Klaus Leuenberger, formerly chef at the Restaurant St Georg on the Dorfplatz, has taken over the helm at the ErnerGarten in the village’s all-new Generationshaus. I asked him to share his story.
Yours was a long history and solid reputation at the St Georg. Why the change?
The time was right. At the St Georg, I had a reputation as being a little too stuffy and high-end among the locals; with all the tables laid, cloths and everything, some of them didn’t even really trust themselves to come in. Here at ErnerGarten, deliberately, we never use tablecloths in the front part of the restaurant, so people realize right away that they can eat something small if that’s all they want. I also offer a substantial lunch menu for CHF 18.00 − price-worthy, generous, and regional, and that’s going very well.
So this is a new model?
Yes. Outside opening hours at the St Georg, everything just shut down, but here at the Generationshaus, we’re open seven days a week, so there are always people going in and out. What’s more, many of the residents here at the Generationshaus asked to know what they could do to support us, how they could help. So I suggested we try a “Walliser evening” every Monday, which they staff entirely themselves. Now, there’s always something of a “raclette battle” on that evening: two different raclette cheeses from two different providers are the contenders, and the guests assess their differences.
Are there any other “formatting” changes in store?
Yes, on Wednesday evenings, we’re planning to start a “Tavolata,” a surprise menu served around a big table as is often done in Italy. We’ll offer whole variety of foods based on local produce − the strength of this restaurant − bringing people together so that good discussion at the table ensues. I worked with the local Biobauer (bio-farmers) over a long period to promote local produce, and the idea now is just to intensify that a bit. From this new location, I’m even closer to the gardens, so I can go across the road to determine what is ripe or ready on any given day.
What motivated you to be a cook in the first place?
Training as a cook meant I would be able to go abroad and see a little more of the world beyond just Huttwil, in the Emmental, where I was born. Once I’d finished the training, I contacted a cruise line for work, but was told to get some real experience first. So I worked three or four years in a large hotel here in Switzerland, then went abroad, first to Canada, then around the world on the QE 2. Working in a big cruise ship kitchen is very hard, but they’re always in need of people since the staff turnover is so great.
And where did you go from there?
I sailed on three different ships: QE2, Royal Viking, and the Viking Sun over the next two years, but landed in Warsaw at the very end of the 80s, the time of the Wendezeit (re-unification). A British firm that had renovated and opened a 5-star hotel there hired me as head chef. Later, when the property was sold to Polish management, I travelled to Qatar to work for a wealthy sheikh, and managed the kitchen of his luxury resort and leisure facility, complete with a Gault Millau restaurant and huge banquet hall. While I was the executive head of operations there, we also catered banquets and formal state dinners for the Royal Palace − all in all, a huge organizational task.
And what made you leave Qatar?
Well, eventually, I wanted a connection to something simpler again, and wanted to actually cook more. I might be told, “Hey, we’re not paying you to cook here, you’re supposed to manage. You've got people cooking for you!” which was frustrating. In addition to that, the attitude of the sheikhs was a very different one: the idea that if you pay enough, you can get anything you want. The word “no” simply didn’t exist for them. You might be asked to have a roast turkey ready for a large party in a hour; never mind if you were unable to get a turkey in that time, much less prepare and roast it! And if you vocalized that, you might be told this: “That’s not my problem, it’s yours!”
That would have been hard. So you came back to Switzerland?
Yes, and the St Georg here in Ernen was looking for a cook, so I agreed to work here for a full year. That one year, though, somehow grew into eighteen. So it was a hard decision after so long to close up shop there. Even so, I wanted a crack at a new and more lively venture, one that would pull in people of all kinds all day long. The ErnerGarten location is good for me too, as are the landscape, the many bio-products available, and − above all − the Musikdorf Ernen. It’s made a tremendous difference, since without its draw, I might be never have had the same exposure. And when people come here from every part of the world in the summer, I get a good bit of international flavor – which is somewhat of a substitute for travel. Most importantly, I can assure our guests that the ErnerGarten’s products are of the finest quality. We’re still here in Ernen, we’re doing the same kind of cooking, and we may even be doing it a little bit better!
Interview by Sarah Batschelet, Ernen, Monday 24 July 2017
The Restaurant Erner Garten is located in the new Generationshaus, a 5-minute walk from the center of town (Tel. +41 27 971 11 28). For more information, click here.
Wood, if you stop to think of it, has been man’s best friend in the world. It held him in his cradle, went to war as the gunstock in his hand, was the frame of the bed he came to rejoicing, the log upon his hearth when he was cold, and will make him his last long home. It was the murmuring bough above his childhood play, and the roof over the first house he called his own, … the forest where he seeks sanctuary from a stony world.”
― Donald Culross Peattie
Along with its stellar reputation as Musikdorf − world-class musical events staged in the summer season, − the village of Ernen is best known for its unusually rich legacy of 15th to 18th century wooden houses. As one of the few Walliser towns that was spared widespread destruction by war or fire, and because the houses’ facades are typically marked with their dates of construction, Ernen’s is an insightful story about the growth and development of a cohesive alpine community.
The earliest so-called “Heiden” (heathen) houses were built in the area near the church, and down along the Goms valley access. In the early 16th century, however, construction in the village expanded in the direction of the “Hengert,” (the Walliser word “hengerte” meaning to chat, to gossip), which we know today as the “Dorfplatz.” But it wasn’t until the 18th century that the imposing “Zendenrathaus” was built there as a seat of justice in the valley, and the village square took on the striking profile it has today.
In the 1860s, the building of the valley road over Fiesch put an end to house construction in Ernen for almost 90 years, and the village wasn’t party to the nascent tourism business enjoyed by the nearby communities of Fiesch and Binn. After World War II, however, as the construction of peripheral chalets began, the village fathers had the foresight to establish a Ortsbildplege (1950), assuring care and maintenance of Ernen’s historic wooden architecture that has preserved the integrity of the village ever since. Thanks to those efforts, Ernen was the worthy 1979 recipient of the Wakker Prize, an honor awarded annually by the Swiss Heritage Society to a municipality in Switzerland for the development and preservation of its architectural heritage.
The beauty of the many historic buildings speaks for itself. But by way of modest tribute, here are photographic details of wooden constructions in Ernen that seemed, to me, to reflect a community-minded and hardworking alpine people whose decoration speaks of simple beauty. For it’s to them, the Erner, that I am indebted for this “sanctuary from a stony world.”
Ernen, Sunday, 23 JUly 2017, by Sarah Batschelet
Architectural history details were translated from entries in the Landschaftspark Binntal’s informative booklet, “Dorfrundgang und Kulturgüter Ernen.” Copies are available at the Tourist Office at no charge or can be downloaded here.
