LA Phil third trumpet Mike Myers and I are both avid skiers so naturally when it occurred to me that the orchestra would be touring to Switzerland in March - with a day off - I asked him to join me in a little adventure. When else might we have the opportunity to ski the Swiss Alps? Not only is it a huge feather in the cap of an American skier (and probably skiers from just about anywhere else) but the Alps literally are the inspiration for some of the most beloved symphonic music in our repertoire.
Gustav Mahler used cowbells to depict bucolic life in the rural villages dotting the Alps and Richard Wagner finished the third act of his opera Tristan und Isolde in 1859 living in the very hotel I write this from, the Hotel Schweizerhof. He was so inspired by the incredible view from our hotel of Mount Rigi and Mount Pilatus rising above Lake Luzern that in 1866 he bought a house down the street which is now a museum.
As brass players, we are occasionally asked to give it everything we've got to help portray 11 hours of an imagined day in the Alps in Richard Strauss's Ein Alpensinfonie, a colossus of a piece requiring over 125 musicians, including 34 brass instruments. It is easily one of the most virtuosic and demanding pieces of music we will ever perform and captures the majesty and grandness of the Alps and the unpredictability and power of nature that unfolds there.
With some guidance from my Swiss neighbor back in Pasadena we started out by train toward the town of Engelberg, a 45 minute ride from Lucerne. With typical Swiss efficiency we were directed off the train, picked up rental skis, and boarded a bus to the ski area. It was overcast at first, and had snowed all day and night the previous day. As we ascended in the gondola we marveled at the same snow covered glacial peaks and thousands of alpine trees weighed down by snow that have so inspired others, and I thought of the music of Strauss which begins in the mists of morning just before the sun has risen.
We skied down several runs to get our bearings and try different sections of the large ski area. Then the clouds began to part and the sun shone, giving way to clear blue skies and a 360 degree panorama of peaks and valleys, sheer glacier faces and powder covered slopes the likes of which I had never imagined. In my head I began to hear the 19 bar melody from Alpensinfonie which is played in unison by all 8 horns when the music 'reaches' the summit. As Mike and I skied down repeatedly, sometimes darting through the 'off-piste' areas to glide through fresh powder, we stopped many times to take pictures, not quite believing what we were seeing. Particularly impressive was one view of the peaks and valleys descending until white snow gave way to green pastures in a large valley below dotted with Swiss villages, with visibility extended to at least 15 or 20 miles.
We stopped very briefly to get some lunch at a slope side chalet, and were treated to live Swiss folk music. We introduced ourselves as LA Phil musicians and applauded their efforts and they were nice enough to pose for a picture with us.
Ethan and Mike pose with Swiss musicians during a break from skiing in the Alps.
After about five hours of skiing, we were ready to call it quits, not wanting to leave but knowing that we needed to get back to Lucerne to rejoin our colleagues, and uninjured at that. We had concerts to perform in the coming days, and we knew the risks of the Alps from Strauss's score: thunderstorms, getting lost, and goats. Fortunately we avoided all of those problems and made it back to Lucerne with some souvenirs, memories of an unforgettable day of skiing the Alps, and a new understanding of what inspired Strauss to write such incredible music.
That evening I told Gustavo about our day and he remembered conducting the LA Philharmonic in a performance of Alpensinfonie a few years ago, before he became our Music Director. He too began to sing the music from the summit, and said he would love to perform it again. I hope that day comes soon.
Also - I have to check with my accountant, but I believe all future ski trips to the Alps are fully tax-deductible!