At the Lucerne Festival, even hip-hop skateboarders love Pierre Boulez

Los Angeles Times Music Critic

Among the great summer classical musical festivals of Europe, the monthlong event in this scenic city surely has the most cause to feel smug. Every day, mid-August to mid-September, the world’s most important orchestras and their celebrated music directors parade through an incomparable setting.

The elegant KKL, as the concert hall designed by Jean Nouvel is called, juts onto the translucent, swan-filled Lake Lucerne, surrounded by Alpine peaks. A sophisticated, formally attired audience fills to capacity the expensive seats night after night. Money does not seem a problem. After all, anyone not in sticker shock by the cost of a cappuccino at a Swiss Starbucks — double U.S. prices — must be doing pretty well.

With a $26-million budget, the Lucerne Festival is doing very well. It can afford its own fabulous resident orchestra, made up of members from many of Europe’s top symphonic ensembles. Claudio Abbado’s incandescent live recording of Bruckner’s valedictory Ninth Symphony with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, made two years ago (five months before the Italian conductor’s death), was just selected Gramophone Magazine’s orchestral recording of the year.

Yet during a brief visit last month, I encountered surprisingly little fancy-concert complacency. On the festival’s second Sunday, “A Day for Pierre Boulez,” it celebrated, as foreign festivals this summer are doing, the French composer’s 90th birthday. But unlike, say, Salzburg or the Proms in London, Lucerne did more than invite visiting ensembles and soloists to play something by Boulez. Nine concerts, some overlapping, paid homage to Boulez’s titanic influence not only on 20th century music but also on Lucerne itself.

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In 2004, Michael Haefliger, who’s been the festival’s director since 1999, formed with Boulez the Lucerne Festival Academy, an intensive training program concentrating on the music of our time. The academy now underwrites the participation of 130 of the world’s most promising young musicians, conductors and composers. In failing health, Boulez, who lives in Baden Baden, Germany, no longer has the strength to travel. But the day offered ample evidence of how much his work over the last decade here has paid off.

Concerts were held in and around KKL (the Culture and Congress Center), including the neighboring Lucerne Art Museum. Boulez’s “Dialogue de l’Ombre Double,” for clarinet and electronics, was played by student clarinetists on the terrace of the hall and piped onto the plaza, where crowds gather to sun themselves, picnic or just hang out. Hip-hopping teenagers (yes, even in placid Lucerne) got off their skateboards to check out Boulez. Groups of Chinese tourists shopping in Lucerne’s tidy Old Town were stopped in their tracks by music, not long ago dismissed as too cerebral for the general public, now irresistibly wafting across the river.

Bouleziana was everywhere. Ushers and stagehands wore black-and-white V-neck T-shirts bearing the composer’s photo. Ensemble and orchestral pieces featured mostly academy performers conducted with muscular authority by German composer Matthias Pintscher. “Rituel,” which divides the orchestra into eight groups, was played by ensembles surrounding a large black box theater, part of the KKL complex, to mesmerizing effect. For Boulez’s most popular orchestral work, “Notations,” which concluded the day, the entire Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra came onstage in Boulez T-shirts.

New pieces were commissioned for the occasion. Only one, by American Tod Machover, one of Lucerne’s two composers in residence this summer, sounded like Boulez. That was because Machover’s “Re-Structures” took a mathematically rigid two piano score of Boulez’s from the 1950s, his most dogmatic period, and morphed it almost imperceptibly into something brilliantly Machoverian, with a beat and telepathic electronics. Samy Moussa’s strikingly original “Crimson” revealed a young composer and conductor from Montreal with a gleeful sense for metallic orchestral color and shocking harmony.

Throughout “A Day for Boulez,” student musicians never appeared to give a second thought to complex works found nearly unplayable by a previous generation. The atmosphere in program after program was electric. It was as though audiences had suddenly drunk an intoxicating Boulez drug, transforming a complacent, timeless town into an avant-garde stronghold. Maybe there is such a drug. Roche, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant, underwrites the academy and the new commissions, proclaiming in advertisements that science and art function as two sides of the same creative coin.

