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Interview with Michael Haefliger

Michael Haefliger is the Executive and Artistic Director of the Lucerne Festival.

Under his leadership, the Festival has expanded significantly with ambitious projects. The Summer Festival has been complemented with a Festival nine days before Easter and nine days devoted to Piano music in November. In addition, two leading institutions have been created: the Lucerne Festival Academy created by and with Pierre Boulez to gather young musicians to explore contemporary music and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra created by and with Claudio Abbado.

While most festivals are heavily dependent on public subsidies, the contribution of public spending to the Lucerne Festival is limited to 5 %, the rest of the budget coming from tickets sales and private sponsoring.

Michael Haefliger studied at the New York Julliard School of music. He is also a graduate of the St. Gallen University and the Harvard Business School.

He speaks with Antoine Lévy-Leboyer, ConcertoNet reviewer and fellow-Harvard Business School alumni.

M. Haefliger, A. Lévy-Leboyer

How did you, the Lucerne Festival and the Orchestra had to cope with the departure of Pierre Boulez and Claudio Abbado who were so important to the Festival?
These were very big losses. Both artists, you cannot substitute them. You cannot make a copy of them. It was clear to all of us it would be a very challenging and difficult moment although we knew that both of them would not live forever.
We knew that Claudio Abbado was ill. But we were able together with him over 10 years to develop this orchestra with its own identify. And working with this great orchestra was a consolation for us in this very difficult time.
This goes also for Pierre Boulez who wanted to found an academy for young musicians to work on contemporary music. He was able to fulfill this wish and we wanted to support this.
Both of them were artists out of this world. They have left us but you have to go on.
It was never a question that we would stop the orchestra or the academy. And we are building on what they have done with respect to what they have done and we have found two interesting new directors, Riccardo Chailly who is one of the greatest conductors of our time, who was once an assistant to Claudio Abbado at la Scala and somewhat continues the tradition of Abbado and Toscanini. He continues the tradition of the Italian Maestros but he is very open to the music of the 20th century. I think he will bring a lot of new ideas but he will perform in the tradition.

He will perform an Austrian work such as Mahler’s Eighth Symphony that Claudio Abbado had not done in Lucerne with his orchestra? Was this on purpose?
He said he wanted to start with this work and we also wanted to complete the cycle. We thought it was a great way to do it and then to move on to new programs. It will also be a new challenge to the orchestra.

How did an orchestra so closely associated with its founder react?
It was a sad situation but we have managed the process to go on. There will be some new players brought by the new director. There will be some changes but the spirit of the orchestra will continue. We will still have leading players from several orchestras, chamber musicians like the Hagen Quartet, members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and there will be new members from La Scala which Riccardo Chailly will be bringing in. The solo parts will mainly be the same.
It was a big success and big surprise to create such an orchestra of such quality which only works together 3 to 4 weeks. How this works is a very special secret. It is project oriented and existential. Maybe this was also due to Claudio Abbado’s health condition. Everybody wants to give the most for these performances, they want to experience something that does not happen very often. No concerts are the same. It is a high performance team and it is not an all-season orchestra that works together through the year. It is a fascinating model. Both have strengths and weaknesses. If they started playing 30 weeks together, maybe they could lose some momentum.

What about the academy? Will musicians remain or will you bring in new players?
Absolutely, these are young players so we make auditions. Some return and come back but three or four times.
The new overall Academy leader will be Wolfgang Rihm and he will make a big emphasis in the composition masterclasses and the overall leadership of the organization. Matthias Pintscher will be the principal conductor and will take care of the conducting repertoires.

Will you continue the tradition of the Lucerne Masterclasses?
Yes, this is an important tradition at the academy. We also do it at the Easter Festival with Bernard Haitink.

What is the mission of the Artistic Director of a Festival like lucerne?
My role is the overall leadership of the whole organization. Artistically, I have to ensure that I give the maximum support to the artists. I also have to sets and achieve all the goals, sales, the numbers and I have to spend a lot of time in fund-raising. One phone call may be found-raising and the other one artistic. But both activities flow together. What I promote to the potential sponsors are artistic content.

Are you able to attract an audience of mixed generations?
We have a big program for children youth. We have opened with twelve “40 minutes” programs which are free of charge. So everyone comes, young people in sneakers mix with people in suits and ties. This is very popular.
Some people actually save money to hear the best orchestras, the Berlin or the Vienna or some great soloists. This is their highlight of the year. We have in our audience some a lot of real music lovers to whom Lucerne is the high-point of the year.

One last questio: What did you take away from your experiences while attending The Harvard Business School?
I learned a lot at HBS through case studies, practical stories that enable you to learn from real life experiences. There are not real abstract courses and while the cases we looked may not have had artistic content, all I learned I use every day in Lucerne.

[Interview by Antoine Lévy-Leboyer]



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