‘Years ago, I was staying with friends in Verbier on a skiing vacation. I fell in love immediately and decided that I had to come back.’ Martin Engstroem did come back. And how: in 1994, the first Verbier Festival was held, and the event quickly developed into one of the most well-known festivals in Europe. A trailblazing achievement at an altitude of 1490 metres.
Martin Engstroem is not hard to spot. He's big: tall with bright, alert eyes and a lot of charisma. He's taking the train from his home on Lake Geneva to Valais, as he does so often. Then he'll be continuing on to Sion Airport. ‘An important place for me. Valais' gateway to the world. I often pick up our artists there.’ Every year, Martin Engstroem brings the stars and top talents of the classical music world to Verbier. This year, his guests will include Yevgeny Kissin, Anne Sofie von Otter and possibly Youssou N’Dour.
The Verbier Festival is not an elitist cultural event. It gives the public at large access to top-quality concerts. ‘Sometimes we go into the Migros or Coop store and give out free tickets to the ladies at the checkout counter.’ Many people still have a lot of inhibitions when it comes to attending a classical concert. These inhibitions are entirely baseless, according to Martin Engstroem. ‘The festival's intimate atmosphere, among the mountains, 1490 meters above sea level, is thrilling for everyone.’
The talent scout
Martin Engstroem has an outstanding instinct for new talent. While working for Deutsche Grammophon, he signed big names like Anna Netrebko, Lang Lang and Hilary Hahn at the very beginning of their international careers. ‘These experiences and friendships are the capital of the Verbier Festival.’ But they also present a big challenge. ‘Our expectations are very high: we put everything on the line to surprise our audience every year.’ And he has succeeded impressively: the Verbier Festival is never routine, offering a new musical adventure every year.
‘Bringing together established musicians and young talent is a big interest for us.’ Martin Engstroem provides a stage for the stars of tomorrow, e.g. with the Verbier Festival Orchestra, which includes some of the best up-and-coming musicians. Martin Engstroem's own talent became evident very early on. Even as a teenager, he was organising National Museum concerts for young musicians, bringing big names like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to Stockholm. It was the start of a huge career. He has worked with some of the best musicians in the world, from Herbert Karajan to Anne-Sophie Mutter.
The New York Times and YouTube
And how was the festival received in Verbier? ‘People took a bit of convincing at first, but we have become very well-established over the years.’ The festival lasts 17 days and attracts a great many tourists. ‘The hotel owners are happy to fill all their rooms in July. But that's not all.’ The festival brings the international media to Verbier, from the New York Times to Euronews. There is no better advertisement for Valais. ‘Broadcasts of our concerts via our streaming partner medici.tv are followed by millions throughout the world. There's still a lot of potential for optimising the marketing of the region.’
The festival's connection to Verbier and Valais is enormously important to Martin Engstroem. Without the support of the community and its residents, nothing could be done. Verbier has a very special kind of magic: ‘The magic of the landscape and of the place is transferred to the musicians, you can hear it and feel it right away.’ A jet races over the runway at Sion Airport. Martin Engstroem covers his ears. Just as well – his fine ear still has many great musical moments to give to Valais. The love story between him and Verbier is still far from over.
Published: Spring 2014