For the sixth summer in a row, like some exotic species attuned to the celestial cycles, top instrumentalists from all over Europe are flocking to the picture-postcard shores of what the natives call the Vierwaldstättersee, or Lake of the Four Forest Cantons, to celebrate midsummer as members of a starry seasonal ensemble. Meet the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, founded by Claudio Abbado in 2003 in tandem with Michael Haefliger, the festival's artistic and executive director. In 1938, Arturo Toscanini helped inaugurate the Lucerne Festival with an orchestra assembled in just this way. But as of 1994, Lucerne had been operating without a band of its own.
Reviving an old idea, Abbado gave it a new spin. "Claudio looks at the orchestra as an ensemble of ensembles," says Haefliger. "Obviously the conductor gives one downbeat, and obviously the orchestra is united in the effort to play one piece. But within the orchestra, he wants each ensemble to maintain its own identity. It's a chamber-music ideal." Yes, but a paradoxical one, involving a musical dialogue that proceeds on multiple levels simultaneously, within sections and among sections. As a symphonic collective, the musicians prepare two programs, each a highlight of the calendar. (Usually Mahler predominates; this year, however, the big pieces are Stravinsky's Firebird and Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.) In this context, concerts of chamber music by LFO musicians amount to high-stakes breakout sessions.
The "backbone" of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, in Haefliger's phrase, is drawn from the Gustav Mahler Chamber Orchestra, a professional ensemble that spun off from Abbado's training ensemble, the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. These players have already had ample opportunity to make Abbado's spirit of inquiry their own. The presence of seasoned first-chair colleagues from Europe's leading orchestras (notably the Berlin Philharmonic, where Abbado served as principal conductor from 1989 to 2002), as well as of distinguished chamber musicians (such as Clemens Hagen, of the Hagen Quartet), makes the collective quest all the more intense. "Claudio is very particular in choosing," Haefliger says. "Every player has to be someone he knows. He gives his O.K. for each one."
For Kolja Blacher, a violinist with a flourishing international career, it's like old times to be back in the concertmaster's chair, as he used to be with Abbado in Berlin. "To play in Lucerne was the idea of an orchestra among musician friends. Nobody has to play there. We play there because we want to."
Violinist Ilya Gringolts, a rising star with major-label recordings of Bach, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and others to his credit, has happily vanished into the middle ranks of the first-violin section for Abbado. "It's not hard at all to surrender your leadership and become 'part of the machine,' as it were," Gringolts says. "It's exactly this sharing of responsibility that I enjoy — an almost total lack of pressure, just the joy of music-making. Abbado is of course a catalyst and moral engine of the whole thing. He just floats on top of the sound of the orchestra he has hand-picked so carefully, as if sailing on his private custom-made sailboat."
The principal horn, Alessio Allegrini, Abbado's soloist in a forthcoming recording of the Mozart horn concertos, never tires of watching Abbado in action. "Many people make music narrow-mindedly and selfishly," Allegrini says. "Often such people become outstanding technicians. But to me, technique means little unless it is accompanied by high values and ideals. Claudio sculpts the untapped potential in each one of us to bring forth a work of art — a bit like Michelangelo working a block of Carrara marble. But Michelangelo was mean and beat his assistants. Not Claudio."
No, not Claudio. The Danish percussionist Mathias Friis-Hansen, a recent member of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, could scarcely believe it when Abbado mentioned backstage, in passing, that there might be something for him in Lucerne. "I had heard rumors," Friis-Hansen says, "but could Claudio really want me to be part of his superstar orchestra? I had just finished my degree in Copenhagen that year and was twenty-five years old. I know that he has done a lot all his life to promote young talent. I have been lucky to have the opportunity to be lifted up to a higher level than would otherwise be possible for me. The atmosphere at the Lucerne Festival Orchestra is so special. Everybody is there because they love to play, love the music, love to work together and love Claudio. We don't all know each other that well, but when Claudio is in the room, there's no business as usual, no 'This is the way we always play this piece.' Everyone puts their heart and soul into it, just like he does. Every concert is a milestone."