Wrapped in white tarps and heavily scaffolded, Ernen’s lovely parish church St. Georg might easily be mistaken today for a Christo intervention, and entitled something like “Wrapped Church.” But no, not quite. For while the 16th century sanctuary was reconfigured into a neo-Gothic style church in 1860, and underwent total renovation in the mid-1960s, that “face-lift” has been its only major intervention since. Now, its roof and façade are being repaired and re-plastered, thus: the wrapped “Christo look.”
Given St. Georg’s parish history and its superb Baroque choir and altars, there are few sites better in which to stage a period concert. Undeniably, too, the Baroque weeks are at the “heart “ of the Musikdorf Ernen festival. The players come from a variety of backgrounds, their loyalty to the Ernen music weeks, long since proven. As in other years, Ada Pesch, Concertmaster at the Zurich opera and its superb Baroque orchestra, La Scintilla, takes the first seat here. And she slated a three-concert week of that genre ehoe repertoire pointed to the consummate skills of the various instruments.
The evening’s first piece was by Evaristo Felice Dall’Abaco, a Venetian cellist whose composition was indebted to that of Vivaldi and Corelli. His Concerti a quarto da chiesa op 2. in G minor began with a Largo that showed off the beauty of Mike Fentoss’s theorbe, the lute’s close relative, while the spritely Allegro e spiritoso saw the first violin infecting us with light-hearted vivaciousness. The Grave − like its name − featured long and sustained bow work that was both mellow and gutsy; the final Allegro was effervescent and light, and made an uplifting ending to the 1712 piece.
Antonio Vivaldi’s Bassoon concerto in A Minor, RV 499 began with a phrase that might have been scripted for a stalking scene in a movie, but soon showed the more jolly, even humorous profile of the often-underestimated orchestra member: the bassoon. Benny Aghassi showed virtuoso fingering, and embellished his work with superb variations in intonation. For me, there’s always something a little humorous, even Falstaff-ian, about the bassoon’s lower register, and accordingly, the Largo felt like a burly beast making a case for itself as an actor. Aghassi’s mastery of technique and the accompanying Baroque guitar’s counter melodies (Mike Fentross) made this a thoroughly enjoyable performance.
Mezzosoprano Maite Beaumont sang five different, highly animated arias in the course if the evening, three by the Italian composer Francesco Gasparini, − the teacher who was Domenico Scarlatti’s teacher, − and two works by Georg Friedrich Handel. In the first three, the singer was boosted by singularly melodic orchestration, the solo violin picking up some of the same themes the singer embellished with her well-rounded vocal skills. Beaumont’s Cor nemico, amante core showed the greatest animation of the three, although the singer was somewhat inhibited in her body movements, keeping her upper arms tightly braced and close to her body, and forfeiting some of the freedom that she might have enjoyed and imparted otherwise.
Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz was a Spanish harpist who largely composed for the lute and guitar. His Panavbas and Xacaras were flawlessly played by harpist Siobhán Armstrong, accompanied by Mike Fentross, although for me, there was less here of the variation in color that that I heard from the other instruments. I was glad for the nuances of volume that gave the selections more heft and handle.
After the break, the chamber works by Georg Friedrich Handel included the brilliant Trio Sonata in C minor for two violins and basso continuo, which I found the highlight of the evening. Violinist Monika Baer took a stunning lead, steering the work from its plaintive work to the spirited second movement, in which an animated cembalo (Francesco Corti) and the violin played off and around one another like two agile dancers. The strings set the tone of a kind of precious sentimentality that any Handel fan knows to love. It was sheer bliss, acoustically, though, somehow illuminating the Baroque church with its instrumental push-pull and golden resonance. Ada Pesch also gave greater dimension to the work with her animated full-body expression, and Deirdre Dowling’s viola, Catherine Jones’s cello, and Paolo Zuccheri’s double bass all shone like even more Baroque gold from the podium.
Maite Beaumont finished the program with two selections by Handel. Scherza infida is the sublimely tragic aria from the opera, “Ariodante,” that comes after the lead character learns that his lover has betrayed him. In his consummate sorrow and despair, he sings: “Betrayed by you, I go to embrace death.” Beaumont nicely imparted the utter devastation of such a loss, and was accompanied by a rich bassoon that simply yanked at the heart strings. What’s more, her final “Dopo Notte,” lifted us with its resplendent pageantry of a virtuoso coloratura, one which beautifully complemented the splendor of the Baroque decoration behind her in the church.
Ernen, 22 July 2017, by Sarah Batschelet
It wasn’t easy to find the doorbell. Fact is, there wasn’t a doorbell. I had called to ask if a visit was in order at all: I’d been encouraged to go, but I knew Jules and his wife Yolanda were elderly, that a call might be an intrusion. On the contrary, the couple were glad, I found, to share a little of their story.
At the front corner of their building, the Wydens’ sitting room overlooks Ernen’s regional bus stop and the sharp turn in the road that heads up towards the Binntal. I had often seen Yolanda’s face and shock of white hair at the window as she watched the locals and tourists bustle about below. And when I made my way up the steep wooden stairs that led to their modest apartment, they both welcomed me kindly. Around us were two bouquets of field flowers on a round wooden table, two day-beds, personal memorabilia. A massive stone oven took up the space of three men in one corner, and displayed a motley collection of meaningful objects on its top.
When I asked how the couple had met, I got a fast answer. “Out on the field. We were farming,” he said. Like most of the “Erner” in those days, they both came from farming families. Yolanda had grown up in the impressive Kreyg-Haus, the solid, three-story so-called “Blockbau” that was built right beneath the church in 1677. She and Jules had gone to school in the village, he told me, but back then, the boys and girls had separate classrooms, so they hadn’t known much about the other at school. She was a good dancer, though − “a very good dancer,” he intoned, and they danced at “Zur frohen Aussicht,” the restaurant between Ernen und Ausserbinn − now abandoned − that staged dances on Sundays when the season allowed. “We boys had to wear pleated trousers, a white shirt, and a tie,” he recalled, “and everybody danced in a big circle, always circling to the left. There was order in it. Real order,” he said, “and that’s what we did for fun… nothing like what people do today.” I asked if he did any drinking with his young friends. “A schnapps, maybe,” he said, “but there was only beer in the summer.” Yolanda nodded in agreement.
