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What would you do if you had oodles of money, a taste for classical music, and lived on the shores of one of Switzerland’s most beautiful lakes? Well, back in the 19th century the rather splendidly named Daniel Fitzgerald Packenham Barton, the British consul to Geneva, found himself in this happy situation. He decided to put his Swiss francs to good use by buying a fleet of boats to potter around Lake Geneva, setting up a wind symphony orchestra called the Harmonies Nautique, and building a concert hall in the city. Which explains why, in this corner of French-speaking Switzerland, Geneva’s main concert venue – the Victoria Hall – is named after a British Queen. As I saunter round Geneva’s lakeside, I begin to see why Barton might have wanted to put down roots here. The setting is peaceful, the air fresh. It’s tempting to hop into a boat and sail off towards the Alps on the horizon.

But, I’m not here for matters nautical. I’m here for one of the world’s oldest competitions for young musicians. Since 1939 the Geneva International Music Competition (Concours de Genève) has been pitting top musicians between the ages of 15-30 against each other in a bid to win top prize, 20,000 francs (£15,000), and, of course, a Swiss watch. Each year just two disciplines compete. In 2010 it was the turn of the pianists and oboists, while in 2011 singers and string quartets are in the spotlight. And with the legendary pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli as its first winner, back in 1939, and other prizewinners including the likes of Martha Argerich and Nelson Goerner, I hope I’ll be in for a treat.

First up, the piano semi-finals. These take place in the city’s conservatoire, located on the Place Neuve near Geneva’s old town. The square is also home to the Rath Museum (a fine arts gallery), and near to Bastions Park, where you can take a walk between competition recitals, indulge in a hot chocolate, or even play a game of lifesize chess. I take my seat among the public audience, and already there’s a buzz. This is the round in which performers get to show off their technique in a solo recital – we hear cascades of notes: Chopin, Liszt, Ravel, Brahms, JS Bach and Debussy. There are a couple of performers who I’d put money on: Japanese pianist Mami Hagiwara, who got to the heart of Schumann and Debussy, and Italian pianist Serena Stella who, despite a few smudges, was full of fire in JS Bach and Prokofiev. Later I meet artistic director Didier Schnorhk for the inside scoop. ‘We’re always looking for miracle performers. This year is a good one for piano,’ he says, before letting me know that Hagiwara is in the final. ‘She’ll play the Ravel Concerto, which is well known in Geneva. We’ve had the tradition of hearing it from the best Ravel players, like Argerich and Maria João Pires. We’re difficult to please.’

And so it transpires. I’m also off to the final of the oboe competition, which takes place in the Victoria Hall. It’s a neo-Baroque affair, with vast amounts of gold leaf, a painted ceiling, and a Van den Heuvel organ. Barton didn’t stint on his funding. Home to the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, it’s still the centre of the city’s classical music scene. On this occasion it’s the Geneva Chamber Orchestra on stage, joined by Russian oboist Ivan Podyomov and Frenchman Philippe Tondre. Both perform Mozart’s Oboe Quartet and R Strauss’s Oboe Concerto, but, it seems, neither is quite up to the standard. No first prize is awarded, the pair are given second and third. Podyomov, in second, tells me he is ‘delighted’ with his result. Back in the UK I’m delighted to hear that Hagiwara has won the piano final. If only I had bet on her winning, I might be able to buy a sailboat, or build a concert hall.

Five musical highlights

Victoria Hall
Geneva’s concert hall offers evening concerts as well as popular Sunday morning performances. While details of the 2011-12 season are yet to be announced, the previous season’s line-up included pianist Nelson Freire and violinist Nigel Kennedy.

Grand théâtre Genève
Verdi’s Macbeth, R Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier and Martinu’s Juliette, under Jirí Belohlávek, are all to be staged during the 2011-12 season in Geneva’s opera house. Singers include sopranos Soile Isokoski, Alice Coote and Diana Damrau.

Bâtiment des forces mortrices
Appearing to float on the River Rhone, this elegant L-shaped building started life as a factory. Built at the end of the 19th century to supply water to the city, it was transformed into a 1,000-seat concert hall in 1997.

Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Geneva’s orchestral jewel has been glittering since 1918 when Ernest Ansermet founded it. Marek Janowski has been music director since 2005, and the upcoming season includes visits from pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and violinist Nikolaj Znaider.

L’orchestre de chambre de Genève
David Greilsammer has been at the helm of this chamber orchestra since 2009, which is making its first recording for Sony Classical this year. Future soloists include violinists Isabelle Faust and Ilya Gringolts.

The article ‘Musical destinations: Geneva, Switzerland’ was published in partnership with BBC Music magazine.

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