I won’t miss those swanky, stale and sullen summer festivals

I won’t miss those swanky, stale and sullen summer festivals


norman lebrecht

May 22, 2020

I’ve written a lead piece for the Spectator under the sub-head: ‘The traditions of the Salzburg, Lucerne and Verbier festivals were built on fear, vanity and Nazi gold. Why would anyone miss them?’

You can read the full article here if you are a subscriber.

If not, here’s a teaser:

Between the mid-1950s and 1980s, the Salzburg summer festival – along with two extra events that Karajan added at Easter and Whitsun – was a Roman Colosseum where fresh talent was thrown to the lions and record bosses came bearing gifts. At the Karajan festivals I attended the air stank of sycophancy, cheap Sekt and fear; even taxis were festooned with his corporate advertising.

Lucerne, meanwhile, waxed fat on Nazi gold and the highest ticket prices on the classical planet. It built an exquisite concert hall that seemed to float on the lake and took pride in contracting the socialist Claudio Abbado to entertain its preponderance of plutocrats, many of them on the wrong side of 80…

Now’s the time to rethink our future summers.




  • Ron Swanson says:

    I do agree that festivals are not very festive these days. The Bath festival has had some good choral work and the Cheltenham jazz festival was good if you liked jazz.

  • Annika S. says:

    A lot of what I have witnessed in Salzburg lately is shameful (in Summer, Easter, and Mozartwoche). This last Mozartwoche 2020 there was a terrible staged version of Der Messias with an absurd production by Robert Wilson, a hideous choir from Vienna, and a terrible music direction by Marc Minkowski (and it is being repeated this summer!). In the summer of 2019 there was a very bad production of Médée with Stock and Thomas Hengelbrock. Then we have the usual under-rehearsed concerts from major concerts during the Festival… and all at extremely high prices.

    I think in 2021 I will go to Majorca and forget my summer visit to Salzburg.

    • FrauGeigerin says:

      Could not agree more. The very nature of the Salzburg Festival does not allow for lots of rehearsals.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        The orchestras play the same music at several summer festivals. That way they use the early concerts as rehearsals and become quite polished over time.

    • Rigoletto says:

      Funny you mentioned that Messiah in Salzburg: I decided not to come back next year to the Mozartwoche after attending the premier (why did they hire such choir and keep bringing Minkowski?), and wasn’t returning this summer because of the bad experience I had with the operas performed last festival.

  • Music Lover says:

    I can’t speak for the past…but that is certainly not the experience I have had with the summer festivals recently! Perhaps the people due to work at these festivals this summer might find your headline a tad flippant.

  • mary says:

    So true.

    Now it’s Russian oligarchs and strongmen.

    Nothing burnishes one’s image better than a tuxedo and a glass of champagne (I’m sure, for them, it’s not Sekt)

    You just know that all those patrons, sitting there, identify with Scarpia and Don Pizarro, and wonder what Tosca and Leonore are bitching about so much.

    • AngloGerman says:

      So ignorant – without high net worth sponsors ambitious musical performances and festivals (which also contribute massively to the running of the ensembles performing) would simply not be possible…

  • Novagerio says:

    The Lucerne festival was established as a shelter to artists escaping Nazi persecution, under the initiative of Toscanini and Adolf Busch. I’m afraid you have the wrong Adolf as festival donor…
    Watch from 7;30: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p_4bvVETpQM

    • Ron Swanson says:

      The Swiss national Bank received, in todays money, $5.8 billon of gold looted from other countries. Those mysterious German speakers in post war South America all had Swiss numbered bank accounts. Who do think paid for the festival’s running costs. Switzerland grew richer of unclaimed Jewish accounts and money laundering for the SS.

      • Brettermeier says:

        “Switzerland grew richer of unclaimed Jewish accounts and money laundering for the SS.”

        And unclaimed Nazi accounts. One of the reasons they don’t like Germans: They remind them where they got their money.

        Vergangenheitsbewältigung in Switzerland is not talking about the past. And that’s what “Bank secrecy” is for.

      • wasteland says:

        I remember a debate several years ago in Switzerland about whether or not Swiss banks, in addition to gold stolen from Jews, also took in tooth gold from the extermination camps.

  • Vincent Mouret says:

    Ce qui est excessif est dérisoire.

  • Rob says:

    It won’t be long before those mediocre jet set conductors are back,

    gilding the lily.


    “Come fly with me, will float down to Peru
    In llama-land there’s a one-man band
    And he’ll toot his flute for you.”

  • Madeleine Richardson says:

    I’ve always enjoyed the Vienna festival and the
    Chorégies d’Orange had a wonderful programme this year (I attended this festival last year and really loved it).
    Verona is on my bucket list for Aida or Turandot.