Jules moves slowly and carefully, but is still quick to engage in conversation, and was proud of his 70-year tenure as a bell ringer at the village church. His engagement there was treasured in turn: Ernen’s was one of the last of the manually-operated carillons in the Oberwallis. What’s more, harnessing the iron power of the larger bells along with the effervescent sounds of little bells is an athletic musical feat that few can master. The bells are rung thanks to cords that glide over return pulleys to the player’s console, which sits high in the tower. It takes terrific muscle power and coordination in the player’s arms and legs to generate the sound, and it’s one that can be heard even out beyond the village. Nowadays, Jules’s fingers were too inflexible to play, he said, but a plaque marking his 70-year achievement hung on the wall, and he wanted to be sure I took note of it.
Being digital-friendly, Jules had at one time carefully entered the numerous melodies he had composed and played at the church into a file on his computer. Sadly, though, all had been irretrievably lost when his hard-disk suddenly crashed some years ago. According to all accounts, that was a terrific piece of Ernen history lost.
Back to the present: When the doorbell rang, the neighbor who often cooks lunches for the couple came up the stairs. “What’ll it be today?” she asked. Yolanda gave her a few words from the window, and the cheerful Gabriela left for the kitchen, a little room off the landing that was teeming with pots, plates and pans. A few times a week, she comes over, it seems, to make sure that the couple ate “things that were healthy,” − commitment and compassion that’s worth its weight in gold.
The Ernen I know is the Musikdorf in a stunning alpine landscape that stages first-rate classical music concerts, offers great hiking trails, hosts inspired art exhibitions, and attracts a crowd that is largely attuned to both. Jules didn’t know that an art exhibition entitled “Zur frohen Aussicht,” − coincidentally enough − was being shown around town, and he was cautious with a definition as to what qualified “art” as such. “When you see something drawn as it really is,” made perfect sense to him. “I see,” said I. while just out the window, artist Moritz Hossli’s clever installation of the golden bird that chirps on the hour from the Rathaus window opposite called to us − at exactly noon − twelve times.
Ernen, Friday, 21 July 2017, by Sarah Batschelet
Lars Dederscheck, chef at the Gommerstuba in Niederernen, took time off to talk about the fine establishment where his classic French cooking is king.
You took over here only one year ago. What was it like to follow in your well-known predecessor’s footsteps?
It was daunting. Rolf Gruber had been here for 30 years when I took over. Sure, I’d already worked here for 16 years by then, but from last December, it was different to be the man at the helm. Fortunately, Rolf had been an excellent teacher. I knew the venue inside out, and lots of the clientele. That made the transition easier, as did − and does − my wife Yvonne, who helps with operative management and does the bookkeeping so I can devote the greater part of my time to actually cooking.
What do you cook most frequently?
International cuisine, based primarily on classic French cooking. We offer the finest quality meats and in summer, prepare fish, which I like very much to cook. We get our small lake perch (Egli) from a fish hatchery in Raron, a place worth a visit in itself. We also prepare salt-water fish, and even high-end delicacies such as Canadian lobster. I try to incorporate local regional produce as much as possible… but lobster, for example, must be imported, and we have a definite client demand for it. Where can you get it otherwise?
Are there certain specialties we should try?
I change the menu seasonally, four times a year. The favorite now is the lake perch, and guests frequently order it à la carte, but we also have a 7-course menu, along with the option of ordering only 3 or 4 of them. Our wine cellar carries wines produced exclusively in the Valais, where our Cornalin, incidentally, is a superb local grape, and Humagne Rouge is also very good. Whatever the specialty, I like going around among our guests after they’ve finished their meals to get their impressions and feedback. I really depend on that, − especially if I’ve experimented with something new, − as acknowledging their satisfaction or suggestions is vital for our maintaining top results.
What’s the most difficult thing about being a chef?
Keeping calm. When lots is happening, and it gets stressful, or when there are fewer guests, in the dead of winter, say, you still have responsibilities vis-à-vis the staff. Earlier, I could count on my regular monthly salary; now, I’m the one paying the salaries and bills, so see the business from an entirely different angle. And there are concerns, of course, such as whether I can depend on all hands to keep their hours. That’s important, since we’re a team of only five; if one person’s missing, then everybody’s under a lot of pressure. I hope to be seen as a constant, though, strongly committed to drawing rather than pulling the very best out of us all. And I hope that continues to work as well as it has up to now.
Your German sounds native. How’s that?
I’m 39 years old now, and still a German citizen, although with our young son, who was born and is going to school here, we consider applying for Swiss citizenship. In any case, I did my training on the German-Dutch border, and in a hotel whose kitchen was large and very well-equipped, making it a great place to learn. My chef there, too, was a powerhouse: great at teaching us the basics, but covering a vast number of topics that in any way revolve around food and its preparation, too. At school there, it was always said that to make a career as a chef, one had to work at some point in Switzerland. So I was pleased to get that experience at the Gommerstuba, where I thought I would stay about a year. The Fates, I guess, thought otherwise. In any case, over the next 15 years, I took great benefit from working alongside Rolf Gruber. He gave terrific personality to this place, and even now, we keep in touch with one another regularly.
What three adjectives would you like to hear clients use to describe your cuisine?
Oh, that’s a tough one, but I think I’d say, delicious, sophisticated and completely satisfying to both the eye and palette. My aim, of course, is that every plate comes out as perfectly as possible; it has to look really appetizing, but has to taste very good, too.
Here in Niederernen, you’re in a largely rural area. Yet you stay here rather than go down into the valley. Why’s that?
Largely because the restaurant has a name, and we have regular clients. Compared to Brig or the valley, where the concentration of eateries is very dense, we have a unique position. The whole package of fine cuisine in this beautiful setting makes it an ideal location. What’s more, response to our website and Trip Advisor reviews have shown us that our clientele is very much behind us. That alone makes me makes me very proud.
Interview by Sarah Batschelet, Thursday, 20 July 2017
The Gommerstuba is open from Tuesday through Monday from 10.00 – 23.00. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday. Exceptionally, during the Musikdorf Ernen’s concert season (10 July −14 August), Monday only is closed. For reservations, call 027 971 29 71 or send an e-mail. For more information click here.
Yesterday, my daughter Hallie and I took the local bus up the valley to start a short hike from Binn out to Heiligkreuz, the site of a popular pilgrimage chapel, and home to a cozy Gasthaus I’d long wanted to visit. Starting out, our path out from the Binn bridge rose slowly upwards from the river, passing to the left of the elevated village church and two humble grey donkeys that were grazing beneath it.
The Wanderweg was well enough signed that a map was almost superfluous, largely because the local tourist board of the Landschaftspark Binntal does such a fine job of distributing information and tips for visitors. From a marketing, presentation, and information-dissemination standpoint, their breadth of offer and publications are absolutely first-rate.
