At pianist Angela Hewitt’s Trasimeno festival in Umbria, Michael Z. Wise discovers the pleasures—and burgeoning global popularity—of the small, artist-run chamber music event.
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.
On stage at this new breed of smaller festivals, musicians have a chance to take complete control of the performance itself. "The more concerts you play," says David Finckel of the Emerson String Quartet, "you begin to realize that you’re at the mercy of your presenters. You might play your best, but so many things could have been done better, from the acoustics to the lighting to more trivial artist amenities. But even more important is the preparation of the audience—the program notes they read and their general involvement in whatever series you have." Music@Menlo’s advance-ticket holders receive specially prepared CD’s ahead of the performance that offer in-depth explorations of the music and the historical context of the composers’ careers.
Andsnes notes that festivals enable artists to explore a more innovative repertoire than they normally perform at major metropolitan concert halls. While Andsnes plays heavy doses of Brahms and Grieg during the rest of the year, he regularly invites a less often heard contemporary composer to be in residence at the Risør festival. Last summer the featured composer was Britain’s Mark-Anthony Turnage; an additional focus was the music of Frenchman Henri Dutilleux.
Musicians and audience members alike refer to the festival-going experience as more intense than a one-off concert during the regular season. "People enjoy listening more at festivals," says Finckel, who, in addition to having founded Music@Menlo, codirects the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. "You don’t get off work, rush home and get in your suit, sit down at 8:01 and try to figure out what’s going on. A festival is a pure leisure activity rather than a subscription or a social obligation."
Sociability plays an undeniable role, however; by attending several festival concerts in succession, audience members frequently get to know one another. At Trasimeno, concertgoers included lifelong friends of Hewitt’s from her native Canada, members of the European diplomatic service, a group of well-heeled Japanese who appeared in Issey Miyake gowns every evening, Israeli academics, and Italian financiers in summer linens.
But in contrast to larger gatherings such as Salzburg, festivals like this one are more about the music itself than a high-octane social scene. Talk among the Trasimeno attendees usually centers on whatever is being heard that evening—how a particular performance compared with one by Murray Perahia or Radu Lupu, or spirited recollections of Vladimir Horowitz’s last public concert in New York.
The open-air settings in historic courtyards add charm and, at times, introduce an element of chance to the concerts. At last summer’s event, while crickets chirped loudly in the background, evening breezes obliged the performers to keep a close eye on their sheet music. Rain briefly interrupted one stellar performance, a duo piano recital that Hewitt gave with Akiko Ebi. Tarps were hastily brought in to cover the two ebony concert grands until the showers ceased, and the playing resumed. Downpours the next day caused the festival’s final concert to be held in a nearby church rather than the castle’s courtyard.
Not surprisingly, many Trasimeno audience members are avid fans of Hewitt herself. Kazunori Shibuya, a former high-tech executive from Japan, attending the festival for the second year running, says he has organized an Angela Hewitt fan club in his homeland. "We call her the prima donna ballerina of the keyboard," he explains.
Of course, Hewitt says, having your own festival can be a good career move—though a financially risky one. "What I’m doing here is really enlarging my audience," she says. "If I’m going to spend money on promotion and publicity, a festival is a good way to do it. Because then people get the right image of you, the right picture of you." By keeping her festival small and very much marked by her own personality, she provides a rich encounter for music lovers. "It’s a chance to be a part of something friendly, where people can get to know each other; a chance perhaps for them to feel closer to me."
Michael Z. Wise is a T+L contributing editor.
Spannungen: Musik Im Kraftwerk Heimbach Germany; www.spannungen.de; May 20-27, 2007.
Rome Chamber Music Festival Rome; www.romechamberfestival.org; June 19-28, 2007.
Risør Festival of Chamber Music Risør, Norway; www.kammermusikkfest.no; June 26-July 1, 2007.
Mimir Chamber Music Festival Fort Worth, Tex.; www.mimirfestival.org; July 2-13, 2007.
Lockenhaus Kammermusikfest Lockenhaus, Austria; www.kammermusikfest.at; July 5-15, 2007.
Trasimeno Music Festival Lake Trasimeno, Italy; www.trasimenomusicfestival.com; July 7-13, 2007.
Musiktage Mondsee Mondsee, Austria; www.musiktage-mondsee.at; September 1-8, 2007.
Julian Rachlin & Friends Dubrovnik, Croatia; www.julianrachlin.com; September 5-16, 2007.
International Chamber Music Festival Utrecht; www.kamermuziekfestival.nl; December 26-30, 2007.