Switzerland: Lucerne Festival

Lucerne Festival presents world-class musicians to an erudite, global audience. But it’s Lucerne’s teenage listeners who are hardest to please. The Swiss festival is experimenting with live performance to get that all-important wow factor 

Lucerne Festival, tucked away in the idyllic lakeside town in northern Switzerland, stages some of the world’s most accomplished performers. The festival produces a total of three events – at Easter, in Summer, and at the Piano – which together attract upwards of 120,000 visitors each year. Plus there’s the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, led by Claudio Abbado, while Pierre Boulez spearheaded the Lucerne Festival Academy in 2004. It’s a formidable outfit, dedicated to presenting the best of the classical sphere for a knowledgeable, international audience.

Engaging and educating young listeners is also a crucial part of the Lucerne ethos. But as head of children and youth programmes, Johannes Fuchs admits he doesn’t see his role as that of educator. ‘I don’t want to tell young people, “You listen to the wrong music, and I will change your taste, and classical music is good for you!” That doesn’t work, and it’s not a positive basis for communication,’ he says. ‘Arts organisations must rethink their activities and ask themselves: how should classical music be presented today so that it appeals to a younger generation? The answers we get from young people will show us the way. It’s important to work with them, not only for them.’

A key facet of Fuchs’ strategy for programming youth concerts is drawing on the star power of the festival’s performers. ‘My role at the festival is to identify musicians, chamber ensembles, composers and other creatives who are willing to work on special concert experiences for young audiences,’ he says. ‘I must then create the best possible working conditions so that together we can build something extraordinary. What I want to do is to support the musicians so that, through their art, they can connect with their young audiences.’

‘There’s also a nice synergy between all aspects of the festival. We have collaborated with the Lucerne Festival Academy and members of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, and for 2015, the composer-in-residence will be involved in our activities.’

Among the festival’s recent youth programmes was 2012’s ‘Drumblebee’, a co-production with the Philharmonie Luxembourg and KölnMusik which won the YEAH! Award [Young EARopean Award] for best performance. ‘It has been staged in many cities. For me it represents a model of how a concert for kids should be: intensive, lively, virtuous and magic!’ says Fuchs.

Drumblebee © Peter Fischli
Drumblebee © Peter Fischli

Another successful project is ‘Musicians for Human Rights’, an ensemble launched by the principal French horn player of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Alessio Allegrini. In 2014 the festival will work with 70 teenagers and musicians from Europe’s leading orchestras on a new piece which tackles issues of human rights.

Despite their young age and sometimes lack of classical music knowledge, children and teenagers can often be more discerning listeners. ‘They are very demanding!’ says Fuchs. ‘Everything on stage has to have the wow factor. More experienced listeners and music lovers know the pieces, but children don’t have any comparative references. For them every impression is new. So a good dramatic theme is needed to ensure that the context of each particular musical piece is clearly presented.’

Younger people also tend not to understand the classical music traditions that have gone unchanged for over a century; the rituals are strange and irrelevant. ‘For them, what’s important is participation in a live experience,’ says Fuchs. ‘So I like to experiment and find new forms of presentation. In the history of classical music, there are inspiring examples to be found. In Schubert’s time, concerts took place in a very private, intimate setting which is appealing for very young kids. Teenagers, on the other hand, like spectacular shows like in the Baroque era.

‘So the idea is to have playful simulations of different concert settings for each age group. And for all ages, a key factor is that they can see how the music is made by the musicians. That’s why the musicians have to play without stands – it allows them to interact with each other and with their audience.’

In May 2014 Lucerne will premiere a theatre project initiated and run by young people. Based on the plot of Romeo and Juliet, ‘Verona 3000’ plays with different musical genres. In summer 2014, the festival will launch a project involving an ensemble of young talents led by a stage director and choreographer. Fuchs is reluctant to reveal more details, but adds: ‘We will have six weeks to develop and rehearse what I hope will be the ideal concert for young listeners.’