The Swiss are renowned for their caution and reserve, but as you emerge from the train station in Lucerne the exuberance of the city strikes you with breathtaking force: Here, before you, is the celebrated lake, with its glittering surface and undulating shoreline. There, flanked by an ancient octagonal stone tower, is the covered medieval Chapel Bridge leading across the Reuss River, where an array of stately hotels evokes the gilded age of the Grand Tour. And here, next to the station, is a strikingly modern building, whose bulk and steel-and-glass façade seem, at first glance, quite at odds with the postcard vista. But in the summertime, anyway, this incongruous edifice is the heart and soul of Lucerne.
Closer inspection reveals a subtle interplay between architecture and nature. The building's predominant color, a subdued marine green, suggests that this enormous box might have been dredged up from the bottom of the lake. Two man-made channels and a narrow pool bring the water literally to its front door. An enormous cantilevered roof juts spectacularly to the water's edge.
The building goes by the awkward name Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzern (KKL), or Lucerne Culture & Convention Centre. Designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel, it houses a gallery, restaurants, and a state-of-the-art, 1,840-seat concert hall. Since 1998, when the hall opened, Lucerne has become the chief rival to Salzburg as continental Europe's most prestigious summer destination for serious music lovers.
The Salzburg Festival, founded in 1920, is famous for its lavish opera productions and conspicuously glamorous audience. Lucerne, which lacks an opera house, has always appealed to a less showy breed of music lover, one drawn chiefly by the presence of the world's greatest orchestras and soloists. The summer festival, which runs from mid-August to mid-September, was established in 1938 by Arturo Toscanini as a haven for musicians who wouldn't—or couldn't—perform in Salzburg after the Nazi takeover of Austria. Ironically, the first concerts were held on the rolling lawns adjacent to Triebschen, the lakeside villa once owned by Richard Wagner—Adolf Hitler's favorite composer. (The villa, now a Wagner museum displaying original scores and memorabilia, is one of Lucerne's leading cultural attractions.)
Five years ago, Lucerne took a significant leap forward when Claudio Abbado, then the music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, approached the festival's dynamic artistic director, Michael Haefliger, about reviving an old Toscanini tradition: a festival orchestra whose members would be chosen from Europe's symphonic and chamber groups, and which would also showcase leading soloists. Abbado had recently survived a serious bout with stomach cancer and had no trouble recruiting favorite longtime colleagues, who jumped at the chance not just to collaborate with one another, if only for a month, but also to work again under the beloved maestro. The new Lucerne Festival Orchestra, which made its debut in 2003, instantly became Europe's most illustrious pickup band.
The concert hall is located below water level, well away from the noise of boat traffic, and it is a soaring space, clad in light maple; white, Braille-like acoustic paneling; and dark blue upholstery. The hall's sound is a marvel—perhaps the finest achievement of the American acoustician Russell Johnson, who is renowned for the sonic excellence of his many concert halls, which are scattered throughout North America.
The hall satisfies the most fastidious of the great American ensembles that come to Lucerne every year—like the Cleveland Orchestra, which I heard last summer under its young Austrian conductor, Franz Welser-Möst, in splendid performances of works by Schubert, Mahler, Debussy, and a world premiere of razzle-dazzle modernity by the British composer Harrison Birtwistle.
The shimmering brilliance of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, as played by Maurizio Pollini with Abbado and company, made me eager to return in November for Lucerne's annual piano festival. For six days and nights, internationally famous and rising keyboard virtuosos give recitals in the concert hall and in the salons of various hotels around town. (Leading up to Holy Week, Lucerne also hosts an Easter festival of sacred and symphonic music, much of which takes place in the city's Renaissance and Baroque churches.) Contemporary music is also on the agenda, thanks to the city's recent establishment of a training academy for young musicians devoted to the rigors of new music; its director is the formidable composer and conductor Pierre Boulez. Unlike Salzburg, which in recent years has seemed artistically directionless, forward-looking Lucerne cannot be accused of stodginess.
