Steven Isserlis performing with Joshua Bell and Marc-Andre Hamelin. Photo: Aline Paley
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At the Verbier Festival, a lot of music is packed into a small town

From Brahms’s chamber music to Mozart opera, the little Swiss ski-village provides a musical feast.

Talk about a room with a view. Step out of the main concert hall at the Verbier Festival and you’re confronted with mountainscapes on all sides. Sometimes the Alps are muffled in clouds, sometimes clear up to their still-white peaks, but either way it’s a vista that cannot but colour and shape all you hear inside.

Looking at the busy streets and restaurants, it’s hard to imagine that until Martin Engstroem founded the festival back in 1994 this exquisite little Swiss ski-village was a ghost town in summer. But that’s all changed, and for over two weeks each year Verbier becomes a playground for some of classical music’s biggest names. Everyone has been: Martha Argerich is a regular, as are Evgeny Kissin, Mischa Maisky and Mikhail Pletnev. Of the younger generation you’re usually likely to see Yuja Wang, the Capuçon brothers, Leonidas Kavakos and pianist-du-jour Daniil Trifonov.

Unlike most of Europe’s big summer festivals though, Verbier isn’t content just to ship in the big names with their latest recital programmes. Artists are invited here to try new things – to work with new repertoire and colleagues – and over the years these encounters and collaborations have yielded some fine recordings and ongoing partnerships.

This year, the festival’s final weekend opened with a chamber concert celebrating one of those musical partnerships that brings years of history with it. British cellist Steven Isserlis and American violinist Joshua Bell came together with pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin to create a starry classical supergroup. Brahms’ Trio No. 1 in B major is one of the great works of the chamber repertoire – a miniature that packs symphonic scope and weight into its slight frame, setting cello and violin in an impassioned dialogue. Isserlis’s instinctual style shares little with Bell’s polished sweetness of delivery except an expressiveness that both arrive at by very different means.

Here, Isserlis responded to the music’s every mercurial twitch and glance with vivid shifts, leading us in movement and muscular tone from the fugal Bach-inspired moments of the  Allegro to its expansive moments of lyricism. Bell’s approach to performance is more crafted, but was no less striking here – goaded and urged beyond beauty and comfort by Isserlis’s craggier textures. Underplaying the Adagio with a restraint whose strength was in suggesting so much more than it would fulfil, Bell found an innocence to it that restored us to a simplicity cast aside in Brahms’s witty Scherzo.

After the interval Hamelin, Isserlis and  Bell returned, joined by violinist Pamela Frank and violist Nobuko Imai for Franck’s Quintet for Piano and Strings in F minor. Opening in moody shades of umber, the mood was urgent and uncertain, rendered all the more unstable by Hamelin’s unusually delicate balance in the mix, allowing the surface textures of the strings to dominate a shifting foreground of sound, almost unanchored.

While Verbier has no theatre (and even the concert hall is a temporary affair, reconstructed from scratch each season), the festival still programmes a number of operas each year, whether in concert performance or semi-staged in the large Salle des Combins. This year’s unlikeliest contender was surely Mozart’s Il Re Pastore, the work of the 19-year-old composer (though far from his first), and barely ever performed. Which is a bit of a mystery, because the score is loaded with fine arias, memorable melodies and even the plot is unusually straightforward (albeit featuring a character called “Abdolonymos”).

Illnesses and withdrawals saw casting change significantly from that initially announced, but even with tenor Rolando Villazón replaced just a few days before the performance by Kresimir Spicer (conveniently holidaying just down the mountain in Geneva), the final line-up was an impressive one. Most striking were the three leading women. Iulia Maria Dan as the Shepherd King himself radiated the warmth required to turn this rather Pollyanna-ish monarch, who would rather tend his sheep than rule, from caricature to character. A small, glittering voice grew through the performance into one capable of doing battle with the thunderstorm taking place outside the hall, her coloratura freely expressive and easy throughout her range. If this young singer fulfils even a fraction of the promise she showed here, it will be a very exciting career to watch indeed.

She was supported by Verbier-regular and Festival Academy alumnus Emöke Barath, who made a prettily petulant Tamiri, warm in the middle of her voice and blossoming into particular beauty at the top. Though perhaps the least “finished” of the voices on show here, Regula Mühlemann (Elisa) was striking for the sheer loveliness of her vocal tone. This is still a very small voice, but perfectly produced. Coupled with her acting – natural and believable – it would be hard not to hope to hear her grow into a Susanna or similar very soon.

The Festival Chamber Orchestra played with verve and stylish gusto under Gábor Takács-Nagy, whom Engstroem credits with turning this ensemble into something particularly special. Takács-Nagy is an irrepressible presence on the podium, and not even thunderstorms, rain, and an unexpected mid-performance hiatus could dull the sheen he brought to this opera – convincing us all that it really does deserve its time in the spotlight.

In a long weekend of music, these performances – like the mountains all around – reveal just the tip of what happens at a festival that juggles its professional programme with extensive educational projects (including, for the first time this year, a music camp for 15-17 year olds). Verbier packs a lot of music into a small town. I left sated, not just with Raclette but with an excess of new repertoire, new artists and new musical experiences.

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser