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Verbier Music Festival Founder Martin Engström


(Article 2013)

The programme for the Verbier Festival is a carefully crafted affair and, if some items stand out as being a little different, you can be sure that their inclusion is no accident. Martin Engström, Festival Founder and Executive Director, explains the importance and relevance of its non-classical repertoire.

Youn Sun Nah

This year’s offerings see Mozart , Mahler and Chostakovitch side by side with sitar impresario Anoushka Shankar, gypsy guitarist Roby Lakatos, Korean jazz singer Youn Sun Nah (a late night rendez-vous in keeping with the jazz mood), and the undefinable band Pink Martini. Martin explains how, when planning the programme, he sees the Festival as a whole.

“Whilst this may be a classical music festival, the accent for me is on learning and youth. The object of the Festival has always been to attract a public which plans to stay in the mountains for a few days or longer and provide it with a platform of offers and a varied experience. It therefore stands to reason that we introduce a bit of variety into the programme .We also aim to engage families; summer holidays with older children can be full of compromises and coming to the mountains is an ideal solution. During the day each family member can pursue their different interests; parents can hike or relax with a book, kids can go to the pool, meet up with friends and Verbier meets all those criteria. I hope that, in the evenings, we give them cause to get together for a performance. That’s another reason why we always have something lighter on the programme. We also incidentally offer inexpensive daily events with our open rehearsals and master classes. We calculate that, each year 10,000 people participate in the Festival without ever buying a ticket, they just attend the free events and join in the atmosphere for a love of music, nature and Verbier”.
Martin reasons that if he, with his strong leaning towards classical music, also likes other types of music, then the public probably does too. “We have always had world music and alternative items” – (previous such acts include Björk, Chick Corea, Bobby McFerrin and Rufus Wainwright) although I point out to him that all of these ‘non-classical’ items are nevertheless highly trained musicians. He replies that “the quality and fit must be consistent with the general offer. PinkMartini(c)JamesChaingThey must fall within certain parameters”.

I do not get the impression we will be seeing any rock bands any time soon at the Verbier Festival, although the American band Pink Martini will certainly have audiences tapping their feet to a different rhythm; their popular hit ‘Sympathique’ (otherwise know as ‘Je ne veux pas travailler’) will swing the Salle des Combins on Swiss National Day, August 1. However, whilst Martin likes his classical guests to take ‘calculated’ risks at the Verbier Festival , either by performing a new piece or within a new musical formation for the first time, he freely admits that, when it comes to the non-classical acts, he plays it safe.

“As the artistic director, I assume my choices for the Festival. There is a relationship of trust between a promoter and his public, and the classical Verbier Festival public look to me to be cutting edge, to showcase new talent, introduce them to the latest discoveries and take them forward in their knowledge. However, for the non-classical artists, I stay with what I know, tried and tested artists I can trust”.
There is another rationale behind this strategy. Martin explains that he also hopes that these established acts will reach out to a wider audience and perhaps encourage the uninitiated to dip their toes in the classical pool once in town.

The Verbier Festival, now the biggest, non-urban, classical music festival in Europe, was inspired by the large outdoor festivals which take place each year across the USA, in particular, the Aspen Festival which mirrors Verbier’s incredible scenic beauty. Fundamentally Martin’s vision has never been about individual artists, but about creating an ambiance where the energy of place, music, youth and experience can flourish side by side to create a joyful atmosphere for all or as he simply states “Come up and cool down”.