBS bankrolls the youth orchestra, whose proper title is the UBS Verbier Festival Youth Orchestra, and has selected some of the more photogenic members to adorn its annual review to shareholders. The instinctive British reaction is that UBS is merely whiting its banking sepulchre, but Engstroem is Swedish not British. "I'm very happy with my sponsors," he says. "We have learnt how to make the best use of each other. Look around and see how grim the prospects are of getting funding for orchestras - you're from England so you should know. You cannot just sit and cry in front of the cultural minister. It doesn't work like that any longer. This is reality."

Reality even has the temerity to encroach on the charmed world of the Dartington International Summer School, a festival with a great tradition dating back to 1947. To survey the Dartington estate near Totnes in South Devon - the majestic 14th-century hall where summer-school concerts take place, the sculpted gardens, with grassy banks, carpets of ravishing busy lizzies, a dozen perfectly pruned Irish yews and a Henry Moore - is to experience an arcadia that has been as much of an attraction as the big names (Britten, Hindemith, Stravinsky and so on) who have attended over the years. Like the road to Verbier, the road to Dartington leads nowhere except to this enclosed community where one encounters the same people so often, they feel like old friends (or enemies) after 24 hours.

But in arcadia reality also bites in the form of a £300,000 shortfall, even after the 400 who come for each of the five weeks of the summer school have paid their fees. The annual miracle is somehow achieved, largely through friends' organisations, trusts, foundations and individual donors. "Patronage rather than sponsorship," says artistic director Gavin Henderson.

Education remains a major concern at Dartington, but it is proving increasingly difficult to attract students from music colleges. "The difficulty in Britain is so many people have to find jobs in the long vacation to pay fees and maintenance," Henderson says. "We're attracting people from the former communist countries, but even if we give home students scholarships and bursaries, many of them can't afford to come as it's taking them away from earning."

Those students who make the sums come out right encounter a wealth of opportunities, including a chance to forget their regular teacher for a while and take a few classes with a professional musician, such as cellist Lowri Blake. "Masterclasses heighten your awareness of what you do back home," she claims. "They provoke new thoughts and a new way of exploration. You only have a short time with a person and have to pick up quickly what they are used to and offer a different angle. It's shock treatment, and often gets results."

From the other end of the teaching axis, piano student Peter Land says:

"You're not going to agree with everything somebody says, but it's very interesting to hear opposing ideas and to make your own judgement. If you study with just one person, you're going to get a one-sided education."

Whether a student or an amateur musician whose studying days are far in the past, people who come for a week's course at Dartington (fees include entry to all concerts and classes) invariably encounter something new. "You've got three concerts a day, so people go to things they wouldn't normally," Henderson says. "If they don't care for it, they can discreetly walk out. But, by and large they find this an immense voyage of discovery."

Although famous names are in shorter supply than they used to be at Dartington, Henderson has no regrets. Other festivals are, he says, "all to do with superstardom, about playing to a glitzy audience, but this is about all sorts of people coming together to make music of all standards".

"People are sitting and eating alongside the composers whose music they hear in concerts. A rank beginner can come here and feel they're as important as a world-class performer - and that's vital."

Details: www.verbierfestival.com ; www.dartingtonsummerschool.co.uk

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