One of the most appealing of Summer music events is the Yehudi Menuhin Festival held in the fashionable alpine town of Gstaad in Switzerland and this year musicOMH will be attending the opening weekend in July. The Festival, founded in 1956, and so now in its 51st year, runs for 6 weeks between July and September and attracts many artists of international stature for a varied programme which reflects the spirit of its founder.
Yehudi Menuhin was one of the towering figures of the music world in the 20th Century. Born in New York in 1916, he later settled in England, where in 1963 he opened the Yehudi Menuhin School at Stoke d’Abernon in Surrey. Best known as a violinist, he was a distinguished conductor and teacher and a fully-rounded human being with contributions to many religious, social, and environmental organizations throughout the world.
The Festival concerts take place in a number of venues around the town, well known for its winter sporting activities. Primary among these is the church of Saanen, which as a venue holds 800 people. It was here that the festival had its beginnings, with a concert in August 1956 that featured, as well as Menuhin, the talents of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. Nowadays, several other local churches are used as venues and since 1987 they’ve also had a festival tent, located next to the town’s tennis hall, arts and sports jostling together.
The Artistic Director of the festival is Christoph Müller – past incumbents have included Gidon Kremer who took over from Menuhin when he decided to retire following the 40th Anniversary (and also the maestro’s 80th birthday) in 1996. The Festival now plays to about 18,000 people, many coming from the local area but also a growing international audience.
This year’s programme of over 40 concerts features the flautist Emmanuel Pahud as Artist in Residence, who will give a number of concerts, to include a premiere by the 34-year old Swiss composer Rodolphe Schacher, as well as works by Piazzolla, Varèse, Takemitsu and Bartók. He’ll finish with an appetizing-sounding “brunch concert” in an alpine hut in nearby Rougemont.
Other artists will be Katia and Marielle Labèque, Vadim Repin and soprano Barbara Hendricks, the latter giving an all-Mozart programme. Sarah Chang, hailed by Menuhin as a “violin wunderkind”, will perform the Sibelius concerto and Zubin Mehta conducts Dvorak’s New World Symphony with the Israel Philharmonic. Pianists Martha Argerich and Alfred Brendel between them will cover a wide range of familiar repertoire from Mozart to Tchaikovsky.
Jazz legend Abdullah Ibrahim’s “African Magic” widens the scope of the eclectic programme and then Willard White is joined by popular young stars Gwyneth-Ann Jeffers and Jonathan Lemalu to perform selections from Porgy and Bess, accompanied by an ethnic choir from South Africa. Bobby McFerrin conducts an intriguing mix of Prokofiev, Ravel and Mendelssohn as well as vocalising his own Improvisations.
The Emerson String Quartet’s tasty line-up of two of Beethoven’s Rasumovsky quartets with Bartok’s thrilling 3rd quartet is highly attractive while the talented young musicians of The Menuhin School Orchestra make a couple of appearances including a Musical Extra event in the Berghaus at 1900m above sea level.
With six weeks of musical excellence and a chance to take in the alpine air (and sample some rather good chocolate), the 51st Yehudi Menuhin Festival looks like a great excuse for a trip to Switzerland.