About an hour’s drive from Milan, Lugano looks, feels and sounds every bit Italian as Italy itself. The German and French dictionaries that prove so handy in the rest of Switzerland won’t get you very far round here.
That said, today there can be no forgetting which country I’m really in – as I look for somewhere to spend a few Swiss Francs, every bar I walk past has a TV with a crowd clustered round it, agog as national hero Roger Federer destroys some poor hopeful at Wimbledon. But it’s the flags that really give it away. With Switzerland due to play a vital World Cup game against Honduras this evening, shop fronts, car windows and shoulders are all draped in the red square with a white cross. The triumphantly hooted car horns tell me that the result is a bit of a formality.
But I'm not here to admire the stars of Swiss tennis or football. It's an Argentinian pianist who's the focus of my attention. Since 2002, Martha Argerich has pitched up once a year in this beautiful city to treat its 55,000 residents to three weeks of brilliant music-making. The Progetto Martha Argerich, as the festival is called, sees the legendary player perform alongside an array of musical friends including leading names from her own generation that include cellist Mischa Maisky and violist Yuri Bashmet, plus younger artists such as pianists Gabriela Montero and Sergio Tiempo.
'But it's not one of those festivals that is basically just a dictionary of the most famous musicians of the time,' explains Tiempo, who has performed at every Progetto. 'It's more about the idea of having fun playing music. What matters is the urge to do something together. Martha likes it when there are no stars, and that includes herself - although she is the glue that holds the whole thing together, she prefers just to blend in.'
The concerts can range from anything from concertos with the Orchestra della Svizzera italiana at the lakeside Palazzo dei Congresso to chamber and solo recitals at venues such as the ornately decorated San Rocco church or the more functional but acoustically outstanding Auditorio RSI. The programming, meanwhile, is nothing if not inventive. As I head for the Palazzo, I have not one but four concertos to look forward to - Wieniawski's Second and Schumann's only Violin Concertos, the world premiere of Federico Jusid's Tango Rhapsody for two pianos and, performed by Argerich herself, Chopin's First Piano Concerto. As if to prove Tiempo's point about her not wanting to steal the show, Argerich's appearance comes not at the end, but is slotted unobtrusively between the Wieniawski and the Schumann. Elsewhere during the festival, she is largely seen to be playing the role of accompanist.
The evening, if long, is spellbinding, and the sense of camaraderie between musicians palpable. And as I step out afterwards into a balmy evening, it's not difficult to see why Argerich has chosen Lugano as her European base, nor why her fellow musicians are so keen to come and join her each year. It is, frankly, stunning. Perched on the shores of the lake that shares its name and surrounded by mountains, it enjoys warm summer temperatures but rarely feels overbearingly hot. Said lake and mountains also provide plenty to do between concerts, whether it's boating, cycling or simply enjoying fine views. To put it in Tiempo's own words, 'it's the ideal all-in-one package'!
And tonight the city is so, so peaceful. Surprisingly so, in fact. For some reason, the flags have all disappeared and the car horns gone silent. Clearly, those Hondurans weren't quite such pushovers after all...
Five musical highlights
Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana
Founded in 1933, the OSI's home base is Lugano's Palazzo dei Congresso. With concerts regularly throughout the year, conductors this season include Ion Marin and Thierry Fischer. www. orchestradellasvizzeraitaliana.ch
Taking place in April and May, the Lugano Festival is something of a big hitter. This year's festival sees visits from the LSO and Valery Gergiev, the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Iván Fischer and, in Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, Russian violinist Vadim Repim. www.luganofestival.ch
Progetto Martha Argerich
Though exact details have yet to be confirmed, we are told that this year's Progetto Martha Argerich will run from 8 to 30 June, will focus on Liszt and will end with an open-air concert. www.rsi.ch/argerich
Estival Jazz Lugano
Musicians such as Miles Davis, Ray Charles and Herbie Hancock have all appeared at Lugano's open-air jazz festival, which has been going since 1979. Held in early July, entry to all events is free of charge. www.estivaljazz.ch
Thirty miles up the road from Lugano, the town of Bellinzona has staged the lively, colourful Rabadan Carnival in its streets in early March for over 150 years. Thousands turn up to join in the musical fun. www.rabadan.ch
The article 'Musical destinations: Lugano, Switzerland' was published in partnership with BBC Music magazine.