Verbier's 20th anniversary: a festival of encounters and collisions

The Swiss Verbier Festival does epic, polyphonous music well - but it's real gift is for intimate chamber recitals.

To stand in Verbier’s central square in July is to experience a Charles Ives piece composed live as you listen. From under a brightly-coloured tent a band strikes up a Django Reinhardt-inspired “hot jazz” number – infectious, but not quite enough to draw the ear away from the Schumann string quartet that is filtering out from a hotel dining room. Then there’s the singing: surges of Rossini from the local cinema, and later, as evening falls, the persistent wail of karaoke coming from one of the many bars. It would take a brave man indeed to describe the Swiss Alps as “hills” but, during festival season there’s no denying that they come alive with music.

The Verbier Festival has become a fixture of summer here, transforming an off-season resort to peak activity and energy for just over two weeks each year. The creation of Martin Engstroem, one-time Vice President of A & R at Deutsche Grammophon and before that a major classical agent, the festival has the glossiest little black book in the business and a roster that rivals its setting for glamour.

This year’s performers included not only up-and-comers such as pianists Yuja Wang, Khatia Buniatishvili and Daniil Trifonov, violinists Vilde Frang and Renaud Capucon and cellist and Gauthier Capucon, but also the established old-guard. Evgeny Kissin jostled for programme-space with Emmanuel Ax, Mischa Maisky, Yuri Bashmet and even the elusive Mikhail Pletnev, making a return to the piano after so many years away. It’s a musical feast to sustain visitors all the way through to the next year.

But big though festival celebrations always are, Verbier’s 20th birthday was always going to yield something special. And it doesn’t get much bigger than Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 with its sprawling six-movement structure and cast of hundreds. Conducted here by Andres Orozco-Estrada it was a performance that charmed as well as awed though, that found the intimate colouristic details and narratives among the long musical arcs.

Much of this was down to the young musicians of Verbier’s Festival Orchestra. If you peel back the layers of international soloists, coaches and visiting ensembles that make up the festival company, at the core of Verbier is its resident orchestra. Made up of the most talented young performers from across the world it’s a musical finishing school for tomorrow’s superstars. Indeed many of the festival’s headline performers have graduated up through the ranks themselves. Grouped together into a single ensemble, what’s striking is the willingness of these precocious instrumentalists to exchange centre-stage attention for a corporate identity, blending and dissolving their sound into a larger musical fabric rather than setting themselves apart.

It’s an attitude that’s crucial to the success of Mahler’s polyphonous symphony, which relies on such a careful calibration between its many components if it’s not to topple under its own weight. From the two clarinets, pointing skywards, who here heralded the arrival of summer, to the impossibly sustained and demanding posthorn solo in the third movement, the miraculously hushed web of strings that beckoned us into the final Langsam and the bright pipings of the children’s choir, Orozco-Estrada kept all his elements in balance. We revelled in the landscape of Mahler’s musical mountains (echoed outside the Salle des Combins by the Alps themselves), but remained safely grounded by the sardonic little sallies from the brass and the strings with their brisk march. Soloist Lilli Paasikivi joined this performance in the same textural spirit as her colleagues – amplifying rather than dominating the fourth movement with Nietzsche’s evocative text.

While there’s no denying that Verbier does epic well, the festival is perhaps most synonymous with the intimacy of chamber music. These smaller events – the lunchtime and late-night recitals up in Verbier’s angular contemporary church – bring major performers together in unfamiliar ensembles, allowing them to explore new repertoire alongside new musical relationships. It was one of these events that brought pianist-du-jour Daniil Trifonov together with violinist Renaud Capucon for a programme roaming across centuries from Bach to Franck. Both these young performers have become festival regulars, but seeing them as a duo promised some interesting negotiation between Trifonov’s exuberant virtuosity and Capucon’s precision.

