When classical music goes wild: top 10 outdoor festivals
It’s true: open air concerts seldom offer the same acoustic quality as concert halls. But they can offer something that city venues will never be able to provide: dramatic mountains, a glittering sea, a breeze of Mediterranean air and, sometimes, real adventures.
We’ve established a non-exhaustive list of ten outdoor festivals, where audiences can wonder at stunning landscapes while listening to music performed at the highest standard.
1. Looking for a concert experience like no other? The Sounds of the Dolomites Festival is the right place. Designed for lovers of music and mountains alike, the festival takes place every summer in various locations in the Dolomites, a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site located in the northern part of Trentino. Concerts take place in natural amphitheaters in the mountains but are nonetheless easily accessible, but if you want to explore the area, a hike along mule tracks is always possible before each concert. Never mind if it rains: refugios nearby offer the perfect backup plan. For very experienced walkers, two treks are organised. During a few days, you get the chance to explore the wildest parts of the mountain range along with the musicians who carry their own instruments. It is physically demanding, but a unique adventure.
2. No wonder why Ravello Festival gave its host-town overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea its nickname of the “city of music”. Every year since 1953, the festival hosts world-class orchestras, conductors and soloists to perform a rich programme which puts Richard Wagner’s music at the core. But this is only part of the pleasure. Ravello’s Festival wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for the Villa Rufolo’s terrace and its dramatic background, with mountains falling sharply into the sea. No better words than those by Gore Vidal describe the magic that awaits music lovers here: “Often, when the orchestra plays Wagner, the full moon rises above the mountains in the east, their profile recalling a dragon’s head reclining gently on the beach, while the birds of Ravello, who after all these years are particularly musical birds, trill their counterpoint from high up in the dark pine trees”.
3. The Grafenegg Festival is a recent add-on to the classical music scene, only having been founded in 2007, but it already boasts a remarkable international reputation. Situated between Vienna and the Wachau valley, the Grafenegg Castle which hosts the festival is Austria’s most important example of historicist architecture, with traces from Gothic through Baroque and Biedermeier to elegant Neo-Gothic. Very different in style is the Wolkenturm (Pillar of Clouds) open-air arena, located in the park, where most concerts take place. Its sharp angles contrast with the smoothness of the sound that resonates in this outdoor stage rated one of the best for its acoustics. While Grafenegg is an all-year-round venue for a wide variety of events attracting more than 150,000 people annually, the festival itself takes place mid-September.
4. Looking for eye-catching opera productions in the open air? Bregenz Festivalis for you. With its Seebühne built over the Lake Constanz (“Seebühne” meaning literally “lake-stage”), the festival is never short of stunning set designs to amaze the audience – it even served as a set for an edge-of-your-seat action scene shot during a performance of Tosca in the James Bond film Quantum of Solace. Since 1985, all productions on the Seebühne run for two seasons, but other works are also put on in the Festspielhaus nearby. Early booking is recommended, as it often happens that the shows taking place in the 7,000-seat open-air amphitheatre is completely sold out. Popular theatre accessible to all and high artistic standards is what defines Bregenz Festival’s unique signature.
5. Hidden in the majestic Rocky Mountains, nestled in the hollow of a valley covered by a conifer forest, the Bravo! Vail Festival has become one of the most renowned festivals in the US. The New York Philharmonic and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, among other top orchestras, are strongly associated with the history of the festival. And as orchestra members stay there a good four weeks, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to pop into them while walking around. The community feeling is strong, especially during the Bravo! Vail After Dark series of chamber concerts put on in local bars and breweries. Fostering music education is also part of the mission of the festival, with many programmes catered specifically for children, adults and young professionals.
© Zach Mahone
6. The original plan was to have the Pacific Music Festival in Beijing, but after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 China’s capital looked unstable, and it eventually settled in Sapporo, Japan. Brainchild of Leonard Bernstein, whose 100th anniversary we celebrate in 2018, the festival is first and foremost dedicated to music education. Its Academy attracts students from all over the word. There they get the chance, for roughly one month each July, to be mentored by a world-class faculty: Valery Gergiev, Riccardo Muti, and Bernard Haitink included. Strong bonds and friendship are made there, and the cumulative number of PMF alumni now exceeds 3,400, hailing from 76 countries. Do not miss the final Picnic Concert, which takes place at the Sapporo Art Park Outdoor Stage. It is on this exact spot that Leonard Bernstein gave one of his last concerts before he died, in 1990, the very year the festival was founded.
Pacific Music Festival
7. With crystal clear waters, hot sun, sailing boats anchored in the marina ready to glide on the peaceful Aegean sea, the Bodrum peninsula is Turkey’s top resort. The area is also rich in cultural heritage with its crusader castle and Mausoleum, and music resonates throughout the summer as part of the Bodrum Music Festival, formerly known as the International D-Marin Classical Music Festival. Bringing together leading orchestras and musicians of Turkey and the world, the festival puts on many concerts scheduled through the day, from the early hours of morning until midnight, though it also incorporates different disciplines such as cinema, contemporary art, literature, children’s activities and culinary workshops. While audiences can experience all the delights of the Mediterranean way of life there, the Bodrum Festival is a charitable project at heart: all of the ticket revenue is donated to Tohum Autism Foundation and Bodrum Health Foundation
Bodrum Music Festival
8. Harmonizing the unique atmosphere of Dubrovnik with the living spirit of drama and music is what defines the Dubrovnik Summer Festival. Events take place in squares, palaces, towers and parks throughout the city. Former capital of the maritime Republic of Ragusa, which reached its commercial peak in the 15th and the 16th centuries before being annexed by the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy in 1808, Dubrovnik has a very rich history, and this is reflected in its architecture with the Gothic-Renaissance Rector’s Palace where many concerts take place, the classical facade of St Blaise’s Church, and the world-famous medieval wall. Admirer of Dubrovnik George Bernard Shaw, who visited the city in 1929 said: “If you want to see heaven on earth, come to Dubrovnik.”
Dubrovnik Summer Festival
9. With an audience of 300 at the first edition in 2011, growing to 10,000 last year, the Oranjewoud Festival has quickly established himself as one of the most exciting festivals in Holland. The recipe for this success? An experimental programme that remains in adherence to tradition, and a unique location: the historic Oranjewoud park, the site of a summer residence used by the Dutch Royal family dating back to 1676. This is definitely the place to feel in harmony with nature: small meadows tucked among the woods with oaks and beeches growing in abundance and, at dawn, birds singing in their branches. It is a very popular event for locals who often feel that they need to travel south to Utrecht and Amsterdam to experience classical music. That being said, it is very well-connected, and a shuttle bus from the local train station will get you there in no time to enjoy its relaxed atmosphere.
10. Founded in 1978 and located 70 km north of Montreal, the Festival de Lanaudière is the largest classical music festival in Quebec. Its founder Father Fernand Lindsay first envisioned “creating a place where a large audience could listen to beautiful music performed by the greatest musicians”. And his vision gradually came to life. The new acoustically-acclaimed amphitheatre, built in 1989, seats 2,000 listeners under its roof while another 6,000 can lay on the lawn and listen to music, sipping a glass of wine and enjoying their picnic. The festival hosts world-renowned soloists and ensembles – Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Mstislav Rostropovitch, the Modigliani Quartet, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra to name but a few – and programmes ambitious works. If you want to listen to classical music at its best, enjoy a chilled-out atmosphere or initiate your children to classical music in a family-friendly environment, Lanaudière is for you.