The Swiss know a thing or two about moving up, down, through and around mountains, and I have to trust that their expertise includes modern bridge construction. But for 280m, a single layer of wooden planks on this painfully simple-looking, swinging, swaying contraption is all that keeps me from a 92m plunge down to the River Rhone. Every creak and groan underfoot adds weight to my regret for every solid kilogram gained from gorging on cheese fondue and fried potatoes for a week.
The newly opened Goms Bridge is the quickest way to reach Muhlebach, a village nestled in the Alps in the Swiss canton of Valais. Disembark the train at Furgangen-Bellwald and walk across the hanging bridge; what lies on the other side makes this queasy high-wire act worth it.
There are countless mountain villages in Switzerland and many boast the same selling points as this one. Think alpine scenery, fresh air, old-world charm and locals speaking their own version of Swiss-German, a dialect that sounds as if the German language has been hijacked by drunken elves. Zermatt, the celebrated ski town, is also in the Valais, and many visitors flock there, but Muhlebach is pure magic.
On the flanks of a fecund river valley, set within an amphitheatre of glorious peaks, Muhlebach, with its hardy mountain living and pastoral loveliness, is just what the doctor (or, these days, wellness guru) ordered. Timber chalets and barns dot the verdant slopes. In summer, the air smells of warm grass and earth, the scent carried by a cool breeze sweeping down from snow-capped summits. Clean, refreshing mountain water runs from fountains throughout the village, like taps drilled right into the essence of nature; it is the best water you will ever taste. And there’s the precious sound of nothing — a mountain silence made tuneful by the jangle of cow bells. The cows have soft fuzzy ears, a terrific mop of curls atop their heads and expressions of indifference. They are an exemplar of what Muhlebach does for your health. Across the valley is the Eggishorn-Bettmerhorn range, immense and meaningful, reminding me of my insignificance in this world, a feeling both fearful and liberating.
Some visitors come to take advantage of the hiking trails through old pine forests on the upper slopes, but the simplest pleasure is a solo wander. Muhlebach has Switzerland’s oldest village centre constructed in wood, where nine houses date from the late Middle Ages (14th and 15th centuries), the earliest from 1381, and several from the 16th to 18th centuries. Each traditional dwelling has a square stable at the bottom and more storage or living quarters stoutly perched on top, the entire structure built without nails. Remarkably, they are still lived in and used, guarded by stupidly happy garden gnomes. Terrifying wooden tribal masks, an ancient tradition of Valais, all shaggy hair and faces contorted into grotesque expressions, serve to ward off enemies and spirits.
If you believe in spirits, or have an over-active imagination, take care while walking to the neighbouring village of Ernen. A stroll along the beguiling trail of spruce and maples is deeply calming until suddenly you come upon the gallows, three pillars in a clearing atop a hill. The strategic position was obviously chosen to afford all citizens a good view of the execution of witches and thieves. It’s at once a strangely peaceful and haunting spot. The fact that the last hanging was in 1764 doesn’t stop me from wishing I had my own voodoo mask and hurrying on.
With a huge population of 530, Ernen is the larger town. It offers the same quiet pleasure and inspiriting beauty; few tourists ever come and the town is humble and authentic to the core, retaining some of the character of its past life as a stop on the mule trade route, during the era when all roads led to Rome. The main square is charming, even on discovering the stone building in the middle was a prison. The bars on the windows provide a clue, the bolts in the wall that were used to string up and torture prisoners are another sign. Today the building is the town hall and archive, a testament to the practical and sanguine nature of the Swiss.
Situated on a rise, Ernen’s snow-white 16th-century church is a beacon, gleaming still when mist and a drizzling rain settle over the valley. It’s home to a summer-long classical music festival, a smart way to entice visitors. There are many towns like it struggling to remain relevant as younger generations move to the cities and urban dwellers buy holiday cottages that sit empty most of the year. There are no flashy apres-ski lounges here, no vibrant nightlife nor shopping for luxury goods. At a tiny mountain village in Switzerland, be astonished by pleasures that are simple, to delight in nature that is raw, architecture that is old, and to feel alone and whole again.
By Cindy Fan, The Australian, October, 1, 2016
(Link to the article)
Eine Woche mit Donna Leon und Judith Flanders – Literaturseminar im Festival Musikdorf Ernen
«There is no RIGHT in reading a book!» (Donna Leon)
Im Literaturseminar in Ernen gab es in diesem Jahr tiefe Einblicke in die US-amerikanische Seele und Literatur zu gewinnen. Die Krimi-Autorinnen Donna Leon und Judith Flanders hatten für das einwöchige Leseseminar Mark Twains «Die Abenteuer des Huckleberry Finn» und Raymond Chandlers «The Big Sleep» auf die Leseliste gesetzt. Sensible Themen, die nach einer ausgewogenen Behandlung verlangen. Ernen ist dafür genau der richtige Ort.
Die enthusiastische Atmosphäre im Tellensaal ist jeden Morgen zu 9:30 Uhr die gleiche. Recht pünktlich und fröhlich strömen die TeilnehmerInnen in das Gemeindehaus um sich einen Platz zu sichern oder vor Seminarbeginn noch ein paar Worte mit den SchriftstellerInnen auszutauschen. Man plaudert also locker mit Donna Leon und Judith Flanders. Wem nicht nach plaudern ist, der reaktiviert erst noch seine Synapsen mit etwas Kaffee vom heimischen Bäcker. Hat das Seminar einmal angefangen, so sind auch die Anti-Koffeiniker unter den TeilnehmerInnen bei so viel Elan und Charme der beiden Moderatorinnen wach gerüttelt.
Literaturseminare unter der Leitung von Donna Leon gibt es in Ernen schon seit einiger Zeit. Die Teilnahme von Judith Flanders hat erst jüngeren Datums eingesetzt, doch hat man die beiden grande dames mal zusammen erlebt, dann erinnert ihr Zusammenspiel an Schweizer Massarbeit. Fair und kollegial ist in Ernen gleichermassen auch die Einbindung der Seminarteilnehmer. Hier wird kein Vortrag von distanzierten Elfenbeinturm-Bewohnern gehalten, es wird auf Augenhöhe miteinander diskutiert und Wissen ausgetauscht. Es geht um das Teilen und Sozialisieren von Leseerfahrungen. Von dem, was einen fasziniert, von dem was einen schockiert und, insbesondere, von dem, was man auch nicht versteht. Völlig ungezwungen kann man nachfragen, Gedanken einwerfen und dabei ist es auch nicht ungewöhnlich, wenn die Autorinnen zugeben, Anregung und Inspiration aus dem Publikum zu erfahren. Kurzum, es geht um «Magic with Words» (Judith Flanders).
Wie Donna Leon sind auch einige Teilnehmer des Seminars bereits «alte Hasen». Für sie bedeutet diese Woche hier zugleich das Wiedertreffen alter Freunde und das Auffrischen von Kontakten. Man geht an den freien Nachmittagen zusammen wandern und geniesst die Walliser Küche. Nach Ernen bringt jeder etwas mit und jeder nimmt auch etwas mit. Ob es ein signiertes Buch ist, eine Erinnerung an ein tolles Barockkonzert (das Abo für die jeweilige Woche ist immer inkludiert), eine (von vielen) Leseempfehlung, die Ermutigung zum Schreiben (O-Ton: «Its alway about the 'ands', not the 'ors'. A really good book is … and … and...») oder eine Freundschaft. Wie sehr das Lesen und Schreiben mit dem Leben hier verbunden sind, das lässt einen Neuling schon staunen.
Es ist eben auch die Breite der behandelten Literatur und die facettenreiche Herangehensweise, welche den Unterricht auszeichnen. Im abwechselnden Tagesmodus moderieren mal Donna Leon und mal Judith Flanders das Gelesene. Der jeweils Andere hört, bisweilen nicht mehr oder minder erstaunt als die SeminarteilnehmerInnen, gespannt zu. Kommentare sind natürlich nicht auszuschliessen – Scherze auch nicht. Ja, es wird auch mal gelacht im Tellenhaus; nicht allzu laut oder zu ereifernd, eher vorsichtig, zurückhaltend und ein wenig verschmitzt. Thematik und Seriosität werden dafür aber nicht verdrängt. Selbst Judith Flanders wird eingestehen, dass die Lektüre von Twain aufgrund seiner hochprozentig-rassistischen Verwendung des N-Wortes (Originalausgabe), wieder den Intentionen des Buches, nicht einfach fällt. Und Donna Leon wird zugeben, dass ein wirklich gut geschriebener Nachruf zu Tränen rühren kann, wenn der Betroffene auch nur ein Papagei war. So divers und so konträr kann es eben auch zugehen. Wenn am Ende des Seminars dann die Leseempfehlungen, von allen Beteiligten mitgestaltet, festgehalten werden, ist das eine ziemlich stattliche Liste.
Im Unterricht selbst sind die Strukturen recht klar verteilt. Man merkt Judith Flanders an, wie sehr in ihr auch noch die Historikerin steckt. Sie hat immer das «great picture» im Blick, bezieht gesellschaftliche Entwicklungen und Dynamiken sowie die Biographien der Schriftsteller und die Etymologie entscheidender Begriffe mit ein. Es ist daher überhaupt nicht negativ gemeint, wenn man sagen würde, dass Judith Flanders einem die Welt der Literatur erklärt und Donna Leon sich um die Literatur selbst kümmert. Die geistige Schöpferin von Herrn Brunetti geht im Seminar überaus grosszügig vor, Ratschläge zum Schreiben gibt es reichlich. Anhand von Wörtern, Sätzen und Absätzen – ganz klassische Textarbeit - verdeutlicht sie en detail, warum wir mit Marlowe bangen oder was zur unruhigen Stimmung und den gefühlten menschlichen Schauern auf Hucks Reise beiträgt.
Am letzten Tag des Seminars wird den mutigen Teilnehmern die Chance geboten, ihre Arbeit aus der Woche, eine Kurzgeschichte vorzutragen. Donna Leon und Judith Flanders verteilen Tipps, aber auch viel Lob. Geheimnisse des Schreibens werden somit gelüftet und gleichermassen kommen neue hinzu. Und ein paar alte Weisheiten gibt es auch, bei denen niemand helfen kann. Auch so ist Literatur: «Titles come from heaven!» (Donna Leon)
Ernen/Berlin, im August 2016, von Stefan Babuliack
In Ernen, the "Bergland" is something of an institution. Most visitors to the village saunter at one time or another past the shop marked "Waren aller Art", (Wares of all Kinds) that features a host of healthy food products, cards, and beautifully crafted handmade gifts. Since it has all the charm and freshness of a pop-up store, many don’t realize that it’s at the heart of a busy farm and bio-dynamic marketing enterprise that’s almost as old as the town’s famous music festival.
Bergland is an agro-tourist operation and way of life that three Erner families founded 27 years ago. Their intention − then as now − was to steer an awareness of home-grown produce, including herbs and flowers, in their little alpine village, and to share a sense of community with their kin. The two brothers and their wives still live in the large family home just behind the Restaurant St. Georg, which is a fine culinary locale. The third couple lives not far away.
It was in 1989 that Ruedi Schweizer and his brother Stefan took up job as part-time foresters in Ernen. Historically, the job been subsidized by the municipality, but at the time, the erection of avalanche protection has emptied the village coffers, so the foresters worked on a free-lance basis. At the same time, and with the engagement of the third family, the brothers purchased their first herd of sheep. The preservation of age-old Walliser traditions was always in the foreground, meaning that animals threatened with dwindling numbers − both wild and domestic − would be protected, and that various cultural traditions related to land management would be maintained.
In 1992, the three associated families owned only 6 hectares of land collectively, but ten years later, they were able to add another 50 hectares to their holdings. It was then, under the name of "Bergland Produkte," that produce gardening for profit began. In light of the amount of sunlight hours in Wallis compared to other parts of the country, renewable energies were considered, and ultimately, collectible assets were turned into the then-pioneer solar technology.
