As darkness falls on the eponymous and sparkling lake of Lucerne, Switzerland the starlight glitters much like the sequined cocktail dress worn by the woman walking next to me.
Together, we board a boat provided for guests of the Palace Luzern, which will whisk us across the lake to hear master pianist Maurizio Pollini perform Chopin.
We’re here to participate in, celebrate, really, the magic that is Lucerne Festival, a month-long fete that merges classical music and this lovely little town not far from Zurich into one glorious extravaganza.
The electric mood on board intensifies as we approach Lucerne’s famous concert hall just on the other side of the lake. Known as the KKL, and designed by
award-winning French architect, Jean Nouvel, it hovers on the bank before us more like a phantom ship than a building.
Ranking as one of the world’s top performance venues — thanks in part to exceptional acoustics — the daring design seduces. Lit up at night, its cantilevered masts suggests one of the lake’s iconic boats. And, when we disembark and enter it, I have the sensation of still floating on the dark, cool water.
Some think of fairytale Lucerne as the “city of bridges,” but those, like me, who have come to the festival, can’t help but christen it the city of music. Here, gather a who’s who list of renowned orchestras, elite conductors, eminent soloists, and music aficionados annually.
This event, established in 1938 by Arturo Toscanini to rival the already famous Salzburg Festival (at that time under Nazi influence), has evolved into one of the world’s premier music events.
Before the concert, I wander around, glass of champagne in hand, and peer out of large panoramic picture windows — and into the tiny cutouts that are a Nouvel signature. The lake glistens and the outline of Alps are mysterious and beckoning. Inside, red-wine-colored walls soothe and an almost whimsical interior stream brings the lake inside so that the setting can’t be forgotten.
For all its modern angles, the KKL feels snug and cocoon-like.
In the lobby, I can hear the lake’s famous steamers, an added acoustical touch that lends sense of place.
Seated at last for Chopin, I notice how the venue’s ceiling mimics the sky, how lights seem tossed like lost constellations.
Wavy white walls remind me of honeycomb, and I think again of the outdoors and the intimacy of a woodland grove. My images are cemented by the wood that wraps the stage, and then floats above it, and highlighted by a glass labyrinth on the ceiling that only accentuates the space’s mystical quality.
Besides the daily evening concerts, music lovers can attend any number of public rehearsals, workshops, recitals, seminars and master courses during the festival’s month long run. Emerging musicians come to the summer festival to study, and many (soon to be) world famous conductors debut here.
Knowing this, I can’t help but think distinguished musicians surround me. At our hotel, I’m told, several performers are guests, and I look for them in the halls. But in the end, its all about the music and watching a master dance his fingers across the keyboard, hearing his Chopin swell to crescendo, and sharing the ecstasy of the crowd when he finishes, might just elucidate the meaning of life.
On one sunny afternoon, I spy swimmers from my hotel window as they enter the lake from an ancient wooden bath house called Seebad. I can’t resist rushing from my room to join them, paying a fee to enter, then diving from the side into icy water, abundant with swans.
As I splash about, the swans encircle me, and I feel like a character from a fairy tale yet to be written.
Back at the hotel, I take my dinner at Jasper, an exquisitely modern Mediterranean restaurant that revels in its details. Here, the food is so good it might be called a symphony of subtle flavors that explode in the mouth like the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth.
Which I am going to see tonight, at the KKL. As soon as I finish my dessert.