In accordance with current regulations, the concert that launched this summer’s Lucerne Festival programme was given for about half the hall’s usual audience and we listeners remained masked throughout. Nonetheless, both the quality of the performance and the reception it received were hopeful signs that, as relates to the pandemic, “this, too, shall pass”. Maestro Riccardo Chailly conducted the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, here in a configuration of some 50 players, all of them drawn from renowned European orchestras.

Riccardo Chailly conducts the Lucerne Festival Orchestra
© Priska Ketterer | Lucerne Festival

This year’s festival theme, Verrückt ("crazy" in English), is a title that refers both to the era in which we live and to the many musical expressions that, in their time, extended beyond what was considered the norm. In an introduction to this first concert, Swiss President Guy Parmelin addressed the hall and underscored the notion that while the pandemic had turned much of our world upside down, music offers valuable respite and refreshment. That said, there are many instances, not only among composers, when the line between craziness and genius is a fine one indeed.

The evening commenced with Mozart's overture to Don Giovanni. Marked by a give-and-take between the demonstrative cellos and the playful, almost birdlike violins, the work often saw Maestro Chailly rising up onto his toes as if he were a part of the windswept momentum and the effervescence of the short work was almost tangible. The Symphony no. 40 in G minor, K550 followed – notably, one of only two symphonies that Mozart composed in the minor key. In familiar beginnings that are almost conversational, the players were able to measure bursts of jubilation with passages that seemed as carefully rendered as a delicate walk over ice. In the second movement, the dialogue between strings and woodwinds was also beautifully measured, while the more muscular third movement began with a scintillating fabric. There, each of the instrument groups had its turn before bursting into an ascending tutti. The last movement showed the oboe and horns as particularly uplifting and gave each of the instrument groups its own stellar moment before the climatic ending. In short, it was an entirely uplifting experience for players and audience alike.  

Franz Schubert’s Symphony no. 6 in C major, D.589 was also a breath of fresh air, the flutes rising as particularly cheerful, playful and infinitely crisp. Instrumentation at the end of the first movement was spirited, or as crazy, if you will, as a colorful circus, while at the start of the second movement, where the oboe and flutes excelled, the sensation of the healthy great outdoors was more present. The Scherzo began quietly, but in a dramatic contrast of volume and tempo, it burst into a musical firework, wherein the timpanist, particularly, seemed to just relish his boisterous part. The element of surprise was also crucial to the success of Schubert’s Sixth. In the Allegro moderato, the two fine flutes were featured almost as if in chatty dialogue, before the tempo markedly changed and the work concluded in a kind of country dance. And if that’s not uplifting in these otherwise unsettling times, what is?