The interest in a collective living model is one they would cultivate actively even as their families grew. The two brother’s children grew up, as one told me, as "brother and sister," although they are cousins. Meals are still taken together; responsibilities, divided. The older of the two brothers is head of the enterprise today, and both wives, Daniela and Pia, are employed full time managing the kitchen, apprentices, tourist offers, and gardens.
At the same time, the families’ commitment to "soft tourism" grew. The Schweizers opened two rooms to house four to five guests. They began riding and mule-trekking trips for visitors of all ages, who delighted in riding the animals over rudimentary woods trails and at alpine heights, much as their ancestors had once crossed the passes to get to farther reaches of the country. Most recently, a number of 1-3 day treks, and a culinary offer that explores various local specialties have been added to the catalogue of activities. Further, the guest rooms have been completely modernized (one now has a kitchen unit), and Bergland even sponsors a low-key "KulturGarten" music program for hardy souls who don’t mind sitting outside.
Further, the association raises and markets Hinterwälder beef, lightweight, but hardy animals that are raised and slaughtered under humane conditions. Bergland’s Walliser sheep (Landschaf) and wooly outdoor pigs (Wollhaarige Weiderschwein) are among the species protected. And what began as a first investment in lamb has expanded over the years to include young veal, German edelschwein, various sausages, and dried meats. The association also manages some 50 beehives, and produces a sweet honey that is available – as are the other products – in the shop or online.
As a visitor staying in one of the two newly renovated rooms on the Schweizers’ third floor, I can always see visitors to Ernen looking in at the shop downstairs. No wonder: there are always fresh vegetables in large crates on offer, a bouquet of nasturtiums to decorate a table or to sprinkle over salads. The "Spycher" storehouse is serviced every day, since, invariably, the Bergland apprentices are hard at work in the fields that surround the village. Every morning from 6.30, one of them can be seen scurrying up and down the Spycher stairs with the crates full of greens. Later in the day, there is pruning and harvesting to be done.
One of the perks about having a room at the Bergland house is that I breakfast with the family and the apprentices. The hosts have treated me like a welcome guest, generously shared the stories of their work model and village through the years, and given me the benefit of deliciously fresh farm products: cheese and herbs, lovely bread and honey. Each of the apprentices is here for a different reason; the two young women are committed to careers in agronomy; the young man is doing civil service in lieu of soldiering in the army. To what degree the members of the next generation of family will share the responsibility of the house and bio-dynamic farm is still up in the air. But for the moment, the model for living, three-family ownership, and shared administration – with a couple of holiday visitors to Bergland thrown in the mix − make it not only a lively and prosperous enterprise, but a promise for a healthy diet and a wholesome peace of mind.
Ernen, Friday, 5 August 2016, by Sarah Batschelet
The 2 August concert in the church in Ernen was a startling combination of old and new. The broad swathe of genres ranged from a shimmering Mozart to a pulsing sound landscape by contemporary Zürcher composer, Alfred Zimmerlin. The premier of his intriguing "On the Move—in a Roundabout Way" had been the talk of the town for weeks, and in his opening remarks, Festival Director Francesco Walter assured us that this would be an unforgettable evening.
Violinist Helena Winkelman began the program as soloist in Béla Bartók’s "Romanian Dances," one of the most loved works in the composer’s whole repertoire. Bartók systematically collected Eastern European folk music − no fewer than 2700 Hungarian, 3500 Romanian, and 3000 Slovakian dances and folksongs were amassed in his catalogue. In this week’s dynamic performance, Winkelman twice ran ahead of the other players at the very start, but showed extraordinary confidence in her playing, generously giving the audience expressions of surprise, coy pleasure, and even query, almost as if asking, "Can the violin really do this? Let’s see!" Particularly the second song, "Braul" was as smooth as silk, and she played through her highly complex fingering with the seeming ease of a game long since mastered. I have rarely heard the songs played with such effervescence and punch, in short: this well.
Arvo Pärt’s "Silentium", a part of the Estonian composer’s "Tabula rasa" for violins, string orchestra and prepared piano, is a piece which builds according to a strict formulaic scheme, one subject to only modest variations, and a hauntingly pervasive pattern throughout. In an introduction held prior to the concert, it was cited as a piece that fatally ill patients often ask for when they’re dying. It pulses, repeating itself slowly as if pulling up, then letting go; piece by piece, it shuts down. It’s easy to equate the "body" of instruments with the vital organs of the human being, and to imagine this as the life’s’ force that wants to beat on, but is eventually released into silence. In the Pärt, the soloists and orchestra kept a billowing sound over the audience, the instruments successively falling away. In the end, only the two violins – Daniel Bard and Mathilde Milwidsky – were still playing, the one voice like a delicate silk shroud over the other, before they, too, shut down, and the faltering deeper tones of the cello took the very last "breath." It was a precise and stunning rendition.
The great surprise of the evening was the is a Czech avant-garde violinist, singer, and composer Iva Bittová who has, in her career, worked in a wide range of musical genres, including jazz, rock, classical and opera. She sang two arias: Donna Elvira’s lament in Mozart’s "Don Giovanni", and Thomas Arne’s "The soldier, tired of wars’ alarms." For anyone who expected a classical performance, this was Hell to pay, for the disconnect to studied operatic voice made this as radical as seeing a prima ballerina dance in army boots. One could credit the singer for her gutsy performance, although many of us cringed in our seats at a raw and earthy voice that, married to Mozart, sounded nothing short of street-speak. Further, in the Thomas Arne aria, scored to verse in my own mother tongue, I never heard a single word that sounded remotely like English.
Fortunately, Bittová’s third solo piece was a winner. She gave an acapella, gypsy-like appeal that felt like she was again in her own skin − one with a visceral timber that kept the hair on everybody’s arms bristling. Her "stealing" the concertmaster’s violin, and walking with it out the church door while still singing, added to the tension − indeed the humor− of the theatrical performance. It was cleverly staged for such an effect, and took amused applause. The artist cites her indebtedness to everyday life for her music and interpretations. "Whatever it is," she says, "many of my listeners have long considered it highly original." Original it was, but apart from the solo song, beautiful it was not.
The premiere of Alfred Zimmerlin’s new work came after the break. Commissioned by benefactors of the Musikdorf Ernen Association for the often neglected contrabass; the composer asked to score it for e-bass instead. Arnulf Ballhorn showed a rock star’s command of that instrument, alternating two different ranges, while concertmaster Daniel Bard conducted the players with his bow often aloft and swinging around complex interactions and changes of tempi. Bard’s insistent, frequent eye contact with the fellow musicians also boosted the sense of integrity. Good so, for Zimmerlin’s is an extremely cerebral piece, and one that defies description by the usual musical vocabulary. For the lay listener, there is little that’s predictable about its structure, no way to know when it might pause or indeed end. The man in his forties in the pew in front of mine was sitting between his twitchy adolescent daughter and his old mother, who sat through the piece like a stone. Poor dad; If he had intended this concert as a "fun family outing" for the three of them, he had another thing coming. For while Zimmerlin’s is surely a tremendous and rewarding challenge to professional musicians, and a fitting reflection of the erratic and unpredictable impulses of the modern age, the piece met with a decidedly mixed reception at its premiere. The solace is that new music often does that.
The final orchestral piece, Edvard Grieg’s, "Holberg’s Suite", was robust and infinitely musical in the traditional sense. Its dialogue among the various strings – alternating melodies, swells, and recessions− were beautifully modeled under concertmaster Arvid Engegård’s clear lead. Admittedly, after the other-worldliness of the Zimmerlin, this piece felt something like the burly score of a blockbuster movie; but such ebullient folk music made you want to get up and dance, and none could fault it for lack of Romantic luster or passionate insistence. In sum, the Grieg suite was played to perfection, each player entirely comfortable with this assignment and community, and bringing the best of the northern fiber to the equally scenic Swiss alps.
Ernen, August 4, 2016, by Sarah Batschelet
While by profession, Leander Locher has been a social worker for many years; he had already begun painting − watercolor, acrylic, and mixed technique − as early as in the 1970s. Looking to achieve a more animated surface, he chose to “leave the second dimension,” and began adding more and more material to his paper and canvas surfaces: sand, chips, and small found objects. It was just that, the pursuit of the three-dimensional experience, that led him naturally to the figurative and three-dimensional expression of sculptural form. As he explains, “sculpture offers you multiple point perspective if you want more than one constant visual”. In other words, if you shift any sculpture even slightly to another angle, you can enjoy a greater number of visual experiences.
It would seem simplistic, but given the materials Locher works in today, he is entirely right. In addition to his small works in soapstone, he has been crafting life-sized sculptures in wood and metal. Since the greater part of his material comes from nature, his primary platforms to date have been Land Art exhibitions like the one held here in the Binn Valley annually. From the resonance he had there, he’s been asked to show father afield, and will be participating in two Land Art shows in the French-speaking part of Switzerland within the next few months, one in Biel/Bienne, and the other in Neuchâtel.
By the same token, his inventive, seemingly inexhaustible palette of works in and near the garden of his own house in Mühlebach is on permanent display. Since Locher’s wife Erika (Jentsch) was native to that part of Ernen, the couple moved back from Brig-Glis to her childhood home when her parents passed away. The Jentsches had been farmers, and their home had a large kitchen garden filled with flowers and vegetables that the Lochers still maintain immaculately today. The property also had a hay-stall whose square storage space − as customary in this region − was equally divided among three to five other farmers. Additionally, an auxiliary building that served as a kind of tool shed/garage is still just opposite, separated from the house and stall by a narrow, public walking path.
As such, anybody wanting to get from the lower village to higher areas might pass among the Locher buildings. And what a series of interesting encounters they would have! Turned over today to studio/workshop space and work-in-progress project storage, the one-time stall is witness to an extraordinary imagination. In the form of hand and power tools, bark, wire, stone, nails, axes, brushes, tacks, varnish, and paint cans, labels, and parts of used furniture, the place is just teeming with visual impulses. In the hay-loft, you might come across a whole host of half-human, half-beast figures whose beady eyes are fashioned from parts of scrap metal, who have pierced holes for ears, and then sheep’s horns. Likewise, you might notice an elegant single 8-foot stick that hangs in the garage like the backbone of a tiny whale, a miniature version of those we see suspended in natural history museums. Yet here, this is simply the elegant curve of a long wooden branch, one fashioned with hefty thorns rather than lateral bones, and its tiny hand-knit wire rings “will shine in the sunlight,” says Locher, when the piece is hung outside.
There might be a face made of old cake pan, slapped onto a stick-neck like a death mask with its two crude poked through for eyes. Or over there, an obese, polyurethane, red-haired lady in a moss swim suit is batting a small jewelry box in one hand with the floor brush she holds in the other. The lady aludes to Niki de St. Phalle’s luscious Nanas, as well as red hair of the witches − even of Ernen – who, well into the 18th century, when suspect of concourse with the Devil, were tortured into a confession, and ultimately burnt at the stake.
Locher’s work is not without its mystery, nor its occasional splash of obvious humor. The use of mixed media, particularly the metal, sometimes produces an effect that looks super-galactic. Yet the call of underbrush being transformed into a 6-foot wide bird’s nest and fitted with great white boulders as “eggs,” is well deserving of a smile. The most poetic of pieces, perhaps, is an installation of underbrush and rubble worked into a wooded area last autumn, where Locher and his wife fashioned a simple stone-lined path. It led to a magical bed made of wooden staves and moss, its four bedposts even finished with elegant little finials. Snow White herself couldn’t have asked for anything more inviting.
Wednesday, 3 August 2016, by Sarah Batschelet
The garden and outbuildings around Leander and Erika Locher’s house in Mühlebach are open to visitors. To schedule an appointment, ring +41 79 230 76 82 or contact the artist directly by e-mail.
