Making music with friends
2016 is a special year for Gstaad and its musical culture: We are celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Gstaad Menuhin Festival – and, at the same time, the 100th birthday of the great violinist and humanist Yehudi Menuhin. Rolf P. Steiger, medical doctor, former chairman for the festival, and founder of the Menuhin Center Saanen, recalls his many encounters with the brilliant musician.
What led the world traveller Menuhin to Gstaad?
Yehudi Menuhin came to us here in Gstaad in 1954. He was looking for a place that would suit him and his young family. He also wanted to make music here. But not as he had done since his childhood – with a large orchestra and a large audience, but rather with his friends. The idea was to make music with his friends. And did he have a lot of friends! He was listed with the best conductors of his time and he knew the crème de la crème of the soloists.
Gstaad and Menuhin, was it love at first sight?
Yes, musicians knew very well that our Mauritius Church in Saanen had excellent acoustics. And Menuhin knew and appreciated Switzerland. Gstaad also had good schools for his children. And then there was our go-getting resort manager, Paul Valentin, who recognised the potential of Menuhin’s presence..
And so it was on 4 and 6 August 1957 that the first public Menuhin concerts were held. "Unique musical delicacies", was the way the press described it. It was a great gift that Menuhin gave us - and the birth of our superlative musical culture.
Born in New York, Yehudi Menuhin gave his first solo concert when he was 9 years old. By the age of 12 he was a world star. He made his home in the region of Gstaad and was made an honorary citizen by the municipality of Saanen. Lord Menuhin died in Berlin in 1999.
How did Lord Menuhin come across to you?
He was an international star, but without airs. He was totally dedicated to his music and he focused his energy on it. He was not one for small talk or boisterous socialising. He knew exactly what he wanted the festival to be: The festival was to be intimate and intense, and dedicated to string music. He felt that up here in the Alps, far away from everyday life, there was something very special for people to experience. And the musician friends and guests that he invited probably thought the same.
He was full of surprises: In 1971, when he invited the Indian sitar player, Ravi Shankar, and played together with him in the Mauritius Church, the place was full of incense, and the altar area was carpeted. That certainly was something for the locals to get used to.
The Gstaad Menuhin Festival & Academy with its some 60 concerts is world-renowned. Because the festival has been a family story right from the start, this anniversary year marks both its 60th year and founder Yehudi Menuhin’s centenary with the theme of « Musique et Famille ».
And what remains of Menuhin’s posthumous fame?
Menuhin was actually much more than a musician: He was a philosopher, he was a humanist, he was a world citizen, and even a yogi. He encouraged, he inspired, and he was interested in so much, and he had so many contacts. It was never about him as a person, but rather about what music could achieve. It was for this reason that in the succeeding years the festival developed as it did: 1987 saw the start of our "Music Summer", followed by the Academy, which promotes the next musical generation. His spirit still overshadows the festival, even though it has now turned into a large and varied event.