Our way to Heiligkreuz wound across a field and through a cool wood, which – bliss! − even included a small find of wild strawberries. After about an hour, we reached the little hamlet of Heiligkreuz at the back of the pretty Leng Valley. The Chapel of the Holy Cross − built in 1678 and completely restored in 1976/77 – sits in a broad curve of the hillside, and is only partially visible as you come up the road. But a huge white cross is seen from a distance, and beneath it, the building slowly reveals itself, adding to the drama and anticipation of the approach.
Once inside, the walls are uniformly painted and only modestly decorated, the focus being on the Baroque gold-painted high altar as well as the two side altars. All three were made locally by Goms Valley craftsmen. The eight votive paintings in the choir were given in gratitude for the answers pilgrims had had to their prayers. A full house of votive objects − alluding to healed arms and legs − stands on a tree-like stand off one side of the nave, a “constellation” that is almost Shaker-like in its simplicity. At one time, we learned an iron neck ring that Turkish captors had forced upon their prisoner − a Crusader − hung nearby to commemorate his miraculous escape, but the ring was stolen in 1918, and sadly, has never been recovered.
In 1741, however, the Capuchin Franciscans community in Ernen donated a small piece of wood to the chapel that was claimed to be from the Holy Cross. With that treasure, the chapel soon became an important pilgrimage destination. Counting close to some 3,000 visitors annually, it is the most frequently visited pilgrimage church in the Goms region today.
Overlooking the church, the nearby Gasthaus Heiligkreuz served us a wholesome lunch on its cool terrace: cream of leek soup, a hearty cheese from nearby Grengiols, and a fresh salad of local greens. One of the three owners, Gabriela Weger, also kindly offered to show us the accommodations for “future reference,” since there are four tidy rooms for overnight guests. Spotless and functional, each room looks out onto a lush alpine forest – always a good bet − and the rooms’ light blue cotton duvet covers are like a breath of fresh air. Further, the upstairs of the Gasthaus has a generous, light-filled space that functions − with its modern furniture and huge wooden table − as a meeting or conference room, an exhibition venue, a place to make music, or to simply relax.
After lunch, we took on the lower route back to Binn to catch a certain bus back to Ernen. Our woods walk morphed for a while into paved road, but then, had us winding our way through a picture-perfect Swiss wood to finish our circle. There, we had a virtual feast of wildflowers, and sitting on a wayside bench and looking back in the direction we had come, the great Vordere Helse (3106m) rose in the distance like a huge jewel in a noble’s crown.
Ernen, Wednesday, 19 July 2017, by Sarah Batschelet
Gasthaus Heiligkreuz is open in 2017 through 22 October. Its restaurant welcomes hungry travellers from 10.00 to 18.00 daily, except in May, June, and October, when it’s closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. For more information, also about overnight stays, click here.
With the forest floor covered in a thick carpet of evergreen needles, “the patter of little feet” may have been harder to hear in the Zauberwald (Magic Forest) on 16 July, but that didn’t mean that any had stayed away. On the contrary: the village of Ernen chose that day to celebrate the tenth birthday of its marvelous children’s outdoor adventure playground with a festive jubilee, and a handsome number of children and their parents came.
My friend Martin and I got there early, and had a friendly welcome by Irisea and Talitha, two young women from the Ernen Tourist Office, who pointed us in the direction of activities. An information board at the entrance also gave us the cautions and rules. The path is suitable for children if accompanied by an adult. Look through the intermittently placed telescopes to find the next activity station. Observe the posted silhouettes of small red squirrels that stand for “Stop,” and don’t go beyond them. All points taken.
Enchanting from the start, the Zauberland forest itself was as striking as it was inviting. The forest path is soft with evergreen needles, but ancient red pines and gnarled or split boulders make the background close to bizarre, a film set for magical events that nobody does better than Mother Nature herself.
Given that spread, all order of natural materials − stones, water, branches, pine cones, moss − are the building blocks for a host of activities and experiences in the forest. There are some two dozen stations that invite interaction, each one designed in accord with the landscape where it’s placed. Figuring among them is a mini-mountain pulley like those used to bring supplies up to higher altitudes in alpine regions. Here at the Zauberwald, kids can load the carriage with favorite stones, leaves or pinecones, for example, then draw the load up and down over the side of a steep incline. There’s also a balance beam nearby that sways some 6 inches above the ground and offers a chance to “walk the plank,” but has cords around it to make it harmless. Further, a colorful slippery slide invites a good “swoosh” downwards, and a log-covered cavern invites “secret meetings” or just a moment’s rest.
I especially loved the simply made “chimes” near the slippery slide: different lengths of small logs hung vertically from a rafter, with a mallet that could bring out the sound engineer in any of us. What’s more, the crunchy bed of pinecones and woods roughage set out to tickle the feet was good fun to step over.
The makings for all kinds of art projects were also at visitors’ beck and call for the jubilee. Coloring and cutting, pasting and assembly kept little hands busy at a number of tables in a central area, where some 15 large picnic tables offered refreshments and simple fare from barbeque grill. Not surprisingly, the good-spirited grill lads also clearly liked their work!
Near the end of the event, visitors could follow the story of Brüna, a little red squirrel who has found her place in the rich catalogue of Ernen legends. In Andreas Wiessen’s story, Brüna undergoes all kinds of adventures while looking for her winter store of food within the magic forest, and makes a fascinating discovery at the end. Set in the Zauberwald itself, the story nicely hit home.
In sum, whether you have children, or have a child in you, the Ernen Zauberwald is a place of exploration, adventure, and bizarre beauty, and its entrance is only a mere 3-minute bus ride from the Dorfplatz in Ernen. The discover park is highly recommended!
Ernen, Tuesday, 18 July 2017, by Sarah Batschelet
Click here to visit the website of the Zauberwald (Magic Forest)
Note: Thanks to Linda Mooser, trainee at the local newspaper, Walliserbote, for her additional help with these photographs. She supplied the last four shown here.
A year ago, Peter Clausen kindly spoke with me about his Gemeinschaftsgarten project, the Ernen village community garden that I covered in this blog (click here to read the blog of last year). This July, he invited me to see the first stages of the bee-yard (apiary) that he, members of the community, and recruits from the Swiss Army had erected some 10 minutes up into the Binntal. This was to be my first face-to-face encounter with bees and their hives, so I had to dress accordingly: long trousers and good socks at the very least. Peter also had a second hooded beekeeper’s jacket for me to wear once we started checking the hives.
