There are many reasons why Italy is a popular holiday destination: its arresting landscapes, the rich history, the delicious food and the long tradition of beautiful music are only a few of the enjoyments available to people who spend time in the Mediterranean peninsula. Aiming to join all these elements under one roof is the Varignana Music Festival, taking place from the 4th to the 13th July in the stunning countryside just outside the Northern city of Bologna. (And yes, if you are thinking of Bolognese sauce, this popular pasta topping is indeed a regional specialty – although the Italian version always contains minced beef, so veggies beware).

The Palazzo di Varignana spa-resort is surrounded by beautiful countryside
© Palazzo di Varignana

Set at the Palazzo di Varignana, a luxury spa-resort immersed in nature, the festival takes an holistic approach to all the things you can expect from an Italian holiday by offering an immersive experience pairing music with gastronomy and wellness, aiming to get the audience to feed both their body and soul. I sat down with the festival's Artistic Director, Bruno Borsari, to learn more about this year's line-up.

Bruno Borsari
© Musica Insieme
The festival has been launched in 2014, but Borsari has 33 years of experience organising chamber music concerts as the Director of one of Italy's most respected concert societies, Musica Insieme. This Foundation, the largest in the country by number of subscribers – over 1300 – organises chamber music concerts for fans in the local area, even organising transport to and from concert venues, allowing those who might live in small communities dotted around the region to enjoy concerts by some top international chamber music artists. Borsari is credited with having introduced to local audiences many artists that then went on to claim worldwide success. His passion for music and his managerial knack meant that he has organised over 1000 concerts to date – yet he tells me he has only ever missed two of them.

Musica Insieme, together with the Palazzo di Varignana, are the driving forces behind the festival, and Borsari personally chooses all the artists who will perform.

Mischa Maisky performing at the Varignana Music Festival
© Elettra Bastoni
“Among the artists who came to Varignana in past editions are established musicians such as Mischa Maisky, Natalia Gutman, The Janáček Quartet and more,” he explains enthusiastically. “A place so beautiful, we thought, needed to offer an equally beautiful musical experience. Every year the festival lasts longer (this year we added a day) and although we might have not yet reached the breadth of festivals such as Schloss Elmau, that's the direction we're headed in. What makes our festival unique is that our goal is to pair up wellness activities with an equally important emphasis placed on music.”

“This year's programme it is an academy of virtuosity,” he says. “We go from a German pianist of Palestinian origin Saleem Ashkar – a popular artist in Germany but still almost unknown in Italy – to the Festival Strings Lucerne Chamber Players, who have been performing around the world for over 60 years. Performing in two concerts, we will also welcome back the extraordinary Brodsky Quartet, who have been friends of the festival since the first editions. With violin virtuoso Gilles Apap we will slightly depart from traditional violin playing: after performing Mendelssohn with the Quintetto d’Archi del Teatro Comunale di Bologna, he will use his classical instrument in a less traditional way by playing a programme of folk tunes.”

The Brodsky Quartet
© Duncan Matthews
“Most of all, however, this year we wanted to focus on young talents who are currently making a name for themselves all over the world,” continues Borsari. “An example is returning pianist Federico Colli, who debuted for Musica Insieme when he was very young and is now performing in concert halls all over Europe. We have invited a young and talented Italian quartet, the Quartetto Noûs, who will perform with pianist Boris Petrushansky, and we will also welcome young pianist Nikolay Khozyainov, who was, at only 18 years old, the youngest ever finalist at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw.”

The festival also features its own choir and orchestra, the Coro e Orchestra del Varignana Music Festival. These are composed of musicians from local orchestras, mainly the Coro and Orchestra of the Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Servi (a chapel where music has been performed for centuries) plus soloists from other regional orchestras, individually chosen for that year's repertoire.

Saleem Ashkar
© Luidmila Jermies
“I look forward to all of this year’s performances at the festival, but I am particularly curious to listen to Ashkar," Borsari tells me. “He has performed with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester and the Wiener Philharmoniker among many others, but this is his first time performing in Bologna. He seems to be someone who understand the new role of chamber music today: in the past this music was only performed for the few, in the private rooms of the nobility, whereas today we have over a thousand subscribers to our concert series and our main goal is to allow as many people as possible to enjoy this great music.”

The Varignana Music Festival aims to reach not only those who already love classical music, but also those that might be new to it: the repertoire presented at the festival caters to a variety of tastes, hoping also to serve as introduction to chamber music for those who might not have listened to this genre before. The beauty of the nearby historic town of Varignana, whose Medieval castle still stands, is an essential part of the inspiration behind the festival.

“The setting is extraordinarily beautiful. Even before entering the auditorium for a concert, the audience can fill their heart with what they see, the Po river valley, the Venetian pre-alps, the Adriatic sea… this natural beauty has a great effect on the overall atmosphere at the festival,” explains Borsari. “The wellness aspect of the spa-resort and the cultural aspect of the music go hand in hand. I’d like to think that those who like classical music are open minded people, who strive for beauty and goodness in their life, and vice versa. The festival was born aiming to cater for those who love classical music as well as those who want to relax, and with time we realised that people enjoy the fact that they can listen to a great concert while at the same time dedicating some time to a massage or to swimming laps in the pool.”

To highlight even more this holistic approach to culture and wellbeing, after each concert there is an aperitif and a dinner, which allow the audience to meet the artists and interact with them on a personal level. The Festival's concerts last roughly an hour, without interval, and each event's audience is usually between the 200 and 300 people.

The best way to enjoy all what the Festival has to offer is to stay for a night or more at the Palazzo di Varignana resort, however people can also simply attend the concerts they want and then return to the nearby city of Bologna: as a new service offered this year, a free shuttle bus will connect the festival with the city every day. For those planning to stay in different locations around the region, however, having a car is essential as the resort is truly nestled in the middle of the countryside.

The Festival's opening concert is always held on the terrace
© Elettra Bastoni
“The festival is designed as a moment of holiday and relaxation, but it is characterised by a strong moment of cultural identity. The idea is to listen to music while also taking care of your general wellbeing,” reiterates Borsari. “We have tried to put forward a wide range of artists to showcase chamber music today to the festival’s audience. Personally,” he continues, “I respect each artist’s own identity: there are differences between Maurizio Pollini's pianism compared to Lang Lang’s or Yuja Wang’s. We don’t want to limit ourselves to one interpretation or another: what we try to do instead is to invite different artists so as to showcase a whole range of virtuosity. The Varignana Music Festival takes place in summer, when all the main musical activities in all major Italian cities pause to give space to festivals, so we’d love for it to become a reference point for chamber music in Italy: this is the only full-immersion festival in the region of Emilia Romagna.”

“We want to help people to discover the value of music, what music can give to each of us” he concludes. “This year’s programme is a snapshot of chamber music's universe today. We think that even those who might not be classical music experts, if invited to the concerts in such a relaxing and beautiful setting, will actually find themselves curious and appreciative of this great cultural genre.”

Click here to read the full programme of the Festival.

This article was sponsored by the Varignana Music Festival.