THE BLOG

Switzerland's Lucerne Festival Celebrates 75 Years of Music-Making

08/20/2013 03:28 pm ET | Updated Oct 20, 2013

Lucerne, Switzerland— -- On August 25, 1938, an expectant audience gathered in the park by composer Richard Wagner'’s former villa in nearby Tribschen for a very special concert. With Salzburg, Austria under Nazi rule, the acclaimed conductor Arturo Toscanini and his musicians were no longer looking to the Salzburg Festival for musical sustenance.

The concert was broadcast across Europe and the United States, and Toscanini and colleagues were back the following year. Soon other prominent conductors, including Herbert von Karajan, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Otto Klemperer also took turns at the podium of what became known as the Swiss Festival Orchestra. By the 1950s, many of the world'’s great orchestras were performing in this picturesque city alongside Lake Lucerne.

They'’re still performing here, and on August 25 of this year, the Lucerne Festival celebrates its 75th anniversary with a free, all-day music marathon replete with concerts, films and plenty of fanfare. Soloists and ensembles from many of Europe'’s finest orchestras will be on hand playing chamber and symphonic music, as well as music for children and sing-alongs. The official word: expect "a colorful and surprise program" in and around the city'’s grand KKL Luzern music complex.

Actually, they'’ve been celebrating all year. Pianist Martha Argerich and conductor Claudio Abbado were in town to launch the Easter Festival in March. So was Gustavo Dudamel, leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Master Chorale in composer John Adams'’ “The Gospel According to the Other Mary.”

Lucerne'’s Festival in Summer, the proverbial jewel in the crown, began August 16 and is currently underway. Besides the highly regarded Lucerne Festival Orchestra, conducted by Abbado, there are performances by such orchestras as the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and Amsterdam'’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, celebrating its own 125th anniversary. Soloists this year include violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, pianist Mitsuko Uchida and lyric baritone Thomas Hampson.

Few cities offer more beautiful settings for listening to music. Not far from the lake, with its drifting white swans and adjacent cafes, young and emerging artists may perform afternoon programs in the city'’s casino. There might be a clarinetist one day, a chamber group the next... At night, after the main concert, other locales may spring up around town; when I was there for the summer 2011 festival, I heard a musician in a small church playing Bach'’s Goldberg Variations on an accordion.

Most of the concerts take place in the KKL, a multi-theater, waterfront structure designed by architect Jean Nouvel which opened in August, 1998. The KKL'’s large windows frame the city's historic buildings, lake and mountains, (an architectural feature which Pritzker Prize winner, Nouvel, turned to again for his Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis). With its white undulating walls and wood covered ceiling, the KKL's 1840-seat concert hall also highlights the work of acoustician, Russell Johnson.

Again and again, a great conductor leads a great orchestra. Programs rarely conclude without a roar from the crowd that can wind through half a dozen curtain calls. The crowd is enthusiastic, and I can recall few empty seats at any of the concerts I attended.

Lucerne is not a large city, with a population under 80,000, including neighboring villages. But the summer festival apparently drew nearly that many visitors last year, including many international visitors as well as local residents. According to a festival spokeswoman, nearly 25 percent of the concerts were sold out.

The 75th anniversary year doesn'’t end with the summer festival either. Yet to come this year, as every year, is Lucerne'’s fall Piano Festival. Starting on November 16, this year'’s program features pianists Evgeny Kissin, Murray Perahia and others performing music of such Romantic composers as Schubert, Schumann and Chopin. The festival closes November 24 with Maurizio Pollini playing works by Debussy and Chopin.

Barbara Isenberg writes about the arts for the Los Angeles Times and other publications. Her most recent book is Conversations with Frank Gehry.