Every beekeeper will be stung at some point; it just goes with the territory. But an ounce of prevention never hurt. So in the old bee-house close to Peter’s new hives, he picked up a lantern-like “smoker,” ignited the loose material inside it, and whooshed a little smoke over the hive we would look into first. “The bees react wisely to smoke,” Peter explained, “they dig into the honey comb and start filling their bellies. See, if the woods around them really are burning, they know they’ll need all the energy they can get, so they eat as much as they can.” Point taken: when he lifted the lid and extracted the first of several vertical frames, many of the colony were pulsing away at a honey cell, their back sides up in the air.
But it was the bees’ remarkable density that impressed me most: hundreds and hundreds of bees clambering over one another for a place in the one-by-two foot frame, then for no obvious reason, turning away to head off in another direction. Several octagons of comb were filled with royal jelly, that nectar reserved for the hive’s single queen. Always larger than the other bees, the queen alone is inseminated by several drones, and lays some 2,000 eggs daily. As such, she singularly “births” all her hive’s next generations. Passing through the others, she hardly seemed to attract much attention, they all moved about together in what looked like a bubbling glut of small bodies and wings.
In select other areas on the frame, the carapace of a new bee could be seen poking out of its octagonal “womb.” Other wholes section was filled with the gooey, amber-colored honey that Peter thought would be ripe enough for harvest at the end of July. When we closed that hive to go to another, I had to remind myself, too, that all of the activity we’d seen is done in the dark; once that upper cover is set over the frames, it’s pitch black for the bees inside. No matter: by some miracle, they all know their roles, the job they have to do.
In contrast to the frenzy on the frames we was inspecting, Peter stayed remarkably calm. It pays, of course, to stay calm around bees, but the tending of − and organization around − the new apiary has, he said, been a real boon: Just off the road up the Binntal, this is a purposeful enterprise, and a nature conservancy project of the first order. It’s no wonder that the Landschaftpark Binntal is keen to promote it among visitors of all ages. Contributing to the preservation of both nature and a local cultural tradition, the new project has the organization’s vote of confidence. And because it fosters better understanding of the bee’s role in the greater eco-system, and engages the community and visitors in the park, educational programming is in the planning.
What’s more, in addition to tracking and tending to honey bees, the project also aims to preserve the valley’s smaller-sized wild bees. Their preferred habitats are piles of wood debris and irregularly stacked logs, whose tiniest holes they seek out for shelter. So with the help of some Swiss Army recruits who’d been assigned an eco-friendly task, several such habitats were assembled on the bee-yard late last year. The land around the old bee-house was also cleared and leveled, and planted with flowering shrubs, berry bushes, various saplings, and six new roses, to attract more insect life.
Notably, because this is currently an awareness-raising project more than anything else, the production of the bee-yard’s hives – the honey bees’ honey, beeswax, pollen, and the royal jelly reserved for the queen – are not expected to become a commercial venture anytime soon. With only 15 hives, and some 40,000 bees, this apiary’s controlled honey production is still modest. What’s more, there are already professional beekeepers farther up the valley whose merchandising efforts are vital to their incomes. Yet one of the highlights of my visit to the new bee-yard, I admit, was tasting some of the fresh new honey these little creatures had produced. With the end of the chisel he’d used to open a hive, Peter pulled up a teaspoonful, and ask me to try it. No surprise there: It was wildflowers, mountain air and sunshine all in one.
Ernen, Monday, 17 July 2017, by Sarah Batschelet
Don’t you meet people under the strangest of circumstances? Last Saturday, I took part in a moonlit-walk between Ernen and Mühlebach that ended at “Amy’s Schafstube,” a delightful restaurant and terrace just this side of Mühlebach’s hanging bridge. Even late as it was, Amy herself was there to greet our group with homemade savories and sweets, and we all settled in to enjoy them over drinks at wooden picnic tables. My table neighbors included the gifted Andreas Weissen, the specialist in local legends who’d led the hike; a sociable and good-humored couple from nearby Naters; and a rather quiet woman, Paula, who was sitting alone at the far end my bench. She and I only struck up a conversation around midnight, when a fat old full moon first showed its silvery light over the opposite hill, then slowly rose in all its glory − a spectacle of the first order.
Turned out that Paula lived in Mühlebach, and was almost a neighbor to Leander Locher, the artist I interviewed for this blog last year. I knew her neighborhood, and we also shared a couple of other friends, but her generous invitation to come visit her and her husband, Roland, at home was more than I expected. As was the house, and the welcome they both gave me.
Theirs is one of the so-called wooden “Heidenhäuser” (heathen houses), a designation often given to houses so old and unusually constructed that they were thought to be built before the spread of Christianity. Typically fairly low to the ground, they often feature a small loft and a wooden cross that supports a gabled façade, but is integrated into the outside wall. And this particular house enjoys a beautiful position; it backs up to the brook from which the town took its name, but with room for a lush garden and sitting area in between.
The house had belonged to Paula’s Grandfather Seiler, whose portrait engraving hung in a prominent place in the living room. The long history of the house, however, goes back far beyond him; indeed, the houses like this one in Mühlebach are the oldest intact wooden structures in all of Switzerland. Built in 1497, renovated in 1767, the Seiler house cellar is a massive block base that supports the 2-floor wooden residence. The rooms are small and almost warren-like; and each one has a number of doors, likely for good circulation. As a child, Paula remembers, a whole gaggle of children slept in bunks in what today is the upper drawing room. Reamarkably, the house’s age-old small-paned windows look out over the meadow to Ernen, and the spire of its landmark church, St. Georg, which looks like a like a little flag signaling back to its nearest village.
The Seiler house has undergone changes over the centuries, though. A small roof was placed over the steep entrance stairs to make a gathering place between main house and an ancillary building that was once a separate structure. Interior improvements for convenience, of course, were also made in the kitchen and washroom. But one thing that remains for its its historical value is the double “Plumps-Klo” the wooden, double toilet seat at the far end of the adjacent pantry. Somebody, apparently, had to clean the refuse beneath it away about every three months, or all hell broke loose.
Roland is an architectural historian, Paula, a graphic artist and painter, perhaps the finest combination of talents to insure the house’s integrity. She shared some of her recent paintings with me, and he brought out books he had published about Switzerland’s historic hotels, of whose prestigious expert association he is a board member. But one detail I loved about the house was hardly academic: Hanging over a day bed in a tiny room off the upstairs kitchen was a caution stitched in simple embroidery: “Geh nie im Zorn von deines Hauses Herd; Gar mancher ging der nie zurückgekehrt.” That loosely translates: “Never leave your house and home angry; Some have left and never returned.” So be it!
