The Davos Festival – Young Artists in Concert is currently celebrating its 33rd year under the motto of “today is a day of rest”. The opening concert included celebratory speeches by both the President of the Foundation, Dr Matthias von Orelli, and the honourable Abbot Urban Federer (yes, that same name). They were followed by fine music, some modestly amusing theatrics and an injection of programmed sound bites that purposefully interfered with the musical offer – to a decidedly mixed reception.

Young musicians of the Davos Festival © Yannick Andrea | Davos Festival
Young musicians of the Davos Festival
© Yannick Andrea | Davos Festival

The 33rd festival year’s theme, “Heute Ruhetag” in German, translates into English as “today is a day of rest”, but the word “Ruhe” itself can be assigned broader meanings: “tranquillity”, “quiet”, “calm”, “rest” and “peace”. The latter two were those most commonly alluded to by the introductory speakers, who, too often for my taste, appealed to the value of “quiet” against a soundtrack of just the opposite. The sound of race cars speeding by was not only used as the backdrop; it had also welcomed us tirelessly to the large room at the Hotel Morosani Schweizerhof before the concert began. The room had been reconfigured into a concert venue, but disappointingly so, since those of us on the sides could hardly see the musicians at work on the podium.  

That aside, the American composer John Cage said, “The sound experience which I prefer to all others is the experience of silence”, and in keeping with that theme, it was his meditative 1948 In a Landscape composition adapted for marimba that launched the actual performance. The superb young percussionist, Fabian Ziegler, mesmerized us with Cage’s incomparably simple but mellow wooden-sound piece, one that set us all “a place apart” and launched us into other spheres. 

By contrast, Johannes Brahms’ Songs for women’s choir, two horns and harp was subject to some over crafted entrances: the singers came on stage in an awkward slow-motion step, followed by two clownish figures in terry robes, who surreptitiously hid in amongst the instruments for comic effect. That aside, the vocal performance was inspired and sonorous, and the harp, in the third and fourth songs, rendered them particularly enlightened. The overall impression, though, leaned somewhat towards the depressive, and I wished for improved enunciation, so that – to the group’s advantage – their word endings could have been tighter. 

Projections during <i>Prélude à l’après-midi d’un Faune</i> © Yannick Andrea | Davos Festival
Projections during Prélude à l’après-midi d’un Faune
© Yannick Andrea | Davos Festival

After the interval, the young British-Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova’s engaging work, Such Different Paths for six strings, was nothing short of a revelation. As Composer in Residence here in Davos this season, Tabakova is something of a model for approachability: she mingles easily with the public, attends the students’ concerts and is quick to give praise where it’s due. Beyond that, even at a young age of 38, she has shown herself a prolific and assured composer; her work is being performed regularly all over the world. Here in Davos, the alternation of her regular rhythms and surprising outbursts, and the dialogue she crafts between almost a lazy-jazz-like contrabass and tightly crafted violin passages, were all highly appealing. I was only sorry that the stage staff had forgotten to turn off the chirping birds soundbite during the performance, an oversight which made for a palpable irritation. 

Claire Huangci’s delightfully precise and dynamic solo piano performance of Olivier Messiaen’s L’Alouette Calandrelle followed, returning us to another mood genre entirely. Here, the piece’s harmonic chords were broken by the agitated and startled cries of the bird, and the many other unexpected entrances that only nature governs. Superbly played, this was an aviary that truly came alive. 

Finally, and in front of a projected hot-pink image of a young woman’s head with closed eyes, the whole configuration performed Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un Faune in an arrangement for ensemble by Benno Sachs. It made the perfect, poetic ending to a day of rest, or any other day, for that matter. 



An earlier version of this article incorrectly named Hugo Ticciati as concertmaster for Debussy's Prélude à l’après-midi d’un Faune.