Second only to the concert hall among the city's cultural sites is the Rosengart Collection, a magnificent hoard of Post-Impressionist and Modernist works assembled by the Swiss art dealer Siegfried Rosengart and his daughter, Angela Rosengart. I spent a morning in the company of Angela, a lively, handsome woman in her early seventies, who guided me through galleries of superb paintings and sculptures by masters ranging from Cézanne, Seurat, and Renoir to Vuillard, Matisse, Braque, Rouault, Léger, Chagall, Bonnard, and, most extensively, Klee and Picasso.
Siegfried Rosengart died in 1985, and in March 2002 his daughter, who had continued to expand their holdings, opened the Rosengart Collection to the public in a three-floor building in the center of town that once housed the local branch of the State Bank of Switzerland. During its first year, the museum attracted more than 100,000 visitors—almost twice the permanent population of Lucerne. Given the personal charm of the collection, one can understand why. Indeed, Angela Rosengart told me that although most of the works were originally bought for prospective clients, she and her father "simply could not bear to part with them."
I explored Lucerne's Old Town on foot, passing churches and bridges and venturing into narrow cobbled streets and colorfully painted Renaissance squares. The Swiss are unabashedly proud of their history as the world's oldest democracy: I discovered this on a Sunday afternoon when I got caught up in a parade of traditionally costumed citizens who were eager not merely to wave their Swiss flags but also to toss them in the air.
The Swiss are justifiably proud of their hospitality as well, and many of Lucerne's hotels and restaurants are worth visiting for their atmosphere alone. The Schweizerhof, which dates from 1845 and has been magnificently restored, has perhaps the most character. At the newest end of the spectrum is the Hotel, designed by Jean Nouvel, whose idea of luxury is ultra-minimalist furnishings, plus bedroom ceilings decorated with fleshy scenes from the films of Almodóvar, Bertolucci, Lynch, and other titans of seriously salacious cinema.
And everywhere, or at least a short boat ride away, is nature—to be walked in, climbed on, or simply enjoyed from the terrace of a good dining room. Alpine peaks rise behind tiled rooftops. At Kehrsiten, 13 miles southeast of the city, a funicular took me to a dramatic plateau, the Bürgenstock, with a view of the entire region and trails offering gentle Alpine hikes. A 45-minute walk brought me to the terrace of one of the area's luxurious spa hotels, where I had a bountiful Italian lunch and gazed on a scene out of Heidi.
Back in Lucerne, I had a drink at the city's most spectacular bar, on the terrace of the Hotel Montana, an Art Deco hillside palace. As I sipped my Prosecco, I watched a balloon float lazily across the pink and blue sky, then pause to hover directly over my destination for the evening: the great green music box on the other side of the lake.
Nouvel's hall embraced me subliminally as I made my way through the city's open-air sparkle and into the broad, canopied lakeside plaza, where I joined my fellow concert patrons milling about an illuminated fountain, pre-concert drinks in hand. I felt as if I were boarding a ship as I entered the sleek lobby, where strategically placed windows, both grand and miniature in scale, drew me toward them for a fleeting glimpse at the outside world.
That night, I was electrified by the clarity and vibrancy of the Festival Orchestra's performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony, conducted by Abbado. Never before have I felt such a balance between intimacy and spaciousness, a balance the city of Lucerne embodies as well.
CHARLES MICHENER writes a column on classical music for the New York Observer.
WHAT TO DO
The summer festival runs from August 11 to September 18 this year. For tickets, call 41-41/226-4480 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. 13 Hirschmattstrasse; www.lucernefestival.ch.
10 Pilatusstrasse; 41-41/220-1660; www.rosengart.ch.
WHERE TO STAY
Schweizerhofquai; 41-41/410-0410; www.schweizerhof-luzern.ch; doubles from $429.
14 Sempacherstrasse; 41-41/226-8686; www.the-hotel.ch; doubles from $340.
WHERE TO EAT
Old Swiss House
Traditional eatery, in a space furnished with 17th-century antiques. 4 Löwenplatz; 41-41/410-6171; dinner for two $116.
Low-ceilinged 16th-century tavern in Hotel Rebstock. 3 St. Leodegarstrasse; 41-41/410-3581; dinner for two $132.