Ernen, Saturday, 15 July 2017, by Sarah Batschelet
This week in mid-July marks a red-letter event in Ernen’s literary summer: the annual one-week “Biography” seminar conducted by the renowned German psychologist and author, Dr. Brigitte Boothe. This is the 6th time the seminar has been held in the village’s historic Tellenhaus, the week’s goal again being for participants to explore ways writers define personal experiences and/or crafting a narrative around their own. As in former years, the course targets both young and old, both experienced or still inexperienced attendees who want to address either their own writing or the craft of writing itself, but from a new angle: How and why can I tell the story? Where to begin, and at what point to stop? Are my recollections accurate and true-to-life? How can I find my own literary expression? These were just some among the thought-provoking questions that spurred the direction of this year’s course.
In the Wednesday break, I spoke to three of the seminar participants, each of whom had a different reason for coming. Nina − attending for the second time this year − had little ambition as a writer, but was keen, as an avid reader, to boost her exposure to the variety and wealth of literary styles. Lina, who lived in nearly Brig, had attended one of Donna Leon’s courses here in Ernen, but wanted now to get a handle on her own craft, since she was intending to pen stories for her grandchildren. Juliana, after the many demands of a full-time job, was taking a week off alone to pursue something personally important to her.
Each of the women shared thoughts about the course structure and its implementation, and all three cited their work together as “inspiring.” In the seminar room, I had noticed that all had sat behind their computers at a circle of large tables, an arrangement that democratically denied any one person a “shiner” role or a “front row seat.” In that same vein, Juliana relayed that any texts read in response to short writing assignments were handled equally, and without any prejudice. Lina was astounded by the degree of creativity her fellow attendees brought to their images, and impressed upon me how carefully and respectively Prof. Boothe handled each of the submissions shared. All three women emphasized was hardly a school class; instead, their seminar was a confirmation of each person’s own unique expression, each one as valid as the next.
Dr. Boothe, who has cited “examining, remembering, experimenting, collecting, organizing, proofreading and making corrections” as the building blocks of resounding narrative kindly took time with me before the group re-gathered. Hers is a soft spoken but serious manner, and she clearly enjoyed encouraging each one of the class members – all female this year − to find her own “voice.” She was moved by the way many of them were willing to share both the poignant and pivotal moments in their lives, and noted the welcome role that humor and fun always brought to the exercise. Tale telling, it would seem, somehow makes the bond between pain and good humor possible. She was also pleased that some participants had taken advantage of one-on-one consultations she offered as an option after class.
For the blogger in me, it was insightful to see some of the notes that had been collected on the white board: ideas pooled to try and better understand the role biography might play for the human psyche. “The story is within us; we only have to let it come to light.” was a call to action. “Biography is an internal mentor that gives credit where it’s due.” seemed to want affirmation. “With all else transitory, something should remain.” was the mantra of any respectable collector or historian. My favorite, though, may have been the simplest formulation. Why biography? Simple enough: It’s “Life’s rucksack!”
Ernen, Friday, 14 July 2017, by Sarah Batschelet
The “Biography” seminar is among the annual offers of the Musikdorf Ernen’s summer festival. Dr. Brigitte Boothe, formerly Professor for Clinical Psychology, Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis at the University of Zurich, studied German and Romance languages and took a doctorate in Philosophy. Her book (The Narrative. Biographical Stories in the Psychotherapeutic Process) was published in 2010 by Schattauer Verlag, Stuttgart. More recently, she also published “Wenn doch nur – ach hätt ich bloss. Die Anatomie des Wünsches. (If Only I’d… The Anatomy of Longing) Zürich: Rüffer & Rub, in 2013.
The Gorsatt family enjoys a long history in the Binn Valley (“Binntal”), and Ewald Gorsatt kindly spoke to me this week about the passionate hobby he turned into his profession. His own father, he explained, was an avid mineral spotter (“Strahler”), a hobbyist who “brought home a rucksack full of 50 kg of stones every day.” As a boy, Ewald often joined him to look for crystals, taking a liking to it from the start. Once a teenager, he also assisted the “pros” in other mineral-hunting expeditions. Fast forwarding: After a number of years in his trained profession − mechanical engineering − he turned back full time to his passion for spotting crystals. And today, his enterprise offers a host of mineral-related activities that appeal to people of all ages and with various levels of skill and alpine experience.
The crystals Ewald Gorsatt seeks in the Binntal are likely the products of some 15-20 million years of geological history, and one that transpired some 10 km below the surface. Over the millennia, changes in pressure and the earth’s ambient temperature caused shifts in the ground surface, making a hot bed for the generation of mineral deposits.
Equipped with hammer and chisel, spud bar (“Strahlstock”) and gap hook (“Clufthaken”), now with many years’ experience under his belt, the 49-year old hobby Strahler Gorsatt knows what he’s looking for when he starts out. He uses the gap hook to pick out surface lime and refuse from a long mineral vein he recognizes as promising, or pursues a shine of mica that likely hides something beneath. He knows the feel and even the “little squeak” that a crystal gives off when the gap hook passes over its surface. In the rarest of cases, the crystal simply presents itself on the surface. One of his greatest finds, he says, was spotted on a glacier from some 300 meters away; “There was just a glimmer, almost like a small spot light as I approached it, as if it just wanted to be found.” Some luck!
In his simple but orderly shop, he offers a full range of the specimens, large and small, that stem from this rich valley. Smoky quartz is considered a “surface mineral”, but the specimens from the Binntal are legendary. It was some years ago, that his colleague Werner Schmidt, a professional Strahler, uncovered the “largest smoke crystal in the Alps” in the Oberwallis alps, which was 1.11 meters long and weighed in at 800 kilos. By comparison, Gorsatt’s finest specimens are modest in size and weight, but his magnetite crystals are precious because they’re so rare. Measuring 3 cm across at the most, the tiny little “gems” of the kind found in the Binn Valley are considered the world’s very finest of those specimens.
Gorsatt has discovered that mineral spotting has great appeal to young people, and the same applies to the craft of cutting and polishing their finds. In addition to excursions, he offers an introduction into the world of rocks and minerals to school classes, and also offers youngsters a chance to experiment at his well-equipped and spotlessly clean studio in Binn. Complete with cutters and polishers that he himself fashioned, “Safety First” is the rule of the day. Importantly, too, the machines are installed at a level easy for youngsters to operate. And no question: if passion for a subject makes a good teacher, then Ewald Gossart deserves his own school.