Xenia Jankovic has been what’s called a Bestandteil at the Musikdorf Ernen summer festival for many years. I hate to call her a “permanent fixture” inasmuch as her lust for life, enthusiasm, and youthful energies defy that translation of the term. But again this year as Artistic Director of the Chamber Music Plus series, July 31 − August 13, she, more than any other, determines the chamber artists’ repertoire and programming that will be performed under this year’s “Limitless” theme. She kindly consented to a short interview for this blog on the day before the chamber week’s opening concert.
Welcome back to Ernen, Xenia. What is it that has drawn you here for so many years?
The magic of the place, I think. The first time was for György Sebők’s master classes thirty years ago, thirty years ago. That marked a turning point in my life, at which time music and the way I approached it took on a different much as possible in the programming and choice of musicians for the chamber week.
Ordinarily, you teach cello at The University of Music Detmold in northern Germany. What is it about that teaching that speaks to you?
I love teaching. It is, of course, a huge responsibility. You shape the voice of every student in one way or another, sometimes even having to jump over your own shadow to prepare him or her best for a certain kind of exam or audition. But I have a real sense of commitment there, an allegiance to my students that is very strong. And to think I hold the same position in Detmold today as André Navarra held in the days I was studying with him is a great honor.
What made you decide to become a musician yourself?
My parents were both professional musicians, my Serbian father, a conductor, and my Russian mother, a pianist. The languages of music and culture were always in the foreground in our home. I was born in Nis, Serbia, but went on to study in Moscow, turning down another scholarship I had been awarded at Julliard in New York. At the time, it just felt like the spirit of music for me as a cellist was more fitting in the East –studying with Mstislav Rostropovich’s and hoping to carry on his legacy were that important. Later, I came to Geneva to study with Pierre Fournier.
And your mentors from there?
Clearly Sebők and Sándor Végh. But my first real chamber music experience was even earlier. Gidon Kremer had invited me to come to “his” festival in Lockenhaus, Austria, when I was about 25 years old. I had been primed, you see − and had been rehearsing – for a solo career primarily; but then suddenly at Lockenhaus, and later, at other smaller festivals – such as Végh’s Prussia Cove in the UK and the Kuhmo festival in Finland – I found a way to communicate in chamber work and grew to value its very different dynamic. The intense musical interaction with others a true inspiration, and was fortunate to have the guidance of truly great masters as I was exploring it.
Tell us about your instrument. Is it one you purchased or one you took on “in safe keeping” for a foundation or benefactor?
Oh no, I bought my cello myself. It is an Italian instrument, much like a Montagnana, but not, in fact, a Montagnana; the maker was Gregorio Antoniazzi of the town of Colle. It dates to 1746, and I’ve always loved its marvelously shining and sunny tone.
What can you say about the power of music here in Ernen?
What is very present here is the inspirational strength music gives us all, players and audience. It somehow binds us, one to the other, and essentially gives us a home in whatever culture we live in. Clearly, too, it opens our consciousness to a plane that’s hard to ascend to from the usual routine of our daily lives. Perhaps here in Ernen, music is is not as much a philosophical pursuit, as it is a visceral and emotional one.
What do you make of the theme for this year’s festival “Limitless?”
It appeals to me a great deal, especially in light of the dualism it represents. It might mean without any limits: that anything is possible, which gives free rein to the modern and new interpretations, and it can also allude to the genres that move across cultures, across space and time.
Does it have political implications, too?
I believe so. And as I said in my opening remarks, the modern media plays on the fact that all of us share a kind of universal longing to be part of a union. This sensation is something that music has always made possible. In a sense, our most pressing concerns bind us to one another more and more every day. We are, for example, collectively shocked when we follow horrific terrorist attacks, wars, and other man-made catastrophes that today, we can witness in the media after the very moments they happen.
So as both active musicians and music lovers, we firmly believe in the power of music to strengthen the power of the Good, and to unite people across national and cultural borders. Music is clearly one of the greatest riches of our civilization: and every culture find its own. The folk songs, for example, that Johannes Brahms and Béla Bartók used as sources, can touch us, open our hearts and understanding, even if we come from disparate parts of the world. Even without much technical or academic understanding, music can give us a direct path to learning, experience and love for our fellow man.
So you consider music an art that can break down borders?
I would like to think so, and that musicians do a valuable service to society. By communicating even without words, I believe they open listeners both to others around them, and to more profound parts of themselves. And if music can work to those ends, those who practice will have done their job with both great effectiveness and great compassion.
Tuesday, 2 August 2016, by Sarah Batschelet
As a gifted soloist, Xenia Jankovic has performed with the world’s most prestigious orchestras, including the Philharmonia Orchestra (London) and the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Copenhagen Philharmonic, Madrid Philharmonic Orchestra and Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra.
She returns to Ernen for the fifth time this summer as Artistic Director of the festival’s Chamber Music series.
Diana Pavlicek has long had a passion for historic architecture, and the stories that buildings tell of the people who once lived and worked in them. While curator of a major corporate art collection in her daily job, she has a keen eye for design, and an ability to juggle a lot of moving organizational parts. In 2013, she renovated an 18th century hay stall in a scenic Swiss canton of Graubünden, working with an architect to make a cozy holiday retreat, and learning more about the demands of historic restoration as she went. Here in Ernen, she recently began a major restoration project on a house that has been authenticated as one of the oldest dwellings in the village. Located right below the scenic parish church, “Uf dr Flüe” was built on an outcropping of granite that gives it the most solid of foundations. The house was last in the hands of Jules Carlen, an elderly “Erner” who was born and had lived in it all of his life.
Even at an old age, Jules wasn’t bothered by having no hot running water, nor having to use an unheated outhouse off the south side of his simple bedroom. He had never known anything else at home. Long retired from his job, he took lunch every day with his sister at her house in the village, in no small part because his own kitchen had only a woodburning stove – inscribed with the date 1576 – that needed firing up, and the few electrical implements he owned were, by today’s standards, entirely antiquated. By all accounts, the life he led would seem a time warp for many of us, but his humor and common sense made him good company, and they certainly spoke well for the values and generous spirit that marked this Walliser village in times gone by. And while he himself knew little about the house’s structural history, Jules took a keen interest in the project that a young woman from Zurich conceived of for his home, namely, bringing it back to its original state, for however far back that might go.
Nobody knew exactly how old the house was until Diana commissioned an archeologist to do a dendrochronological examination of the wooden beams and planks used in it. No fewer than 22 samples were taken from cellar to attic, and the laboratory results were startling: parts of the house could be dated definitively to 1453, almost half a century before Columbus discovered America. Even more surprising was that much of the original structure was still entirely intact. The door frames had been raised by some 7 or 8 inches − people have gained in height through the centuries − and the living space had been rearranged to accommodate different numbers of children, but only modest renovations had been done over the four centuries.
Remaining in situ on what was once an outside wall was a “Heidechriz,” the crucifix typically used by the people of Wallis to safeguard their homes. Near it, another elongated cross had also been pierced through the planks, making a slim vent (a “Seelenglotz”) by which the souls of the dead were to leave the dwelling. While a badly charred area found behind one oven tells of the ever-pending threat of fire in villages such as these; a large breakthrough in the wall at knee level shows the place another oven once stood to heat both the kitchen on one side of the wall, and the smaller, single sleeping chamber on the other. Further, a hollow beam, or “Balkenkopfkamin,” running the full length of the uppermost ceiling funneled the kitchen smoke out of the house, but left the beams and ceiling covered in an oily stain that is still clearly visible today. “All these details tell stories,” says Diana, “which is why I find this project – as big as it is − so rewarding.” In the cellar, too, are a handful of niches with pediments that resemble cult altars of much earlier settlements. Last used here for cheese storage, the carefully constructed niches might, I thought, have been used to house votive objects that “supported” the foundations of the house, as is also debated on the oldest dwelling in nearby Mühlebach.
From his offices in Visp it was architect Pascal Abgottpon – resident of Ernen and with specialized in historic restoration − who showed Diana the house and introduced her to Jules and his family. Restoration work began at the end of 2015, uncovering unexpected “finds” from the very beginning. In the smallest room off the kitchen, for example − soon to be a bathroom on the first floor − wall paneling had been applied over an insulating layer of newspaper whose pages carry dates in the 1890s. Likewise, in the largest living space, installing modern electrical, water and heating cables revealed an almost 500-year old floor that was in fairly good shape, but had been covered up by other floorboards just to suit an owner’s fancy.
Tackling a job such as this one presupposed doing lots of archival and architectural history research, which Diana has done tirelessly to support the project. But she was only able to share some of the discoveries she made with Jules. He settled into an old people’s home in 2014, but sadly, died this past February, so never saw the greater part of the work accomplished. The good news, though, is that in the past year, Diana and her husband Michael became the parents of a healthy bouncing boy, so the roster of children in the house expands yet again.
Diana’s purchase of the property included a classic Walliser “Spycher” (a hay loft on “stilts”) whose usage, given its location in the zone so near the historic church, cannot be transformed in any way. The great fortune is that the lot around in front of the house is off limits to new building projects of any kind, meaning that the spectacular views the house enjoys can in no way be compromised. Looking down the full length of the Rhone valley − the broad flank of the Binntal beneath the towering Breithorn to the south − the view stretches all the way to the alps, a good many miles away. With that, and the house’s prime location in town so close to the principal venue of the Musikdorf Ernen’s annual summer festival, a stay in the “Uf dr Flüe” would be nothing short of a stay in a true alpine paradise.
Monday, 1 August 2016, by Sarah Batschelet
To make enquires about spending a holiday in “Uf dr Flüe” – one of the oldest houses in Ernen − contact Diana directly through her website. Two 3.5-room flats will be available from the spring of 2016; taking both together might be a perfect arrangement for an extended family.
The weather being as beautiful as it was, the hiking trail called again. I started out from Ernen in the early morning on the “Upper Suspension Bridge” trail, an easy eleven kilometer hike that meant I could be back in Ernen by lunchtime. Breakfast underway was at the B&B Kummer in Mühlebach, a venue with a special perk: the family’s daughter, Patrizia, was the gold medalist in snowboarding at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games. Seeing the dozens of trophies from her wins in European and international competitions was impressive, yet made me think she might have been saddened when the Mühlebach ski lift − close behind her house − shut down its operations a few years ago; that was where she’d learned to ski. Granted, the Chäserstatt hotel that reclaimed the top of the ski lift is a great new attraction (see this blog for 28 July), but I’d guess a degree of nostalgia for the venues of one’s youth never entirely abates, especially to a champion.
It was Frau Kummer, Patrizia’s mother, who pointed me towards Steinhaus, the hamlet farther northeast on the same side of the valley. Hiking there, the distant views were invariably scenic, but the walk was a little too noisy for my taste, being just up from − and parallel to − the main road. I did make the acquaintance of some lovely calves on the pasture below the path, and walked on from there across the river Rhone to Niederwald, whose population of only 45 makes it the smallest community in the whole of canton Valais. Its most famous son was the great César Ritz, the youngest of thirteen children in a farmer’s family, who went on to become an illustrious hotelier. Today, a fountain and the surmounting full-length sculptural portrait proudly commemorate him in the town that was his birthplace.
My morning’s destination, though, was another of the pocket-sized baroque structures sprinkled through this very Catholic landscape: the St. Anna chapel beneath Bellwald. The trail up to it from Niederwald seemed long, in no small part because at first − on the other side of the river − I was simply backtracking, again, close to the road. But higher up, I found the peace I was looking for. The path turned from the fields into deep woods, whose gnarled brush had been cleared away, and trees that had fallen across the way had been cleanly sawed through to make a neat passage. Huge boulders and parched pines also lined the way before the small and whitewashed landmark that was the chapel came into view.
