The Met in the Alps

Every summer, young musicians from around the world descend on the sleepy Swiss alpine village of Verbier for one of the world’s great music festivals. At the center of it, these musicians form the Verbier Festival Orchestra. This exceptional orchestra, formed under James Levine in 2000, plays with some of the world’s greatest conductors and soloists. Entrusted with preparing them for the whirlwind of the Festival are a group of MET Orchestra Musicians, who conduct sectionals and listen in on orchestra rehearsals (conducted admirably by Met conductor Derrick Inouye) for two and a half weeks before the official beginning of the Verbier Festival.

The experience of working with such gifted, enthusiastic musicians has proven a consistent source of energy and inspiration for those MET Orchestra Musicians who coach each year. Several of them shared their impressions and fondest experiences from the festival.

Photo by Greg Zuber

Photo by Greg Zuber

Greg Zuber, Percussion

The Verbier Festival is an incredibly exciting event, with young musicians coming from all over the world to meet in the fantastically beautiful Swiss Alps and make music together. They play for the finest conductors and accompany a “who’s who” of concerto soloists, from Martha Argerich and Evgeny Kissin to Joshua Bell and Joyce DiDonato.

The 2015 VFO percussion section on their annual scooter ride

The 2015 VFO percussion section on their annual scooter ride

The instrumental coaches for the Festival Orchestra are all members of the MET Orchestra. This relationship began when Music Director James Levine invited a group of musicians from his orchestra to come to the festival and prepare each of the sections for the summer’s repertoire, an arrangement that continues to this day. Our goal is to offer guidance on technical and musical issues and to impart some of our accumulated knowledge, born of experience. We conduct the musicians through the repertoire, offer master classes and individual lessons, and sometimes lead (and perform with) them in chamber music. This allows these remarkably talented young musicians, who are both coming together and, often as not, performing the repertoire for the first time, to achieve deeper, more nuanced performances despite the compressed schedule.

In addition to purely musical activities, there is a rarified atmosphere in the mountains, in which the faculty and the musicians interact socially, sharing meals at the cafeteria and beers at the local pub. For the percussion section, a section dinner and a trip down the mountain on scooters are annual traditions.

I have had the privilege to coach the Festival Orchestra percussion sections since 2000. Returning annually over the past 16 years has afforded me the chance to get to know and work with an astonishing array of talented young percussionists, many of whom have gone on to successes in major orchestras including the San Francisco and Milwaukee Symphonies, the Malaysian Philharmonic, and many others around the world. Others have established varied and impressive careers in contemporary music, theater, and other areas of performance.

Joseph Anderer, Horn

When asked to recall the joys of our annual trips to the Verbier Festival, the obvious pleasures might be the beautiful environment and the convenience of visiting old friends we’ve come to treasure during our past stays in western Europe - but these would not be the first things that spring to mind. There is a special kind of satisfaction that I (and I think we, the coaches) receive in working with the young musicians entrusted to us. These are extremely talented individuals, many of whom have gone on to great positions in major musical organizations. (Indeed, some of them are already working in such positions when they come to the festival!) Some of them will surpass anything I’ve achieved in my career, but none of them have yet had anything like the experience I have had in my more than 40 years in music. (This has included not only opera, but with many years of work with the New York Philharmonic, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and others.) When we get together for sectionals, it’s very fulfilling for me to be able to share my experiences of the repertoire under such figures as Bernstein, Boulez, Levine, Kleiber, Mehta, and others.

Verbier at night (Photo by Joseph Anderer)

Verbier at night (Photo by Joseph Anderer)

Another gratifying feature of the experience are the so-called coaches’ dinners - a tradition of inviting our sections to dinner and spending the evening “hanging out” and sharing our experiences in a much less formal (and sober) atmosphere. The brass dinner is always fun, but my wife and I have expanded the concept a bit. We usually have a dinner for the horn section, which is more intimate, but still pretty boisterous at times - especially if our Swiss friend visits and alphorns are present!

And we mustn’t overlook the rare and precious day when there are no clouds and the lifts are running to Mont Fort - we do our best to drop everything and get up there, where we can see Mont Blanc (very close!) and all the 4,000-meter peaks on the Italian border, such as the Dent Blanche and Mont Cervin - better known as the Matterhorn. There’s no better reward for the hard work we do to prepare for the festival!

By the way, they normally send us off before the festival begins, so most of the coaches don’t get a taste of the festival. However, one year I was asked to play several festival chamber music concerts, and I got to experience firsthand the excitement my young friends are immersed in for two and a half weeks each summer - a heady time!

Nancy Wu, Violin

Many things have changed in the 16 years that I have been fortunate to coach the violin section of the Verbier Festival Orchestra. In the early years, Swissair was a sponsor, and we could bring an unlimited amount of luggage - there were a few years of a double bass in a travel case (for my husband, Leigh Mesh, who coaches the double basses), a bike in a bike case, a stroller for our young kids, and big duffel bags full of toys, scores, and violin parts. We actually needed two vehicles to get everything (and everyone) to the airport! Now, no basses are transported by plane, and we are limited to one 50-pound suitcase, in which I cram hiking boots and clothing to accommodate the various weather scenarios, ranging from scorching mountain sun to snow (!) at the top of the lift. Scores and parts are now online - one only needs a laptop or tablet, although I still like the old-style editions.

