EFA Festival in Focus | Lucerne Festival

Simon Mundy, in interview with Michael Haefliger, Executive & Artistic Director of the Lucerne Festival, looks at the festival’s history and current success

 For Lucerne's festival 2018 sees an impressive list of anniversaries: eighty years since it was first held, thirty since an Easter festival was introduced to complement the traditional summer one, and twenty since Michael Haefliger took the helm as Director. Each of those anniversaries tells a story.

For Lucerne's festival 2018 sees an impressive list of anniversaries: eighty years since it was first held, thirty since an Easter festival was introduced to complement the traditional summer one, and twenty since Michael Haefliger took the helm as Director. Each of those anniversaries tells a story.

The first festival, in the summer of 1938, could hardly avoid politics; indeed it was a conscious reaction to them – by celebrating Wagner's love of the lakeside in performances by musicians who were known to oppose fascism or had been forced out of Germany, Austria and Italy. At the same time, the point that music should heal divisions was made by the involvement of many of Wagner's family.

That was the basis of the letter sent that March to Arturo Toscanini by the Mayor of Lucerne, Jacob Zimmerli. The idea was backed up by the great violinist Adolf Busch, who persuaded Toscanini that the orchestra would be led by him and have at its core the members of his own quartet and, through the good offices of Ernest Ansermet, the best players in Switzerland. Soon the list of acceptances was extraordinary: among them the conductors Bruno Walter, Fritz Busch, Wilhelm Mengelberg and Ansermet himself, along with pianists Alfred Cortot and Rudolf Serkin and the cellist Emmanuel Feuermann. At the end of the summer, on 25 August, Toscanini took his place in front of the orchestra on a special platform built in the grounds of the villa in Tribschen, where Wagner had written and, on Christmas morning 1870, performed the Siegfried Idyll for Cosima. For the 1938 concert all traffic by road, boat or air, was silenced; cows had their bells removed and dogs were shut indoors (for a thorough description of this first two seasons, see Harvey Sachs' excellent new biography of Toscanini). Mussolini was furious and instructed that all Italians returning from the concert have their details noted. Toscanini was denounced as 'an honorary Jew'. A few weeks later he fled from Milan.

Michael Haefliger, Lucerne Festival

The following year he was joined in Lucerne by Walter, Adrian Boult, Rachmaninov, Pablo Casals and Vladimir Horowitz (all artists anathema to the Nazis). His performances of the Verdi Requiem (with the young tenor Jussi Björling, whom he had first heard in London a few months before) were seen as a requiem for peace itself. Days after the end of the festival war broke out. Toscanini did not appear there again until 1946 but, apart from 1940, the festival went ahead, though not always with the high ideals that had led to its foundation.

Over the following quarter of a century the Lucerne Festival's reputation as being centred on the world's great conductors, whether with Swiss players or visiting orchestras, was solidified. Klemperer, Karajan, Ferenc Fricsay and Raphael Kubelik led the roster and in 1956 Rudolf Baumgartner founded the Lucerne Festival Strings, becoming festival Artistic Director twelve years later (though his tenure ended in acrimony in 1980).

By 1988 the summer festival had found new champions in Vladimir Ashkenazy and Claudio Abbado. It also expanded that year, using the fiftieth anniversary to launch an Easter Festival, making use of the city's church spaces, though it did not become a permanent feature of the calender until Swiss conductor Matthias Bamert took over the reins in 1992. He presided for six years until the violinist Michael Haefliger was appointed and he has been in charge ever since.

The festival “was always in my blood,” Michael says. It was part of his life throughout childhood summer holidays because his father was the tenor Ernst Haefliger, a favourite singer for Ferenc Fricsay and a festival regular into the 1970s. Michael sees the years before he took over as one of sustaining continuity and then growing up, cutting loose from the programme interests of agents and reasserting its identity as an independent foundation. Once he was there, he was able to take it in new directions and exploit the potential of the superb new concert hall, including an autumn solo piano festival.

In one form or other having its own orchestra was always at the heart of the festival, though it went through several incarnations (for many of the early years appearing as the Swiss Festival Orchestra). The original idea of Ansermet, Adolf Busch and Toscanini's, to assemble a group from the best players available, survives in the current Lucerne Festival Orchestra, which Michael founded with Claudio Abbado in 2003 and continues with Riccardo Chailly. But that principle is also behind many of the other ensembles that appear there, notably the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (originally formed in the 80s by 'graduates' of the first European Community Youth Orchestra) which has a strong festival partnership with Bernard Haitink.

Choosing the LFO members is “a conductor-led process” and the players tend to be established performers in their thirties, mainly from Germany and Italy. It meets for half a month in the summer and, in a recent innovation, another half month in the autumn when it now tours, especially to Asia. Indeed, during Michael's time, the festival has expanded in many directions. With Pierre Boulez he formed the Lucerne Festival Academy in the same year as the Orchestra, which gathers over a hundred musicians together to work on contemporary music, now directed by Wolfgang Rihm. This gives the festival a chance to commission young composers too. After their time with the Academy, many musicians return for their own concerts as Alumni.

The Ark Nova

In Asia Michael responded to Japan's 2011 earthquake by constructing the Festival Ark Nova, a five hundred seat mobile and inflatable concert hall, with a cedar wood interior from a Japanese region famed for its temples. In Shanghai there is a commitment to build up a base over the coming five years.

He thinks of Lucerne festival as “the greatest orchestra-led festival in the world”, where orchestra encompasses almost anything that happens in a concert – achieved by bringing the cream of conductors and chamber musicians, orchestral players and composers together.

Further Information on the Lucerne Festival

Famous orchestras, legendary conductors, and virtuoso soloists join together three times a year on the idyllic location of Lake Lucerne to celebrate the joy of music. In the concert hall designed by Jean Nouvel, which is renowned for its phenomenal acoustics and its exquisite architecture alike, they encounter an audience that is no less international and sophisticated. Some 110,000 visitors annually make the trip to Lucerne to experience one of the most exquisite and storied music festivals and to hear the international stars of classical music right in the heart of Switzerland.


Executive & Artistic Director | Michael Haefliger

Contact | E: info@lucernefestival.ch
T: 0041 04 12 26 44 00 | Hirschmattstrasse 13, 6002 Lucerne