On a stormy, grey day in mountains lost among cloud the subdued melancholy of Bach’s Sonata for Violin and Keyboard No. 3 was the only choice. It’s rare in London’s early-music-dominated scene to hear these performed live with piano rather than a more authentic keyboard instrument, but Bach’s architecture can easily carry the extra sonority and it throws up different shadows and angles on a familiar work. The breezy Allegro was Bach as performed in a 19th-century salon – urbane and always beautiful, with Capucon in particular rounding the rougher edges of period performance. The final movement Allegro, with its athletic accompaniment, had more than a whiff of the Chopin that Trifonov would later perform in his own solo recital, and was none the worse for that, giving us richness as well as dazzle.

Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy silhouetted virtuosity against restraint with skill, but it was Franck’s Sonata in A that saw both performers at their finest. This French 20th-century repertoire is where Capucon really comes into his own, daring Trifonov on to greater and greater simplicity in the opening Allegro before casting it all aside in fiery release in the second movement. The Recitativo is a tricky section, digesting fragments from various movements into an always-shifting mood, but Capucon led us through without ever losing his hold on the narrative thread through the maze.

Verbier is a festival for encounters and collisions. You won’t find soloists touting their big-hits recital programmes here, but you will find something better. In an industry increasingly obsessed with digital perfection and polish, with achieving a definitive interpretation, Verbier throws wide the door to experimentation and risk. Disguised as a festival, this is really a laboratory for music-making, generating the combustible reactions between music and musicians that release real heat in the concert hall and studio.

The Verbier Festival celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. Photograph: Nicholas Brodard.
Marcelo Krasilcic
Show Hide image

“I don’t want to burst into tears on stage”: The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt

The cult chamber pop curmudgeon on the process of writing a song for every year of his life – and how he avoided soul-searching.

Stephin Merritt has a stye. Sitting in a hushed greenroom at London’s Barbican, he presses a hot mug of tea against his left eye and winces.

An enormous Steinway grand piano shimmers by the wall, reflecting the room’s sparse glow from an electric candle and mirror framed in fairy lights.

“Have you ever had one?” asks the 52-year-old musician, after bowing in his chair in greeting (to avoid germ contact).

No, I reply.

“Don’t.”

Set against the grandeur of his surroundings, it’s a fitting introduction to The Magnetic Fields frontman and cult chamber pop curmudgeon.

Medical complaints are just one theme in his painfully personal new album, 50 Song Memoir. It’s an epic, genre-bending variety show with a song for each year of his life, performed in two halves. The 1992 track “Weird Diseases” cites an ear condition that confines him to a soundproofed shelter from his band onstage – and means he covers his ears when applauded by the Barbican audience later that evening.

Waiting for his soundcheck in his signature brown flatcap, a beige and turquoise argyle jumper and fawn trousers (he only wears brown – it’s hard to get dirty, and matches his eyes, hair and beloved late chihuahua Irving), he’s about to perform the last show in The Magnetic Fields’ first tour in five years.

“I hate touring,” he tells me in his baritone drawl, his head cupped in one hand. “I can’t wait to get home.”

Before he returns to Hudson, New York, he’s taking a week’s holiday in London, which he first visited at 15. As he wrote in the song for 1980, “London By Jetpack”, its blossoming New Romantic scene passed him by.

“I was here at the right time, but I was not in the right places to experience it,” he sighs. “So I was doing touristy things and going to Madame Tussauds. Eating English pizza. I bought a Sherlock Holmes hat and London trenchcoat for my costume, I guess which was fun.”

Merritt went to high school in Boston, where he founded the revolving gaggle of musicians that make up The Magnetic Fields in 1989. The album 50 Song Memoir is their 11th. It’s an eccentric, dizzying journey from Merritt’s nomadic childhood of cults and communes with his bohemian mother, via a cockroach-infested ménage à trois and the 9/11 aftermath, to writing a silent movie score for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

But it has the regular stuff too. Break-ups, unrequited love, absent fathers and all too present ex-boyfriends. In scope and ambition, it’s similar to The Magnetic Fields’ most famous work, 69 Love Songs (what it says on the tin), but it’s the first time Merritt has written a first-person, autobiographical album.

