Q & A: Verbier Festival’s Founder Martin Engstroem on 30th Anniversary

By David Salazar
(Photo © Aline Paley)

Thirty years ago, Martin Engstroem found himself in a place he had always dreamed of. During his formative years in music management, he dreamt of helping build the careers of up-and-coming artists and creating a unique experience.

He is full of ideas and works alongside the biggest names in the classical music business, mainly conductors and singers. Throughout his career it seemed possible, even probable, that he would get a chance to put together some sort of event where his vision could coalesce.

It has taken several decades for that concept to come to life in the form of the Verbier Festival, which this summer celebrates its 30th anniversary.

OperaWire spoke with Engstroem about what the festival means to him, the important collaborators that have helped the festival grow over the years, and what is next for one of classical music’s premiere musical hubs.

OperaWire: The Verbier Festival is celebrating its 30th anniversary. As you look back on its history, what do you believe the festival’s place to be in the classical music world right now? What do you hope people think about when they think about the festival?

Martin Engstroem: I worked for a long time in music management. I started very early in Sweden and I worked one year in London at a big management company called Ibbs and Tillett. This was the beginning of the 1970s. And I spent 12 years at an agency in Paris, 1975-1987. I worked mainly for conductors and singers. In this situation I was always in the middle, between the artists and the organizer. And it was very interesting because the people I worked for – Karl Böhm, Birgit Nilsson, Giuseppe Sinopoli – were all big names. So it was fascinating. But, it was also frustrating because I always had lots of my own ideas and I always dreamt of creating something for myself.

But apart from a music festival where you present the greatest artists, I was always interested in building careers. And seeing how festivals are set up nowadays in the world, there wasn’t really a place for young people to start their careers. There were lots of festivals that offered masterclasses. In any festival, you could learn. But, there were really none that were a mixture between learning and progressing. So, in view of my background, I wanted to create this platform where I could invite people from music management, opera directors, orchestra managers, recording executives and agents. Because in Verbier, we have the best of the best talent. And that’s a little bit how it started.

I was also head of Deutsche Grammophon between 1999 and 2005. I was Artistic Director. I signed Anna Netrebko. I signed Lang Lang. After I left there, I continued collaborating very closely with them and discovering both Daniil Trifonov and Yuja Wang in Verbier. I managed to get Deutsche Grammophon to sign them. So Verbier as a starting point for a career was the ultimate goal for me.

And now after 30 years, I can really see that it works. I spent quite a lot of time inviting all these executives. I see it a little bit as a “Davos” for music. In Davos, you go because “if this guy is there, I have to be there too.” It’s that kind of energy where you really need to be there for a couple of days and see what’s going on and meet people.

Everything I’ve just told you doesn’t really concern the general public, because they’re unaware of this. It’s more for the industry and for the next generation.

OW: Speaking specifically about the 2023 edition, can you speak about the program and the artists you wanted to be a part of this celebration? Speaking directly about the opera audience, Bryn Terfel will feature prominently in two performances and younger stars like Lise Davidsen and Benjamin Bernheim will also be a part of it. What kinds of experiences do you hope that audience members take away from this year’s performances?

ME: It’s always been my wish and my hope that the public coming up to Verbier will leave enriched. There should be a healthy balance between seeing and experiencing the names and stars that the public knows, and discovering new talents. I have, over the years, managed to get the confidence of the public. So, even if somebody is completely unknown, the concerts tend to be full.

Also, the fact that Medici has been with me for the past 17 years, and films the recitals and the concerts, helps to underline and help people discover a new name. With Medici, you may have 400-500 people in a church listening to a young artist, but you have between 10,000 and 25,000 people watching the recital via streaming. So, it really means something to give a recital or sing a concert at the Verbier Festival.

Speaking from the public’s point of view, I really hope that their curiosity takes them to areas that perhaps they are not familiar with. We’re doing a concert focusing on “Wozzeck” this year with some of the great singers of our time in those roles, and with a young conductor, Lahav Shani, who has very little experience with opera. But, he’s the music director of the Israel Philharmonic and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, so he’s a bigshot. But, in the opera world, he’s a beginner. So, again, it’s this balance between Matthias Goerne, who’s a superstar, who’s doing the title role in “Wozzeck,” and Camilla Nylund, who is the Marie, also a big name in the opera world and a young conductor.

