The best of the summer culture festivals around the world in 2017

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A festival, unlike, say, a concert or exhibition, is a contained, utopian world, with a focus on a set of circumscribed pursuits. Like a highbrow summer camp for adults, festivals offer a jot of escapism, a chance to turn our attention away from some of the weightier issues of the past year. What makes them stand apart from other events is the joy of sharing the same fascinations with other festivalgoers. The feeling of being pushed along by a current of wonder and awe, in a school of like-minded fish.

Some of the most-popular cultural festivals celebrate their 70th, 75th or even 85th anniversaries this summer. Here are some events to mark in your diaries.


Tanglewood is a celebration of classical music, opera and a bit of dance in the Berkshire mountains in Massachusetts, United States. As the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it's the standard-bearer for American classical-­music festivals, drawing crowds as much for its line-up as its bucolic surroundings. When the festival was founded in 1937, the first two concerts honoured Beethoven and Wagner. To commemorate its history, this year's festival features these composers, with Symphony No 9 and Das Rheingold. Headliners Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell and the Mark Morris Dance Group round out the programme.

June 18 to September 4

Temperate weather and the ever-­present Alps make Switzerland an ideal host for many summer festivals, despite eye-popping prices – €10 (Dh40) for a grande Starbucks, anyone? On the shores of Lake Geneva, the 51st Montreux Jazz Festival’s broad interpretation of “jazz” includes rock and pop, with two weeks of headliners such as Grace Jones, the Pet Shop Boys and George Benson.

June 30 to July 15

Aspen, Colorado, draws classical-­music fans in the summer with the same force that magnetises skiers in the winter. America’s biggest classical-music festival presents chamber music, philharmonic orchestras, baroque, dance and opera. The Aspen Music Festival has a double function as a training ground for musicians of all ages. There’s even a ­Listener’s Master Class for those who participate by listening. This year’s theme is ­“enchantment”, which runs the risk of being redundant in a valley bursting with flowers and melodious chords.

June 29 to August 20

Opera is adapted for a floating stage in the middle of Lake Constance for ­Austrian festival Bregenz, a setting so striking that it was featured in the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace. ­Opera and classical music fans have been gathering at the shore since 1946. With ­orchestral performances in addition to opera, this year's list of shows include well-known productions such as ­Carmen and lesser-known operas such as ­Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.

July 19 to August 20

At a higher altitude in a mountain resort in Verbier, Switzerland, choirs and orchestras take the stage for 17 days with a bounty of classical-music performances at the Verbier Festival. Known for its solo performances by classical-music headliners as well as its academy and student orchestra, Verbier Festival gives aspiring musicians a rare opportunity to perform with seasoned professionals.

July 21 to August 6

Founded by Wagner in 1876, the Bayreuth Festival in Germany showcases the composer's operatic oeuvre exclusively. For four weeks, diehard Wagnerians take in contemporary stagings of operas such as Tristan und Isolde or Siegfried. Seats are reserved by post or email only, five to 10 years in advance, and if you forget to apply one year, your name is moved to the end of the list.

July 25 to August 28

Theatre, dance, comedy and performance art

Throw a black turtleneck and some skinny jeans in your suitcase for the five-week avant-garde Vienna Festival, which features performances, music, visual art and theatre. With new artistic director Tomas Zierhofer-Zin ­starting this year, the boundary-pushing festival expands further with 44 productions from 28 countries, and three new additions: lectures at the Academy of Unlearning; ­Performeum shorts on a former railway site; and an exhibition-slash-celebration of club culture called Hyperreality.

Until June 18

Devotees of contemporary dance have been flocking to Jacob’s Pillow in the Berkshire mountains of upstate New York for the past 85 years, where international modern dance and ballet companies – with a bit of tap dance thrown in – stage shows for four days each. Headliners this year include Paul Taylor, Trisha Brown, the Miami City Ballet and, from the ­United Kingdom, Aakash Odedra. Jacob’s ­Pillow also runs a summer programme for young dancers.

June 17 to August 27

Grahamstown in South Africa has been hosting the National Arts Festival since 1974. Aficionados of African music, art or comedy in the style of Trevor Noah will revel in the vibrant, often politically charged comedy, theatre, dance and jazz. A fringe festival multiplies the offerings with a focus on children, a film festival and a Think!Fest that picks up where TED Talks leave off. Don’t forget to pack a scarf and a jacket, because July in Cape Town means winter, not summer.

June 29 to July 9

For a performing-arts festival that prioritises innovation and abstraction, head to the Avignon Festival in southern France. Now in its 71st year, the intimate festival sets dance, theatre, music and video performances in venues like the medieval Palais des Papes, at dawn, to maximise the effect of the region's summer light. There are 60 shows, such as a performance-art piece called The Great Tamer that takes place on a stage that's continually changing shape, shrinking or growing, throwing the performers off-balance, while Grown Ups is a dance show for children that pokes fun at being an adult. Unlike other European theatre festivals, Avignon has many shows for children.

July 6 to 26

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland throws open its arms to anyone who wants to take part, making it a bubbling, unedited melting pot of theatre, comedy, circus, dance and more. Walking around the city, you might pass a performance in a telephone booth or whizzing by in the back of a taxi. Recently, up-and-coming comedians have hogged the spotlight, launching careers in Edinburgh’s narrow ­alleyways. This year, the three-week festival celebrates its 70th anniversary.

August 4 to 28

Fine arts

As the touchstone of the global zeitgeist for fine arts, this year's Venice Biennale in Italy highlights the role of art in calling attention to crises of conscience around the world, from the plight of migrants to the reverberations of Trump's presidency. Many of the exhibitions feature live performers. In the German pavilion, young people crawl under a glass platform, while ­Dobermans bark at the entrance. The 57th group of selected artists push against the four walls of their allotted pavilions. Water, rerouted from fountains and pipes, pours from the ceiling in the Canadian pavilion. Neon lights illuminate the ­Korean pavilion, while two Finnish sculptures talk to each other and show each other videos. For the fifth year, the UAE is there, and this year's theme, Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play, features five artists across different generations who call the UAE home.

Until November 26

Keep the latest copy of Artforum and the Sotheby's catalogue close, because Art Basel in Switzerland is for the serious collector. While many art festivals claim to be the largest according to various criteria, Art Basel is the measuring stick; the world's largest art fair representing work from 4,000 artists in all media including film. Expect three frenetic days where the major players of the art world meet, transact and celebrate.

June 15 to 18