We hear bitterness and mockery in equal measure about his beatnik upbringing (“My mama ain’t no nudist/Except around the pool/She’s a Tibetan Buddhist/Like Catholic only cool”), dark musings on the AIDS crisis (“We expected nuclear war/What should we take precautions for?”), and the final song, 2015’s “Somebody’s Fetish” – like a filthier version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” – acts as Merritt’s self-deprecating justification for finding love (“Nothing’s too strange for somebody’s palate/Some spank the maid and some wank the valet”).


Stephin Merritt. Photo: Marcelo Krasilcic

Like the Stephen Sondheim of New York’s underground scene, or a rock ‘n’ roll Noël Coward, Merritt’s acerbic observations and camp brand of miserablisim have established him as an extraordinary lyricist over a quarter century of music-making.

Throughout the 25 albums he’s made with different bands and as a solo artist, Merritt’s words are brought to life by theatrical scores and an experimental use of instruments – but nowhere more celebrated than with The Magnetic Fields.

“I keep wondering if this album has been so well-reviewed partly because people think it would be boorish to question bearing my soul,” he says. “Because reviewing it is like reviewing a person.”

Although 50 Song Memoir seems like a highly revealing “audio-biography”, Merritt insists: “I am against soul-searching in general. I don’t believe in souls in the first place – and if I did, I don’t know how one would search them.”

He points out that these songs are more likely to provoke laughter than tears. The “psychoanalysing” by critics annoys him. “I have to perform these things and I do not want to burst into tears on stage,” he says, his eyes widening. “I don’t want to stand on stage humiliating myself and the audience.”

Merritt recalls crying while performing The Magnetic Fields’ classic ballad “The Book of Love” at the funeral of a friend who died suddenly. “That is the last time I will ever do that,” he smiles drily.

The 50 Song Memoir show is more of a revue, with wry narration by Merritt between each song, and band members playing everything from the omnichord to a saw. The singer himself sits in his pastel-hued soundproof booth, surrounded by 16 dolls houses and other trinkets from his own home – Hooty, his stuffed owl, little wooden animals, quirky instruments and “some of my lunchbox collection”. It makes him feel “weirdly” at home.


Before releasing these songs, Merritt contacted every person he names to run the lyrics by them – including his mother, who burst into tears when he played the music for her in his studio.

“What I’m saying about her is not necessarily criticism on her terms,” he says. “So she should not feel insulted, and I said that. She agreed and said in fact [she didn’t] feel insulted.”

You get the impression Merritt enjoyed the mechanics of writing 50 Song Memoir more than the emotional vulnerability. It pieces together lyrics and music he had written back in the Eighties and never released, and even a guitar solo he wrote at the age of 11. It features 100 instruments, many from his own collection. He also notes the challenge of finding rhymes for so many proper nouns. “I usually let the rhymes lead the narrative,” he says, calling them, “the automatic plot generator”.

Merritt mostly wrote this album at a couple of bars in his neighbourhood, filling around five notebooks overall. He buys expensive pads – to try and guard against losing them – which look as different from each other as possible, “in the hope I will be able to find a song or a thread more easily with visual help: ‘this was the piece of music I wrote in the flowery notebook with a robot on the cover’”.

A useful system for when he returns at the age of 100 to fulfil his vague ambition of adding another 50 songs to the piece (“I have quite a while to decide.”)

It’s soundcheck time. After admiring my rucksack (it’s brown), Merritt says goodbye without getting up, apologising again for his stye.

Never mind, perhaps we’ll hear about it in a song in 50 years’ time?

He gives a rare chuckle. “48, actually.”

The Magnetic Fields performed both halves of 50 Song Memoir at the Barbican. Listen to Stephin Merritt discussing the show on the Barbican podcast here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.