I hope the public will really go out of their way to support the performance, because it’s not that often that you can listen to a concert performance of “Wozzeck” within a festival. It’s more at the regular opera houses that you can do that. I am convinced that music festivals and a season in a city are not necessarily the same public. In the summer, I think you’re more curious. In the winter, you probably go to what you know, and you’re not interested in discovering things. But I really feel that a music festival fulfills a function. And so we’re doing “Wozzeck” in the Festival and we’re doing “A Rake’s Progress” in the Academy. We’re trying to get the public to discover new repertoire and also young singers.

OW: The Verbier Festival has been a major pioneer when it comes to music, particularly with your work with Medici.TV and also Deutsche Grammophon. What do these relationships mean to you? How do you envision them growing in the coming years? What are some of the exciting collaborations that you will have with these organizations? 

ME: When we started the festival in 1994, I started to record every concert. I partnered up with a company to professionally record every concert, so we have some impressive audio archives going back 30 years. And, together with Deutsche Grammophon, we have made an agreement to come out with highlights from these archives. We started last year in March, and we made a contract for three years, releasing one recording per month. So it’s quite an amazing trip we are on, and we have released amazing concerts that you can discover on our website and on the Deutsche Grammophon website. In fact, last month we released all the Beethoven symphonies with our own chamber orchestra, conducted by their chief conductor. And so, in terms of our presence out there in the media, I think we’re doing pretty well.

We started collaborating with Medici in 2007, and in fact we were the first client of Medici. I remember them coming to see me in 2007, telling me about this new company that was interesting in streaming concerts and “streaming” was a word, at that time, that I really had no idea what it meant. “Filming?” Okay, but “streaming?” What did it mean? So they explained how they would do it. They wanted to stream two or three concerts, and I remember telling them that with so much work to bring cameras and microphones and trucks up to Verbier – I said, “No, two or three concerts doesn’t interest me. If we collaborate, you film everything.” So they went back to Paris, and then they wrote me and said, “Okay! Let’s do everything.” Since then, we have created an amazing audiovisual catalog with some amazing artists and some amazing combinations of artists. And we are now working with a major polytechnical university here in Switzerland to create an archive that will become available to music students in the future. Archives that also include the conductor’s score or the performers’ music, or interviews, and all of our different kinds of archives.

OW: In keeping with that topic of collaborations, who are some other major collaborators who have helped the Verbier Festival grow over recent years?

ME: In the beginning, when I started the Verbier Festival, I had the subtitle, “A Performing Arts Community.” We had dance, we had theatre, and we had music for the first ten years. After that, I started concentrating more on music. But it’s my hope that I can come back to theatre also, and dance. Nowadays, I would like to see the Verbier Festival as a giant workshop, because we have three youth orchestras. Every time somebody goes up onstage, I always try to push my artists to learn a piece and perform it at Verbier for the first time, or go into artistic relationships with colleagues they have never worked with before. So I always try to go a step further in the programming. And that also makes it more interesting for the public, that you don’t have exactly the same touring program as presented in Salzburg or in Aix-en-Provence. All the programs we present are done in-house.

OW: Looking forward, how do you hope to see the festival develop? How can the Verbier Festival continue to be a leader for classical music as we move deeper into the 21st century?

ME: It’s a little bit of everything I have mentioned so far, in that it will remain a hub for the industry. You come here to seek out new artists. You come here to meet your colleagues. You come here to share concerns or share news. It’s an exchange of ideas. It’s a relevant place. It’s not a museum, it’s a relevant place. I have this family of artists who come here year after year, and I add new people to it all the time. So for the young generation, this is the place to be. For the older generation, this is also the place to be.

So even though Verbier is not really known for a major music festival, we don’t have a concert hall, we don’t have enough rehearsal venues or enough working space, we improvise a lot, we’re flexible, we have a good attitude. But, it’s not a perfect setup. And this “not perfect” setup makes it all the more exciting and alive. Not every artist would enjoy performing here, but those who do come back and that’s great. This summer, for our 30th anniversary, our list of artists who are coming for the first time, like Renée Fleming, Plácido Domingo, Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis, and Lise Davidsen. And don’t forget that we pay very little in fees. We don’t pay regular fees. We pay very modest salaries, but people are still coming year after year, and that means that they like it.


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