Ernen, Thursday, 13 July 2017, by Sarah Batschelet
From the beginning of July through mid-October, Ewald Gorsatt offers excursions that focus on the fascination of crystals for groups of 8-15 people (Note: Mandatory registration, and suitable for children above 8 years). From the beginning of May through mid-October, he offers cutting and polishing courses (for 5-10 people, and children above 10 years). A fine selection of crystals, polished stones, and small domestic objects made of stone are also available at Ewald Gorsatt’s small shop in Binn. For information: Tel. +41 79 347 54 30 (irregular hours, advisable to ring about 17.30 p.m.). To register click here. Website of Ewald Gorsatt. Also highly recommended to visitors interested in minerals is a visit to Werner Schmidt’s superb museum collection in Mörel. For a virtual tour of the museum click here.
July 9 marked the launch of this summer’s first “Piano” festival week at the Musikdorf Ernen, and the superb French pianist Cédric Tiberghien was the evening’s featured soloist. Born in 1975, Tiberghien was once a student of the legendary music pedagogue and pianist György Sebők (1922-1999) − the Ernen Musik Festival’s founder − so his appearance here in Ernen was a particularly meaningful one. As is usual, the concert venue was the Baroque parish church St. Georg, whose acoustics are often cited as excellent.
Physically, Tiberghen is a tall man, and his fingers are long enough to easily manage even more than an octave. Long fingers don’t always imply great dexterity, but this pianist’s digits readily alternated between unprecedented speeds and then barely touching the keys, as if they were a fragile treasure. His upright posture on the bench was regal, but he also varied positions readily, often leaning demonstrably over the keys. He might pose several inches above them for a particularly spirited passage, or snap a strong gesture at the end of a phase that seemed almost electric. Nor was he averse to “speaking” to the keys as he played, as if to say, “here, then, it’s this” or “Yes, absolutely!” Even to watch the movement of the muscles in his cheeks was to see his communion with the instrument. In short, Tiberghien was thrilling, both to hear and to watch.
His repertoire began with Chopin’s Piano Sonata in B-minor, op. 35. He marked the first movement Grave with a generous pedal, perhaps even a bit too heavily for my taste. The familiar and energetic Scherzo, however, showed a tighter grip on its inherent contrasts. Its lyrical center was nothing short of dreamy, and returning to the primary theme, the repeated clusters of keys might be said to preview the modern. Sadly, the familiar Marche funèbre was impacted by an unfortunate technical glitch, namely that a leak the church’s roof − which is undergoing a major renovation − actually shed droplets onto the floor of the nave: a sound intriguing to some, but highly disturbing to others. I myself wondered whether the drips shortened the length of Tiberghien’s pauses, but any concerns were put to rest when the Presto kept his fingers moving at a clip.
Second on the program was Chopin’s Scherzo Nr. 2 in B-minor, op. 31. There, Tiberghien’s attacks were so pointed and precise that he took on the countenance of a feral animal. By contrast, the sheer translucence of the second segment was almost timidly played, making a case for Chopin’s brilliant ability to score diametrically opposed characterizations within a single piece.
A selection of Franz Liszt’s piano works followed. The Bagatelle sans tonalité was a visceral piece, but after its last enormous chord, the artist tightly balling and raising his left fist across his body was a gesture I shall never forget. Its palpable tension brought on a gasp throughout the church. The Mephisto-Waltz no 4 S. 696 began with a fiery exposé of hundreds of notes packed so densely together that the pianist’s fingers seemed like flames burning up and down the keys. His La lugubre gondola S 200 carried highly unexpected – again, remarkably modern – intervals, and as if in ripples of water, Tiberghien’s torso moved with them like a boat nudging into a pier. Finally, the Csardas macabre S. 224 showed another electric charge at work: a turbulence as muscular as it was earth shattering.
After the break − and mutual gratitude for the rain having stopped, − the concert continued with Liszt’s Sonata in B minor S 178. A backbreaking enterprise, it showed Tiberghien mindful of the composer’s demands to alternate an arsenal of dynamite with the finest fairy dust. Rarely have I heard such technically demanding repertoire meet with such range of expression. The pianist’s interpretation of Liszt simply became him, as if he were standing in for the composer. With such a thick carpet of notes, Liszt clearly intended to show the full range of the instrument, periodically drawing so many together as to sound like a duo pianos performance. Added to that dynamic, Tiberghien diminished a peaked timbre to something comparable only to the embrace of an old friend – which made the work infinitely likeable. And finally, he could both exploit the powers of “holding back” for a split second to boost the impact of a given phrase, or diminish intensity such that you wanted to ask for more: in short, here was truly brilliant piano by a master of his trade.
Ernen, Wednesday, 10 July 2017, by Sarah Batschelet
The seven promising young artists chosen to show work in the village-wide summer exhibition “Zur frohen Aussicht” (“To the Happy View”) came to Ernen in March earlier this year. In inclement weather, they had to be convinced that the village was more than just a sleepy alpine town. The main square was void of people, the residents hunkered down inside their wooden houses because of the rain. But each artist had come to determine what their installation would be, and where it would best be placed, so each one would look at the village with a keener eye. For together, artists Moritz Hossli, Thomas Julier, Andreas Kalbermatter, Céline Liebi, Celia und Nathalie Sidler and Kathrin Zurschmitten − hailing from other places in Wallis and the rest of Switzerland – had been asked to reflect Ernen’s unique pulse in new works of art.
What is Ernen today, and how does present itself? What motivates and inspires its residents? In a wide variety of artistic forms – video art to architectural sculpture, sound installations to performance – what resulted was each artist’s answer to those enquiries. What’s more, their installations sharpen perception and boost appreciation of various aspects of the village and its inhabitants, not just for visitors from out of town, but also for those who live here year round.
At the official opening of the “Zur frohen Aussicht” on Saturday, July 8, Francesco Walter, who heads the cantonal Cultural Advisory Board and is also Vice-President of the Ernen municipality, introduced the exhibition’s Curator, Josiane Imhasly on the scenic Dorfplatz. Some 100 people joined to hear her speak about the artists and their achievements, and afterwards, toast the success of both over local cheese, smoked beef and Walliser wine.
The artists Celia and Nathalie Sidler also colored the opening with political presence in their “Reclaim the Streets!” performance. The sister’s multicolored banners hung prominently around the center of the village, but the event’s call to activism was even more spirited, complete with the raised fists that recalled the two Afro-American athletes at the Munich Olympics. Here in Ernen, their faces hidden by yellow masks, the two artists scrambled onto the Platz and mounted the Cardinal Schiner monument to question the background of the village’s building boom and the rules and regulations that order the Ernen community. Broadcasting through two large megaphones, they reminded us that the Dorfplatz had once been the very center of village life, alluded to the shrinking number of youth in rural communities, and the suspicions of one’s neighbors. The overriding message: “Why not organize ourselves differently? Build a slippery slide on the Dorfplatz!” It was as entertaining as it was thought-provoking.
