Lucerne is a musical city. Its annual music festival occurs in three acts and covers the better part of the year. First there’s Ostern (Easter), then Sommer (summer), and finally, in the fall, Piano. European classical music dominates the festival, but Artistic and Executive Director Michael Haefliger has been striving to integrate jazz into the proceedings. Previous piano festivals in Lucerne have featured Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Jacques Loussier, Chick Corea, and Michel Petrucciani. This year’s was graced by a solo performance from McCoy Tyner, as well as a triple bill that juxtaposed the Ukrainian-born pianist Mikhail ("Misha") Alperin, the Irène Schweizer/Pierre Favre Duo, and the Jacky Terrasson Trio with Sean Smith on bass and Ali Jackson on drums. The two jazz concerts bookended the week and lent a striking contrast to classical recitals given by a gallery of international heavyweights: Grigory Sokolov, Radu Lupu, Dénes Várjon, Lars Vogt, Arcadi Volodos, Evgeny Kissin, and the organist Markus Willinger.
All the concerts were held at the Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzern (KKL), a complex that opened to the public only in 1998. Not unlike Paris’s Pompidou Centre, this ultra-modern edifice stands out starkly among the centuries-old structures that dot the landscape of Lucerne, a beautiful and relatively quiet city in Switzerland’s German-speaking region. The main Concert Hall is a compact, 1840-seat space with a high ceiling, four balconies, and orchestra seating that slopes downward rather sharply toward a low stage, making the piano seem remarkably nearby no matter where one sits. A marvel of acoustic engineering (designed with input from New York’s own Artec Consultants, Inc.), the Hall has white, waffle-pattern walls, parts of which can be opened to reveal a reverberation chamber hidden along the room’s perimeter. A large acoustic "canopy" with horizontal wood planks and clear, semi-circular acrylic rings hangs from the ceiling and can be raised and lowered to suit any given performance. During the piano recitals it was slung low; during the organ concert — yes, the Hall also has a full-size church organ — it was raised high, so as not to block the pipes.
There is nothing like hearing European classical music played on European soil. Yet jazz has become a strong presence in Europe as well, and it’s certainly an important element of Lucerne’s musical culture. The Musikhochschule Luzern (the city’s conservatory) has expanded its longstanding classical and church music faculties to include "Fakultät III," the jazz faculty, directed by bassist Hämi Hämmerli. My journalist colleagues and I toured the spanking-new facilities, observed a few ensemble classes, and scoped out the Jazzkantine, the school’s very own jazz club and hangout. Clearly, jazz’s representation at the piano festival is part of a larger phenomenon. Jazz artists, it should be noted, perform at the KKL during the off-season as well. Brad Mehldau was there in June, for instance; the Maria Schneider Orchestra will play there in December.
Interestingly, Mehldau has credited Schubert as an influence on his own music. Schneider’s grandly conceived compositions often transform the jazz big band into a kind of symphony orchestra. This imaginative blurring of the classical/jazz boundary goes back to Ellington and Woody Herman and on through the "Third Stream" movement, and it is becoming quite prevalent among today’s younger artists. Pianist Ethan Iverson recently premiered a series of original "jazz etudes" at New York’s Weill Hall, and he has performed two piano concertos by Patrick Zimmerli, a jazz tenor saxophonist turned classical composer. Ohad Talmor, another jazz saxophonist, has done exceptional work with the music of Shostakovich, the French Impressionists, and more. And perhaps most famously, pianist Uri Caine has issued a series of albums that radically reinterpret Bach, Wagner, and Mahler. The truth is that some of today’s "jazz" owes as much to classical music as it does to jazz. For the Lucerne piano festival, this presents many opportunities for innovative programming in the years to come.
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