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Concert Hall, Culture and Congress Centre, Lucerne, Switzerland   [ photos ]   [ quotes ]   [ press ]

Lucerne Festival, Switzerland

by Shirley Apthorp / The Financial Times (August 24 2009)

Well into the concert, it dawns on me: I will never hear a better Mahler 4. With this realisation comes a queasy sense of my own mortality and a panicked desire to hold on to every split second.

I am not alone. The entire Lucerne audience seems to have stopped breathing from sheer awe. This is what happens when Claudio Abbado conducts the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. There is a life-or-death immediacy, coupled with a level of technical perfection that has no equivalent anywhere in the world. At the end, Abbado lowers his hands slowly enough to guarantee a collective silence that lasts a good 20 seconds – in a concert hall, that feels like half an eternity. The point is driven home: this was more than a concert. This was a religious experience.

In the aftermath of his battle with cancer, Claudio Abbado has a touch of the enfant terrible. Whatever he wants, he gets. And so he can hand-pick a Festival Orchestra made up of his choice of the world’s best instrumentalists, who come together under ideal conditions to do his bidding. Money is no object: the Lucerne Festival and its sponsors are willing to share Abbado’s uncompromising vision. And for Abbado, his fragility compounding an extraordinary charisma, the musicians play as if each note might be their last. These are unique circumstances.

The Lucerne Festival Orchestra has launched each summer season since 2000 with Abbado. What looked like a dying wish has turned into a strong, healthy institution, with global tours which began in 2005. This year’s Lucerne concerts will be repeated in China next month; next year the orchestra goes to Milan.

On both Friday and Saturday, the programme was Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder and fourth symphony, both with Magdalena Kozená. It was well worth seeing both (astoundingly different) performances. A perilous, edge-of-the-seat sense of improvisation on the first evening developed into a more fluid cohesion on the second. Kozená brings a confiding directness to the Rückert-Lieder, more intimate than warm. With this orchestra, the instrumental solos often eclipse the vocal.

After the long silence that followed the last chord, the audience rose to its feet and pelted the performers with flowers. Tension gone, they lobbed the blooms between sections and fell into each other’s arms.

A combination of savvy planning and fortunate placement has enabled the Lucerne Festival to escape the credit crunch largely unscathed. Existing sponsorship deals have been maintained, with Audi and Orascom signing new contracts. Things look good.

Though almost entirely dependent on private funding, the festival takes an unflinching stance on new music and youth development work, never pandering to conservative complacency. This year’s Moderne series kicked off with a concert of music by composer-in-residence Jörg Widmann. Collegium Novum Zürich gave a refined and virtuosic account of four Widmann works, linked by their common threads of sensual physicality and rigorous structure. The visceral Sieben Abgesäng auf eine tote Linde, a setting of poems to a dead tree, made an elegant link to the linden tree of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, to the festival’s theme of nature and to the two vocal works by Kaija Saariaho and Luca Francesconi that book-ended the second Moderne concert’s programme.

This was the first in a series of concerts exploring the use of electronics in music; the link with nature seemed tenuous until the Ensemble Intercontemporain, under the outstanding young Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki, made the notes come alive. Here, Ircam- generated computer effects sounded so organic that you could almost see them photosynthesise.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009.

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