The 2015 VFO violin section

The 2015 VFO violin section

One of my favorite things to do with my group of violinists is to organize a mock audition. Once, we did it at my apartment, with them playing behind a curtain so they could get a sense of what it is like to play behind a screen. They took turns playing and listening, and at the end, they all shared their comments. It was, and always is, wonderful to see how supportive and honest they could be with each other. Many of them have forged long-lasting friendships that are now continuing into their second decade, marriages and children included! On the live-streamed concerts, one can often see members hugging each other at the end of concerts, with lots of tears at the end of the final concert.

These young musicians inspire me with their enthusiasm, dedication, and talent. Alumni of the orchestra can be found all over the world, including practically every major orchestra in Europe and the U.S. Trying to impart what is required, day in and day out, in the MET Orchestra, not only musically but interpersonally, is one of my goals as a coach. I am refreshed and replenished every summer by these wonderful young talents, and eternally grateful for my job at the Met!

Désirée Elsevier, Viola

The 2015 VFO viola section

The 2015 VFO viola section

In my own student years, I didn’t attend a summer music program until I was already working on my master’s degree. So, even setting aside the fact that Verbier is unique among festivals, a phenomenally successful incubator of young talent, I had no idea what to anticipate when I was asked, unexpectedly and at the last minute, to coach the violas.

In the best sense, Verbier is an unreal setting for young professionals. They are completely immersed in the great orchestral works. They receive intense coaching from members of the MET Orchestra. In so doing, they learn not just the specifics of the music, but also how to navigate playing in an orchestra and how to behave in such a specific, unusual group setting. At the end of it all, they get to perform those works with some of the great conductors of our time.

Verbier is truly a manifestation of the ivory tower: an environment where the practical concerns of daily life are stripped away and one is left to perfect one’s craft. I think that this is true for all involved - “students,” coaches, and conductors. It is like a super internship, like medical students who actually get to perform surgery. It is also an incredible place for the coaches, to be in a storybook locale and to have the time to focus on molding young musicians, many of them already young professionals - to guide them as they begin their own careers. It must be an particularly rewarding situation for the conductors who come after we’ve left, who arrive and find a vibrant group, exploding with raw talent, eager and willing to work hard.

Leigh Mesh, Bass

In 2000, when James Levine asked Nancy (Wu, Associate Concertmaster of the MET Orchestra and my wife) and I if we would like to come to Verbier for three weeks to coach and help form the newly-founded Verbier Festival Orchestra, we were thrilled, excited, and, not least, daunted. We were told this was going to be an orchestra composed of students aged 18-30, to be selected by audition. The invitation came late, we scrambled to move around commitments in our schedule, and before we knew it we were at JFK with a bass trunk, a bike box, our three year-old daughter, and a mountain of luggage. (This was flying pre-9/11, after all.) Our son was born shortly after, and then we had even more gear to transport - my bass trunk not only held my bass, but as many disposable diapers as would fit.

The 2012 bass hike

The 2012 bass hike

The early years were truly amazing. The VFO was a newborn child, and not many young players knew of its existence. We had many inexperienced players back then, but the vibe and enthusiasm were incredible. In the very beginning, Nancy was the only violin coach (for 30 violinists!) and I coached the basses and cellos. I actually coached Dora Figueroa, who is now our Associate Principal Cellist. The level of the orchestra rose very quickly, and concerts were magical, perhaps even more so because of our special attachment to these young musicians.

Word spread quickly about the VFO, and just a few short years after its creation, it has become one of the most desired music festivals for young musicians to be accepted to. We have had the huge pleasure of seeing many VFO alumni join major orchestras over the years. The fact that the VFO has become so difficult to earn acceptance into has also made the level of the orchestra incredibly high.

So, here we are, 16 years later. Verbier feels like our second home. Martin Engstroem, founder of the Verbier Festival, is our dear friend. Festival colleagues and local Verbier residents we have known feel like family. Our children have never seen American Fourth of July fireworks, but know many of the countries surrounding Switzerland and usually request at least one trip to Italy for amazing food. There are enough memories and experiences to fill a small novel. My most treasured feeling about Verbier is that I have been so fortunate to teach and pass on my experience to passionate young musicians, and to know that in some small way this may have helped them on their road to success.

(L to R) Dent Blanche (4357m), Aguilles Rouge d’Arolla (3646m), Matterhorn (4478m), and Dent d”Herens (4171m) (Photo by Joseph Anderer)

(L to R) Dent Blanche (4357m), Aguilles Rouge d’Arolla (3646m), Matterhorn (4478m), and Dent d”Herens (4171m) (Photo by Joseph Anderer)