  • MJA says:

    Thanks for the teaser, Norman, but no thanks. I’m not surprised it’s the execrable Spectator that’s printing this. If you hate these festivals so much, why do you make so much of them in Slipped Disc? You must know that you are seriously misrepresenting the current nature of both Salzburg and Lucerne, and the idea of the tradition of Salzburg being built on nazi gold is an inversion of the facts. Do they know this is how you feel when they offer (and you accept) the hospitality of the Festival? I don’t want to rethink my summers, but your welcome to do just that.

    • Novagerio says:

      MJA Exactly. I wonder what founding fathers like Max Reinhardt (Salzburg) and Toscanini/Adolf Busch (Lucerne) would say about all the insolence and arrogance above. As if receiving liquidity depended on a party card. What’s the point? IBM, General Motors, Henry Ford, Prescott Bush, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, Coca-Cola, Kodak, Union Banking Corporation and other american corporations contributed in Hitler’s raise to power.
      Those nations with an impeccable history may throw the first stone = in short, NONE.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      “The Spectator” is very good and one of the few places still available where you won’t find Leftist diktat, thought control and propaganda.

      • MJA says:

        Sue Sonata Form – so many British print media that I once would have read have disqualified themselves now by becoming manipulative propaganda sheets of the age of identity politics, each in their own way, and The Spectator sits nicely among them, so don’t kid yourself – or us. The clue is in the identity of a recent former editor.

      • DR. GRIMWOOD says:

        Please remember to take your meds.

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      I was going to say, “gee, I sure wish I could afford to go to such stale, swanky and sullen music festivals”. Other than the Ojai and Cabrillo Festivals for modern music, such festivals are nearly non-existent out here on the left coast. Even if some of the opera productions are duds at these fests, they still have some terrific orchestral concerts. Some of the recitals can’t be that bad either. And when is performing chamber music with really good players, EVER a bad idea? . . . (we do have the low key Menlo Music Festival for chamber music in Menlo Park, Ca).

  • Sam McElroy says:

    What a real, real pity we lost Martha’s Lugano Festival, beloved by all of us who took part. It disappeared with barely a whisper from the classical music world.

  • EJKA says:

    i largely agree. and i somewhat disagree. having performed at both festivals a number of times i find the lucerne audience far more appreciative. there is not a ‘scene’… salzburg on the other hand is mostly a scene and if i have to see one more rolls royce show up i will simply scream. are the concerts important, or is it the gowns and diamonds? i sometimes do not know. i’ll end with lucerne is still about good performances. salzburg i doubt.

    • MJA says:

      Are there two Salzburgs? Because I go quite frequently to the one in Austria on account of the memorable musical experiences I garner there, and I have neither gowns nor a Rolls Royce and nor do I see that many of either, so you probably don’t need to let loose your scream, thankfully. Please don’t perpetuate clichés.

      • AngloGerman says:

        Also, so what if someone drives a Rolls Royce – does that exclude them from participating and funding cultural activities? The level of spite and, for want of a better word, ‘elitism’ being displayed here is ridiculous.

      • MHTE says:

        I´m just a middle class nobody who loves classical music and the atmosphere in Salzburg is wonderful and I don´t see that much glitter and Rolls as described by another post and if the glitterati also like classical music and opera, what´s wrong with that.

  • HOMEWORK says:

    You write : The traditions of the Salzburg, Lucerne and Verbier festivals were built on fear, vanity and Nazi gold.

    I have no precise knowledge regarding these charges, but could someone just explain to me how the Verbier festival qualifies? I’m just curious and a bit puzzled.

  • NotYet80 says:

    ??? “many of them on the wrong side of 80…” ???
    I think we would all do well to celebrate the “wrong’ side of 80, and to aspire to reach that status ourselves one day (without being castigated for having done so). Those loyal supporters of classical music whom you dismiss so readily are keeping alive the very artistic endeavors that provide fodder for your facile judgment and enable your lifestyle.

  • Couperin says:

    I can only speak for Lucerne Festival where I have performed many summers. Sure it’s pricy but they have also created many opportunities for free concerts, reduced ticket prices and more. I’ve heard some of the greatest performances of my life spending 20 Swiss francs for last-minute rush tickets.

  • NotYet80 says:

    There is no WRONG side of 80. Wait until July 11, 2028.

  • Edgar Self says:

    It’s several years now since I began hearing “festival quality” used derisively or as a joke to describe under-rehearsed performances by jet-lagged soloists. I hope, and assume, there are festivals that do not operate that way.

  • MezzoLover says:

    I was at the 2017 Salzburg Summer Festival (which marked the beginning of Markus Hinterhäuser’s second tenure as Artistic Director), and there was nothing “sullen” or “stale” about my experience there.

