Nestled in the Dolomites’ Pale di San Martino mountain range at almost 3,000m above sea level, the Pradidali Hutte is a small refuge (“Hutte” meaning simply ‘hut’). Tonight, it is packed with over 50 people but unlike most evenings in this mountain hideaway, not a single voice can be heard in its common room.
All eyes are on Italian cellist Mario Brunello, who breaks the silence with a soft, elegant rendition of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No2 for Violin. He is not the only star in the room: sitting quietly with everybody else is alpinist Maurizio Zanolla, known in the region as Manolo. Now in his sixties, the latter made a name for himself by pushing the boundaries of climbing; he knows every crack and crevice of these steep rocky slopes.
The two men’s joint presence is fundamental to ensure the smooth running of this very unusual concert. Tonight’s performance is part of a three-day trek organized by Sounds of the Dolomites, a festival bringing musicians to the lofty peaks of Northern Italy’s Trentino and South Tyrol regions.
Now a seasoned format in its 28th edition, the festival was started to encourage a new way of thinking about performances and where they can take place – and has always put a respect for the environment at the top of its bill. “The aim was always to collaborate with like-minded artists who were curious about interacting with nature,” says Chiara Basetti, one of the festival’s organisers. Sound of the Dolomites has since inspired similar events in other Alpine regions but the original remains unrivalled: last year, over 38,000 visitors attended the 24 performances on the programme.
Each of the events consists of a (more or less strenuous) walk to a dramatic location. While many music promoters around the world may be questioning the classic gig format and taking to a variety of settings away from the traditional stage, few have attempted to take crowds to an environment as hard to reach as the mountains.
“We can embrace the beauty of these places without affecting them,” says Brunello. “This festival is proof that we don’t need to build new lifts and hotels to enjoy these mountains. Getting together around music is enough.” Each concert’s environmental impact is minimal: no microphones or electric amplification are used. And – it goes without saying – no litter is left behind.
Yet the festival is keenly aware of the effects of its own popularity. “After a few years I realised that the success of the festival had its downsides,” says Brunello. “I felt we needed to protect the atmosphere of the first few editions, our own ‘edelweiss’. When only a few people knew about the event, there was a direct interaction between those that brought the music and those that came to listen to it.”
Back in 2009, he came up with the idea of organising a trek only open to a limited number of attendees in addition to an array of more easily accessible concerts. The yearly, one-off event means artists and participants can get closer and chat. “It is important to keep an equal relationship,” continues Brunello. “We can’t have the artist arriving in an helicopterand the public hiking for four hours!” Brunello – and all other musicians – carry their own instruments, however heavy they might be, up and down the rocky paths.
The trek remains a cherished moment of every edition: given there’s room for only 40 people, tickets often sell out in less than 30 minutes from when they are released. Keeping numbers low is however paramount to keeping the experience intimate and peaceful and safeguarding the calm, slower pace of these three days.
Not only do visitors spend time together on the trail: they all have to share the hut’s dorm for the night, the summer-camp atmosphere helping to create a powerful sense of camaraderie. By day, a small crew of professional Alpine guides, the Eagles of San Martino, keeps attendees safe during the journey; the march is occasionally interrupted by Manolo’s memories of a particular route.
Sometimes, a particularly beautiful location – such as the lunar landscape of a former glacier – inspires Brunello to stop and make the most of the terrain’s natural acoustics. His cello is quickly whipped out of its case and a performancebegins in a matter of minutes. Walking away from this improvised theatre, one of the guides looks up at what is left of the glacier and shakes his head, tracing with his finger the original extension of the ice only a few years ago. Moments like this are just as important to Sound of the Dolomites’ mission, so that the music played never becomes an elegy to these beautiful, endangered places.