On the peaks of youthful passion

The world-class performers and young musicians who gather at Verbier's festival are inspired by its informality and spontaneity. Can it be just the Alpine air?
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"Look over your shoulder at those mountains. Boy, are we hungry to come here, feel this sort of air and see those sights. It affects your whole state of mind." James Levine, principal conductor at New York's Metropolitan Opera, sips orange juice on the terrace of his Verbier hotel. He had recently conducted the first public performance by the local festival's newly formed resident youth orchestra and is very much on a high.

"Look over your shoulder at those mountains. Boy, are we hungry to come here, feel this sort of air and see those sights. It affects your whole state of mind." James Levine, principal conductor at New York's Metropolitan Opera, sips orange juice on the terrace of his Verbier hotel. He had recently conducted the first public performance by the local festival's newly formed resident youth orchestra and is very much on a high.

"I must tell you that I very rarely feel any real satisfaction with the results of my own work, but this was some exception," he says, still burning with enthusiasm. "It was literally like a dream come true. I worked those kids so hard, they had to learn so much so quickly and I think that we have all been pinching ourselves since that first concert." I was there, and can confirm that in my experience only Ivan Fischer's Budapest Festival Orchestra had journeyed so far so quickly.

UBS global financial services has pledged support for the Verbier Festival Youth Orchestra until 2005, and Levine announced that for next year the current line-up of players will, circumstances permitting, remain intact. He is keen to build the orchestra's profile and ensure that in future "there aren't too many new recruits at any one go". A first international tour is planned for October-November, though the British debut is "by invitation only".

The festival's executive director, Martin Engstroem, tells me that it took around 18 months to put the orchestra together, "although even Levine never expected this kind of return".

"He went out of his way to make this project work. If you had been there during the rehearsals and seen how much time he took with individuals, how he spoke to them, how he rehearsed the first programme for 15 hours, you would have been amazed. There was real dialogue going on there. We received over 900 applications from 29 different countries - with ages ranging from 17 to 29 - and we had coaches from the Met help us with the training." Levine elaborates: "They had to work out a rota system for using different people as principal players, assess what they might do best, what they needed to learn and an endless number of other considerations. Three weeks later there was the concert. It was astounding." Levine's principal aim is to avoid "orchestral performances which, in terms of character and expression, are generalities".

The idea of a music festival and teaching academy at Verbier was first hatched in the 1970s during a trip to the French coast. "Martin and I were together for about three days," recalls Levine. "He was climbing around the rocks while I was studying my scores. We were talking about festival ideas and quickly came to the conclusion that this might be our best contribution to an art form that we both love. Seven years ago Martin called me and said, 'I think I've got it', and that was the beginning."

Levine cites Aspen's Music Festival as a pivotal influence. "Part of what gets my juices flowing - or, as my father used to say, 'the red ones chasing the white ones' - is the way this place brings back feelings I had in those early Aspen years. I was very impressionable and it was during that summer experience with teachers, performing musicians and students that I learned 40 per cent of what I am now."

Engstroem relishes the idea of "mixing and matching", throwing diverse temperaments into a collaborative pit, standing back then enjoying the results. Sometimes it works like a dream, sometimes more "like a pride of lions trying to break out of a cage", as he puts it. By the time this article appears, Kennedy will have engaged with Lynn Harrell, Zoltán Kocsis and Martha Argerich, and Gil Shaham with Mischa Maisky and Argerich.

On one occasion during the current festival, heavy rain thrashed against the concert tent like shellac surface noise on an old recording. The analogy is not inappropriate. Kennedy, Lawrence Foster and the orchestra joined forces for a blistering account of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, playing to an audience that included Masiky, Harrell, Shaham, Yevgeny Kissin, Vadim Repin and Yuri Bashmet. Kennedy showed laudable single-mindedness when he held his concentration through a noisy kerfuffle that broke out when some poor soul collapsed.

Earlier on, he could be seen prowling the sidelines while guests of the sponsors queued to see him play, his studied shabbiness in telling contrast to the chic and urbane. Kissin gave his "public four-hand piano debut" in Schubert's Fantasie and Lebensstürme, marble-smooth, though the less pristine Levine was by no means ineffectual. Come the half-way point, and they swapped places.

Rain had all but stopped play for Dmitri Hvorostovsky, a handsome figure with a voice to match, who lavished affection on a sequence of Tchaikovsky songs and classical arias. "Beautiful, wonderful," murmured Levine from the keyboard, though by then the downpour was so severe that, for the second half of the recital, Engstroem and his team were obliged to shepherd deafened minions from the back of the tent to any available space on the concert platform. "Isn't this great?" bellowed someone behind me, "it's just like the Proms!"

Masterclasses are held at various venues up and down the town. I sat in as cellist Ralph Kirshbaum talked a student through Brahms's D minor Sonata. When the class was over, he consulted his colleague Lynn Harrell (who had been sitting among us) about matters of tempo. Veteran pianist Dmitri Bashkirov, a sprightly Magnus Pyke lookalike, thundered on one of two concert grands from the far end of the local sports hall, storming through Chopin's Second Ballade, singing ecstatically, shouting, leaping, then nestling up to his student and imploring him to play "eroica, eroica!" A nearby translator helped us out with anything that wasn't obvious.

Bashkirov gave his instructions in Russian, whereas his compatriot violinist Vladimir Tretyakov spoke creditable English. My heart went out to the hapless student trying his hand at Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto while Tretyakov walked to the doorway, lit up a cigarette, stared across at the Alps and shook his head. A few moments later, he turned on his heels quite without warning, snapped the correct rhythm with his fingers and conducted his victim back to a secure pulse. The ploy worked. He is obviously a fine teacher.

But then learning is very much in the air at Verbier. And so is friendliness. Walking the town you might find Engstroem and Levine enjoying a pizza, Maisky thumbing through CDs or Harrell sitting under a sunshade while string players from the orchestra entertain passersby with a Mozart quartet. You can engage any of them in conversation. Indeed many do.

But the main agenda is spontaneous musical performance, something that seems rather lost on an age obsessed with sanitised sound recording. Levine in particular dreads the prospect of musicians losing touch with what he terms the raison d'être of their art, namely inspiration.

Happily, Engstroem wears a second hat as vice-president of A&R at Deutsche Grammophon. Might we then expect a Verbier CD series? "I'd agree that there are too many slick performances being recorded today, most of them quite forgettable," says Engstroem. "Here in Verbier I put certain projects together in the hope that I might take some of them over for recording. For example, Shaham, Maisky and Argerich are playing Mendelssohn's D minor Trio. If Gil gets on with Martha and Mischa, then I'd like to record them. If electricity passes between Kissin and Levine in Schubert's four-hand music, I think that too would make a very beautiful recording.

"I know that Kennedy and the gypsy violinist Roby Lakatos are getting together for jam sessions: we have booked a bar between 12-midnight and three in the morning for the rest of the week and they getting together in view of doing a CD. Up here, I can stimulate significant encounters."

Perhaps the humbling presence of snowcapped peaks has something to do with it, but I can certainly understand why Evgeny Kissin says that "only in Verbier is there chamber music".