ANAM violist Alex MacDonald (NZ) has just returned from attending the Lucerne Festival Academy. We caught up with him to see what his experience was like.

What spurred you to audition for the Lucerne Festival Academy, and what was the audition process like?
A friend from New Zealand who is now studying in Baltimore suggested I audition for the festival. Lucerne is about new music and it’s no secret that’s what gets my musical socks rocked.

The selection process was what you’d expect – a CV, a tape of you playing, and they wanted to know how engaged with contemporary music I had been. They required Bach or Brahms and a piece from a list of hardcore modern and contemporary solo viola works. Berio, Kurtag, Grisey, etc. This ensured everyone applying wouldn’t shy away from getting their teeth stuck into a post WWII monster.


Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra


Tell us about your first day at the Academy. Were you nervous?
I didn’t know any of the 130 musicians or anybody else in Lucerne, my friend in Baltimore didn’t apply!

I asked to arrive the day previous, so I was settled in with my lovely host family and had spent a day exploring the town. The course started gently with administration and welcome sessions taking up most of the day, until the first rehearsal of Stravinsky’s Firebird with Matthias Pintscher. I was half expecting to be completely out of my depth – operating several levels below everyone else.

The first rehearsal seems like it was a year ago – we have all been through so much since then. From the inside it was really interesting watching a huge group of mostly strangers play a very hard piece together. After a few rehearsals the hierarchy settled down, and once everyone had a good night’s rest the orchestra really started to be cohesive and have its own style.

The violas were all lovely (naturally) and were really welcoming – after a few days it felt like a mini-ANAM environment.


Lucerne Festival Academy Team Viola feat. Jack Stulz


Was there anything about the academy that took you by surprise?
Three things:
1. Lucerne is gorgeous. The venue KKL is an architectural wonder and right on Lake Lucerne.
2. The intensity of the schedule – six projects in three weeks without a full day off in sight!
3. I didn’t realise how orchestra focused the course is, there was solo and chamber work, but it was fit in and around rather than focused on. This is because of the  phenomenal conductors and assistant conductors which really know their craft and how to train an orchestra together.

What was the musical highlight for you?
Susanna Malkki, Matthias Pintscher, and Alan Gilbert were all incredibly inspiring and had so much to give. Helmut Lachenmann was there – he is lovely and incredibly demanding about the quality of all the freaky things we were doing with our instruments. I also got to pop in to see the Berlin Phillharmonic rehearse, and Haitink conduct the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. And being in the same room as Anne-Sophie Mutter was unreal. She’s a force of warmth and virtuosity.

But if I had to choose one aspect it would be Alan Gilbert, musical director of the New York Philharmonic, giving conducting masterclasses. I learned so much about  communication, gesture, music, orchestral technique, etc. The way he demonstrated embodying the music and connecting with the sound the orchestra is making is the closest thing I’ve witnessed to magic.

What lessons do you take away with you from this experience?
The world is a small place and we’re all in it together – practise smart, play well, share beautiful music.
I’m also reminded that down south we’re not inferior – there’s music made here of the highest quality in the world.

Any fun nights out with your colleagues you can tell us about? 
Jack Stulz the Viola tutor was very encouraging for us on and off the stage – one email was sent out “Compulsory Viola sectional 8pm at Buvette” (Buvette is the outdoor bar in the park next to the venue and lake.)
People were mostly well behaved – as there’s always a rehearsal (or concert) the next day. Perhaps there’s some fun aspects to nights that I can’t tell you about!

Best food or touristy experiences you had?
Currywurst mit pommes! Delicious.
Also I have to admit my host insisted on supplying Lindt chocolate balls everywhere in the house. After a long day of rehearsals they are hard to resist!

There’s a famous mountain very close to the town centre – Mount Pilatus. It really towers over the region. A little intrepid team of upper strings had the idea of climbing it starting around 1am and reaching the summit for sunrise at 6.30. Unfortunately there was a huge night time thunderstorm. We went and slept a few hours and started at 4. It was perfect weather and we had a gorgeous sunrise on the slopes. We also avoided the heat of the middle of the day.
Luckily on many Swiss mountains there’s convenient cable cars and on Pilatus there’s even a very steep cog railway, so getting back down and to rehearsal on time wasn’t an issue!


Mt Pilatus, Swiss Alps

You can see Alex play tonight in the performance of:

Sara Macliver, Paul Wright & The Italian Baroque
Friday 23 September 7pm
South Melbourne Town Hall
210 Bank Street
South Melbourne

Some tickets still available.


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