Classical music: The hills are alive...

Verbier's Music Festival goes from strength to strength - and from next year will have its own youth orchestra.
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The Independent Culture
Mountains, mists and meadows have always spawned their fair share of musical masterpieces. Dvorak scored the prairies, Debussy the sea - and when Mahler wrote cowbells into his tortured Sixth Symphony, he balanced angst with a welcome whiff of fresh air. Londoners are often left bemused by the Mahler, but if you take the same work 5,000ft into the Alps, the rural effect makes rather more sense.

Last weekend witnessed one of the few Alpine Mahler Sixes, a high-octane onslaught and palpable confirmation of how conductor James Levine can galvanise a youth orchestra. The setting was Verbier's annual Music Festival and Academy, and the orchestra, a select band drawn from Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music.

"We did three rehearsals over three weeks," said the Institute's dean, Robert Fitzpatrick. "Jimmy even had them play the scherzo without conducting. And they didn't just play together: they also coped with such matters as nuance and tempo."

I watched the quiet-spoken Levine in rehearsal, a towel thrown over his left shoulder, cueing huge stretches of musical argument then stopping to refine this or that minor detail. In concert, Levine turned on the heat for the Symphony's first movement and clinched a final chord that was high in shock value.

The venue was a sizeable tent in the upper part of town, framed by distant glaciers and the silent toings and froings of cable-cars. Grandeur in Verbier is restricted mainly to the mountains, though I'm told that both Marthe Keller and Diana Ross have homes there. I can understand why. If you walk the streets during Festival time, artists mingle freely with passers-by. As I sat gazing across a ravine, star-violist Yuri Bashmet chatted on his mobile from the next bench. When a group of Curtis kids passed overhead and shouted "Hi there, Yuri!", Bashmet waved in response. But then that is exactly the sort of informality that Swedish impresario Martin Engstroem envisaged when he set up the Festival in 1994.

This current season's roll-call of artists and educators has included Sir Peter Ustinov, Jonathan Miller, the Emerson Quartet, Dmitri Bashkirov, Gary Graffman, Hilary Hahn and Vadim Repin. "I really love to come here," Repin told me with evident sincerity. "It's a very special place. You work alongside wonderful musicians who have all the time in the world for you, and you can relax - which is great after a long season."

My own concert-going schedule took in master-pianist Leon Fleisher, who was for so long afflicted with repetitive-strain injury and limited to left-handed repertory and who made elegant two-handed work of Mozart's 12th Piano Concerto. Yevgeny Kissin was formidably fluent in Chopin's Second Concerto, and an open rehearsal of Rachmaninov's Cello Sonata found Frans Helmerson crossing musical swords with an explosively brilliant Arcadi Volodos. The actual recital must have been quite something.

Verbier is as much about learning as listening, and master-classes help nourish its life-blood. Violinist Igor Oistrakh put a number of gifted pupils through their paces, reserving comment until they had finished performing. Many were highly accomplished, but Oistrakh almost always offered them useful hints. "You occasionally find that even healthy people go to the doctor," he joked, somewhat apologetically. "But you know what doctors are: they'll always find something wrong!"

Oistrakh is a seasoned teacher with a keen ear for musical talent. "If someone plays me the opening G-minor chord of Bach's first solo Sonata," he said, "I can tell a lot from that - the depth of the sound, the balance between strings, the combination of vibrato. One line of music is often enough to reveal a gifted musician."

This year's Festival was rather special in that a major secret initiative was at last made public. The UBS (United Bank of Switzerland) Verbier Festival Youth Orchestra will perform at home during next year's summer season then tour during the autumn. Applications for auditions are being accepted until the end of November and the age of candidates should range between 16 and 30. Auditions will take place in two stages: a preliminary "tape-recording trial" followed by a live audition. The Curtis achievement suggests that, once it's up and running, the VFYO may well teach professional orchestras a thing or two. Fitzpatrick is confident that a number of his own players will feature in the new orchestra, but if mountains have ears, they will have heard some fairly candid confessions from the Curtis youngsters.

Paul LaFollette is a horn player with an eye for the big time. He covets the musical life of Europe and bemoans the fact that American baseball players earn more from a game than rank-and-file orchestral musicians earn in a year. "People appreciate you more this side of the Pond," he says wistfully. "I wander down a European street with my horn case and peoples' eyes light up, because they know what I'm holding. In America, they're suspicious. It might be a gun."

Like many of his colleagues, LaFollette blames the all-consuming blandness, or "excessive homogeneity" of modern professional orchestras on an inadequate auditioning process. "Nowadays, they seem to want players who make the least number of waves" - an attitude which, as violinist Daniel Kossov notes, is especially inadequate when selecting a concert-master.

Levine is cited as the ideal conductor. He is scheduled to head the VFYO's first concerts, and it seems as if he's already earned himself a loud vote of confidence. As LaFollette put it: "Even if he was conducting the Dittersdorf double-bass Concerto - which he has done at least once - we'd all enjoy ourselves playing it."

Sarah Hicks plays celeste in the Curtis Orchestra and is also a conductor. She recalls how Levine stresses the importance of personal style and commitment. "He will tell you that each note has to be accounted for individually, and that a `personal' sound can be incorporated within the `section' sound." It's humbling to pit the attitudes that these lively young players have to conductors against the weathered cynicism of so many professional orchestral musicians.

This year marked the Curtis band's second appearance at Verbier. Hicks is philosophical about Levine's new orchestra and its prime position at the Festival. "Many of our players are not here - they have solo careers or obligations elsewhere - and it makes more sense for the Festival to own a core orchestra that can develop its own values and traditions."

Kossov, on the other hand, takes the opposite stand. "At the moment, Verbier has a tour but no orchestra - and I don't know what chances they have of forming an orchestra that's as good as ours."

These youngsters seemed to have gained a genuine insight into precisely what is missing from modern professional orchestras. "There are five big orchestras in America, but it's hard to tell them apart," confesses LaFollette. When critics say that sort of thing, they're accused of being old fogies. But when the players themselves start to complain - and young players in particular - then it's time for change. Maybe the young men and women of Verbier will help signal a new way.

Musicians wishing to audition for the UBS Verbier Festival Youth Orchestra should send their applications to the UBS Verbier Festival Youth Orchestra, 4 rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, CH-1800 Vevey, Switzerland (0041 21 925 9064; fax 0041 21 925 9069)