Making Music in the Ridiculously Beautiful Austrian Alps

This article by Jeffrey Palmer was published in Australian music magazine CutCommon on 1 8 September 2019. To see the article in full, click here.

Jeffrey Palmer at Großglockner, photographed by Sergei Kvitko.

Jeffrey Palmer at Großglockner, photographed by Sergei Kvitko.

On a bright August morning, I awoke in my hotel room to the distant, pulsing sound of rushing water. I threw back the curtains and looked out the window to behold the village of Bad Gastein and the glory of the Austrian Alps beyond. I had arrived by train from Bavaria late the night before, shrouded in darkness, navigating my luggage down the steep streets from the station to the hotel. While I was somewhat conscious of the ever-present sound of the iconic waterfall, which cuts straight through the middle of town, I was rather oblivious to the natural beauty of my surroundings. In the clear light of morning, that had certainly changed.

I was fortunate enough to be asked by concert pianist and festival director Dr Irena Portenko to participate in the 2019 Music in the Alps Festival – a gathering of professional musicians and students from across Europe and North America, who come together in the idyllic Austrian spa town of Bad Gastein to learn, perform, and participate in collaborative music-making. I had met Irena earlier in the year in New York, where both of us spend the majority of our time. To say there was an immediate connection is a bit of an understatement, and before I knew it, I was making plans to join her and her merry troupe of musicians in the Austrian Alps.

Founded in 2013, Music in the Alps has grown from a small meeting of classical musicians in Bad Gastein into a robust program of lectures, lessons, masterclasses, and concerts – including a jazz component – that extend out to Innsbruck, Salzburg, and the neighboring villages. I arrived about halfway through the festival for the Bad Gastein portion and set up camp there for a week. Most activity was centered around the stately Grand Hotel de l’Europe in the heart of Bad Gastein, where we would gather for lessons and to hear student and faculty concerts each afternoon and evening respectively in the hotel’s elegant Wienersaal.

I was thrilled to put together my own recital in the Wienersaal, accompanied by Irena Portenko on the Imperial Bösendorfer. As a countertenor, I decided to sing a diverse selection of music I love, ranging from Handel arias, to Debussy and Schumann songs, to Irish folk music, to pieces by Björk and Stephen Sondheim. I also included a selection of songs by Franz Schubert, as he is known as to have spent a good amount of time himself in Bad Gastein. Having the freedom to put together such an eclectic program, and meeting and inviting oboist Amari Barash and cellist Nargiza Yusupova to play on several pieces with me, was a sheer joy and a testament to the bond of music-making across language and cultures.

Something that makes this festival so special is the diversity in its participants and the freedom and encouragement to collaborate and explore. While everyone’s technique and level of musicianship were extremely high, our differences in style and background made for a rich blend of programming. Having the opportunity to work with the talented students – including the chance to perform with a fantastic young countertenor, and my fellow esteemed faculty – was incredibly inspiring and enriching.

Bad Gastein itself, nestled in the back of an Alpine valley, served as a womb of creativity, protecting us from the cares of the outside world and allowing us to fully focus on our musical explorations. It was easy to lose track of what time or even day it was, as we all surrendered to the deliciousness of uninterrupted music-making and the inspiration of the surrounding natural beauty. However, having the chance to leave our haven of creativity and venture into Salzburg to perform a group concert in the famed Mirabell Palace’s Marmorsaal, where Mozart himself played for the imperial family, was also welcome. Hikes were part of our routine as well, including one up Austria’s highest peak, the stunning Großglockner, as were evenings spent at the local Betty’s Bar (run by a New Zealander!) for wine and flatbread after the concerts.

Having a host of talented, innovative, open-minded individuals thrust together in a place that might be as close to heaven on earth as one can get, unsurprisingly, yields some wonderful results. Dr Portenko has created a supportive atmosphere in which teachers and students share the same goal of creating something extraordinarily beautiful in an extraordinarily beautiful space. The residents of Bad Gastein are also extremely engaged, with many of them regularly coming to each performance. This festival really does feel like a community, thanks to the wonderful people that make it possible, and, I suspect, the loving embrace of the Austrian Alps.