In the wanton days when air travel was king, pre-planetary concerns, pre-Covid, one aspect of musical life was a given. Elite orchestras crisscrossed the globe in a ritual dance every summer, looping through each other’s schedules and coming together in the weft of arrival or departure. Edinburgh and the Proms were fixtures, with several leading European venues, among them the annual festival in Lucerne, Switzerland, founded in 1938 and one of the oldest of its kind.
This year, if with caution, some still masked, orchestras are travelling once more. Their plans to offset carbon omissions remain vague, but these are hard times and we await patiently. The Lucerne festival – which already has an exemplary sustainability programme – was back to full strength, welcoming the world’s top ensembles and soloists to its many-layered season. Its important contemporary strand featured the British composer Thomas Adès, with the premiere of his festival commission, Air, for violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. (Further performances for those of us who missed it are scheduled next year for the US, but none as yet for the UK.)
The year’s overriding theme was diversity, symbolised by multicoloured chess pieces in the publicity material: bitonal knights, a zebra-striped bishop. A bold move was to invite Chineke!, the British majority black and minority ethnic orchestra, thus giving this seven-year-old newcomer a platform alongside the world’s most venerable: the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra among others. Chi-chi Nwanoku, Chineke!’s founder, gave the keynote speech. Chineke! will close the festival today, with the cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason as soloist.
Swiss concert audiences, diverse in language rather than ethnicity, are almost exclusively white, and not all were initially charmed by this theme. A New York Times report quoted a Swiss-based journalist asking: “Why are we following some sort of California agenda?” Lucerne’s director, Michael Haefliger, sees social awareness as an intrinsic part of the festival, the only limit to anything being quality. Given recent reports in the Swiss media of police brutality towards black people, and a belated acknowledgment of Switzerland’s role in the African slave trade, the choice of topic is timely.
On its extensive European tour, the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of America’s greatest, had a programme tailor-made for Lucerne. With their mercurial and big-spirited music director, the Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin, they have been exploring (and recording) music by Florence Price, the hitherto neglected African American composer. In the first of two concerts, they played her Symphony No 1 (1933), an uneven but exuberantly melodic work, its last two movements especially ambitious.
In the transparent acoustic of Lucerne’s beautiful KKL concert hall, the orchestra’s mighty brass and fabled, rich-toned strings showed their strength, though at this mid-point of a heavy schedule, they had every reason to sound just a little lacklustre in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in a breathless, idiosyncratic account. Nézet-Séguin is working hard to bring diversity to the repertoire: they introduced a new work from the American composer Valerie Coleman, This Is Not a Small Voice (2021/22). The song cycle, her third commission from Philadelphia, is a lyrical, voluptuous setting, with soprano Angel Blue the sensuous soloist. The text, by Sonia Sanchez, the veteran Black Arts Movement poet, celebrates the precious innocence of black children.
In the airy, modernist church of St Luke, the star South African soprano Golda Schultz, a festival “artiste étoile”, with the American pianist Jonathan Ware, gave a stimulating recital of music spanning the past two centuries by Clara Schumann, Emilie Mayer, Rebecca Clarke, Nadia Boulanger and Kathleen Tagg (b 1977). Schultz’s warm humour beguiled her audience between sets, but the knockout power and dramatic range of her singing, especially in Mayer’s second setting of Goethe’s Erlkönig, had the capacity crowd shouting for more.
A greatly expanded Vienna Philharmonic fired on every cylinder possible in Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen with spirited authority. I have no idea how it fitted the idea of diversity, though since this 10-movement epic embraces love, death and the meaning of life, it can bend itself to any theme. This glamorous orchestra, for whom dress and drill are part of the business, had already performed it in Hamburg and Salzburg (alas not the UK). From the monumental roars of trombones and tuba to the crazed, whooping ecstasies of the solo piano (a dazzling Bertrand Chamayou) and ondes martenot (Cécile Lartigau), to the mad, magnificent last chord that started loud then grew ever more thunderous, they gave their exhilarating, joyful all.