Like many of the small chapels in the Valais, St. Anna’s had some 8-10 pews that might seat twenty parishioners, an small altarpiece behind a wrought-iron grate, and a host of booklets and offers for the avid reader. The chapel also featured several chunky candles whose price tag carried a humbling message: “Dear valued guest, if you’re unable to pay for this candle, just leave it here; a stolen one won’t bring good luck.” Sensible, that logic.
From the chapel, I started down to Fürgangen, the riverside village that hosts a new suspension bridge, a model that’s gaining more and more popularity in the Swiss alpine regions. I moved carefully across its clean, wobbly slats, my hand on the side rail, ever mindful of the 92-meter drop and rushing waters of the river beneath me. It was entirely safe, of course, but at some 280 m long, and with an anchoring force of 570 tons, the bridge jiggles up and down like a kind of well-tempered, quiet trampoline. Open all year, it is wheelchair-, pushed bicycle-, and baby carriage-friendly, but it takes a moment to find your footing. The greatest reward for passing over it? That might be a home-baked sweet at “Amy’s Schafstube,” another inviting café that’s located right near the end of the bridge on the Mühlebach side. To treat yourself’s well worth the indulgence, and you can tell Amy I sent you.
Sunday, 31 July 2016, by Sarah Batschelet
Travelled even in prehistoric times, the Twingi gorge runs along the length of the Binntal and gives access to the Albrun pass, which became a key alpine transit axis for trade. In the 19th century, the arrival of the English lay ground for tourism as we know it in the valley today; it was the enthusiastic mineral seekers who discovered hidden treasures in the cliffs and came to know the thrill of ascending the Ofenhorn who brought many others to the area. But it wasn’t until the 1930s that the one-time mule path up from the Goms was tarred, and only some 30 years later that a long tunnel was built to insure accessibility to the Binn valley’s villages even in snow.
Jumping ahead some 50 years, a half-day hike in the Binn valley was on my own roster earlier today. Along with just a handful of other travellers, I took the small local bus from Ernen right after breakfast. Once in Binn, I sat near the village’s arched stone bridge (1567) long enough for a coffee, then started out towards the Twingi gorge, taking the path beneath the whitewashed parish church in the direction of the town reservoir. I had been told the hike back to Ernen would be a special one, not only because of the majestic views and imposing cliffs, but also because of the art installations that sprinkled the heights where I’d be walking.
For the “Land Art” exhibition’s 10th anniversary year, I learned, twenty portfolios submitted for consideration were pared down by a jury to the 13 projects actually realized. The natural materials and physical presence of the gorge were the artists’ inspiration; inventiveness and ingenuity, their guiding principles. Ambling down the road, I found it a treat to come across the interventions of works such as Barbara Jäggi’s “Hanging Grass – Dripping” (“Hängendes Gras – tropfend), thin metal assemblies that hovered over the path and made a puddle to mirror the piece’s “stalks” and the bright sky above them. Likewise, the work of pupils at two schools in nearby Brig showed took up a variety of natural materials and concepts: Kerstin Zumthurm and Adrienne Arnold’s first graders had fashioned their “Land Art” from driftwood, pine cones, stone slabs, and moss. Their efforts showed great imagination, and brought a whole new perspective to the notion of “outdoor play.”
Anna Schmid’s was an installation in a hollowed-out space on the side of the path, which I might have missed altogether had I not seen its label plaque. “The Secret” ”(“Le secret”) was the most cerebral of pieces, perhaps: a dry wall that fills a deeper space with stacked natural stone slabs, except for a narrow and open vertical crack. It serves both as a refusal “to let go” too much, too fast, and as a metaphor for the secret of female sexuality. That aside, and depending on the viewer, it might well be seen as a home for trolls and elves.
Others of the works are marked by contrasts. Kari Joller’s “Secure − Protect” (“Schützen – Beschützen”) consists of a single sapling with a spindly trunk and outstretched branches that − stripped of all bark − extend out towards the valley like the crooked strings of a harp. Against the dark, rugged rock face behind it, the work speaks of vulnerability, and might be seen as a call to awareness of the complex relationships that hallmark the natural world. Also in contrast to the rock, and perhaps as the most lyrical of the installations, is Barbara Gschwind’s “Umbelliferae,” (“Doldengewachs”) the ghost-white silhouettes of stemmed starburst-like flowers in the parsley family that the artist painted in proliferation near − and inside − one of the shorter tunnels on the route. The naivety of her work made it close to endearing.
After “Land Art,” the circuitous route back to Ernen took me down to the rushing brook that Roman soldiers had once bridged, through the little hamlet of Ausserbinn, and past views of the great Eggishorn (2926 m) that towered overhead like a seamless argument. One of my last stops was at the site of the “Cheerful Outlook” (“Zur frohen Aussicht”), a now-dilapidated outpost − perhaps once an inn or restaurant − that is only accessible on foot. There’s nothing showy about it, and it would have had little appeal even years ago to people seeking more than just some simple pleasures. Yet it sits on its little rise like a “place apart,” making it easy to conjure up how others, now gone, might once have also found it inviting here. A place apart, indeed. Come to think of it, I could describe Ernen and the whole Binn Valley that way, too.
Saturday, 30 July 2016, by Sarah Batschelet
What is a group of first and second graders doing with a scarecrow at the edge of an Ernen garden? The story actually begins in the city, when Ernen’s own Peter Clausen was visiting a niece in the Zurich-Wipkingen quartier. He admired the pots and large planters she had set in a compact urban garden just off her kitchen. The fledgling plants were flourishing, and she was already enjoying their small but healthy bounty.
Industrious as he is, Peter wondered if such a project wouldn’t be a good idea for Ernen. He was born in a house right over the famous Dorfplatz, and, apart from his studies, has lived here all of his life. Over the years, he had seen two small patches of garden in the middle of the village − patches his own mother once tended − fall victim to both a traffic corner and a two-car, paved parking space. Gardens in the town were, of course, a given over the centuries; at this distance from a large market town, people had to eat what they could grow.
Ernen’s largest garden collective is wedged inside the hairpin of the road that comes up into the village on the one side and continues into the Binntal on the other. Measuring some some 100 x 300 meters, it has 35 plots, each one purchased and managed by locals who themselves choose what to plant and when to harvest. Here’s one in hands of somebody who’s has only potato plants − easy − and comes only rarely to check on their progress. Here’s another whose great mix of everything from berries to herbs, from fleshy-leaved veggies to flowering shrubs, shows great creativity and lust for life. A third is turned over almost entirely to roses. Taken together, the many plots are like a mirror of a community.
Peter’s idea for a open and commonly-tended urban garden – rather than either the existing personal plots or a business enterprise − found resonance with the Landschaftspark Binntal, the umbrella organization devoted to sustainable landscape and culture management in the greater Binn Valley. It gave Peter’s idea both funding and publicity, such that friends of the new Gemeinschaftsgarten (community garden) broke ground and planted seeds for vegetables, flowers, fruit and berries in the spring. And one of the first “public” events staged in the new garden was the visit by the schoolchildren whose picture with their teacher, Sylvia Joller, appears above. In late May, the pupils learned first hand about what planting a garden entails, and what value home grown produce might bring both to the environment and their own general health.
While half of the children turned over the ground, the other half fashioned a scarecrow who keeps an eye out for anybody who comes either to help or to avail themselves of the garden’s many gifts. On Tuesday evenings, the garden is open to everybody for 3 hours, and it’s then that a handful of working hobby gardeners tend to the plants, or join friends in the cozy, covered corner on the garden’s Sitzbank. It’s also a chance for gardening know-how and tips to be informally exchanged.
Peter took great pride is sharing the garden’s story with me for this blog. Stirring a slimy, green liquid in a big plastic barrel, he explained that the best fertilizer was made by recycling green waste with water, and letting it “brew” for about a month, as was being done here. “The stuff fairly stinks, but it does the job well, and the plants take nicely to its warmer temperature,” he said. Since organic gardening methods and environmental awareness are key to the success of the community project, Peter and other supporters have also installed a teaching exhibition in the ground floor space of Ernen’s charming Jost-Sigristen Museum, just near the Dorfplatz. It, too, is well worth a visit.
As we were leaving, I noticed some ruby-red currents heavy on their vines along the stone wall. They were ripe enough for eating, and Peter encouraged me to go ahead and help myself. No inhibitions on that front: a slight tug, and half a dozen dropped into my hand. Okay, Mr. Scarecrow, move over.
Friday, 29 July 2016, by Sarah Batschelet
Born in Ernen in 1962, Peter Clausen has played a key role in his town’s cultural politics for many years. A teacher by profession, he also heads the foundation and friends of the local Museum Jost-Sigristen, and is also project leader of environmental awareness programming for the Landschaftspark Binntal.
The Many Delights of the New Chäserstatt
“It’s that place way up there…where the last spot of sun is still shining,” my hostess pointed out the evening I arrived in Ernen, “that’s Chäserstatt.” I could see the newly opened seminar hotel from the distance, but wanted to see its purportedly fabulous views, stunning interior design, and first summer’s art exhibition first hand. More importantly, the chef cook was Janos Schweizer, a 27-year old Ernen “son” whose menu promised young and creative cuisine. When I heard that he came down to the village every morning to pick up fresh produce, I called to ask if − on behalf of this blog − I might “hitch” a ride back up with him. I could, and with the vegetable crates loaded, we started up the mountain in a solid Range Rover.
Had this been winter, it might have been on a snow cat; ascents on the road then can be “iffy” for most wheeled vehicles. Even in summer, while the drive starts off innocuously enough, the gains in altitude, dozens of hairpin turns, the drop-offs to the valley side – much less the chance of meeting another car – would be too much of a challenge for a city boy. Janos, though, had grown up travelling this road; “Nothing to worry about,” he explained; “I sometimes do the 20-minute drive down and back up again twice in a single day.”
And sure enough, I was in good hands; Chäserstatt came into view on the prow of the hill with me still in one piece. House and conference center manager Maya Belzer welcomed us at the back kitchen to take in the produce over the windowsill, easily sweeping up even the dozens of fresh eggs that were stacked 10 layers high.
While Janos changed into his chef’s gear, I took a few moments to visit artwork that Swiss artist Marcel Hischier was showing on the building’s lower story. His paintings were largely alpine landscapes painted on site; his pieces of sculpture – usually from found objects – included pinwheels, pylons, and driftwood variations, minimalist work that was modest in size and reasonably priced. The seminar rooms were on that level, too, as state-of-the-art, glass fiber cable-connected spaces that faced breathtaking views out over the valley.
The Chäserstatt restaurant sits above those meeting rooms: no frills, no alpine “schnick-schnack,” but a structure with clean lines, good light, and muted colors that speak of honest simplicity instead. The walls are white, but some of the ceilings are painted deep terracotta red, “warming up” the rooms and nicely containing them. The four hotel rooms in an adjacent building are equally purist in bed and bath, but comfortable; with such a backdrop, what else so you really need? In short, the place was infinitely inviting.
It was still early in the day, so Janos sat with me over coffee to tell me a little about himself. He’d always enjoyed everything mechanical, he said, but came into his own when he started learning to cook. Over the three years’ mandatory apprenticeship, his teacher was Klaus Leuenberger, the celebrated chef de cuisine at Ernen’s own Restaurant St. Georg, the 15-point Gault-Millau point kitchen whose mantra has been the highest quality regional cooking for many years.
Janos Schweizer has already been called a “creative perfectionist with his own unique Goms (valley) signature.” That’s one tall accolade, but one rightly awarded, I hear, for he, too, uses only the freshest of products, and those native to the region wherever possible. Convinced that stress-free conditions improve meat quality, Janos diligently follows the story of his supply-animals’ treatment. His description of the four Galloway beef cattle he “personally” visited on their farm before they were humanely put down would make even a Temple Grandin proud. Equally likeable is his lack of presumption; he regularly makes the rounds to greet and thank the restaurant’s patrons, sometimes even bringing their meals to the table himself. His willingness to wear as many hats on the staff as are needed is also commendable. If the grass needs mowing, he mows it. If the snow needs removing, he plows it away.
