IIn a time when air travel was king, pre-planetary, pre-Covid concerns, one aspect of musical life was a no-brainer. Elite orchestras criss-crossed the world in a ritual dance each summer, traversing each other’s schedules and joining in the fabric of arrival or departure. Edinburgh and the Proms were must-sees, with several top European venues including the annual festival in Lucerne, Switzerland, founded in 1938 and one of the oldest of its kind.
This year, if with caution, some still masked, the orchestras travel once again. Their plans to offset carbon omissions remain vague, but these are tough times and we are patiently waiting. Lucerne Party – which already has an exemplary sustainability program – was back in full force, welcoming the world’s best ensembles and soloists for its multi-level season. Its important contemporary component featured the British composer Thomas Adès, with the creation of his festival commission, Air, for violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. (More performances for those of us who missed it are planned next year for the US, but none for the UK.)
The dominant theme of the year was diversity, symbolized by multicolored chess pieces in publicity material: two-tone knights, a striped bishop. A bold move was to invite Chineke!, the predominantly black and ethnic British orchestra, giving this seven-year-old newcomer a platform alongside the world’s most venerable: the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra among others. Chi-chi Nwanoku, founder of Chineke!, delivered the keynote speech. Chineke! will be close the festival todaywith cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason as soloist.
The Swiss concert audience, more diverse by language than by ethnicity, is almost exclusively white, and not everyone was initially charmed by this theme. A New York Times report quoted a Swiss-based reporter asking, “Why are we following some sort of California agenda?” Lucerne director Michael Haefliger sees social awareness as an intrinsic part of the festival, with the only limit to everything being quality. Given recent reports in the Swiss media of police brutality against black people and a late acknowledgment the role of Switzerland in the African slave trade, the choice of subject is timely.
During his long European tour, the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the biggest in America, had a tailor-made program for Lucerne. Accompanied by their fiery and fiery musical director, the Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin, they explore (and record) the music of Florence Price, a hitherto neglected African-American composer. In the first of two concerts, they played his Symphony No. 1 (1933), an uneven work but of melodic exuberance, its last two movements particularly ambitious.
In the transparent acoustics of the magnificent KKL concert hall in Lucerne, the powerful brass of the orchestra and the legendary, rich strings showed their strength, even if halfway through a busy program they had every reason to sound just a little dull in Beethoven’s Fifth. Symphony in a breathtaking and idiosyncratic story. Nézet-Séguin is working hard to bring diversity to the repertoire: they have introduced a new work by the American composer Valerie Colman, It’s not a small voice (2021/22). The song cycle, his third Philadelphia commission, is a lyrical, voluptuous setting, with soprano blue angel the sensual soloist. The text, by Sonia Sanchez, veteran poet of the Black Arts Movement, celebrates the precious innocence of black children.
In the airy, modernist church of St Luke, the South African star soprano Golda SchultzA festival “featured artistwith American pianist Jonathan Ware, gave a thought-provoking recital of music spanning the last two centuries by Clara Schumann, Emilie Mayer, Rebecca Clarke, Nadia Boulanger and Kathleen Tagg (b. 1977). Schultz’s warm humor wowed his audience between sets, but the hard-hitting power and dramatic range of his singing, especially in the second frame of Goethe’s Erlkönig Mayer, had the crowd screaming for more.
A very wide Vienna Philharmonic fired on all possible cylinders in Olivier Messiaen Turangalîla-Symphony, led by Esa-Pekka Salonen with fiery authority. I have no idea how that fit the idea of diversity, though since this 10-movement epic embraces love, death, and the meaning of life, it can pander to any theme. This glamorous orchestra, for whom dress and exercise are part of the business, had already played it in Hamburg and Salzburg (alas not in the UK). From the monumental roars of the trombones and the tuba to the crazy ecstasies and boos of the solo piano (a dazzling Bertrand Chamayou) and the ondes martenot (Cécile Lartigau), to the crazy and magnificent last chord that started strong then became more and more thunderous, they gave their all exhilarating, joyous.