    The highlight for me was definitely the (then) new production of “Wozzeck” directed by William Kentridge, the South African artist known for his politically themed multimedia installation works. Before the performance I visited a special exhibition of Kentridge at Salzburg’s Museum der Moderne, and the experience really helped me appreciate this unique artist who I think genuinely sympathizes with the cruelly exploited characters in the opera. The excellent cast was headed by Matthias Goerne and Asmik Gregorian, supported by the superlative playing of the Vienna Philharmonic under Vladimir Jurowski. The results were dark, unsettling, extremely powerful and, in the final scene, deeply moving. It’s like nothing else in my entire concert-going experience and it is absolutely wonderful.

    Oh, I probably should mention my wife and I had a finger-licking fried chicken brunch at Grünmarkt right before going to a late Saturday morning concert at the Festspiele (Mahler Seventh performed by Daniel Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic). There were several other well-heeled concertgoers at the small stall, and we were all standing shoulder to shoulder while eating and loving the experience, which was as far from being “swanky” as one can imagine.

  • MJA says:

    And “swanky” is such a tabloid term – a bit like “plush”. I honestly thought you were a better writer than that.

  • Tanya says:

    I loved all my visits to Sazlburg, ecpecially in 2019. I got a subscription to their entire Whitsun festival. It was dedicated to the memory of castrati singers, and the festival was really who is who, best of the best in baroque music: Bartoli, Jaroussky, Fagioli, Piau, Cencic, Lezhneva, Dumaux, Hallenberg, Genaux… I am sure I missed a few names. Where else would you be able to heart them all in span of just a few days?

  • I attended the Salzburg Festival in 1960 and saw every single opera the casts of which included the most famous singers the world could offer. The ticket price was Schillings 140 (or approx. £1.95) which has now become €450+.

    Singers included : della Casa, Schwarzkopf, Ludwig, Sciutti, Watson, Wunderlich, Kunz, Waechter, Edelmann, Stich-Randall, Christoff, HvK, Böhm, Kmentt, Prey, Bastianini, Arie, Resnik, Jurinac, Rothenberger, Fischer-Dieskau, Seefried, Frick, Köth, Berry, Keilberth, Leontyne Price, Panerai, Valletti… and, all in one week, we saw Flute, Nozzi, Cosí, Don Carlos, R’kav & Giovanni and a Mass in St. Peter’s Church (and met Clifford Curzon over a Salzburger Nockerl).

    There was not a regietheatre hooligan in sight, so, yes, THAT was a festival and, at age 20 a great lesson in growing up. How lucky we were !

    Salzburg is a glorious place – outside the “festival” !!

    • Edgar Self says:

      John Deacon — With such dream casts, you could have retired from the field with honour. Only Hans Hotter is missing, but perhaps you heard him another time, and it was by then drawing late for him.

      Youngsters smile, but the records are there. And who remembers Cesare Valletti today? I saw Resnik, Frick, and Keilberth at Bayreuth six years earlier, and later Schwarzkopf, Della Casa, Ludwig, Prey, Karajan, and Fischer-Dieskau, but never all in the same place. We were blessed, and I’m blessed if I know why. A lesson in growing up, indeed.

      • Thank you, Edgar Self, for your kind comments. Hotter ? Yes indeed: Rings at ROH 1960 & Bayreuth 1966 and the ROH Fidelio under Klemperer. And during my years at EMI France (1964-8) saw Callas (Tosca & Norma) and met her as well. Great years indeed.

        • Edgar Self says:

          John Deacon — More marvels. EMI-France 1964-1968? That would be La Voi de son Maitre? More memories there, I’ll warrant. A valued reply, thank you.

          You are fortunate indeed. Callas had stories to tell, of Legge, Malcolm Sargent who once accompanied her on piano at a palace gala, Schwarzkopf, Legge, Furtwaengler, and Klemperer. I never saw her, to my sorrow.

          I am also too young to have seen Chaliapin but have studied the photographs and records, and can say that Hans Hotter is the greatest thing I’ve seen on stage (I also never saw Olivier). But at the 1954 Bayreuth “Ring” and a “Walkuere” with Leinsdorf by San Francisco Opera at Los Angeles that same year, for Nilsson’s debut, I saw his Wotan again and wa a lost soul.

  • Frank says:

    Your teasers and headlines are very provocative and generalistic. Headlines need to be a bit provocative and generalistic if you want to attract the less informed people and/or public that do not tire themselves by reading articles that last more than an average of one minute. I am very disappointed how you by the style and ‘content’ of your headlines think of the ‘level’ of your readers. I no longer feel engaged and will de-subscribe from your site. Just to add some provocative and generalistic content from my side for the polemics you are looking for: I think your style of reporting is shadowed by a good deal of frustration and populistic urge. Good luck with the discussions you will undoubtedly get. Not my style.

  • HOMEWORK says:

    I have now read the Spectator article. I see that your teaser above does not in fact represent what you wrote in the article. You did not say that Verbier was founded on Nazi gold – which indeed would make no sense at all. You were just rude about it, and all the other festivals! When I get rich I hope to attend them all, at least once. Perhaps I shall have the pleasure of meeting you at some of them.

  • Francesca says:

    And they won’t miss you