Maya Belzer underscored the same mind-set. “The days are long up in the mountains,” she said. “If you’re not behind it with all your heart, then you shouldn’t be running an alpine place.” To her great credit, she is someone who embraces challenges, convinced that− with determination, commitment and well-honed skills − a solution for every problem can be found. That includes realizing the most obvious business target: running Chäserstatt at a profit.
That rich chocolate praliné that came with my coffee had been Heaven, but I had to get back to town by noon. Coming down any Swiss alp is notoriously harder on the knees than going up. But three things made my 2-hour hike back to Ernen easier. First was the consummate beauty of the alpine landscape unfolding before me at every turn. Second were the hundreds of perky butterflies that repeatedly crossed my path with their delicate colors. And finally, there was the anticipation of returning to the Chäserstatt for lunch as soon as I possibly could.
Thursday, 28 July 2016, by Sarah Batschelet
Damn the Busses, Full Speed Ahead
American-born Ada Pesch is Artistic Director of the Baroque festival at Musikdorf Ernen, which she founded here in 2004. Musical ambition might well be Ada Pesch’s middle name, but you wouldn’t know it to speak to her. She arrived in a Federer baseball cap and bold «Valencia» T-shirt to talk to me between rehearsals. Conversing under the big tree in the middle of Ernen’s Dorfplatz, she was entirely non-plussed by the sound of departing busses and the hurried conversations of several passers-by.
Ada explained that she knew as early as from the time she began violin lessons at six years old that she wanted to be a concert violinist. In this short interview, however, our focus was more on the Ernen experience and the Baroque concerts pending.
This year, Ada, you’re sharing the directorship of the Baroque weeks with violist Deirdre Dowling. Why the change?
It came about because the number of baroque concerts changed from 3 to 5, which meant that much more work would be needed. And we’ve have worked together for some time, starting with the Bartoli tour and our work with Marc Minkowski. Deirdre has a lot of contacts in the baroque musicians world. She’s also very good at organization and has better computer skills than mine, so the partnership serves us all well.
Have improvements been made in the church since you started here at the Musikdorf 33 years ago?
Oh yes, there have been very good changes in the lighting. A lot of the clutter and cables on stage have disappeared. And, thankfully, the bathrooms have also been added, which was a big improvement.
You were only 22 when you took your first European appointment. Is that right?
Yes, and Hof was in Germany, but very close to the East German and Czech border. It was thought of as the end of the Western world. So coming to Zurich was really a switch.
How, today, is a post in a baroque configuration with period instruments different than having a permanent post in a city orchestra? You actually manage both.
In the baroque musicians’ world, there are no fixed jobs. Everybody is a freelancer, which means that players are always on the lookout for jobs. What’s more, the number of baroque musicians is smaller, so the audition process is simpler and less stringent than for the larger orchestras. Many baroque jobs are, in fact, still acquired through networking and word of mouth.
What do you treasure about the Baroque weeks here in Ernen?
Well, they make for an intense period every year, but by coming back again and again, I meet new people and continue learning.
And what are your criteria for selection of any concert’s repertoire?
The criteria? I would say a degree of diversity, a mix of well known and lesser known composers, a variety of colors among the works, and pieces that give us a chance to feature the talents of the individual players. Last night’s concert was a good example: the concert featured works highlighting solo recorder, violoncello, and a soprano, and works by Antonio Vivaldi were played alongside four far lesser-known Italian composers.
I seem always to see you here and in Zurich with a violin case on your back. How many violins do you actually own?
I guess six, but I use each for different purposes, depending on what music I’m playing.
What can you tell us about the instrument you’re playing here?
Not too much, really. It’s probably an 18h century make, but it’s hard to assign it to any one maker. I bought it from a player in Germany. As for the baroque bow, being as delicate as bows are, not many early ones have survived in good condition. So like me, most baroque players use high-quality reproductions.
Is it okay to drop in later this week to hear the group rehearse?
Sure. Come in anytime. The church door’s open, and we welcome listeners of all ages.
Wednesday, 27 July 2016, by Sarah Batschelet
American-born violinist Ada Pesch studied at the University of Indiana with Josef Gingold before taking master classes that György Sebök offered in the Swiss alpine town of Ernen. At an unprecedented 22 years, she landed the post of First Concertmaster of the Hof (Germany) Symphony Orchestra, and moved to Zurich in 1990 to join the Zurich Opera House orchestra in that same position. In 1996, and with select members of the opera’s orchestra, she was a founding member of the Baroque Orchestra La Scintilla, (“The Spark”) whose focus − in keeping with work she did with conductors Nikolaus Harnoncourt, William Christie and Marc Minkowski − is with period instruments. From the fall of 2005, she has led «La Scintilla» on numerous North American and European tours with mezzosoprano Cecilia Bartoli. Earlier this year, she took the job of concertmaster of the «Les Musiciens du Prince baroque orchestra» that Cecilia Bartoli founded with her in Monte Carlo.
As luck would have it this morning, I ran into pianist Charl du Plessis on the lovely Dorfplatz, the central square in Ernen that’s more or less the aorta of the village. Last evening, du Plessis and the other members of his trio − Werner Spies, stick bass, and Hugo Radyn, drums − had knocked the socks off listeners in the jazz program they brought to this year’s Musikdorf Ernen festival. Performing in the main concert venue of the village church, the three musicians came on stage in elegant tuxedos, a modern take on the chasubles and miters clerics might have worn before their Catholic parishioners earlier. Given the repertoire they broke into, however, the three musicians shone just as brightly as the gold gilt alters that stood behind them and also flanked their stage.
The trio had performed a year ago here in Ernen, and had cut a CD in the meantime to commemorate that performance. Du Plessis’s introduction was in German; He explained to the packed pews of the concert audience that he would play the classical pieces that were the trio’s springboard material first, then explore new territory with the rhythms and nuances of a newer genre. He then sat down to play cross-over jazz in a way I’d never heard before, and that on a piano that once belonged to the great conductor, Bernard Haitink!
An adaptation of Vivaldi’s “Autumn” was first on the program. The familiar melody of the Allegro was given its delightful due, even if within minute or two, the pianist pulled in syncopated rhythms to foreshadow what was to come, where the bass that would “ground” the baroque sound with tremendous pulp and resonance. The piano periodically entertained a dialogue with the otherworldly; the tinkling of keys being a reminder either of magical days gone by or still yet to come. What struck me in the slow movement, Adagio molto, was base player’s Spies’s fluid and able finger work on the neck of his instrument: indeed, his long digits looked almost like those of an underwater creature scuttling across the ocean floor. The final Allegro alternated elements of free jazz with what felt like the strains of easy listening.
Two of du Plessis’s original compositions – Waltz sum more” and “Pay with Samba” came next, each one a little more than 5 minutes long. The pianist had said the first would be a kind of “massage for the ears,” the second might be “a dance with the heart.” Rightly so; while each required terrific instrumental competence, both were built around a degree of saccharin romance I mostly associate with feature film scores. Their beauty, though, was in their “sing-able” feature, namely those kind of melodies that travel with you wherever you go.
Next was an adaptation of Bach’s double violin concerto in D Minor (BMW 1043), something du Plessis hoped would be “so good that Bach wouldn’t recognize it.” That was partly in jest, of course; the pianist readily gave us enough of the Baroque master to see us settle down in our seats first. But in short order, he let the classical genre slip into a tight-fitting dress of a smooth and satiny groove. The center motif focused on the sonorous bass, before the piano reassumed the lead. In the second movement − likely the most well known in all of the Bach violin repertoire – the contrast in jazz was even more daring; the drummer gave us hot castanets and raspy cymbals, and the piano offered us something I would even call show-like. In the dynamic third movement, the floor underfoot kept time with the beat on stage − even at the back of the church. All I could think was, “Move over, Hilary Hahn!”
The jazz suite that finished the program drew it inspiration from the scores of clerical texts that Bach set to music in the 18th century. But it also interwove the animated music of Bach’s gifted jazz “friends,” Billie Strayhorn, Charlie Parker, and Chick Corea. Oddly enough, the seams among the two centuries were loosely sewn; one genre swung into the other. Rocking shoulders and tapping feet, the audience was visibly moved. But there was something even more exciting that befell us. In the middle of a spirited rendition of Strayhorn’s “Take the “A” Train, a vertical slice of light fell into the nave through the South window and slowly passed over the altarpiece next to the musicians. For more than a minute, it illuminated the cross that one of the plaster-cast female saints held firmly in her hand. If that isn’t a true “cross-over,” I don’t know what is.
Tuesday, 26 July 2016, by Sarah Batschelet
Returning to the beautiful town of Ernen for a fourth time this summer, I left high temperatures behind in the lowlands, happy to be getting into cooler mountain air. But it was just as refreshing to climb the last hill to the village, and see Ernen’s hallmark parish church slowly rise up above the field to my left. The church is the major venue in the Musikdorf Ernen’s fine Baroque, piano and chamber music concerts throughout a eight-week season. As such, it is a beacon that has drawn music lovers to Ernen for the last 43 years, with good reason, I might add.
Ernen is a festival like none other, in no small part because it marries superb musical achievement and events with an idyllic alpine setting. Historically, the Goms valley was a major North-South trade route, isolated enough that the inhabitants spoke their own unique Swiss German. Until the 19th century, the village on the hill also had an important part to play in cantonal government and jurisdiction. Its mark on Swiss music history, however, began with the Hungarian-born American pianist and professor György Sebők. He chose the Ernen in 1974 as the place to conduct summer master classes that over the years and in turn, lead to a first-rate offer of musical performances of various genres for a wider public. Sebők remained the artistic director of the Musikdorf untill 1999, by which time Ernen had become a leading event on the yearly music calendar.
Another generation of Musikdorf Ernen festival began under the aegis of General Director Francesco Walter, who, in that position since 2004, has tirelessly worked to see the festival flourish and expand. A creative writing seminar was added; concentrations among the musical genres developed into single and alternating theme weeks with a focus on the Baroque, then chamber music, and piano. In combination with the tourist office, the village offers hikes, insights into local crafts, mineral and geology tours, specialist architecture study, and all order of fine gastronomy. And by appealing to such a breadth of interests, the village has become more than just “a place apart.” It is a tremendously exciting cultural gem.
This year’s annual festival is running under the title of “Limitless.” I joined it in the middle of its third week, whose music repertoire was, for the most part, Baroque. The very first event I attended, however, was the sequence of readings by three contemporary German authors − Christian Schünemann (1968), Angela Steidele (1968), and Daniel Schreiber (1977) – all three slated under the title “Queerlesen,” which loosely translates as “Queer Literature.” Each of the readings was moderated by Bettina Böttinger, the astute German television personality whose spot-on questions expertly propelled the course of discussion.
Author Christian Schünemann read from his latest, “Pfingstrosenrot,” a novel which resolves around to the visceral antagonism of the Serbian-Kosovo conflict and whose story is triggered by a brutal murder. The greater part of the narrative is set in Belgrade, for which the author convincingly made a case. Once violently bigoted regarding homosexuality, the city today has become more liberal, and has many inviting attributes. The author’s co-author, Jelena Volic, supplied him with highly detailed and site-specific material, which he then ordered and crafted, basing the final work on the meeting of two minds. Co-authoring a novel is a model I simply don’t know, but I was favorably impressed that given a lengthy friendship, tolerance, and commitment, their cooperation worked so well.
