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Lucerne Piano Festival

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Lucerne, Switzerland
Concert Hall, Cultural and Congress Center
November 20-25, 2001

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.

The task of making connections between classical and jazz, however, falls on listeners as well as programmers. In addition to a steady and wondrous diet of Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt, and Schubert, the concert pianists at Lucerne presented later works replete with the kind of dense harmony that has crept into modern jazz. Sokolov offered the stirring Prelude, Chorale and Fugue by César Franck (1883/84); Lupu tackled the Sonata in F sharp minor No. 1, Op. 24 by Georges Enescu (1924); Várjon played a masterful Bartok trilogy that included nine of the 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs (1914-1918). (One imagines what Uri Caine might do with those songs.) The music positively leapt off the stage, and each player brought a distinct personality to the table. Part of the difficulty of this music, regardless of period or style, is the subjective element — the many different ways to make a piece breathe. Dynamic shifts, tempos, pauses, transitions, decays: there’s an almost microscopic subtlety to these kinds of interpretive decisions. A world-class performance of Beethoven or Bartok, in this sense, is not entirely unlike a world-class improvised jazz solo, in terms of the instrumental command and musical instincts required.

Markus Willinger’s organ recital, perhaps the festival’s most striking and memorable highlight, included music by Bach, Staden, Bruhns, and Scheit, along with three improvised choral preludes and — most impressive of all — an improvised symphony "in the Romantic style." The sonic capabilities and sheer volume of the organ enabled the 34-year-old Willinger to simulate entire orchestral sections, and the room practically shook with his creative energy. This particular concert started at 11pm; by the time Willinger began the symphony it was past midnight, adding another magical dimension to the performance. Here was another, less expected link between classical and jazz music — not in terms of content but in terms of spirit and self-expression. Willinger gave us an exhilarating tour through an antediluvian yet incredibly vibrant and relevant discipline.

McCoy Tyner was billed in the festival’s advance program as a "freely improvising soloist," but when we spoke at his hotel a couple of hours before showtime, he shrugged off that description with a hearty laugh. In fact, Tyner went on to play an energetic, if solidly mainstream, melange of originals and standards, often stomping his foot vigorously in rhythm (quite unlike the classical players). His first half began with the minor modal "Home" and the bright "Greeting." His take on "My Foolish Heart" veered creatively in and out of tempo, while "Lazy Bird" and "Afro Blue," both implicit homages to John Coltrane, churned in a fast four (the latter is usually played in six). Tyner’s second set included "In a Mellow Tone," a splendid "For All We Know," the folk-like "Happy Days" (which Tyner dedicated to the resilient people of New York City), and a surging "Mr. Day" from the Coltrane Plays the Blues album. Those substitute chord changes, on the ninth and tenth bars of the blues form, capture the very essence of Tyner’s contribution to jazz.

The second jazz concert — "The Long Night of Improvisation" — was held in Lucerne Hall, an attractive and comfortable "black box" theater in a different area of the KKL complex. Misha Alperin began with a quirky and inspired solo set, playing pieces that ranged from an almost Buddhist-like minimalism, to jagged atonality, to driving tempos suggestive of Russian or Eastern European folk music. Here again, there was an unmistakable connection between Alperin’s harmonic vocabulary and that of the classical composers we had been listening to in the next room. Yet Alperin’s individualism was unbridled. His offhanded sense of humor elicited supportive chuckles from the audience. A highly vocal performer, Alperin would often sing staccato "tut-tuts" in unison with his lines; on his final selection he broke into a full singing voice, working up to a dervish-like accelerando before ending, emphatically closing the piano lid, taking an appreciative bow, and walking off. The crowd was enthralled.

Pianist Irène Schweizer, hailed as the "First Lady" of Swiss jazz, followed with an exploratory set of duets with drummer (and fellow Swiss jazzer) Pierre Favre. Favre had two bass drums, one small and one rather large; his free, floating interaction with Schweizer at times brought to mind the two Pauls, Bley and Motian. When the music settled into tempo, Schweizer’s sturdy left hand and Favre’s insistent swing recalled the sound of the American expatriate pianist Eric Watson and his frequent collaborator, Ed Thigpen. Together, Schweizer and Favre share decades of experience in the European free jazz scene; indeed, they are among its founders. The communication between them — often involving eye contact and unabashed smiles — not only benefited the music, it also illustrated their thoroughgoing empathy and deep personal ties.

Jacky Terrasson and crew were a bit late to the gig, prompting an impatient round of applause intended to coax them onto the stage. Luckily, Terrasson proceeded to play his heart out, although the audience began to break up well before he was done (it was close to 1am at that point). Sure enough, Terrasson had with him with a Fender Rhodes, which he played on the first and last tunes — his arrangement of Ravel’s "Bolero" and his "Chameleon"-based reworking of "Love for Sale," respectively. Among the highlights were the two ballads, "Georgia on My Mind" and "Everything Happens to Me," a 7/8 rendering of Bud Powell’s "Parisian Thoroughfare," and the blistering originals "Reach" and "Happy Man." Along the way Terrasson managed to sneak in quotes ("Blue Monk," "Criss Cross," "The Way You Look Tonight") in the most ingenious ways, leaping across bar lines and cutting through chord changes, tapping into a spirited unpredictability that you don’t necessarily hear from him every time out. His intense rapport with drummer Ali Jackson (subbing for Terreon Gully) was a feast for the eyes and ears; Sean Smith’s firm support and probing solos were on the money.

Amid all this listening, my American colleagues and I were able to take in a bit of the city and its environs. Only on Thursday did the sun come out — and when the sun comes out in Lucerne, so do the mountains, snow-capped and looming ghost-like in the near distance. With Judy Nelson of Clavier magazine, I took a short hike to the Richard Wagner Museum, located on a promontory on Lake Lucerne, at the site of Wagner’s Trebschen estate (where he lived from 1866 to 1872). In the museum’s possession are personal artifacts such as letters, scores, publications, and even a bit of Wagner’s clothing; upstairs is a small collection of early instruments. One of the most striking objects on the first floor is an original edition of Wagner’s notoriously anti-Semitic 1869 essay "Das Judenthum in der Musik." Another is a two-page, handwritten letter to Wagner dated "Basel 18 Nov. 1871." The sender is Friedrich Nietzsche.

Personal/Spiritual Addendum: Getting on the airplanes and crossing the ocean was healthy in the wake of our recent disaster. Sadly, the Swiss have suffered tragedies of their own in the past few weeks. The night before I departed from Zurich airport there was yet another — a Crossair jet en route from Berlin crashed just a mile or so from the runway. It was a bit creepy sitting at the terminal gate the next morning and looking across the way at the Crossair fleet sitting idle on the tarmac. Near the check-in desk, a TV was broadcasting a report of an anthrax-positive letter that wound up in Chile and had originated in Zurich. As eager as I was to return home, somehow the distance between Switzerland and the U.S. seemed a lot smaller.

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