By Michael Roddy
VERBIER Switzerland (Reuters) - There are thousands of music festivals around Europe every summer, but only one lays claim to being held at the highest altitude and that's the one in the Swiss ski resort of Verbier, sometimes called the Davos of the music world.
It gets that nickname in part from the quality of the musicianship. Argentine-born piano star Martha Argerich is a regular, and this year the big names have included Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin, British cellist Steven Isserlis and American violinist Joshua Bell.
But the comparison has a deeper root. The three-week-long Verbier Festival, which runs from July until August 3, draws the moneyed elites and big corporate sponsors.
George Clooney's smiling face is a fixture around the town as the brand ambassador for food giant Nestle's Nespresso coffee line, while Swiss private banker Julius Baer is another sponsor.
Martin Engstroem - the Swedish artists' agent who founded the festival in 1994 and lost 1.2 million Swiss francs ($1.3 million) of his own money in the first two years before the banks and the municipality agreed to help out - won't be drawn to repeat that Davos comparison.
But he is more than happy to concur that Verbier, with its breathtaking mountain scenery, posh hotels and restaurants ready to serve everything from local dried meats to imported giant prawns, has become a go-to place for summer music lovers.
"Almost all the music festivals are in cities - all the bigger festivals," Engstroem said while seated in the portico of one of the marquees set up by the sponsors outside the main "Salle des Combins" hall, with a view of the Alps.
"We are selling 44,000 tickets a year so we are one of the bigger ones and we are the only one really out in nature.
"We are also the one that is the highest in Europe, 1,500 m (5,000 feet) so it's a completely different way of listening to music. You're with one foot in nature here and if you like that combination then you should come," Engstroem said.
"If you don't want your experience of listening to music to be interfered (with) by an occasional cow going by or a plane or a dog barking then you shouldn't come here."
The number of cows spotted on a recent weekend in Verbier, from a reporter's eye view, was zero, but the number of luxury SUVs and limousines coursing up and down the narrow streets and filling the parking lots was close to uncountable.
SUMMER SOCIAL SCENE
Verbier is very much a summer social scene for the wealthy, who meet in their palatial chalets built into the hillsides above the town for post-concert buffet dinners.
Talk at one such event ranged from critiquing singers in that evening's production of Beethoven's "Fidelio" conducted by Marc Minkowski, to one woman's plans for expanding her latest London restaurant chain - having sold a previous venture.
Michelle Despine of Geneva, attending a piano recital on Sunday, agreed it was elitist but no different from any other Swiss mountain resort.
"So naturally it's a bit elitist, with the very beautiful chalets, but if you make the rounds of the Swiss mountain resorts who will find that is true everywhere," she said.
A fellow recital-goer, teacher Samuel Torche, from the Swiss town of Bossonnens, near Montreux, saw more of a downside in the presence of so many high-rollers at a place of high culture.
While delighted to be able to hear Canadian piano virtuoso Marc-Andre Hamelin for what Torche felt was a reasonable 65 Swiss francs, he said many of the people in the audiences at the bigger events in Verbier "are not connoisseurs, they are here because of the place, because it's a prestigious venue".
Engstroem said the festival has made an effort to accommodate the wider public, noting that between 10,000 and 15,000 people come every year "and never buy any tickets, they just go to public events".
The festival runs a summer music camp for about 60 youngsters, he said, and another 300 young people work in different academies or workshops.
It also affords an opportunity for younger musicians to network with each other, and with the stars.
"If somebody gets invited to Verbier then this someone will come to Verbier because it is the crown of the festivals in Europe," Hungarian cellist Istvan Vardai, 28, said after a recital he played on a Stradivarius cello on loan from a British instrument dealer.
"I have a lot of friends here, musician friends, and I couldn't imagine any better thing to do at this particular time than to be in Verbier."
(editing by David Stamp)