In Verbier, a crazy poster with healthy ambitions

Headliners, emerging talent, master classes, training activities, youth orchestras: the Verbier Festival has a wide range of offerings. After a slightly reduced summer 2021 due to the pandemic, the festival is back to its usual travel speed. Piano, chamber music, orchestra, opera: there is something for everyone.

2021: Despite the turbulence, the Verbier Festival draws a positive balance

Director Martin Engstroem and his team made quick preparations after February 24 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They parted ways with music director Valery Gergiev, pianist Denis Matsuev and a Russian foundation too close to Putin’s government. However, they didn’t exclude the large community of Russian musicians that has always been part of the festival’s DNA. Many of them – Evgeny Kissin, Daniil Trifonov, Mikhail Pletnev and aspiring child prodigies – will be there this summer. A nuanced response to an unprecedented situation.

About Russian artists: Valery Gergiev, persona non grata, “What does Tchaikovsky have to do with Putin?” and In Geneva, the fate of Gennady Timchenko, a wealthy Russian benefactor turned outcast

Le Temps: You very quickly modified the opening concert of the Verbier Festival by changing the programme, the conductor and inviting the young Ukrainian pianist Anna Fedorova. Why?

Martin Engstrom: Because of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. We had to do something. We had to show that we disagreed. You know, relationships with musicians, donors and sponsors don’t happen overnight. It takes long-term follow-up, personal investment, and now that the conflict has erupted, we have had to end some of those relationships. It was painful, but we couldn’t stop it.

And yet the poster of the 2022 festival still calls on many Russian artists. They chose not to boycott them like certain music competitions in the west…

You can’t treat all Russian artists the same just because they have a Russian passport or were born there. Many musicians and students of the academy do not live in Russia, even if they have family or relatives there. They work on their instrument, they perfect themselves, they want to make a living from the music, that’s all.

Russian composers are not excluded either…

Think Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gorky, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff… Russian literature and Russian music is a cultural heritage that transcends the borders of the nation and belongs to the whole world. This is not Russian heritage per se.

The opening night invites a very lovely personality, the composer Rodion Chtchedrine, who will celebrate his 90th birthday next December. What does it represent to you?

Chtchedrin has been coming to the festival regularly since 1997. We see him here with his wife, who died in 2015, the great dancer Maïa Plisetskaïa. Friends of the Verbier Festival always provided Chtchedrin with a chalet where he could compose during the summer, like Gustav Mahler in his wooden shed in Dobbiaco. He wrote works for us. Immediately after Shostakovich, he held the post of President of the Union of Composers of the Russian Federation.

Shostakovich’s colossal Fourth Symphony will also be performed alongside Shchedrin and Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov. A less paradoxical choice than it seems?

As you know, Shostakovich’s fate was marked by his difficult relations with Stalin and the Communist Party. Silvestrov composed an a cappella piece a few years ago: Players for Ukraine. It will be a prayer for us, for the public, for the victims of the conflict. As you can see, there are some messages behind this opening concert.

Also read: Verbier goes back on the slopes

The next day, Saturday 16 July, you program a “Don Giovanni” that promises to be a highlight of the festival. What does the public expect?

There will be neither sets nor costumes, but a space set embellished with a new and original device. Large LED screens will be set up behind the orchestra and around the stage for a background multimedia animation that accompanies the music and the libretto. The same concept is used for The masked ball by Verdi on Monday 25 July. The Swedish baritone Peter Mattei is one of the greatest Don Giovanni of our time! Magdalena Kozena, wife of Sir Simon Rattle, takes on the role of Donna Elvira for the first time.

2020: Martin Engstroem: “Next summer there will be a Verbier Festival like before”

Mark other appointments with a white stone? Or should we see everything, hear everything?

I would quote Georgian Tsotne Zedginidze: a real little phenomenon! At 13 he is already playing the piano incredibly and composing his own pieces. If you come to his concert on July 17th, you can later say that you were there! Verbier loves to discover new talent.

And the sale of concert tickets, how’s it going?

For a long time it was hard enough to get a classical music festival off the ground. Now you have to cope with a pandemic, the vagaries of Russian politics, social media animation and phone calls to reach audiences who don’t easily come to the concert. It’s complicated… and even more complicated than before!


Verbier Festival from July 15th to 31st.

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