The second featured reader, Angela Steidele, has both a robustly healthy smile and a unique talent. Steidele is a literature historian, her novel “Rosenstengel” drawing 85 percent on historical fact, and the remainder, on her own vivid imagination. The story − peppered with that dualism of fact versus fiction, invention versus truth − is of the highly eccentric Bavarian King Ludwig II, and his keen interest in the fate of one Catharina Margareta Linck (Alias Anastasius Rosenstengel). More than a century before Ludwig, Linck had assumed the dress, military rank, behavioral traits and “instrument” of a male – thanks to a strapped on, leather-made, false organ – before being accused and executed for “fornication” with a woman to whom “he” had been “married.” Steidele’s research entailed an in-depth study of the differences between formal written language in the 18th and 19th centuries, given that the novel consists of letters exchanged during both times. Mastering that alone was a stunning feat, and her reading, no less so. It was strikingly dramatic, humorous, perfectly timed, and nothing short of inspired.
Finally, in reading excerpts from “Nüchtern, Über das Trinken und das Glück," Daniel Schreiber described his personal journey through addiction and recovery from alcoholism. It was a brave admission, one written because, he said, so few people afflicted are able to talk about what is often their most pressing issue: that drink becomes, as it once was for him, the “love of their life.” Schreiber was admittedly nervous, and had a soft voice that was hard put to be magnified even with an operative microphone, but his message was a powerful one. Homosexual men, he argued, are 3-4 times more inclined to alcoholism than their straight counterparts; further, the world-wide consumption of alcohol today is four times what it was in the 50s. And alcohol is almost ever-present. But Schreiber sees how his journey was a successful one: he was already celebrating 5 years of being dry, and had learned direct his energies towards good health and encouraging others to look at their own risk in befriending alcohol so closely.
In sum, the three fine authors of “Queerlesen” − despite their widely disparate narratives − all had compelling stories to tell, and struck chords that resonated far beyond the walls of Ernen’s Tellenhaus.
Ernen, 25 July 2016, by Sarah Batschelet
Cited for the first time in the 15th century, the Trusera brought water for centuries from the Milibach in the Rappen valley to irrigate land at lower altitudes. In recent decades, the channel had fallen into a sad state of disrepair and was no longer being used. From 2006, however, in great part because the regional Landschaftspark Binntal took it on as its first major project, the water way was revived and restored, so water now rushes through it again. The system is fascinating, and well worth walking along, especially since it runs through a scenic, almost magical area on the forested flank of the mountain above Ernen.
Interesting, too, are the various constructs designed for directing the flow. There are the modern pipes and industrial vats in the lower terrain, but more striking along the way are the descending wooden trestles and the hollowed-out tree limbs that represent hours of hard manual labor. Occasional back-ups occur, given the natural debris of seedpods and soft gravel. While I was underway, I came across a man diligently picking out modest amounts of clogged leaves and sticks from the channel with a small 6-tined rake. From far down the path, I had spotted a long-eared wild hare watching the man, too, but keeping a safe distance from him. As soon as the poor hare got one glimpse of me, though, he dashed into the underbrush.
The easy Trusera stroll to the nearby town of Mühlebach takes about 2 hours; it starts from the Am Wasen bus stop, the first stop up into the Binn valley from Ernen. By some lucky fluke, I ran into a duo of Alphorn players just as I started out. They were practicing to play at a wedding the following Saturday, so gave me a private concert of 4-5 solemn tunes. Gaiety is not the alphorn’s middle name, I find, nevertheless, it set my course for more of the unexpected. The farther you walk, namely, the more you see “faces and figures” along the way: tree trunks or brush that look uncannily like human sentinels, or show expression, albeit in the rough. I had a ball recording them, and making up suitable titles: “A Case of Disarray,” “The Three Graces,” “Is that a Pistol in your Pocket?” “Seriously Down and Out,” “A Little Fanfare,” among them.
As the path wound alongside underbrush and flora, the clear water made a sweet sound accompaniment, and a robust wooden bench overlooking the valley at the halfway mark made a nice resting place. Taking note of the woods fragrances as I came towards the village, though, I was suddenly struck by the distinctive smell of grilled sausages: someone having a picnic in the woods, perhaps?
But no, crossing the bridge into Mühlebach, tents had been set up, a good-spirited crew was busy turning Würste over the coals, and others were serving up tables with sausage, beer, soft drinks and cheese raclette. Again, just by chance, I’d stumbled across the annual celebration of the town’s Backhaus (baking oven house), where 15 or 20 townspeople had also dropped by to bake rye bread in an ancient oven. I’d have to come back for lunch!
First, though, I wanted to see the town’s 15th and 16th century houses. Having been spared destruction by fire, the Mühlebach settlement likely has the oldest wood-framed houses in Switzerland. Some two dozen dwellings had plaques dating them, several, to as early as the mid-15th century, even before Columbus discovered America. Others had huge, flat stone roundels on the corner posts to keep vermin away from their larders. Many of the solid, dark wooden houses also had carefully tended gardens and neatly stacked woodpiles. Steeped in history, they were a sobering reminder of times when among the townspeople, a sausage on a grill and a chunk of house-baked bread might have been the very definition of well fed. That said, once back at the fête and with a cold bottle of Feldschlösschen beer in hand, the Wurst and the home-baked rye from the old Backhaus still went down very well.
Ernen, 21 July 2015, by Sarah Batschelet*
Francesco Walter, the energetic artistic director of the Musikdorf Ernen project, recently spoke about how he came to his job, and what makes this small village in the Walliser alps truly “a place apart.”
You were born in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. What is it that brought you here to Ernen?
After my apprenticeship, I left Giubiasco in 1979 for the city of Zug to learn German. And I worked for V-Zug AG − “the” Swiss firm for large household appliances – expecting to stay about a year. At that age, I just wanted to get away from home; I didn’t have much of a plan, really. But I got very lucky. Long story short: after two years in V-Zug’s customer service, I moved to the newly-founded Informatics division, and developed a text construction system that caught the boss’s attention. He asked if I’d do sales for him, which − after 13 years − lead me into management. From there, the company also partially assumed the expense of my further education in economics.
But then the plan changed?
I liked it a great deal in Zug, and would have stayed, but then I met my partner, so yes, things changed. Peter is a true-blooded Erner: his mother conducted the master classes that György Sebök had organized back in 1974. He assumed the organization of the master classes for 10 years after her term, and then I took it over in 1995, at which point I became a member of the Board of Musikdorf Ernen.
You must have had a leaning towards the arts yourself?
Well, yes, and of course, I wanted to be an actor in the beginning, as so many do. When I lived in Zug, I often went to Lucerne for the Stadttheater on a “Coop” Abo (promotional pass), which cost, I remember, CHF 50.00. I could sit up in the balcony or stand if I wanted to, and it was there that I fed my hunger for the opera… Those glory days! I also spent a lot of time at the Tonhalle concert hall in Zurich; there were prize-winning pianists’ recitals given on Mondays, and I had a pass for those, too. And I went often to the ballet: to see Uwe Scholz productions in Zurich, for example, and Heinz Spoerli’s work in Basel… That was simply my world.
But then you moved to the Canton of Wallis?
Yes, and everyone thought I was crazy... it was so remote. But in 1998, I became President of the Musikdorf Festival, mostly because nobody else wanted to take it over! 1999 was a breaking point, because Sebök had died that year. We wanted to take the festival farther, but in 2000, realized to our regret that most of the Sebök entourage was no longer coming. What’s more, the public wanted to see new faces, not always the same old ones. And one convention presented a budget issue for us; many of the artists had come from the US, and were asking for business class tickets to get here! Fortunately, though, Ada Pesch − the fine violinist who today is concertmaster at the Zurich opera house orchestra, and whom I had known since 1991 from the master classes − suggested the Baroque music week. And she had the contacts.
And you went with that?
Yes, we staged our first Baroque concert in 2002. A new audience made its way here, and we soon decided to expand the festival to four weeks. I went after funding for almost 2 years, but in 2004, we finally launched the “new festival.” There was never much money, and we depended on mouth-to-mouth propaganda. But at one point, Ada suggested we ask Donna Leon to introduce the concerts, since she was such a Baroque fan. That idea actually never got off the ground, but Donna offered a writing seminar instead, and that helped our profile enormously. The alerted media had to ask “what in the world is Donna Leon doing up in that little village?”
And after her came the National Book Award winner, Richard Powers!
That was thanks to Donna and Ada both. Donna agreed to do the one-week seminar one July, but then also gave a course on autobiography in a second summer, 2005. Ostensibly, she was going to be finished here after that. So I asked her if she knew someone good who might take her place, and she gave me Powers’ amazing novel, “The Time of Our Singing,” aware that he was really good. She contacted him through her publisher in London. And by some lucky chance, Ada was about to do a concert with Cecilia Bartoli in Urbana, Illinois, the same university town where Richard lives and teaches. So Ada wrote and invited him to come to the concert; they all ate together afterwards… and discussed Ernen. Richard then taught one-week writing seminars in Ernen for three consecutive years, and Donna comes regularly still! That’s been a boon.
So the festival is well-established?
Our chamber, piano and Baroque offers, yes – which took time, of course. And we have to reinvent ourselves every year… bring in new program elements so the audience doesn’t have a “déjà vu” effect. Since 2012, we’ve also collaborated nicely with the Landschaftspark Binntal, which supports heaps of projects…one part being the tourism that, in turn, brings us guests. It’s ideal, really; visitors can enjoy the sports and outdoor offers during the day, and attend cultural events in the evening. The park organization supported us with start-up funding for the first 3 years, too, incidentally, although we are independent now.
And the Musikdorf took a Doron Prize last year!
That makes us all very proud. The prize endowment of CHF 100,000 generously acknowledges our hard work. As for structures in place; there are two: the Verein Musikdorf Ernen (with 440 members, Anton Clausen, Pres.) that organizes everything, including the festivals’ finances, and also the Foundation (Stiftung Musikdorf Ernen, Thomas Clausen, Pres.), which I launched in 1998. The Foundation serves as a kind of security blanket. If there suddenly were too few sponsors, say, or some kind of financial impasse, we would still be covered for operations. That doesn’t mean I’m not constantly soliciting funding. There are lots of foundations in Switzerland, but not all that many that make large awards. So while our main goal is to stay innovative, maintain the niveau we have achieved, and constantly improve, we’re also always looking into new sources of funding.
And are there any specific plans for the future? Modern dance, for example?
Dance? We did perform Stravinsky’s “L’histoire d’un Soldat” recently, but we don’t really have a dance-suitable venue here in Ernen. I think we could boost contemporary music more; I particularly see the potential of a mix between classical and modern. We’ve recently welcomed two composers in residence: Sally Beamish (*1956) and Helena Winkelman (*1976), whose works will be played this season in the chamber music segments of the festival. But a strong tradition holds: Next year at the end of August in “Piano compact,” Korean pianist Kim Da Sol will play all the Beethoven sonatas.
Overall, what would you say is the Musikdorf Ernen’s unique selling point?
Our USP is the combined offer of really first-rate musical events and nature. Nobody else has it…even an adjacent park that is one of the 19 Swiss parks with national significance!* By the same token, the village is not a museum; and the people who live here have long approached nature carefully.
And is there potential for growth?
Well, we can’t seat more than 400 in the church, so our numbers will likely stay within that framework. I’d like to see the festival continue to be “klein and fein,” or in English: small, and special, simply very good. Because we’re not interested in being a festival where one comes to “see and be seen,” but instead, a normal… casual, everyday environment where music and beautiful surroundings are harmonious neighbors. That’s what Ernen is, and wants to remain.
*as determined by the Bundesamt for Umwelt BAFU), and which distinguishes itself for its natural beauty, rich biodiversity and high-quality cultural treasures. − Ed.
Ernen, 21 July 2015, Interview by Sarah Batschelet
Ada Pesch, concertmaster for the Philharmonia Zürich, is usually at work at the conductor’s left in the opera house. But for this “Baroque” week in Ernen, the American-born violinist wears the director’s hat. Baroque music is her passion, and her strength in that genre is given deserved visibility here. She also has responsibility for drawing up the roster of artists performing the Baroque repertoire, specialist colleagues who come from all over the world.
