Why do summer festivals always play the same old stuff?

In the past four days I have listened to lost chamber music by Artur Schnabel, a once-successful 20th century harpsichord concerto that has gone unplayed for 60 years, arias by the Armenian mystic Komitas, a piece by an English composer Mary Donington (so obscure there are no dates available) and Uri Caine’s reimagination of music by the murderer Gesualdo.

Needless to say I was not ending my summer at Lucerne, Verbier, Salzburg, Aix, or any of the familiar watering holes of the music crowd. These places simply play the same central repertoire year after year ad infinitum.

My hangout was a French Alpine festival at Megève, two ski slopes up from Geneva and flexing its muscles for the first time with a range of music I was really curious to hear.

The unplayed harpsichord concerto was by Wolfgang Jacobi (1897-1972), an inner exile in Hitler’s Germany, and the arias by Komitas were stunningly sung a capella by Juliette Galstian, head of voice at the Geneva Conservatoire. There was even a programme of English chamber music for clarinet – lovely stuff, played by a Russian soloist Dimitri Rasul-Kareyev.

Not one concert that I attended failed to grip my attention. Not since Gidon Kremer’s ealy days at Lockenhaus half a lifetime ago has a festival tried to buck the trend by presenting music that is fiercely unfamiliar.

Megève has been founded by Guido Houben, a former Verbier executive who saw a gap in the clouds, and its mission extends beyond filling empty beds in an end-of-season ski resort. It seeks actively to engage audiences not just with concerts but with films, lectures, debates, daylong themes and more. I’ve bookmarked it for next summer. You should, too.

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  • Pirkko says:

    You should try the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival. Lots of typical repertoire there, too, but in between several works by lesser known composers, and usually a couple of world premieres.

  • Caravaggio says:

    Isn’t Ojai (in California) well known for adventurous, cutting edge programming?

  • MacroV says:

    To answer your question, the obvious answer is that the festivals you named are trying to sell seats by featuring name-brand performers and doing so the way pretty much every orchestra or presenting organization does: familiar repertoire. They evidently consider the financial risks of doing otherwise too great.

    A chamber music festival – as opposed to one that puts on operas and symphony concerts – can better afford the risk of presenting something unusual. So comparing Megeve to Salzburg or Lucerne is probably a little unfair. But such enterprising festivals certain deserve encouragement.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    That’s why I generally don’t go to summer festivals anymore – it’s the same old stuff from the previous concert season. Hollywood Bowl, Aspen, Vail, Grand Tetons, Sun Valley, Ravinia, Blossom, even Tanglewood have just gotten repetitive and boring. Just going to hear a fine orchestra play isn’t enough. Leon Botstein at Bard does a terrific job of bringing out music that the others won’t play – next year it’s Korngold! Having a concert outdoors with kids running around while people munch their chicken wings and slurp down a beer is also no way to listen to music.
    It’s too bad some wealthy patrons can’t be found to run a festival along the lines of Festival of Forgotten Composers. A month of Raff, Rubinstein, Vladigerov, Parry, Stanford, Bax, Glazunov, Pfitzner, and so many others whose music is known primarily through recordings. The problem of course is attracting an audience. I suspect that there are not many of us in this world who spend a lot of time exploring forgotten, neglected music.

    • Karl says:

      Bard has become my favorite festival for that reason. Leon Botstein programs the most interesting pieces. Even during the fall/winter season he has interesting programs. Coming up is the Rimsky-Korsakov 1st Symphony and Gliere’s 3rd Symphony.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Cubs Fan writes “I suspect that there are not many of us in this world who spend a lot of time exploring forgotten, neglected music.”

      I think this is the central issue. And we have to remember that even most people who go to concerts fairly regularly (e.g. several times a year) will not have heard much of what is considered “core repertoire”. For instance, I have never heard Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, or Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique, and I go to concerts more often than “several times a year”.

  • RW2013 says:

    Depends on where you live, or don’t.
    My local festival is presently retrospecting B.A. Zimmerman with 5 of his orchestral works, and there are 4 all-Stockhausen concerts. The Schnabel series we’ve had too.

    • Alex Davies says:

      Aha! So now I know where John Borstlap and Sally take their summer holidays.

      • RW2013 says:

        I’ll look out for them…

        • John Borstlap says:

          This summer Sally and I went to the local festival in the Provence village Simiane-la-Rotonde, without the family who – armed with profound indignation on the suggestion they would join us – went to Biaritz instead. And in the round hall of the romanesque castle people from all over the world gather to hear full cycles of Stockhausen’s chamber works which takes whole days. We do this on a regular annual basis to check-out whether our difference of opinion is still in place (it always is). This year we discovered that almost all other audience members had come with the same intention. Everybody we spoke found it awful, and poor Sally felt quite alone.

  • SDG says:

    try presteigne

  • sdg says:

    Try Presteigne.

  • Harold says:

    Are there any European music festivals in May?

  • NineDragonSpot says:

    The only Walter Jacobis I can find are a Nazi rocket scientist and a Nazi police chief in occupied Prague. Perhaps Lebrecht is thinking of the composer Wolfgang Jacobi (who, incidentally, was born in 1894).

  • Shackleford says:

    Can’t find the music of Walter Jacobi anywhere… was the concert recorded?

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