This year, Jean Nouvel, the man who designed Lucerne's stunning lakeside concert hall, won architecture's top award, the Pritzker Prize. Go to a concert at the Lucerne Festival, and you can see how this remarkable, and almost mischievous, architect has helped make concert-going in Lucerne such a special experience. Not only are the acoustics exemplary, but the lake actually flows into the foyer. Indeed, this is the only music venue in the world where a room is set aside for changes of clothing for over-enthusiastic sponsors who fall in at an after-show party.
Actually, Nouvel's original plan was even more imaginative than that. He wanted to build the concert hall actually jutting out into the lake, thus altering an age-old landscape. He was dissuaded from that by a public vote of Lucerne's citizens. But what he did achieve is unique among the world's concert halls. Indeed, suddenly concert-going becomes an experience for all the senses.
"If I can't build on the water, I'll bring the water into the building," said Nouvel. So the French architect had two canals flow from the lake into the foyer, and filled the building with the imagery of a ship.
The biggest names in classical music are falling over themselves to pay tribute to Nouvel's dream hall. "It is the best concert hall in the world," says the conductor Riccardo Muti. Mariss Jansons adds: "Both onstage and out in the hall, you experience wonderful reverberation."
Together with Nouvel, the New York acoustics guru Russell Johnson (who died last year) came up with the idea of having 52 doors encircling the auditorium on the upper levels, which can be automatically opened by a conductor. Behind each door is a reverberation chamber, and opening them can prolong reverberation in the hall by two to three seconds.
Each visiting maestro comes up with different configurations of doors to create a personal sound. Johnson's view was that a hall should not have just a single acoustic if it is to cope with works by composers as different as Bach and Bruckner.
The sound quality in the 1,840-seat hall delights musicians and music lovers alike – air supplied under the seats rather than air conditioning helps what the architect called "a 100 per cent silence principle". But it is the look of the place that entrances the first-time visitor. Picture windows overlook the lake and mountains, with porthole-shaped windows adding to the ship metaphor. Each window, said Nouvel, must be a postcard. A roof terrace allows the concertgoer to wander with a drink and enjoy the view. Outside the auditorium, the ceilings are kept deliberately low so that on entering the auditorium one is overwhelmed by the 23m-high room with its ceiling a starry sky.
It is the perfect place to see classical music performed. But, of course, even the most stunning concert hall in Europe cannot of itself make a world-class classical music festival. One needs the conductors and soloists, an orchestra of the highest quality and imaginative programming to draw crowds from Britain for a festival that is not that near and not that cheap. That Lucerne now succeeds as a destination for British classical music aficionados is testament to the quality of work and the stellar names that one can see there.
Last year, Rattle, Boulez and Barenboim all appeared there. This year's attractions include the Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, nicknamed the "shooting star", who set the Proms alight last summer, Riccardo Muti with the Vienna Philharmonic, Bernard Haitink and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic, Mariss Jansons and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, George Benjamin as composer in residence, and world famous soloists such as Cecilia Bartoli, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Andras Schiff and Thomas Quasthoff.
It's a line-up that any festival in the world would want. What draws them, and what draws audiences from across Europe? The festival's anchor, its resident conductor, Claudio Abbado, who can claim to be the most revered conductor in the world; and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, which has moved rapidly into the European premier league under his baton – so much so that the Festival now has its own record label and last year issued its first recording, Bruckner's 4th Symphony. The Lucerne Festival Orchestra is a relatively new outfit, founded in 2003 by Abbado and the festival's imaginative executive director, Michael Haefliger.
But the idea of establishing a festival orchestra dates back to the founding of the festival in 1938, when Arturo Toscanini summoned an elite group of orchestral musicians for his legendary "Concert de Gala" in front of Richard Wagner's villa, just along the lake from the centre of Lucerne. This gave rise to the Swiss Festival Orchestra of the Lucerne Festival, which remained active until 1993. The tradition was revived with the founding of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra five years ago by Abbado and Haefliger. It is that orchestra, along with Pierre Boulez's Academy Orchestra, specialising in contemporary scores and classics of modern music, the new concert hall and world class programming that combine to make Lucerne an unmissable part of the summer season for any serious follower of classical music.
A taste of the festival
Wednesday 13 August, 6pm
Opening Gala Concert
Claudio Abbado conducts the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, with Elina Garanca (mezzo-soprano) and the Choir of the Bayerische Rundfunk, performing Claude Debussy, Three Nocturnes; Maurice Ravel, Sheherazade, and Hector Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique.
Monday 25 August, 7.30pm
Yuri Termirkanov and the illustrious St Petersburg Philharmonic combine Stravinsky's famous ballet music, Petrushka, with Shostakovich's Cello Concerto no. 1, written for Mstislav Rostropovich in 1959, and here played by Rostropovich's pupil, Natalia Gutman.
Sunday 31 August, 7.30pm
Franz Welser-Möst conducts The Cleveland Orchestra, with Jonas Kaufmann (tenor) and Simon Keenlyside (baritone), performing Alban Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6, and Gustav Mahler, The Song of the Earth.
Friday 5 September, 7.30pm
Pierre Boulez conducts the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra, performing Luciano Berio, Quatre Dédicaces; Johannes Boris Borowski, World Premiere, commissioned by the Lucerne Festival; Elliott Carter, from Symphoniea; Ondrej Adamek, World Premiere, commissioned by Lucerne Festival; and Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.
Sunday 21 September, 11am
Riccardo Chailly conducts the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, performing Felix Mendelssohn, Incidental music from A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Maurice Ravel, Daphnis and Chloë (1909-12).
All concerts take place in the concert hall ofthe KKL Luzern.
Tickets range from €19 (£16) to €250 (£208).
To book, visit www.lucernefestival.ch or telephone the box office on 0041 41 226 44 80, quoting 'Independent Supplement'.
All information correct at time of printing.
David Lister is arts editor of The Independent. For more information, visit: www.lucernefestival.chReuse content