THE CIRCUIT: Verbier Festival – In The Heart of Swiss Alps

Interview by Alex Davydovich (MGBH)

In the early nineties, Martin T:son Engstroem (MGBH) had an ambitious idea to create a summer festival in the heart of the Swiss Alps, far from the major cities where most festivals take place.  Verbier had the intimate atmosphere he felt was necessary to encourage musical excellence, and at the same time be open to the world.  He imagined a festival with a resident youth orchestra and an academy where renowned artists would teach the next generation and audiences would have a wide choice of activities from early morning until late at night. In 1994, his vision became a reality.* Today, in 2017, it is much more than that – it is one of the hottest events for the who-is-who in the world of classical music.  


Piano Performer Magazine (PPM): What does it take to start a festival?
Martin T:son Engstroem (ME) : Starting a festival is very much learning as you go. There is no profession that prepares you for it. You have to know psychology, finances, organization, languages, music, and fund-raising – a little of bit of everything. And then you’ll need a big chunk of persistence. In addition, you have to believe in what you do. The first two years will probably go OK, but then it’s all about stamina.

PPM: Prior to organizing the Festival, you were a talent agent. Who are some of the artists who worked with?
ME: I worked with Germinal Hilbert in Paris from 1975 – 1987. I also worked with such artists, pretty much from the beginning of their career, as Giuseppe Sinopoli, Han-Na Chang, Kirill Troussov, Jonathan Gilad, Ilya Gringolts, Barbara Hendricks, Neil Shicoff, Jessye Norman, and Gino Quilico, to name a few.

Talent is God-given, but succeeding in life depends on what you do with it.  The one who makes it has an equal part of talent, discipline, and luck.

PPM: What is your secret formula in discovering talent?
ME: Trusting my intuition. There are thousands of young talented musicians, but you look for talent PLUS personality and charisma. Talent is God-given, but succeeding in life depends on what you do with it.  The one who makes it has an equal part of talent, discipline, and luck.

PPM: You used to work Deutsche Grammophon, didn’t you?
ME: Yes, I did. From 1999 till 2003, I was a VP of Artists & Repertoire. Thereafter, for 3 years I was a Senior Executive Producer and Head of Artists Development. I signed Lang Lang, Yundi, Anna Netrebko, Esa-Pekka Salonen and many others to the company. I was also instrumental in the signing of Yuja Wang, Daniil Trifonov, and Gregory Sokolov.  Although I am presently not on their payroll, we still work very closely together.

PPM: So, having worked in the industry did help in attracting talent to your festival?
ME: Yes. Prior to starting the Festival, I already had a pretty important address book. I invited one of my best friends – Avi Shoshani (Secretary General of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra) to join me, and together we covered most of the artists we wanted to come to our first event.

PPM: Under what circumstances did you meet Evgeny Kissin, and how did you convince him to be part of the Festival?
ME: It was Avi who brought Zhenya to Verbier. He loved it from the very first year and has been back 19 times (out of 24 Festivals).

PM: Who handles talent at Verbier?
ME: I myself am responsible for all the artists performing at the Verbier Festival. I also work closely with the artists in putting together the programs.

The atmosphere at the Verbier Festival is very warm, and we welcome music lovers with open arms.

PPM: What types of sessions take place at the Verbier?
ME: Every day we have 4 paying concerts, 3 free student concerts, plus another 20 free events including open rehearsals, Master Classes, “meet the artists” talks, etc. The atmosphere at the Verbier Festival is very warm, and we welcome music lovers with open arms.

PPM: Who are the typical attendees of the Verbier Festival?
ME: Our audience is very eclectic. The sheer fact that we are in the mountains and in a tent eliminates those who just want to dress up and show off their latest jewels. Our audience is younger than that of most classical music institutions. Our festival attracts the locals who would normally never go down the valley to see a classical music concert.

PPM: How did the idea of the Academy come along?
ME: Through working with my artist friends and challenging them to new collaborations. Since its inception, the academic part has grown enormously, and we now have 300 music students between the ages of 13 and 30 studying between 3-5 weeks each summer pending the course they have chosen.

PPM: How closely do you work with the Music Director of the Festival Orchestra? What decisions are you involved in?
ME: I have worked extremely closely with both James Levine and Charles Dutoit. Creating the right programs for our young orchestra musicians is key to its success. You need to schedule challenging repertoire – not only technically, but stylistically and musically as well. Maestro Dutoit has given “Master-Classes” in French repertoire having conducted Pelleas, Damnation, which will stay forever with these young incredible talented musicians and give them a base of how to interpret French music.

PPM: Where do the Festival volunteers come from?
ME: Lausanne Hotel School, music students, children of our public or children of our musicians.

PPM: You studied Russian at the University. Why?
ME: I have always been fascinated by the Russian culture – writers, painters, composers, and musicians.  That culture has accompanied me since I was a young kid. I starting traveling to the Soviet Union from the age of 16 and still go back 3-4 times a year. My spoken Russian today is not very good, although I can get around.

PPM: What character traits does a person have to possess for you to be comfortable to do business with him or her?
ME: As a person, I am pretty open and curious. If I like someone, I will be his best friend, but I f I don’t trust someone or feel that he is not truthful – that person has lost me.

The crazier the world becomes the more we need things that speak to our senses.

PPM: In your opinion, what does classical music give to the world and where is its place in the future?
ME: Classical music makes peoples lives richer. Music, Theater, and Literature are there to make us more complete and more harmonious as human beings. As parents, we owe it to ourselves to challenge our children to reach further and give “culture” a chance. They might not like it at that moment, which is OK, but they will appreciate the gesture later in their lives and, perhaps, will come back to it. The crazier the world becomes the more we need things that speak to our senses.





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