Saturday 11 May 2019

French inspiration, spectacular scenery & classical music: I chat to festival director Christoph Müller about this year's Gstaad Menuhin Festival

Gstaad, Switzerland
Gstaad, Switzerland
Gstaad is a town in the German-speaking section of the Canton of Bern in southwestern Switzerland. Whilst the area is perhaps well known for its skiing, it is also the home of a major classical musical festival; the Gstaad Menuhin Festival, the second largest festival in Switzerland, founded in 1957 by Yehudi Menuhin, who was director for 40 years. Thanks to the spectacular setting it combines nature with classical music at a high level. This year's festival, which runs from 18 July to 6 September 2019 is presenting 60 concerts in seven weeks. The current director of the festival is Christoph Müller, and we chatted via Skype recently about what this year's festival has to offer.

Saanen Church - one of the Gstaad Menuhin Festival venues
Saanen Church
one of the Gstaad Menuhin Festival venues
Christoph emphasises the festival's special location, which provides not only the natural backdrop but also historic churches with wonderful acoustics, and they use the large festival tent (seating 1800) for symphonic and operatic concerts. Whilst music is the main focus of the festival, it is able to offer a relaxed atmosphere so that visitors can combine relaxing holiday with music, unlike festivals in busier urban areas like Lucerne or Salzburg.

Each year the festival has a theme, and this year it is French music and the city of Paris. Not only is Paris an inspiring melting pot of music, but there is a local aspect to French culture too. Christoph explains that though some sort of barrier exists between German-speaking and French-speaking Switzerland (with two different cultures and two different languages), 500 metres behind the festival venues the French part of Switzerland begins, so French culture is actually very close them. Christoph wants the festival to build a bridge between the two spaces, bringing French music closer to his audience. And French music is not usually performed in such a concentrated way, which makes this year's festival special indeed.

There are different strands, different islands in the programming with chamber music performed in Saanen Church, and symphonic music in the tent. The pianist Bertrand Chamayou is in residence, and in fact Chamayou was very much an inspiration for Christoph to programme this year's festival. Chamamayou will be giving five concerts, both solo recitals and joining with friends such as Sol Gabetta and Alina Ibragimova.

One of the highlights of the symphonic strand is the visit of the Dresden Staatskapelle, which performs at the final concert on 6 September. Usually the orchestra plays at the Lucerne Festival but for the first time its Swiss visit will be to Gstaad instead, where it will be making their festival debut. And Christoph is very proud to be hosting the orchestra. Other festival debutants, include the pianist Yuja Wang and the violinist Hilary Hahn.

The festival tent - Gstaad Menuhin Festival
The festival tent - Gstaad Menuhin Festival
Pianist Gabriela Montero will be giving an unusual recital in the second half of which she will be improvising the accompaniment to a Charlie Chaplin silent film. Improvisation is something for which Montero is famous, and she has been loyal to the festival and they are pleased to be presenting her in this unusual cross-over for the first time.

70% of the festival's audience is Swiss, generally travelling from cities such as Berne, Lausanne and Basel, with 30% of the audience coming from abroad, notably Germany, France and the UK. Also, the local inhabitants are well connected to the festival. From the very beginning of the festival, Yehudi Menuhin invited local inhabitants and schools, involving them in the festival's classical music, and this remains a tradition.

The festival now has its Discovery education programme with a dedicated member of staff. There is always a performance in the festival which is produced by local children and schools, taking care of the staging, the costumes and the music, and this year it will be Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals. There are a number of other projects aimed at children, young people and families, all with the intention of preparing them for the concerts in the festival. So there are workshops, introductions to the concerts, meetings with the artists, and festival artists going into schools. This part of the programme is rather new, but has proved very successful.

Christoph feels that the Discovery programme helps young people lose the fear of classical music, and they love it. He sees young people as being essential for the future of classical music, and the festival's aim is to open the door for them, to put the festival's concerts into greater focus in a language that people can understand.

Gstaad Menuhin Festival Discovery programme
Gstaad Menuhin Festival Discovery programme
Another, even newer project, is the festival's digital platform, This is a streaming platform which includes videos of concerts and masterclasses as well as a news stream which combines clips, interviews and introductions. This new digital platform arose because the festival was keen to connect with an audience which consumes music digitally. And as a visual medium, it is a good way to promote not only the music but the beauty of the location.

Full details of the 2019 Gstaad Menuhin Festival from the festival website

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