The 52nd HK Arts Festival .Feature

Festival Strings Lucerne and that 'Special Moment'

Text / Thomas May

Founded in 1956, Festival Strings Lucerne began building its reputation as one of the world's leading chamber orchestras at a time when small ensembles without a conductor were rare. The quality and liveliness of its music-making inspired similar groups to form: an exciting alternative to what had been the usual practice of having a contingent of musicians from the ranks of larger orchestras perform such repertoire.

"With an orchestra like this, it's a lot more like chamber music," explains violinist Daniel Dodds, who became the ensemble's first concertmaster in 2000 and has served as Artistic Director since 2012. "You will notice there's a lot more nonverbal communication going on among the musicians than what you might see with a symphony orchestra, where the focus is on the conductor. Even though I do play that role sometimes, we're all in this together and you can see how we function as an organism. It's quite exciting to watch." 
Dodds and the Festival Strings Lucerne undertake their first Asian tour since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2024. Their appearance at the 2024 HKAF marks a full decade since they last visited. (The ensemble made its HKAF debut in 1978.) "The extended period of being forced not to perform opened my eyes to the specialness of playing concerts and how it is a celebration that we shouldn't take for granted," Dodds says.

As the name indicates, the Festival Strings Lucerne originated as a string ensemble, the brainchild of the violinists Rudolf Baumgartner and Wolfgang Schneiderhan, with the aim of cultivating the string sound rooted in Central European tradition. The ensemble remains based in the idyllic central Swiss city of Lucerne, home as well to the Lucerne Festival, one of the world's leading classical music festivals. Dodds describes the makeup of the orchestra as "a good mix of Swiss players and players who live in adjacent countries, such as Italy or Germany". Along with its orchestral and chamber music series, Festival Strings Lucerne coaches young Swiss musicians during the annual "Talent Week".
Like his predecessors, Dodds leads the orchestra from his position as concertmaster. He describes his role as seeking a balance "between clarity of instruction and giving space so that the individual voices can breathe and express themselves". Since becoming Artistic Director, Dodds has expanded the ensemble's focus beyond the string repertoire to playing works suited for a chamber orchestra that range from the Baroque to the contemporary.

The programme to be performed at Hong King City Hall combines two familiar works from distinctive eras in the symphonic repertoire with two discoveries. Dodds points out that while the witty "Classical" symphony, written at a young age by Sergei Prokofiev, looks backward in an innovative way early in the 20th century, the "Jupiter"—Mozart's final symphony—anticipates the epic scope of the Beethovenian symphony. Festival Strings Lucerne will reunite with star violinist Akiko Suwanai for the Violin Concerto No 5 by Henri Vieuxtemps from 1861. "This concerto is not well known to the general public, but it's a fantastic piece and very demanding for a violinist," says Dodds.

Representing the role of contemporary music in the ensemble's repertoire is Swiss composer Richard Dubugnon's Caprice No 4. It playfully alludes to the motto of the question-and-answer riddle Beethoven famously wrote in the score of his Op. 135 String Quartet: "Must it be? It must be!" For Dodds, the result is "virtuosic and entertaining to listen to—and a good piece for the HKAF because it also has a strong connection to contemporary music".

Festival Strings Lucerne is not a period-instrument ensemble, but plays mostly on modern instruments and with modern bows—although Dodds performs on a 1717 Stradivarius that once belonged to Baumgartner, and the ensemble has access to several other rare string instruments from the great Italian luthiers. The ensemble incorporates insights from historically informed performance movement when playing Mozart or Beethoven, according to Dodds: "We will talk about the use of vibrato, how we deal with accents and similar issues. We make use of these tools—but not as rules that have to be followed."
Dodds explains that he is perhaps inspired by his own half-Asian, half-Australian parentage: "I'm always looking for a symbiosis. I want to connect things". In the end, the goal is "to instill trust in my players. If I give them the feeling that they can get the best out of themselves, then they'll do it. That camaraderie onstage becomes a special moment".

Akiko Suwanai with the Festival Strings Lucerne and Daniel Dodds

Date: 15 Mar 2024

Venue: Concert Hall, Hong Kong City Hall

Details: https://www.hk.artsfestival.org/en/programme/Akiko_Suwanai_with_the_Festival_Strings_Lucerne_and_Daniel_Dodds?