Lugano's understated classical gem: Martha Argerich festival

23rd June 2010, Comments 0 comments

Renowned Israeli cellist Mischa Maisky rubbed a finger on his left hand, shaking his signature explosion of curly grey hair after a flawless duo with virtuoso pianist Martha Argerich.

"I have a terrible pain in my finger, I hardly could play," the 62-year-old Latvian-born maestro told AFP. "I wasn't sure tonight I'd manage."

Yet there was little sign of pain as he teamed up with the enigmatic Argerich, the power behind what has become a quiet jewel in Europe's classical music festivals.

It was Argerich who pulled the Progetto Martha Argerich together, an event that started off as a music workshop, aimed at leveraging on Argerich's reputation as well as those of other maestros like Maisky to promote young and lesser known musicians.

The festival has a focus on chamber music which is traditionally less popular among the public than symphonic orchestra performances or operas.

The rare occasion for such artists to play together also can result in the performance of rare pieces.

Maisky and Argerich, who are friends, for instance had picked Chopin's Sonata Op.65, which they had not performed in years.

"It is such a difficult piece that it is not something I would play with any pianist," said Maisky.

The duo had the audience on the edge of their seats during the performance at the ninth Progetto -- Italian for project in the Italian-speaking southern Swiss city of Lugano.

This year over 50 top musicians gathered for the event that started as a week-long affair but has grown into an annual three-week festival, running this year from June 11 to July 1.

Argerich, 69, whose equally impressive long grey mane inspired her nickname of "lionness", remains somewhat of a mystery.

Impetuous, she refuses interviews but her talent and charisma are credited with drawing a musical "tribe" -- mainly pianists and many personal friends -- back to the small lakeside city to perform each year. Her contribution to the festival is such that Lugano is conferring her an honorary citizenship this week.

"The artists have found an identity here and we have found an identity with them," said Carlo Piccardi, Argerich's co-artistic director, referring to the opportunity given to musicians of different levels to play together.

"This can be a real problem," he added, saying budding musicians who have since gained fame are reluctant to part ways with the Progetto.

"And everyone wants to play with Martha. It is a real challenge ensuring an equilibrium in the programme," he said.

Maisky, who has toured on and off with Argerich for three decades, is among the regulars, as now are Maisky's pianist daughter Lily and Argerich's own daughter, Lyda Chen, who plays viola and violin.

"People always ask me about Martha Argerich," said Maisky. "I always say for me Martha Argerich is like life itself. It's not easy. It's unpredictable, sometimes it can be complicated and even, I would say, a pain in the neck or any other place.

"Martha is really the most unique pianist," he said.

Argerich, who was born in Buenos Aires, started the Progetto nine years ago with support from the head of the local bank BSI, Alfredo Gysi, a classical music devotee.

Some dub it the least snobbish festival in the classical music world. According to Piccardi, Argerich typically does not start planning for the next year's show until the current edition is finished, something rare in the realm of classical music where bookings are usually made years in advance.

Its 10th edition next year could pay special homage to the pianist, who turns 70 in 2011, with an Argentinian theme.

Argerich this year interpreted works by Chopin and Schumann, to commemorate the bicentenary of the birth of these two greats.

Others performing this year include pianist Stephen Kovacevich, violist Yuri Bashmet and pianist Lilya Zilberstein, all of whom are top musicians in their fields.

The progetto will close this year with a sequence devoted to American music, including music from Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" and George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" suite.

© 2010 AFP

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