GAIA Music Festival - Promoting a New Set of Core Values in Classical Music (3-minute read)

The world of classical music in which I roam is bubbling with inspiring and exciting artists and ideas. Yet, despite this, and because of it, there is much to consider in the way classical music continues to be practised, as well as the way it is marketed to the public.

Let’s start with the latter. When we look at how classical music and its artists are presented to the world, I see that we fall prey to the same misleading or irrelevant information as, for example, the film industry. Why are there so many advertisements for concerts or album covers that oscillate between gaudy hypersexualisation of musicians and boring studiousness? Why do I know more about the dresses in which some of today’s artists perform and so little about their personal stories? Why is there an obsession with youth, when we know that the greatest interpretations of music have rarely been played by six-year-olds? Why is the excellence of an artist measured by the amount, and not by the quality of their output?

To describe the former: classical music, aside from all its beauty, is a profession notorious for focusing on the deficits and mistakes that musicians make – rather than providing an encouraging environment where musicians feel innovative and imaginative. It begins with the weekly lesson. While traditionally viewed as an advantageous scenario where a student receives personalised instruction from their teacher, the limited time available often results in concentrating on identifying mistakes made during the performance of a piece, rather than engaging in any significant contributions of brilliance and deepening these. Emphasis on flawlessness prevails.The approach to practise and that of marketing share one commonality: both reflect an industry that appears to not only struggle within its own purpose, but also struggles in its ability to foster the kind of environment that does what art can do: connect people with themselves and with one another.

We need a new set of core values in classical music. We need to press against industry norms while honoring the traditions, history, and impact that classical music has. So, how can we do this? At the GAIA Music Festival we were asked to try to synopsise what it is we have been doing all these years, other than presenting and showcasing exhilarating live concerts with some of the best musicians we can find. We poured over our work and realised that we uphold fundamental values and standards while embracing community and connection.

Gwendolyn Masin GAIA Music Festival Gwendolyn Masin

Here are some of the things we do at GAIA:

We've consistently upheld the importance of everyone's role in classical music.

And so, it is obvious to us to feature, not just the most exciting artists, but also a diverse representation of people from different backgrounds. With a far smaller budget than many other festivals in Switzerland, we have nevertheless welcomed participants from 54 countries to date, and equally, audiences from all over Europe, North America, the Middle East, Australia, South Africa, and Asia (and there may have been more, which would also be awesome.)

We provide a return to a broad array of interests in art.

If you apply for public funding these days, you will find an abundance of calls for interdisciplinary and multimedia projects. And, although we see these taking place everywhere, they remain a minority within our already niche field of classical music. At universities, classical musicians who wish to become performers often face curriculum that overwhelms, leaving little time to provide students with opportunities for projects of this nature. And in some arenas, interest beyond instrumental performance is seen as a disadvantage. At GAIA, we create and promote interdisciplinary projects, and commission new music each year.

We bolster the confidence of all our musicians.

Many people grapple with defining their identity – whether it’s shaped by their region of origin, faith, or gender — to name a few. In classical music, many musicians have been brought up in such proximity to their chosen instrument that they define themselves by it. While many people strive for independence and freedom as teenagers, musicians spend their time between school, the practice room, lessons, and the stage. There is little time for self-enquiry or reflection, and this can result in various forms of anxiousness later in life – from a need for constant affirmation to an inability to assert their own autonomy. At GAIA, we provide a supportive environment built on kindness.

We dismantle entrenched caste systems that equate the value of musicians with the costliness of their instrument.

For those who understand the speculative nature of the arts and antiquity markets, this notion is obvious. A musician needs a lifelong companion in their instrument, not a million-dollar burden struggling to make sound. This year at GAIA, we have partnered with the Brienzer Geigenbauschule to provide promising violin makers in the region with the opportunity to hear their instruments played by musicians who most need support in this area.

We dismiss the industry’s infatuation with youth.

GAIA has been privileged to welcome some of the heroines and heros of our profession. Those who have taken to the stage with us include Shmuel Ashkenasi (83), Gérard Caussé (75), Peter Frankl (89), Heidi Maria Glössner (80), Lukas Hartmann (79), Frans Helmerson (79), and Igor Ozim (92). Conversely, we encourage young talent. Each year, some of our invited musicians are still amid their studies. Through collaborative partnerships at the festival, where people play together, we provide both an intergenerational platform as well as apprenticeship.

We support one another.

Performing musicians are offered many opportunities along their journey – but rarely receive coaching in the art of communication. Thus, a culture of talking about one another rather than engaging with one another is, sadly, still prevalent. Since our first festival in 2006, GAIA has encouraged a collegial environment that operates with a flat hierarchy. Musicians arrive days in advance of the first performance to coexist, create, rehearse, and connect. This is our model, not just because it’s fun and productive, but because taking time for one another leads to understanding and empathy – cornerstones of all societies. We accept one another, we try our best, and we remember that it is human beings who create art.