Our music is playing somewhere else

Switzerland's Verbier Festival is a mix of casual chic and high-class performances - and oddly enough, Israeli talent.

It was during a week spent at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland that I realized just what I'd been missing. It's what the locals, here in Israel, call hul, which can be roughly translated as "somewhere else." Between the nonstop sweating of Tel Aviv and the general pressures of living in a country where coping with despair is considered a casual pastime, "somewhere else" was gloriously manifested in a mountainous setting, complete with snowcaps, myriad mountain bikes and the smooth sounds provided by some of the greatest stars in the world of classical music. Founded 15 years ago by Martin T: son Engstroem, the Verbier Festival has become one of the world's leading forums for classical music in all its forms. Whether you're a spectator whose goal is to hear worldfamous masters, you want to get your finger on the pulse of what and who's up- and- coming on the classical scene, you're a performer who wants the chance to play and be heard - or learn from those very same masters - the Verbier Festival is home. Bearing the name of the Alpine village- cum- major ski resort where it's held every summer, Verbier offers the most euphoric and casual of atmospheres. It's not just the physical location - though it does provide amazing views, air, food, people and the occasional very cool car passing by, from a Maserati to a Rolls Royce, complete with financially privileged hipster behind the wheel. It is a world unto itself. Despite the talent and wealth that Verbier attracts, Engstroem wanted a distinctly casual atmosphere that still offered respect to the artists. Mission accomplished. You'll see nary a tie, though the sport coat is still common. Remember, this is Europe we're talking about. "Verbier is typical Swiss in that way, it's very discreet. There's no way to know who's who," says the man who, among other highprofile positions, served 12 years as artists and repertoire vicepresident at Deutsche Grammophon. He also volunteers that it's not just the European vibe that is so essential to Verbier's continuing success and growth. The secret? You guessed it: Israel. Engstroem has been well- connected to Israel for some time now. He visited for the first time in 1969 when he spent five weeks hitchhiking around the country. But more so than a Jewish parent, it seems music has provided the framework for his lifelong relationship with the country. After his decision to found the festival, Engstroem approached his friend and director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Avi Shoshani, who was in from the start. " Initially, people came because of me and Avi. We invited mainly friends - many Russians and Israelis," says Engstroem, hinting at the powerful draw of the two men's cults of personality. THE UBIQUITOUS network of all things Jewish and Israeli rears its head over and over again in the most delightful of ways. One of this year's star guests was David Greilsammer. Born in Jerusalem, the pianist began his professional training at the city's Rubin Conservatory and continued at Julliard in New York. The 30-year-old has played the world over at some of the most prestigious venues and halls. Not long ago, he gave an impressive marathon session, playing the complete Mozart piano sonatas in Paris - a rigorous 11- hour ordeal. Then he did the same at Verbier, though spread over the course of six sessions. Either way, it's a rare feat. In between those two performances, he played at Tel Aviv's Israel Contemporary Players series at Hateva. Though this is where his family and many of his friends remain, his recent local performance also had to do with the release of his album, Fantasy. Originally released internationally on the label Naïve, it was put out here just a couple of weeks ago on the Hed Arzi label. Upon meeting Greilsammer, it is clear that he is the paradigm of the Israeli male not seen nearly enough. He showed up to be interviewed with multiple scrolls of sheet music rolled up and precariously held by his long hands. His appearance is stylishly unkempt. Loose curls frame his slender face, his thin body is clad in a designer jean jacket and a worn satchel hangs beside him. To mistake him for anything other than musician would be impossible - if not criminal. He radiates the cultured and educated artist that he is: someone who can comfortably take up residence in New York or Paris but still calls Jerusalem home. Another solid Verbier participant was St. Petersburg-native Ilya Gringolts. Discovered at an early age by Engstroem, Gringolts grew up with the festival. He first participated in the master classes taught by some of the most outstanding teachers in the world, and now he participates as a well-known performer. The 26-year-old violinist was featured in the same venue as Greilsammer - the converted living room of a chalet, a space small and intimate enough that a spectator is transported in time - but not place - to when this was the only way to hear such compositions. Gringolts had also recently been to Israel and played at Tel Aviv's Levontin 7, where he is friends with the club's co-owner and chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov. It seems that a trip to the Alps is more than just tranquility, clean, crisp air and the inevitability of summer rains. The real magic is the geographical separation offered, so very essential in gaining perspective. At Verbier, you can discover that life, it turns out, is less about bombs and bullets and more about the soothing sounds of the piano, violin and cello. And if you're not into those instruments, it's okay, because the French horn, oboe and clarinet await you just the same. If you didn't make it this year, don't fret. Next year's just a revolution away: www.verbierfestival.com