Prolonging the Festive Season

 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?

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.

With state funding comes a responsibility to offer more by way of local access, education and so forth. Nothing wrong with that. Why should culture be reserved for summer visitors alone? France’s model has always been different: Consonances de Saint-Nazaire, like many French festivals, relies on state support, hence exists to benefit its local community. If Verbier can indeed move forward by spreading cultural life through its region’s community all year round, it could be a worthy example for others to follow.

If festivals are to survive, they need to attract both sponsorship money and ticket sales. If they receive state funding, they have to prove their worth to those who might not be predisposed to understand it. So they must adapt and innovate. Those that don’t thrive on real creativity, concentrate on ticking politically-correct boxes or are ego trips for their directors may have to rethink, because — as I saw in Verbier — it is living creativity, such as the encounters of great musicians with the young and gifted, that produces the most excitement. This rubs off on the observers and keeps them flocking in. And there are countless ways for festivals to extend their remit. Verbier webcasts its concerts on Medici TV. Nearer to home, Glyndebourne has sent its festival operas to big-screen events at Somerset House, enabling welcome wider access.

Unfortunately it may not always be the right ones that pull through. Some are bound to go to the wall, and not necessarily through any fault of their own. Dartington International Summer School of Music (Diss), my own most vital formative influence, is currently facing the threat of a redevelopment of its host college’s gorgeous site into a luxury leisure what-have-you. Diss has functioned for decades as festival, masterclass hub and seething hot-house of hungry talent. But I hear that one residential block is apparently to be turned into a retirement home, while the studios are handed over to some small businesses that are being shunted out of that building. And you can’t have a summer school without teaching rooms. 

It was at Dartington that, as a sort of teenage sponge, I soaked up the lectures of the music (and football) critic Hans Keller and the wisdom of the great pianist Vlado Perlemuter, who had known Fauré and Ravel; I played dubiously in piano masterclasses with András Schiff and Imogen Cooper, and sang atrociously in choral works by Haydn, Mozart and Messiaen. Dartington was an oasis in which every participant — hundreds of them — shared the same passion for music. Lifelong friendships were forged, and energy gathered enabling you to face the rest of the year, bolstered with the faith and hope that only the sharing of great art can provide. Without all that, I wouldn’t be writing here now. It will be tragic if the place is forced to fold.

Verbier had to adapt, fast, when the site of its former concert tent was sold to a developer; rapid relocation has changed the event’s focus, but proved its will to live. The verve of the finest festivals shows how much we need them as soul food. But they will have to be ready for change. Extending plans towards year-round culture and access for all has to be at least the start of a way forward. 

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