As a leading international cellist, Mario Brunello regularly plays in the world’s big concert halls. But one of his fondest musical memories took place in a more unlikely setting: on the face of a mountain at the crack of dawn. Brunello had ascended the Dolomites of Brenta with the writer Erri De Luca and his beloved 1600 Maggini cello. A gathering of musical devotees had formed for their poetry reading and performance of Bach’s Cello Suite no. 2.

Majestic views of the Dolomites © Marisa Montibeller
Majestic views of the Dolomites
© Marisa Montibeller

“It was unforgettable,” Brunello tells me. “And it happened entirely by chance. The sun was rising slowly as I played. And as I landed on the final note the entire mountain face lit up. You couldn’t create something as well-coordinated even in the theatre.” Brunello was delivering the customary dawn concert at the Sounds of the Dolomites, the annual summer festival featuring open-air concerts, many of them free, in locations throughout the eponymous mountain range that lines the Italian Alps. But there is more to the Sounds of the Dolomites than simply music. Reaching concert locations requires audience members to walk there, and doing so with the musicians breaks down traditional boundaries between performer and listener. Together, they are encouraged to enjoy all the local Trentino region has to offer, from its fine cheeses and wines, abundantly available in rifugi along the way, to the awe-inspiring views provided by its imposing terrain.

It is a terrain that Brunello has in his blood. Brought up in the Veneto town of Castelfranco, he would marvel at the distant majesty of the Dolomite mountains from his bedroom window. Holidays would be spent walking up them with skis on his back. Before long the skis were replaced with a cello, when Brunello took to playing his instrument at high altitude for personal pleasure. Little did he know that he was planting the seeds for what is now Trentino’s most important festival. What inspired those first private performances? “It was all completely natural,” Brunello explains. “I love music and mountains. It was inevitable that at some point I would combine the two.”

The formula turned out to be popular − too popular, perhaps. “We almost have too many people attending concerts now,” Brunello laughs. “We’ve decided to bring in some less well-known repertoire, in order to challenge audiences. Think of it as a process of natural selection. With the more unusual programmes you note the quality of the audience immediately.”

Brenta Dolomites from Lake Nero © Alessandro Gruzza
Brenta Dolomites from Lake Nero
© Alessandro Gruzza

Performers, too, need resilience to survive. Walking with instruments on backs and playing in the open air presents challenges. But those that overcome them find the mountains open up “new possibilities of communication,” according to Brunello. “Toscanini said that the open air is only good for playing bowls. But I believe it provides another possibility. It is easy to play somewhere like the Musikverein. But when you play in such a huge open space, you need more intensity.”

“There is nothing other than you and the silence, and I have learnt a lot from it,” continues Brunello, who in addition to the Dolomites has also performed in the Sahara desert. Part of his artistic mission is to introduce musicians to the power of playing outdoors, an activity he believes helps them find a more authentic voice. “When there is no acoustic you need to find your sound and go with it. You need to work to make your instrument sing.”

Brunello has broad musical interests (he has collaborated with singer-songwriters and jazz musicians alike), which the festival’s programmes reflect. “We have jazz, ethnic music and folk music, and try to strike a balance,” explains Brunello. “But it is all of a high quality; this is music with a capital M.” This year’s programme looks particularly diverse. Italian jazz trumpeter Paolo Fresu joins forces with the traditional Ladin music group Mùsega de Poza. British singer-songwriter Graham Nash plays some of his classics, and Ukranian folk quartet DakhaBrakha will unleash its distinctive “ethno-chaos” music on the idyllic pastures of the Val di Fassa.

It is often the classical musicians, however, that initially prove difficult to sign up. “When I first propose [playing at the festival to new guests] they are sometimes sceptical. Walking up a mountain with your Stradivarius, playing under the sun and in a place with very little acoustic is not always immediately appealing. But I try my best to convince them.”

Dawn from Col Margherita, Val di Fassa © Federico Modica
Dawn from Col Margherita, Val di Fassa
© Federico Modica
After their first performance, though, musicians are often hooked. Cellist Mischa Maisky is now a frequent guest, as is violinist Isabelle Faust, who this year will perform as part of a quartet. Few, however, visit as regularly as Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica, one of the world’s leading chamber ensembles. The group is back to lead the second edition of the Campiglio Special Week – a six-day “festival within the festival” – which this year spotlights composers ranging from Mendelssohn to Morricone. One novelty is the world première of a project combining music from Mieczysław Weinberg and images from Lithuanian photographer Antanas Sutkus in an exploration of the notion of a Soviet utopia. Another is the festival’s first ever workshop (creating it is like “realising a dream”, Brunello says), in which amateur string players will receive tuition from members of the Kremerata Baltica, before being invited to play a work with the group during a live performance.

Brunello himself rarely passes on an opportunity to play with the Kremerata Baltica, and will join members during the Campiglio Special Week for an eclectic programme comprising works by composers including Reinhold Glière, Rebecca Clarke and Giovanni Sollima. That is after he returns from a challenging three-day trek with mountaineer Maurizio Zanolla, a pioneer of free climbing, and a small group of walkers who can reserve a place on the trek via the festival’s website. Needless to say, Brunello will have his cello on his back, and will be providing musical nourishment along the way.

The trek offers one of the festival’s biggest challenges, but one that Brunello relishes. What is he most looking forward to? His response captures what makes the Sound of the Dolomites as whole so unique. “Walking, sharing, being around others, and having the chance to drink a good glass of wine.”


This article was sponsored by Trentino Sviluppo S.p.A.