This, Haefliger says, is part of his mission to make the Lucerne Festival a model for what he sees as classical music’s essential social, musical and even political responsibility. In an interview in his stylish office, the Juilliard-trained violinist — the son of Swiss tenor Ernst Haefliger and brother of pianist Andreas Haefliger — told me that his great inspiration for thinking outside Nouvel’s modernist KKL box was the Venezuelan music education program El Sistema.

It is no coincidence that Abbado, who handpicked the players of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and was its music director until his death, was one of the first major international conductors to embrace El Sistema; he also was a mentor of Gustavo Dudamel. Dudamel has had a significant presence in Lucerne as well. It just so happens that it was here where in 2007 Los Angeles Philharmonic President Deborah Borda signed him to become the orchestra’s music director.

To this end, Haefliger says he is always looking for ways to extend the festival’s and classical music’s influence both through education and civic projects. The Lucerne Festival, for instance, sponsors free world-music concerts on the streets around town, although the ones I dropped into seemed to be seen as curiosities by small crowds or simply annoyances.

More significant is Ark Nova, the world’s first inflatable concert hall, which the Lucerne Festival created two years ago as an outreach to the region of northern Japan devastated by the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Designed by Arata Isozaki (architect of MOCA’s main branch in L.A.) and sculptor Anish Kapoor, it is a sensuous, purple sonic bubble often compared to a giant eggplant that is installed each fall for concerts and made to travel. It was inaugurated in 2013 with Dudamel conducting an orchestra of local children.

With Abbado’s death and Boulez’s frailty, the festival is necessarily about to undergo change. Haefliger recently named German composer Wolfgang Rihm the new head of the academy and Italian conductor Riccardo Chailly music director of the Festival Orchestra. Both are respected musicians, but neither has the irreplaceable stature of his predecessor.

Still, Haefliger says he believes he can and must remain true to the festival’s insurgent heritage. Founded in 1938 by Arturo Toscanini, it was meant to be an alternative to Austria’s glorious Salzburg Festival, which was becoming a Nazi playground. In keeping with his mission, Haefliger daringly honored those defiant roots by making the theme of the Lucerne fest’s 75th anniversary two summers ago "¡Viva la Revolución!”

The program brochure opened with a quote from John Cage: “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones!” Haefliger told me that maybe his staff went a little too far when one artistic director dressed as Che Guevara for the opening gala party, given that the sponsors were Swiss bankers and the like.

This summer is meant to be more playful. Not every program has something to do with its theme, humor. One night, an unsmiling Christian Thielemann sticks to serious Beethoven and Bruckner with his Dresden State Orchestra. But the next night, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony get in the swing with John Adams’ “Absolute Jest.”

Nor does the spirit of revolution seem in any way diminished, what with this year’s resident composers. A concert I heard by Jürg Wyttenbach, a provocative avant-gardist, paid homage to Mani Matter, a popular ‘60s singer and songwriter who was a kind of a Swiss Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Frank Zappa rolled into one.

Meanwhile, Machover, who heads the Opera of the Future group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, is cheerfully plugging in much of Lucerne. One of his projects, the crowd-sourced “A Symphony for Lucerne,” includes sounds of the city, from its waterways to its indie music scene to whatever samples locals care to contribute.

Another Machover premiere will be “Fensadense,” Sept. 12 at a children’s concert. Ten wired academy musicians will experiment with futuristic armbands that allow the players’ movements to alter the sound of their amplified instruments, creating all kinds of new sonic effects. This year’s festival closes in somber contrast the following night with Simon Rattle leading the Vienna Philharmonic in Elgar’s profoundly humorless spiritual epic of repentance, “The Dream of Gerontius.” Then again, who knows what kind of dreams old Gerontius might expect here by a lake where humor and revolution cavort?