Ernen owes a great debt to Ada. From 1974, Hungarian pianist György Sebök instituted summer master courses in Ernen – the seedling for the festival today – but after his death in 1999, the future of what he had begun was uncertain. Ada wanted to see the continuation of the intimate setting and serious musical commitment that hallmarked the Ernen experience. And, she showed herself a demonstrative advocate for a new generation of musicians and public. Along with artistic director Francesco Walter, and from the working level, she encouraged opening the music concentration to one that embraced the other arts. Ada’s contacts with American crime novelist Donna Leon and National Book Award winner Richard Powers – whom she sought out around a concert she and Cecelia Bartoli gave in Urbana, Illinois – lead to a strong annual tradition in Ernen of short writing seminars.
At the Sunday concert, Ada showed her in much the same kind of inclusive role. J. S. Bach’s “Suite Imaginaire” – instrumental episodes selected from various others of Bach’s works and pieced together for solo instruments – was a delicate breath on which to start. While an unusual convention today, picking and choosing the “good bits” to play was common practice in the Baroque era. Catherine Jones’ sheer agility on the cello launched the evening; Mike Fentross’ theorbe (a novelty for many) was subdued, but its quiet expression a little like a single voice in the wilderness. By contrast, Ada Pesch’s violin stepped out with bravado; she took it to the far end of her instruments’ capabilities, her work entirely in keeping with the highly decorative Baroque altar behind the configuration. Siobhan Armstrong’s solo harp was a treat rarely experienced over such long cadences; Lawrence’ Cummings’ harpsichord impressed with its dizzying tempo.
In the evening’s second selection, the recorder (Benny Aghassi) rightly shone in Bach’s own arrangement for recorder, violin (Monika Baer) and basso continuo (Paolo Zuccheri). Originally composed as the Sonata for Organ in C-Major, no. 6, BVW 530, the woodwind introduced a whole palette of breathing and fingering techniques, showing it a highly versatile instrument – well suited in solo performance to the acoustic of the church.
The evening’s two works by the Austrian violinist and composer, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, however, were my clear favorites. During both the “Sonata decima in A-Major for strings” and the superb “Arie con la mattacina” in D-major, the excellent violist, Deidre Dowling could be seen smiling infectiously in the sheer exuberance of the exercise. Ada Pesch truly gave the music purpose as she lead and played. Although Schmelzer’s name is largely unfamiliar to a general public today, one concert-goer in 1660 cited him as "nearly the most eminent violinist in all of Europe." As composer and musician, Schmelzer was in service to the great Hapsburg patron of the arts, Emperor Leopold I, who appointed him to the rank of Kapellmeister in 1679. Sadly, the composer was to succumb to a plague epidemic only months after getting the position. Our good fortune, then, that the Sunday concert in Ernen ended on far the merrier note.
Ernen, 20 July 2015, by Sarah Batschelet
The Ernen Tourist Office advertisement for a Wanderbus (hiking bus) caught my eye a week ago. On Thursdays and Sundays, there were pick-up points that meant leaving the driving to someone else, and being able to start the day’s hike from the high alps. I signed up enthusiastically, not really knowing what to expect.
Come the weekend, the bus made a couple of stops before it started its way up the flank of the Breithorn. This was the mountain I’d seen looming in the background all week, the undefeatable, loveless rock face that hardly looked receptive to the notion of easy ascent. The Wanderbus would bring us to the Furgge, an open meadow at 2,451m, still some short of the Breithorn’s peak. Admittedly, not climbing the mountain was a bit of a cheat; but transportation to the heights made the hike more do-able for anyone wanting to get back to Ernen for an early Sunday evening concert, and I did.
We were a handful of passengers out of Ernen, and a retired couple got on in Grengiols, father down in the valley. The woman of the couple was extremely vocal, knew the driver of our minibus, and entertained us for most of the trip with amusing banter of who’d had a new baby, and the goings-on of many local families.
We had left Ernen at 8.30, but its wasn’t until 9.45 a.m that we got up as far as Furgge. The untarred road to it was steep, and seemed to go on forever. Once, assuming we were almost at the top, I asked the driver if that were true. “Oh no,” he said, “we’ve only done 4 kilometers of the whole 13.” Gulp… the road was already getting narrower and steeper, the trip seemed precarious enough as it was.
You can, of course, look out and not down, but if you’re afraid of heights, this might not be an excursion for you; at the end of the stretch − the last 10 minutes or so, − you are on a narrow loose dirt road above drop-aways of some 50-80 meters, and those just inches beyond the valley-side tires. Further, in going over such uneven ground, the Wanderbus shakes, rattles and rolls with real gusto. That said, I wouldn’t have missed this trip for the world.
Because the beauty on the way down was incomparable. It featured a host of different landscapes: something otherworldly and almost lunar at the start; then a perfect Swiss mountain idyll teeming with alpine flowers; and finally, cooler, forested areas that welcomed every step of your footfall on soft ground. After a while, my hips and legs went into automatic pilot mode; I was walking − and still walking − and that was just the way it was.
Yes, the route itself was long, but the distance covered made the degree of decline modest, and even after a descent of some 1,100m, my knees were able to come away unscathed. In over four hours of walking, I met only one mountain-biker, a poky, young family of three, and a single, elderly botanist, a man bent over a rare flower that held his attention far more than curiosity over any passerby. Arriving in Heligkreuz at about 1 p.m., I stepped into its pilgrimage chapel to light a candle for an ailing friend, and continued on another hour’s walk though scented forest – landing shortly after 2.30 p.m. in Binn.
I was too late to enjoy a tasty, moderately-priced “Tages-Menu” in the Hotel Ofenhorn’s gracious garden, but not for a bowl of its wonderful carrot and ginger soup, and a glass of white wine. From Binn, I took the bus back to Ernen, and put my feet up for an hour. Next up – and not to be missed – was the first of the Musikdorf festival’s Baroque concerts in the parish church, a program which was set to begin at 6 p.m.
Ernen, 19 July 2015, by Sarah Batschelet
Margrit Zimmermann and Amanda Imhof – two determined women native to the Binntal − have recently joined forces to design a new project: “From Sheep’s Wool to Finished Fabric.” Both women are keen to share their expertise to preserve a legacy that has value for this region.
The two women hope to see a concept they envision take hold as part of the Landschaftspark Binntal’s offer to the public. Firstly, it would call awareness to an indigenous breed of sheep as a unique − but endangered − native species; and secondly, the project would demonstrate all the steps towards making a finished product from a valuable raw material − shearing, washing, carding, dying, spinning and weaving the sheep’s wool being skills whose rich local legacy otherwise threatens to be lost.
For some two decades, Amanda raised and tended Walliser Blacknose Sheep (the Schwarznaseschaff), animals whose light woolly coats, horns, and distinctive black patches − on nose, eyes, ears, knees, hocks and feet − make them unmistakable. The Blacknose is known for its fine meat, but it also has wool of a hard consistency that is ideally suited to felting, carpets, and insulation. While no longer an active shepherdess, Amanda uses the wool to make uniquely durable and warm articles of clothing, as well as select decorative items.
Margrit, on the other hand, is an expert weaver. Having had an interest in handicrafts from an early age, she learned her craft − in a course since discontinued − from the Catholic sisters at a Klosterschule in nearby Brig. “Nowadays,” she says, “nobody’s interested much in weaving; everything has to be produced so fast.” Nevertheless, convinced that hers was a craft worth preserving, Margrit persisted at it, and the items she produces − whether runner, tablecloth, or hand woven throw rug − have the appealing surface of a hand-crafted article in subtle and earthy colors.
With their ambitious project “From Sheep to Woven Fabric,” the two women want to call attention to the Blacknose breed because the sheep’s numbers are gravely threatened. While once well established here in Wallis − on whose stony alpine heights the sheep typically graze − only as few as 2,500 of the breed may be extant worldwide today. There are a few breeders in the UK, Germany and the US, but the sheep’s very survival here in Switzerland is at risk, given the recent return of the wolf; in recent years, close to 100 Blacknose, in fact, have been attacked and killed by those hungry predators.
But the project also has another major angle. Targeted at families, groups of children, and more “foreign” visitors to the Binntal, the hands-on approach to all the stages of the fabric-making process will show the challenges and benefits of using Nature’s local offer, and likely carry long-term resonance. For both Margrit and Amanda believe that understanding the role that each specialist part plays in a comprehensive process can, in its own right, be a valuable lesson for any age group.
Ernen, 18 July, 2015, by Sarah Batschelet
The interview below first appeared (in German) in the May 2015 edition of Landschaftspark Binntal’s “Park Infos.”
President of the Musikdorf Ernen Association, Anton Clausen, recently talked about up-and-coming projects that the village is undertaking in cooperation with the Landschaftspark Binntal. He also discussed the promising future of Ernen’s music festival.
The Musikdorf Ernen received the coveted Doron Prize this past February, 2015. What does this award mean for the festival?
The Doron Prize − one of the most coveted awards in Switzerland – acknowledges the achievements of the Association and shows that it and the Foundation Musikdorf Ernen are highly valued.
The Doron Prize comes with an award of CHF 100,000. How will the money be put to use?
The funds will go to the Foundation Musikdorf Ernen, and assure its Association long-term financial support for fine concerts and various activities.
What projects is the Musikdorf planning, both in the near future, and farther down the road?
We’ll continue to work on quality assurance and various improvements around the concerts. We’d like, in fact, to extend the concert offer into the fall. Further, together with the Musikgesellshaft Frid, we are looking to find a new practice room for the musicians of both configurations.
The Musikdorf Ernen now has a reputation that goes out far beyond the village itself. What’s the significance the festival for the whole region?
The Association generates an annual income of some CHF 2 million. Over the past few years, we have also invested more than CHF 400,000 in improvements to the festival office, the lighting in the church, and its seating. For the most part, we’ve drawn on local suppliers to meet those demands.
The festival is growing incrementally. Is there a chance that it will meet its limits?
The concerts are very well attended, both in the church and the Tellenhaus. Nevertheless, there’s room for a larger audience, and we would like to attract that. Accommodation possibilities in Ernen − the hotels and smaller pensions alike – have limited capacity and are often booked out in the summer. We would graciously welcome an investor’s building and operating another hotel, preferably a person who shares the same enthusiasm for the Musikdorf that our artistic director, Francesco Walter, does!
Since the founding of the Landschaftspark Binntal, the Musikdorf and the park have been working together. Can you assess the cooperation to date? Where is there room for improvement?
The cooperation is a good one. Yet culture tourism is growing steadily worldwide. I believe the Landschaftspark, which, incidentally, runs Ernen’s Tourist Office, could improve it awareness of that.
What part of the Landschaftspark Binntal is your very favorite? Can you give any “insider tips” to visitors?
Personally, I like the Eggen, a lower alp that’s smack in the middle of the Park. Not only does it have terrific views, you can really take time in nature there and enjoy it fully. Of course, a hike through the Twingi Gorge or along the Suone Trusera is always fascinating, and it energizes the body, mind and soul, as well!
How do you see the Musikdorf in ten years? Will it outshine the Lucerne Festival by then?
I’m no utopist. But in special areas, such as chamber music, the atmosphere in the church, and the village itself − with its numerous auxiliary programs – we might stand a chance of that. “Small and exquisite” is the Musikdorf Ernen’s middle name, and it already attracts music-lovers from all parts of the world.
Ernen, 17 July, 2015, translation by Sarah Batschelet
When my daughter and her husband visited me in Ernen, we took time to test culinary waters in the immediate area. The two of them are savvy “foodies,” always looking to explore the culinary landscape when they travel. Heaven knows, it’s fun to go along for the ride.
