You don’t really need to convince anyone to go to the Swiss Alps. The name sells itself. The Swiss are renowned for their timepieces and chocolate, and they’ve made consuming heroic amounts of melted cheese a source of national pride rather than a cause for coronary concern. And alpine vacationing delivers on everything you’ve seen in desktop wallpapers: sparkling snow, thrilling slopes and snuggly winter wear. The question then would be in choosing a village in which to enjoy the beauty of winter. Allow us to convince you to consider Andermatt.
Just a 90-minute drive or two-hour train ride from Zurich Airport, Andermatt already has the edge on accessibility. Its elevation of 1,447m means it won’t face insufficient snowfall in spite of our overheating planet. What’s more, features such as heated chairlifts, courtesy of Porsche, and eight-person gondolas to transport skiers up the peaks make Andermatt one of the most modern ski resorts in the world.
The only reason it has yet to be overrun by tourists is because Andermatt historically served as a military training outpost during the Cold War, and its conclusion left the village neglected and in shambles. That is, until Egyptian-Montenegrin property tycoon Samih Sawiris took notice of the valley’s potential and optimistically launched a CHF 1.8 billion (S$2.6 billion) plan for its redevelopment in 2005.
Twenty-five years on, Andermatt now has all the trappings of a luxury getaway. Five- and four-star hotels, lavish apartments, golf courses, restaurants and bars have revived the sleepy village, with more developments under way in the coming years. Sawiris could have left it at that while still being credited with building one of the most alluring ski resorts in the region, but he was adamant about turning Andermatt into a cultural destination as well.
As a student living just 100m from the Berliner Philharmonie, Sawiris had long had a passion for orchestras. His final mandate was to make the hills come alive with the sound of classical music.
The stage is set
That needed a proper setting, so Sawiris engaged British firm Studio Seilern Architects to design a concert hall that would become the first purpose-built arts venue in an alpine village. Completed in June 2019 with a maximum seating capacity of 650, the Andermatt Concert Hall isn’t the grandest of theatres, especially since the original space was an underground hotel convention hall. But what it lacks in majesty, it makes up for in modernity and warmth.
“We wanted to challenge the traditional notion of a concert hall as a closed and inward-looking space,” says lead architect Christina Seilern. “Our romantic idea was that in a winter concert, the audience would be surrounded by a whirlwind of snow, and in the summer, by nature and sunshine.” She achieved this by lopping off the roof of the existing ballroom structure and fitting the raised ceiling with a glass facade, allowing views of the outside (or passers-by to look in), while also allowing for greater acoustic volume.
It’s just large enough to accommodate a 75-piece orchestra, and the retractable, stepped seating on the lower level can be expanded or pulled back for smaller performances, conferences or exhibitions. As acoustic integrity remained Seilern’s guiding factor, the origami-like ceiling, wall and deep slanted timber- faced balcony were designed to be “acoustically perfect”, and the triple- glazed glass had to be specially made because she also had to be mindful of sound escaping to surrounding hotels and apartments.
Eighteen months and CHF 16 million later, Seilern was sure she had created a space that was uplifting, and hopefully worthy of the music it would play. “After the opening in June, when the Berliner Philharmonic played Mozart and Shostakovich, a musician told me he had seen a member of the audience shed a tear, and had never felt so connected to his audience,” she shares. “If we are able to achieve just a brief moment of emotion, of joy, where music and architecture merge to create a visceral reaction, uncontrolled and unrehearsed, then we have touched upon magic.”
Andermatt’s got talent
Since its opening, Andermatt Concert Hall has had no trouble attracting the classical music world’s top performers. Its Autumn Festival last October, organised in partnership with the Lucerne Festival, featured piano stars like Gabriela Montero and Benjamin Grosvenor, as well as Daniel Harding conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. The Winter Festival earlier this year kicked off the 250th anniversary of Beethoven with an opening solo piano performance by Daniel Barenboim.
The trio of producers now in charge of Andermatt’s musical programmes regularly rub shoulders with the genre’s elite, but their current obsession — to make classical music accessible to the younger generation — is the key to making Andermatt’s future offerings more exciting.
Maximilian Fane, Roger Granville and Frankie Parham are co-founders of the three-year-old New Generation Festival, a privately-run event in Florence that’s anchored by the world’s finest young musical talents. “On top of bringing in world-class musicians like Meister Barenboim, it was important for us to have one of the three festivals in Andermatt showcase our original content,” says artistic director Fane.
Adds Parham, the festival’s executive producer: “Newcomers and young people get such a bad rep for being lightweight. As a result, a lot of the [classical music] culture driven towards them is very patronising. What we believe is that the music we’re presenting is of such inherent quality that it is innately accessible and lovable by all.”
As such, they will be bringing a part of the New Generation Festival to Andermatt from June 23 to 26, and will include performances like the admittedly mind-boggling yet intriguing Brahms V. Radiohead concert where a 70-piece orchestra and three pop vocalists will fuse Radiohead’s OK Computer album with Brahm’s Symphony No 1. Other highlights include a celebration of Harlem jazz and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro opera.
“We’re not dumbing down our art form in the slightest,” continues Parham. “Young people want to learn and they want to experience challenging ideas. They don’t need things to be chopped up into bite- sized quantities to make it easier to digest.”
Creative director Roger Granville sums it up brilliantly: “It’s unfortunate that classical music tends to have barriers of price, education and, dare I say, class. Broadly speaking, our job is to break all these preconceptions and tell them that it’s actually a lot of fun and not only are you allowed to love Bach as much as Beyonce, but you will find that you actually can, too.”