On Sunday, July 9, the public was also invited to join the artists on a tour through the installations, and get a real feel for the spaces their interventions filled. Artist Moritz Hossli shared the technical details of his insightful “golden bird, “Galgenvogel” a timepiece that he said “stands for all birds” and emerges from the round window at the very top of the historic Rathaus’s façade to chirp its two-tone announcement of every hour. Given that the Rathaus served historically both as high court and prison, the metaphor of the bird as symbol of freedom was nicely chosen. Later, Hossli presented “Warteräume” (”Waiting Rooms”), his second installation (of three) in one of many small and empty Spycher once used to store hay and farming implements. He had labored hard to clear the space and pay tribute to its laboring past, exposing its merits in ancient wood, its 13 individual storage bays for as many parties, and the soft daylight streaming in through the cracks. Admired for its inherent sculptural beauty, though, the empty Spycher also stands as a symbol of an uncertain future.
Having grown up in the area, Thomas Julier deliberately chose to show his work in the space of the old Youth Center, a few modernized, white rooms in the bottom of the historic Kaplaneihaus. He remembered the gathering place, he said, as one “where things were done,” not all of them, good. He drew for his work on recent historical events that were dark, mysterious, and sometimes inexplicable. One of these was the accusation of arson leveled at one local young man who later contended he had spoken with the Devil in the nearby Bonn Valley. In “The Arpeggiator of the Mind,” Julier also points to the excesses of Pan, the iconic images of the late ‘70s, and the “flight” of the modern hang-glider, often contrasting the tenets of Hedonism with those of Catholicism.
Two floors above him on the upper floors of the same building is something of a different kind. Céline Liebi’s elegant installation “Zu Besuch” (“Visiting”) contrasts short citations that Ernen residents gave about their village with photographs of personal treasures in their homes that Liebli thought deserved attention. Whether printed with word or image, Liebi’s white fabric panels are strung taut on lightweight white cords, and apportion the space into neat horizontals. Again, the setting chosen had a tremendous impact on the work; the Kaplaneihaus has been beautifully restored, and its upper windows let in streams of warm light. In the village itself, Liebi’s banners are placed in more unexpected places. To me, a fabric photo that depicted a “Mother of Pearl Madonna” spanned against a simple woodpile was especially ingenious.
Andreas Kalbermatter’s In turn, work captures all the intrigue of Ernen sounds, some of them subtle, some as familiar as the horn and movements of the Postautobus. His work “Echo Chamber” juxtaposes those sounds with hollow, abstract house models that surround the viewer in a primarily dark room. Ours is the circle of “home” within, but over and beyond that, the work invites a catalog of other interpretations. He had pointedly asked for a space that was at street level, so that it could be – like one’s home ought to be − easily accessible.
Finally, Kathrin Zurschmitten’s video work also lives and breathes in a Spycher below the church, and adjacent to the recently restored Hüs uf der Flüe. On a woods walk, the artist said she had marveled at the patterns of change and decay among the fallen leaves, and wanted to incorporate that same sense of transience in her work. In “up wind up,” she plays with the visual and soothing sound effects of hot air on tissue paper, the single material used in the poetic intervention. And her installation also made a case for the exhibition triggering change: For safety’s sake, this Spycher got its very first hand-railing shortly before the exhibition.
In sum, the second “Zur frohen Aussicht,” which links the past to the present, shows as many artistic genres as there are interventions. Charting the artists’ installations makes a delightful way to visit the hidden nooks and crannies of the village, and to appreciate the approach that seven different talents took as they expanded on − and mastered − the challenge given them.
Ernen, Tuesday, 11 July 2017, by Sarah Batschelet
Visit here the website of the exhibition.
Brilliant weather, hiking boots packed, two mountain passes ahead; the constellation bode well for my trip from the flatlands up to Ernen. Coming from the area around Baden, I travelled first in the direction of Lucerne, majestic Mount Pilatus hailing me from the distance. Farther south, my route wound up to an altitude of 1,008 meters over the Brünig Pass that connects Canton Obwalden in central Switzerland to the Bernese Oberland. The pass road seemed to give «winding» a new definition, but awarded tremendous − if fleeting − views of the surrounding verdant landscape. Among the most breathtaking at the start was that onto Lungern Lake, whose deep emerald color is so saturated that it seems to defy the rules of Nature.
After the pass, I had once stopped briefly in the town of Meiringen, but decided this time to take a break in the smaller municipality of Innertkirchen. Sitting on the terrace of the friendly «Hotel Restaurant Urweider,» a whole parade of motorcyclists passed by, or stopped in the hotel’s parking lot to give attention to their machines and high-tech outerwear. The variations on both were nothing short of legion.
From Innertkirchen, my route went up to an elevation of 2,164 meters to cross the Bernese alps over the Grimsel Pass. The Grimsel was used as an alpine traverse as early as in Roman times, but it was a «Document of Trade» dating from 1397 that described how the cantons of Bern and Valais would regulate upkeep of the transverse’s trails and bridges, duties, and the running of its hospiz. Typical of the historic trade was that wine, rice, and glassware came north, while cheese, leather, iron implements and livestock were brought south.
The pass road I drove was originally constructed for horse-drawn wagons in 1894, and it still twists and turns over the long ascent, but is a wider road in superb condition today. Looking up towards the hydroelectric dam from below, it was hard to imagine I would get get up to that great height very fast. But eventually, both the huge Grimsel storage lake and the historic Hospiz − Switzerland’s first certified guest house, now a 4-star hotel – were at eye level.
I marveled at the many engineering feats that made the route passable to all modern means of transportation. No question, «doing the Grimsel» is a great achievement for strong cyclists, too. But their course uphill can be unsettling to drivers if, try as they may to stay on a straight course, they sometimes jag out towards the cars. Any discomfort there was modest, however, compared to what one daredevil cyclist managed behind me. In my car’s wind stream, I suppose, he thundered down the greater part of his descent just a very few feet behind my back fender.
It was all the more rewarding, then, to reach the Rhone Valley. I stopped briefly for lunch at the pleasant «Hotel Restaurant Landhaus Goms» in Münster, and strolled across the road to visit the hamlet’s Marienkirche, a remarkable church that commemorates the Virgin Mary’s Ascension. While its foundation is first mentioned in annals dating from 1235, much of its interior decoration, particularly the altars and baptism font cap, exemplifies the High Baroque in Switzerland. Standing on the church’s South-facing porch − already with sensory treats behind me − I looked over the valley in the direction I still had to travel, and by early afternoon, arrived in Ernen, where weeks ahead promised treasures of all kinds.
Ernen, Monday, 10 July 2017, by Sarah Batschelet
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