The Lucerne Festival Is on the Threshold of Change
It is a critical time for the revered Lucerne classical music festival in Switzerland.
In January 2014, Claudio Abbado, the founder of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, passed away after a long illness. Since then, guest conductors like Bernard Haitink and Andris Nelsons have filled in. If finding a successor for the beloved conductor were all that the festival’s intendant, Michael Haefliger, had to deal with, his task would have been difficult enough. Mr. Abbado was considered a near god in Lucerne. But Mr. Haefliger also has had to find a replacement for Pierre Boulez, who owing to age and infirmity will retire as artistic director of the Lucerne Festival Academy, a contemporary music institute, later this summer.
Some of the uncertainty has been removed with the appointment earlier this month of Riccardo Chailly as Mr. Abbado’s successor at the helm of the LFO. But change is coming, and what kind of change is what’s on people’s minds.
Since being founded in 2003 the LFO has made its reputation with standard-setting performances of the music of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) and Anton Bruckner (1824-1896). Mr. Abbado was unequaled in the core Germanic repertory of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mr. Chailly has different interests, strengths and weaknesses. Though he brings convincing interpretations to a wide range of repertoire, Mr. Chailly particularly excels in the music of 20th-century composers and is much more interested in new music and new audiences than Mr. Abbado was in his last years.
This raises the serious question of whether a top conductor like Mr. Chailly whose relative strength lies in 20th-century and modern music can succeed with an orchestra whose forte is in Mahler and Bruckner.
That Mr. Abbado left the world a great Mahler orchestra was evident at the performance I attended last Thursday evening when the superb Andris Nelsons led the LFO in a magnificent performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. The Fifth was a wise choice with which to close the Abbado era. It has the Trauermarsch (Funeral March), which underscores the orchestra’s deep sadness that Mr. Abbado is gone. And the LFO has the world’s greatest solo trumpet in Reinhold Friedrich to do the music and occasion justice.
Mr. Friedrich’s powerful and profound playing inspired his illustrious colleagues in a triumphal performance. Over his tenure, Mr. Abbado crafted a true “orchestra of friends”—to be included in the LFO one had to be personally invited by the conductor—and this is likely the final time this specific group will play together in Lucerne. Some musicians surely will not return in the future and Mr. Chailly will choose their replacements.
Given the change of leadership, the LFO’s repertoire might shift to include more modern music and less of the core Germanic repertoire. To keep the balance of repertoire for the festival as a whole, perhaps the many international orchestras that perform in Lucerne as guests—such as the Boston Symphony and San Francisco Symphony, which are visiting the festival later this summer—could play less modern music and more Mahler and Bruckner than they have here in the past. But Mr. Chailly’s choice of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony to start his tenure next summer is possibly his way of saying that no big changes in repertoire are in the works. Stay tuned.
Mr. Chailly’s interest in new music raises other issues for Lucerne. One reason the Abbado-Boulez relationship worked so well is that each kept out of the other’s way. Mr. Boulez’s successor at the contemporary music institute is due to be announced at the conclusion of this year’s festival. The common interests of the new leaders of the orchestra and the institute might yield valuable synergies. But given that Mr. Chailly has strong views and much knowledge of new music, I can also see conflict and jealousies arising between him and whoever takes over Mr. Boulez’s post.
The marquee event of this summer’s festival was the celebration of Mr. Boulez’s 90th birthday and his enormous contributions to contemporary music, which culminated on Sunday with a marathon series of seven concerts in a single day. In the final orchestral concert, no less than four new works were presented—by the composers Wolfgang Rihm, Samy Moussa, Gyorgy Kurtag and Piotr Peszat. There was a relaxed and receptive mood, with cushions replacing seats in the concert hall. Unfortunately, Mr. Boulez was too fragile to attend.
The theme of this summer’s festival is humor, but there’s nothing funny about bidding adieu to the glories of Messrs. Abbado and Boulez. If 2016 promises to be a summer of hope and anticipation, 2015 has been one of farewells and uncertainties. A great era has come to a close.