An Interview with the Intendant

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