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 On my last morning at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland, I was blogging from Harold's Internet Café — a prime social hub — and started to chat with its proprietor, Alan Woolman. The trouble with the festival, he pointed out, was that it ran only for two-and-a-half weeks a year. He's a culture-addicted entrepreneur and his latest initiative, he says, is to spearhead a plan to bring more cultural activities to the Valais region during the remaining 49-and-a-half weeks. 

And so it's gone along with many other such festivals: a few weeks of bustle, razzle and dazzle in summer; then hibernation until the same time next year. The sheer concentration of events into such a short space of time adds, admittedly, to the extraordinary sugar-rush of creative energy for which festivals are often beloved. But it's time to ask what they can do next. As a chilly financial climate bites, will festivals have to rethink their purpose?


Rare chance to see a star: Bryn Terfel at the Verbier Festival 

A festival can serve many purposes. It can put a town on a map. It can regenerate a moribund economy, pulling in punters to hotels, shops and eateries — as in Verbier, a ski resort that was previously a little lost in summer. It can offer a glamorous destination and big-name stars for well-heeled holiday-makers (Salzburg is a case in point). Or it can keep a specialist flame alive — Bayreuth for Wagner, Torre del Lago for Puccini. 

Alternatively, it can offer a taste of world-class culture to a spot that otherwise has little. My violinist friend Philippe Graffin has been doing this for 20 years with his festival in France, Consonances de Saint-Nazaire. Now the locals in this apparently unlikely shipbuilding town queue happily for everything from Rodion Shchedrin's latest composition to a Gypsy band or chamber music by Fauré, trusting the festival to bring them the best. In Hungary, the violinist Katalin Kokás has just started a new festival in the small town of Kaposvár, attracting a blend of big names — revered Hungarian pianists Zoltán Kocsis and Ferenc Rados, for instance — plus a selection of the country's most gifted youngsters. It's Hungary that will reap the benefits.

There could also be masterclasses, youth orchestras or both, providing young musicians with invaluable experience and formative influences. Verbier's energy increasingly feels driven by its Festival Academy, in which the young orchestra trains with the world's greatest conductors and budding soloists are coached by Barbara Bonney and Alfred Brendel. I was nearly trampled underfoot in the audience rush to get in to the singing students' final performance of La Bohème — and very impressive it was.

Still, it's cash that talks. Festivals can't exist without money to back them — especially not if they're bringing in expensive stars. And money is not so plentiful now. When UBS pulled the sponsorship plug on the Verbier Festival Orchestra, the festival's founder and director Martin Engstroem went to the region's local government with figures proving how beneficial the festival was to the town's summer economy. As a result, and unusually for Switzerland, state cash now joins forces with sponsors like the private bank Julius Bär Gruppe and Rolex to keep things afloat.

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