Mary Ellen Woodside
© Marco Borggreve

Rendered in English, the German word Zwischentöne translates to “nuance” or “overtone” – the pitches elevated above the fundamental frequency. Mary Ellen Woodside describes both the literal concept and the word’s poetic meaning as “the tones between, like hearing between the lines.” That characterization could also be applied to the Zwischentöne Chamber Music Festival that she co-directs in Engelberg, Switzerland, a three-day exploration of the art form that goes beyond celebrating the music itself to create a unique, immersive experience.

Woodside, first violinist of the Zurich-based Merel Quartet, believes in the essential relationship between the artist and the audience and stresses that connection in her programming. “We have an emphasis on closeness with the audience,” she tells me in a video call in early September, several weeks before the festival is set to get underway. “You have a dinner together. You have a reception at the end of the whole festival where people can chat and ask questions.” Musicians and guests also stay in the same hotels, including the renovated 5-star Kempinski Palace at the foot of Mount Titlis, where organic interactions are possible.

Zwischentöne launched in 2015 and was inspired by Woodside’s previous experiences performing with the Merel Quartet at the Ittinger Whitsun Concerts, at a time when they were overseen by Sir András Schiff and Heinz Holliger. “It was incredibly inspiring, for a young quartet, to hear performances of those two and many other great players, and to get to work with them,” she remembers. “Apart from absolutely idolizing their musicianship, we were also thrilled by their programs that were a fantastic mix of contemporary and classical repertoire, as well as wonderful but lesser-known composers.” When the partnership ended, Woodside and co-founder Rafael Rosenfeld, the Merel Quartet’s cellist, knew they wanted to create a similar atmosphere that prioritized musical exploration and creating community.

The opportunity to mix and mingle – not just with musicians but with fellow music lovers – is something sorely needed after the extended forced separation inflicted by the Coronavirus pandemic. Although Woodside and Rosenfeld managed to pull off a festival last fall, operating under strict social distancing and with fewer international artists than usual, she noted that the process was far from ideal, both in terms of concept and execution. Concerts and events had to be moved to smaller venues to comply with capacity limitations, and rising Covid-19 cases throughout the country created a feeling of uncertainty that persisted up until the start of the festival. “Nobody was vaccinated yet then, and some of our older audience members didn’t feel safe coming to a concert,” she recalls now.

Woodside and Rosenfeld envision a looser, more traditional environment this autumn, boosted by the 3G protocol of geimpft (vaccinated), genesen (recovered) or getestet (tested). “We hope that everyone is going to feel safe and be safe this year,” Woodside says. “The musicians will generally be performing without masks, because it can be super uncomfortable if you don’t get air when you’re playing. We have the same standards for ourselves in terms of protocol, and as far as I know, everyone who is coming is vaccinated. Everybody is super happy that we are doing it like this, so that they can come and feel safe at the concerts.”

The theme of this year’s festival, Affairs of the Heart, also reflects the desire to highlight love in its many forms of fellowship as the world reopens. The selections run the gamut from the classical canon to contemporary song cycles, leaving something for every taste. “It’s a theme that you can find in a lot of music, the theme of love, and it’s nice to have a theme that is very broad,” Woodside explains. “It gives you a lot of flexibility in programming, and there are so many great pieces, whether they depict an unrequited passion or if they were written for the spouse of the composer, or a piece where you can feel as the player in a love duet within the music that’s not necessarily biographical.”

When we spoke, Woodside effused about the chance to perform Mozart’s String Quintet no. 3 in C major with the Merel Quartet, a piece that holds special personal meaning. She and Rosenfeld, who is also her husband, selected it to be played at their wedding. “The slow movement has a wonderful love duet between the first violin and the first viola, and although there’s no programmatic story necessarily, you can hear the story in the music,” she says. “There’s also the Romances of Robert and Clara Schumann, and César Franck’s Piano Quintet that he wrote for a student whom he was passionately in love with, and therefore his wife hated the piece and didn’t want it played! There are a lot of pieces in the program that do have a story behind them or were written for somebody.”

Ian Bostridge
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

The premier international attraction this year is undoubtedly tenor Ian Bostridge. In addition to performing Schubert’s monumental Die schöne Müllerin with pianist Saskia Giorgini – a work that needs no explanation within the festival’s thematic context – Bostridge will also offer Britten’s Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo and Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge. “Practically every song cycle could fit this theme,” Woodside tells me. “Ian Bostridge is a most wonderful lieder singer, and he’s done Die schöne Müllerin wonderfully in lots of different settings. It’s also a piece that’s dear to my heart, because it’s something I got to know as a student and loved very much. It could have been Winterreise or any number of other pieces, but Die schöne Müllerin really felt like one of the beginnings of my relationship with Schubert, and it’s something that Bostridge does particularly beautifully.”

Nurturing emerging artists is just as important to Woodside as presenting established stars. The Young Festival Artist Program is a hallmark of the event, where several up-and-coming musicians are invited to perform individually and as part of the ensemble, as well as to observe the workings of a major international festival from all sides. Applicants audition digitally by providing two videos, one of which must show them performing a chamber piece in the Baroque or early Romantic style. Woodside relishes the chance to watch the selected students blossom once they begin interacting with senior artists or put themselves in front of an audience.

“It’s wonderful and so rewarding to see a student who hasn’t had that much experience, or who’s primary experience has been performing within the university or the family setting, to suddenly be in a situation where they’re in a real festival working with amazing people,” she says. “They soak it all in, whether it’s sharing the stage or listening in on rehearsals, and they’re really electrified sometimes. You can see from one day to the next how they gather strength and get nourishment from everything that’s going on.”

Woodside is also passionate about the juxtaposition of new music alongside the chestnuts that many audience members come out to hear. In addition to Mozart and Dvořák, whose String Quartet no. 13 in G major is also on the Merel’s bill, listeners will be treated to a late-night concert of Ezequiel Viñao’s Sonetos de amor, a setting of Neruda sonnets sung by the Romanian soprano Irina Ungureanu. Programs featuring familiar works by Beethoven and Bartók also highlight the contributions of living composers like György Kurtág and Tõnu Kõrvits. Merel Quartet, along with clarinetist Reto Bieri and pianist Claudio Martínez Mehner, will offer the world premiere of Swiss composer Gérard Zinsstag’s Notturno for clarinet, piano and string quartet.

“Trying to have a balance of classical and contemporary, and the idea of curiosity, is really important,” she says. “The idea of being open to new discoveries is so important, and I think our audience is really looking for that. We really have a great audience. It’s fantastic to play for a group of people who want to hear something new, or who want to hear something they know in a new way. The people that I know personally who are coming to concert, I know that they are listening to a lot of different kinds of music. But my hope is that other people come to hear Mozart and Schumann and Beethoven – and in the same program, they might hear some Wyttenbach, or they hear a premiere of a piece and end up being fascinated.”


To find out more about the Zwischentöne Chamber Music Festival click here.  

This interview was sponsored by MQ Productions.