In Tune Society
Why I Feel Compelled to Attend the 2018 Verbier Music Festival II
In Search of Talent – Verbier Festival Academy

Credit:  Nicolas Brodard

Credit: Nicolas Brodard

Every year, the Verbier Festival Academy invites 50 exceptional music talents from around the world to congregate for 3 weeks in the scenic Swiss Alps, to be mentored by elite artists in preparation for careers as soloists, chamber musicians and singers. The screening process is rigorous, but those selected will surely cherish the experience of a lifetime and entertain the prospects of becoming “Stars of Tomorrow”.

Fest-Off_preview“Talent” to me has an inexplicable and mystifying quality. It is defined as an attribute belonging to an individual who is blessed with an extraordinary ability or aptitude to grasp specific concepts quicker than others, and executes tasks naturally and effortlessly, as if innately born with expert knowledge and skills – such tasks usually perceived as challenging for the majority of the population. When I started studying piano over 63 years ago, young talents did not create a notable buzz then, nor did they dominate the mainstream music scene. Whomever awarded that title was more likely a “raw talent”, i.e., talent that had not been deliberately cultivated. Nevertheless, I do recall a 9-year-old pianist who stunned the Hong Kong music community in the 1950s, by performing in recital – Chopin Ballades! It was rare for that era.

Chalet Orny / Credit: Nicolas Brodard

Chalet Orny / Credit: Nicolas Brodard

As pedagogy further developed and flourished, the phenomenon of child prodigies mastering major concert repertoire before age 11 was no longer considered sensational. At international competitions like the Tchaikovsky or Van Cliburn, or prestigious music schools like Curtis or Juilliard, biographies of contestants or students indicated that many were exposed to serious musical training as toddlers. Some excelled in recitals, performed as soloists with orchestras, from as early as age 5! Personally, I have taught a number of piano prodigies, who by age 7, handled with ease not only concerti by Haydn and Mozart, but those by Beethoven, Grieg and Prokofiev. To reap such remarkable results, it would entail extremely bright and precocious children to focus intently for long periods of time, seasoned and dedicated teachers to guide them, plus super ambitious and conscientious parents to supervise the practices. However, in the realm of music, there is an intangible requisite – genuine musicianship (artistry), which extends beyond flawless mechanics and perfectly choreographed interpretation. Will these high achievers mature into concert artists when they grow up? Is greatness born or can it be manufactured? Does each talent ultimately have to succumb to his or her own destiny?

Prix Academy / Credit:  Aline Paley

Prix Academy / Credit: Aline Paley

After reviewing the credentials of the “2017 Musicians” admitted into the Academy, I concluded that the candidates (ages 16 to 30 for the Academy, ages 13 to 15 for Students-in-Residence) shared this profile : Recognized from early childhood as ultra special, nurtured by venerable artist-teachers in reputable institutions, won numerous prizes in major competitions, toured in the international arena, elaborately praised by critics, guided by acclaimed musicians, and amassed an adoring following. Many already equipped themselves with impressive websites, secured strong management representations, and have solidly launched their careers. I was told by Stephen McHolm, Director of the Academy, that competition for acceptance into the Academy is becoming so fierce, that admission criteria have to be more stringent to justify the selection process. Only 8 candidates are chosen in each category – piano, violin, viola, cello, voice and chamber music – amidst hundreds of applicants (with demand increasing exponentially year after year). My impression is that one cannot simply be outstanding as a music talent, but be incredibly multi-talented in life to stand out in that crowded space! This was how Stephen McHolm described the contenders:

“Unique in personal style, charismatic with international appeal, global in scope, highly skilled in craft, profound in substance, and above all, magical in presentation!”

No doubt, it is a tough ascent to the summit! On the other hand, for us music devotees, we will not only gain a preview of the next generation’s creme of the crop, but partake in their pursuit of excellence, which will deem the Verbier Experience all the more exhilarating!

Discover the Verbier Festival Academy

Masterclass with Takács-Nagy / Credit: Aline Paley

Masterclass with Takács-Nagy / Credit: Aline Paley

The most fulfilling aspect of the Academy experience is to witness the growth of these upcoming stars in the course of weeks after their daily interaction with distinguished artists in close proximity. A day in the life of a participant is hectic – comprises of private lessons, unlimited master classes, rehearsals, chamber music or voice coaching, attending all concerts by world-class artists and their own peers, and of course, networking. What prevails is a relentless infusion of intense exchanges. Inevitably, through osmosis, the essence of music will inspire, affect and energize all to venture out of their comfort zones. According to Verbier executives, the founder Martin Engstroem has created a sophisticated and supportive culture in Verbier, that is “posh and yet accessible to all…..Martin has this special knack in making everybody feel special”! This demanding yet caring environment broadens one’s horizon, fosters the desire to learn and self-improve, and in turn provides a firm foundation on which successful careers are built. Apparently, one often hears Academy participants apologize profusely to fellow comrades if they miss their concerts. It is this “All in the Family” ambiance where one finds the confidence to initiate or validate one’s unique voice, thus emboldened to speak convincingly through music.

In addition to the Academy’s talent development program mentioned above (for ages 16 to 30), there exists an amazing Students-In-Residence component, where superbly gifted musicians (between ages 13 to 15), armed with astounding technical prowess and exquisitely polished flair, “wow” everybody off their chairs! Their possibilities are limitless. These videos by 2017 Students-In-Residence will speak for themselves:-

Ivan Bessonov – pianist (Russia) – 14 years old

Nathan Lee – pianist (U.S.A.) – 15 years old

Maria Dueñas – violinist (Spain) – 14 years old

Last but not least, this article will be amiss if I do not mention the impressive list of performing artists scheduled to be on the 2018 Academy teaching faculty. With respectable names like Richard Goode, Sergei Babayan, Pamela Frank, Pinchas Zukerman, Thomas Quasthoff (to name a few) assuming pedagogical roles, the class of incoming candidates will benefit immensely from their engagement and tutelage.

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