After an evening performance of works by Beethoven, Stravinsky, Brahms, and Bartók, the audience ambles along a candlelit path outside a medieval castle above Umbria’s Lake Trasimeno. As they discuss the music and prepare to return to their hotels, they find themselves face-to-face with the star of the show: pianist Angela Hewitt, among the leading contemporary interpreters of Bach, is thanking concertgoers for attending, dispensing hugs and kisses.
The personal touch is all part of the experience at the weeklong Trasimeno Music Festival, which Hewitt founded two years ago. Chatting with audience members before and after concerts, replying to e-mail inquiries, and generally being a warm and enthusiastic host, Hewitt gives the proceedings the feeling not of a formal event but of a family affair.
For a nomadic performer like Hewitt, the festival is a welcome chance to shed the solitary demands of a soloist and headliner on the international circuit. "We spend so much of our time going from one place to the next," she says. "We’re in Korea for eight hours and then we’re in Tokyo for forty-eight hours and then we’re back in London the next day and then we’re off again. When you’re always working alone you talk to yourself, but it’s something else to discuss a performance with people and to be inspired by others."
She’s not the only one who has discovered the pleasures of a smaller scale: Trasimeno is one of a rapidly growing number of musician-led chamber music festivals. In Europe, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes in Risør, Norway; violinist Robert McDuffie in Rome; pianist Lars Vogt in Heimbach, Germany; violinist Julian Rachlin near Dubrovnik; and violinist Janine Jansen in Utrecht, have all launched, or helped to launch, such events. Spanish clarinetist Joan Enric Lluna, who played in three of the six concerts for Hewitt in 2006, is planning to start a festival of his own near Valencia. In the United States, cellist David Finckel of the Emerson String Quartet and his pianist wife, Wu Han, recently founded Music@Menlo, a summer festival of chamber music based in Menlo Park, California, and violinist Curt Thompson created the Mimir Chamber Music Festival in Fort Worth, Texas. These intimate events all stand in contrast to the celebrated classical-music extravaganzas held each summer in Salzburg, Edinburgh, Lucerne, and Aix-en-Provence; they are also much smaller than long-established, musician-founded festivals like the Marlboro in Vermont or the Pablo Casals in France. "More and more musicians have done this, and I think it’s a healthy thing," says Andsnes. Mimir’s associate director, pianist José Feghali, agrees: "It seems every year I hear of a new festival starting up somewhere."
The concept may be the same, but the settings vary a great deal: at Risør, most of the concerts are held in a wood-framed church built in 1647; McDuffie’s series is set in the Oratorio del Gonfalone in Rome. Some artists cite as their model two smaller musician-led festivals in Austria that have been quietly attracting connoisseurs for many years: the Musiktage Mondsee, founded by pianist András Schiff and now run by cellist Heinrich Schiff (no relation), and violinist Gidon Kremer’s Lockenhaus Kammermusikfest.
Artists hash out their interpretations of sonatas and quintets at Hewitt’s festival while rehearsing in her newly built vacation home, which has a panoramic view of the lake, or relaxing over meals at a nearby farmhouse hotel. In Norway, Andsnes deepens the spirit of collegiality by arranging lunches and dinners of freshly caught fish for the participating musicians, some 80 altogether, in the Risør town hall.