“You are always warmly welcome,” reads the website of the Julier family’s Gasthaus Jägerheim in Ausserbinn. “If (sic) you are coming in summer for hiking, to admire the variety of flora and fauna alpin, searching for minerals, Riding your bike, visiting the village of music Ernen…” Okay, somebody there could use a lesson in English orthography, but that’s hardly important here. The Jägerheim is a typical Walliser stomping ground, there’s not a particle of pretension about it; the service is good, and the people that run it are hard-working and helpful.
For lunch there, we sat on a small terrace that overlooked a green flank of the Binntal opposite, and a view that stretched towards snow-capped Alps east and west. We began with a classic country-folk sausage and cheese salad, a fresh carrot soup, and a slice of Käseschnitte, the famous Walliser cheese quiche, with a layer of poached pear. Wholesome food, it was moderately priced even with beverages. And it came, after we enquired, with a tip from the restaurant proprietor: a pleasant afternoon hike up some 500 m to Alp Frid would take some 3-4 hours. After our simple meal, we gladly followed up on that – full stomachs or none – but found it an easy climb that ended in terrific, almost 360° views.
By choosing to go Ernen’s Restaurant St. Georg for our evening meal, we knew we were in for something special. In a building that dates from 1535, St. Georg’s fine Speisewerk (food craftsmanship) is owed master cook, Klaus Leuenberger, who contends that “There’s nothing better than the very finest.” That’s easy to confer with, if you’ve got the time for slow food and a keen yen to act on it. Since it was a balmy evening, we sat outside facing the large – and virtually empty – town square, where the world seemed to have been turned back some 100 years...
We chose a selection of appetizers: a trio of curried lentils, wild mushroom and raspberry marmalade, and smoked eggplant with spring onions and falafel. Later, we added a field flower broccoli soup laced with buffalo cheese, and a salad of fresh greens with quail eggs and feta. The main courses were a filet of braised Galloway beef with root vegetables and bramata, and a couple of the hearty stuffed chard leaves known as Capuns, all works of art on their plates. The last course was of aged alpine cheeses; a light Pinot Noir was available by the glass.
We passed on the minced marmot in braised peppers, and the Kalbsgehirn und Hoden – sweetbreads and calves’ testicles – in a crispy panade with strawberry mustard. But the creative approach to local produce, and the beautiful presentation of every dish we enjoyed made for a delightful culinary experience. And all of it was watched over by two sculpted wooden figures on the façade beneath the roof. There, the noble St George on horseback is poised, forever slaying his “dragon.” The poor beast looks deceptively like a huge mutant tiger on its back, but it tightly coils around the staff that pierces it – teeth clenched, and clearly furious.
Ernen, 16 July 2015, by Sarah Batschelet
No question, young Korean pianist Chi Ho Han tackled a repertoire that was highly challenging. While a skeptic might call his choice “the brash courage of youth,” Han was quick to show he was no rookie to the concert stage. Granted, nobody can “breeze through” works as difficult as the ones he chose for his program, but his performance showed him both an accomplished technician, and a virtuoso pianist who masterfully combines emotive poetry with his musical prose.
In a brief conversation before his Ernen debut − and while the piano tuner was busy at pre-concert work just behind us − Chi Ho Han told me that the chance to best express a wide range of emotions had steered his choice of repertoire. He was also keen, he said, to share a degree of fantasy, which appealed to him in all four selections. Of works he would perform, Han cited the Chopin preludes as the one he connected to most: because there are “so many kinds of music,” he said, “every one of them as if by a new person. And even the shortest of them, the number 9 – with just 12 bars? It’s just perfect for its place between numbers 8 and 10!”
Before the concert, too, musicologist Wolfgang Rathert introduced the repertoire in detail at the Tellenhaus, giving the history of the various pieces, but also focusing on particular phrases, sometimes even with short interludes on the piano. He spoke of an “emotive prinicipal” innovation in Beethoven’s Sonata in A-major, op. 101, for example; and Robert Schumann’s wonderful Kreisleriana. Chi Ho Han would be performing the novel, but fascinating Pavanne varieé by the French-Canadian Marc-André Hamelin, a piece that was a lesson in music history in its own right. Last, we looked at Chopin’s 24 Preludes briefly, Rathert’s expertise in music and history proving enviable, even though − as most professions tend to demand − he had lots to cover in too little time. In sum, the introduction was a useful one: learning more about each piece beforehand boosted the pleasure it made when played live.
And Chi Ho Han’s concert truly was an experience. Han showed himself a sincerely committed and disciplined musician, but a young man of gracious manners with a sense of humor, too. For when, in his tuxedo, he sat down in at the piano, collected himself, and paused before starting the Hamelin Pavanne, a woman in the very last pew sneezed heftily. She was, of course, mortified. But when the whole audience giggled, Chi Ho Han also looked up and smiled with us momentarily over her bad luck − he, as just another one among many who had come together here for the sake of beautiful music. He just happens to be the extraordinary talent that can make such music resonate.
Ernen, 16 July 2015, by Sarah Batschelet
There isn’t much like the Binn valley for a full day of hiking, whether you're a seasoned mountaineer or a newcomer to the steady rhythm of the sport. Today’s breathable textiles, walking sticks, and power snacks may ease one’s way on the trail, but when it comes right down to it, anybody who undertakes a day out in the Swiss alps can expect a physical challenge. Fortunately, it’s a challenge that reaps its own − and manifold − rewards.
Taking a day away from Ernen yesterday, my daughter and I boarded the yellow Postauto bus after breakfast to travel up to the end of the Binn valley, where we would start our route. With the water, dried fruit, and chocolate that are vital for me in my rucksack, I also carried an “inner camera”, the memory bank that meticulously records the sights, sounds, and smells of a landscape that is as much a thing of sheer beauty as this one is.
We chose a path that left the village of Binn out towards Imfeld, a picturesque village that has only a few dozen houses, a couple of restaurants, and a simple hotel to its name. Once farther up the trail towards Eggerebode, we crossed fields luxuriant with alpine flowers, then stepped into the shade of woods where openings among the birches revealed massive forested cliffs on the valley’s opposite flank. Continuing upwards from there, we met a family coming down, and passed a rather slow-poke couple, but otherwise, seemed to have the trail all to ourselves. With no time pressure, a store of treats in the pack, and snow-capped peaks in the distance, there wasn’t much to think about as we hiked except for what a perfect summer day this had turned out to be. And when we got back to the banks of the Binna River some four hours later, we sat at the water’s edge to dunk our feet in rushing, icy water. Exhilarating? You bet! Hiking in this valley felt like the state one enjoys after the third day of a fast: the senses are simply as sharp as they ever get.
What’s more, we saw and heard the single marmot that piped out a high-pitched warning to his friends as we passed, and the swifts that soared and careened above the roofs in Imfeld village. There was another impressive “bird,” too, though: an Air Zermatt helicopter that had parked above Imfeld village, presumably so its pilot could have lunch. In short, we two truly found “a place apart” in the Binn valley, and I can only recommend a hike there; it counts among the many things that make a visit to this area irresistibly inviting.
Ernen, 15 July 2015, by Sarah Batschelet
With the bench already occupied, two young couples simply waited for the start of the concert on the freshly-cut grass next to the church. Both men lay on their backs with a hand over their eyes, the women, alert and sitting Indian style, faced the broad, blue valley. “I might have dressed too informally,” said the one, who was in a stylish pair of trousers and a loose-fitting top. “No, no,” said her friend in Swiss-German, “dress isn’t the issue here. Don’t worry.”
Combined with the high caliber of musical performance, and a setting second to none, that very casualness and sense of “open to all” count among the many appealing attributes of the Musikdorf Ernen. Francesco Walter − the festival’s fine artistic director – also promotes that feeling; he circulates among the visitors to welcome them, acknowledging old acquaintances, asking if newcomers’ arrangements are in order, if they acquired their tickets without a hitch. And commendably, his team of assistants is a well-informed, digital systems-savvy group of young adults who embrace the chance to take on a large responsibility, but also add a degree of fresh enthusiasm to the events.
On this past, balmy Sunday evening, concertgoers gathered at Ernen’s 16th century parish church to hear Beatrice Berrut in the very first of the “Piano” week’s concerts. While local to the Canton of Valais by birth, Berrut already enjoys an international reputation, having performed in the Berliner Philharmonie and at Wigmore Hall, among other highly renowned venues. Here in Ernen, with a well-lit and high Baroque altar (1760) making a kind of golden aura behind her, Berrut began her program with Bach organ variations that Ferrucio Busoni adapted for piano, and she followed those with a compelling version of a Chopin Fantasie.
Her third piece Jeux de Doubes, by the French composer, Thierry Escaich (*1965), was the only work by a living composer. It moves from orbit to orbit, its magical center sounding like tinkling glass. That, in turn, gives way to the gathering speed of what could be a pending collision of planets. Berrut’s body language and facial expression made the dynamic work that much more emotive; she connected to the piece in almost a visceral way, and the work’s final explosive chord made the audience jump in its seats. Further, after the break, the pianist gave a flawless performance of Johannes Brahms Four Ballads, op. 10 and met the unparalleled demands of Franz Liszt’s After a Lecture by Dante with great strength and tenacity. There, her chord clusters at tremendous volume resembled the turbulence of a fateful storm in the alps. What a fine choice of repertoire for an Ernen recital!
There was still some light over the valley as I drove the short distance back up into the Binntal after the concert – and to the chalet that is home for this week. The beautiful Bach that Berrut had played as an encore stayed as a melody in my head, and fully resonated in the mountains.
Ernen, 14 July 2015, by Sarah Batschelet
The picturesque village of Ernen in the Swiss canton of Wallis is perched like a promise on the lowermost flank of the Binn Valley, some two hours from Berne. Once the main village of the district of Goms, Ernen had a proud folk of mercenary soldiers and resident farmers. Most had to eke out a living for generations despite the challenges of the elements, and from the 19th century − like many rural mountain communities − it largely lost its youth to the attraction of jobs and greater prosperity in the urban areas of the country’s lowlands. Yet over the past four decades, the town has witnessed a Renaissance, in no small part because a music master class that morphed into a lively music festival – a unique summer event that attracts artists and visitors from all over Europe.
Now in it 42nd year – and with the strong arm of the local authorities, the allure of some prominent spokespeople, and the unbounded creative energy of its promoters – the Musikdorf Ernen festival continues to grow, both in reputation and breadth of offer. In July and August, it features a number of different musical genres: Chamber music “compact” (4-5 July), followed by Piano (11-17 July), Baroque (19-30 July), and Chamber music “plus” (2-15 August), each one of the concentrations under a different artistic director.
The musicians themselves are drawn from some of the finest orchestras in Europe, and many of them return regularly to Ernen from year to year. Not surprising, since the alpine setting is idyllic, and the events are held primarily in two charming venues – the 16th century Parish Church of St George and the municipal meeting house, Tellenhaus. Both buildings are steeped in history, and have a comely aesthetic. The church, particularly, enjoys acoustics that make music of this caliber a bracing experience.
What’s more, this year for the first time, Ernen is featuring a comprehensive art project “Zur frohen Aussicht” in conjunction with the festival. Installations done by seven young regional artists – and in unexpected spaces all around town – invite viewing of new artistic impulses. Some of the installations are humorous; some are thought provoking. But one stands out particularly, since Ernen was once the headquarters of the district’s jurisdiction; the so-called Galgen (gallows) on the hill towards neighboring Mühlebach still bear sobering witness to that time. Now, in the very same place where, last in 1764, three thieves were strung up and executed, an art installation, “Camouflage” superimposes images of a luxuriant green landscape onto the site’s three stone columns. In a spectacular setting overlooking the valley, “beauty over acts of violence” might be the position artist Raphael Stucky calls into discussion. As such, it speaks to all of us.
Ernen, 13 July 2015, by Sarah Batschelet