The return of classic festivals – The Verbier Festival reinvents itself...

Director Martin Engstroem announces a 2021 “Covid-compatible” edition. Overview.

Matthieu Chenal

Posted today at 18:43

“This virus will go away once, we do not know when, but in the meantime, the artistic world is suffering enormously”, explains Martin Engstroem.


Unconsciousness or determination? Coué method or simple announcement effect? The optimism displayed by the classical music festivals which announce their 2021 editions raises many questions, at a time when cultural activity is at a total standstill. Obviously, the situation is not the same for the Sommets Musicaux de Gstaad, which is betting on the next trough of the epidemic wave at the end of January (see box) and the Verbier Festival which will only open in 9 months.

More generally, the configuration of classical concerts lends itself better to tracing than other musical styles. Nonetheless, these announcements bring the issue of major cultural events back to the forefront, with the organizers’ fierce desire, if not to return to normal, at least to return to living and shared music. Martin Engstroem, founder and director of the Verbier Festival, in any case does not spare his energy to help artists, by adapting his event to health constraints.

Martin Engstroem schedules the 28th edition of his festival


What makes you believe so strongly in a possible edition in summer 2021?

This virus will go away once, we don’t know when, but in the meantime, the artistic world is suffering greatly. The profession is on its knees, the situation is catastrophic for some, even the most qualified. Thanks to our support fund launched this spring, we were able to collect 650,000 francs and provide help to 240 people in distress, young and old, musicians or technicians, who are part of the Verbier family. It is above all for them that we want to offer a 28th edition.

How did the Verbier Festival survive 2020?

The balance sheet is not finalized and we are still awaiting decisions from the Confederation and the municipality. Our company has however passed the course with a probable deficit, but bearable. We are entering 2021 with a lot of questions. What type of festival to organize, with what budget, how to invest? Fortunately, we are counting on patrons and private foundations which have not had too much damage so far. With the foundation board and the authorities, we are heading for an almost normal edition. Frankly, we don’t really have a choice.


The festival represents an important entry for the municipality of Bagnes. She needs us for the summer season. This year, the Swiss clientele made up for the absent foreign tourists and it was very good. But will they come back next year? We do not know. This is why it is important for us to come back in full force, with the orchestra, with the tent, with the academy. The ticket office, which normally represents 26% of the budget, is the riskiest item.

Have you already planned major adaptations?

Yes, because it is about making festival-goers feel safe. The artists and the 300 young people of the academy will be tested in Le Châble before going up to the station. And we will do regular tests on site. At the Salle des Combins, which normally has 1,750 seats, we have two-thirds of the capacity. To compensate, we offer two concerts per evening, at 6 p.m. and 8:15 p.m., with reduced prices. The concerts will be shorter and without intermission, which strongly influences the programming. But maybe it will appeal to younger audiences more. The only thing we are giving up at the moment are the bars. However, spectators can enjoy the restaurants, or the concert at the church at 8 p.m.

“We need real emotions with real musicians in front of us.”

Martin Engstroem, director of the Verbier Festival

Do you think you can get the whole orchestra together?

We had already done all the auditions around the world at the start of the year. We will therefore keep the people selected. Most have agreed to return. I also asked our musical director Valéry Guerguiev what was the minimum number of the orchestra for him, fixed at 10 first violins. At the moment, we are planning with 16 first violins as usual.

Obviously, you don’t want to repeat the essentially online solution from last summer.

Streaming was a magnificent experience, with 96 hours of retrospective on and many live recitals offered daily by top performers. But that cannot be a long term solution. We need real emotions with real musicians in front of us.

Posted today at 18:43

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