Every morning in summer, refreshing sounds awaken the senses of visitors to the Tais forest near Pontresina.
The air is still cool at 11 o’clock in the morning when the concert season begins in the Tais forest in early summer. Bright, warm patches of sunshine illuminate the wooden music pavilion and the benches scattered among the trees. Members of the audience sit quietly and listen. White clouds glide across the blue sky, as if to the rhythm of the lilting waltz by Johann Strauss that the trio is playing this morning. The clouds are heading towards the Schafberg, where the painter Giovanni Segantini worked on his famous Triptychon. He died up there in 1899 in the hut named after him, the same year as Johann Strauss – long before the first magical performances in the forest. The tradition of daily morning concerts, free of charge, began during the summer season of 1910.
Revival in the 1980s The concert series survived two World Wars and several technological revolutions, eventually reaching the age at which a rejuvenation treatment becomes unavoidable. In 1984 the flautist Jürg H. Frei took charge of the Salonorchester St. Moritz; five years later, he also took on the Camerata Pontresina, and in 2001 became responsible for planning the Sils concert series. He shapes and expands the ensembles, enriches and updates the repertoire, and opens up the programme to interesting arrangements, new interpretations and experiments. Frei sets great store by artistic collaboration: “The whole thing is based on personal relationships. Some musicians have been involved for ages. The pianist Mariusz Danilewski, for example, has been an important pillar of the whole operation for 30 years. Daniel Bosshard, also a pianist, takes care of the extensive score library and puts together the programmes for the trios he plays in. Sometimes, though, all of a sudden we have to engage eleven different cellists for a season, because no one has time any more. The changing combinations of instruments create space for discoveries. Musicians get to know one another; friendships are made and nurtured.”
Frei’s job title is Impresario, but the old-fashioned term seems appropriate given his impressive achievements, performed with theatrical panache. He is responsible both for artistic content and administration of the entire show. Single-handedly, he organises more than 200 concerts in three locations – and the programmes must all be coordinated. The recipe sounds straightforward, but the preparations for a season mean months of work. “The programme must be varied, the musicians outstanding, costs have to be kept under control, and there can’t be any gaps,” Frei says. Every summer, he manages once again to engage highly professional musicians.
The young cellist Ioanna Seira played with the Camerata Pontresina for the first time in 2020. She works as a freelance musician in Zurich and plays at the opera house, with the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, and in two baroque orchestras. In Pontresina, she enjoys working in a way that was new to her. “I don’t have a lot of experience of this kind of music,” she says. “I’m learning so much about it here. I really like the challenge of performing a new programme every day, practically sight-reading. That requires a lot of concentration. The fast and compact way of working is also refreshing. At 9 o’clock we rehearse for an hour, and at 11 o’clock we perform the concert. And sometimes we perform a new programme somewhere else in the afternoon.”
She particularly appreciates the contact with other musicians: “Already in the first week I was luckily enough to work in a trio with the pianist Daniel Bosshard. I was able to take advantage of his wide experience and knowledge of salon music. The biggest surprise was that the third person in the group happened to be the violinist Branco Šimić. He’s one of my best friends, I also play with him in other groups. Music is such a small world!”
It is the energy put into the music-making that renders the whole experience so special. These are not seasoned ensembles but musicians who make themselves available for one-off performances together. They play a different programme every day and perform in ever-changing new combinations. This freshness is exciting for everyone. The cellist Ioanna Seira puts it like this: “The appeal lies in the spontaneity of performance. Time and again, there are unexpected moments of musical beauty. At first I didn’t have high expectations of the stage in the forest, but the acoustics are genuinely good and the connection of music and nature is an enriching experience.”
This symbiosis between the music and the surrounding atmosphere and sounds gives the concerts in the Tais forest a unique charm. A squirrel scuttling along a branch, the cry of a bird, the wind in the trees, the snap of a twig, a child’s laughter, the train to Tirano climbing the twisting line in the background, a helicopter in the distance: all these become interwoven with the melodies of the instruments to create a fascinating soundscape.