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A Road Trip to Sample America’s Many, Many Music Festivals


4 classical music festivals. Three children. Two exhausted parents, with a brave grandfather in tow. One bedraggled minivan.

It’ll be fun, my wife promised me. Surprisingly, it was.

While a few of my colleagues have been taking within the mighty festivals of Europe over the past few weeks — premieres in Aix-en-Provence, France, and the charms of Salzburg, Austria — the revival of programming after the darker days of the pandemic affords the adventurous a fresh probability to recover acquainted with the summer offerings here in the US.

There are many them, in any case. Several of our major orchestras profit from their very own vacation homes, whether Tanglewood for the Boston Symphony or Blossom for the Cleveland Orchestra, Ravinia outside Chicago or the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Others, not so fortunate in padding their bottom lines with picnickers, play on of their usual halls, or piece together short residencies in various climes.

Then there’s Ojai, and Ravinia, and Spoleto, and Caramoor, and Bard, and Cabrillo and plenty of, many more festivals; in case your budget stretches and your stomach is robust, you possibly can even take a jet boat down the Colorado to listen to “Quartet for the End of Time” in a riverside grotto outside Moab.

The opportunities are limitless, but for anyone thinking about combining soundscapes with scenery, as our Junior Rangers demand, one road trip through the mountains begs to be explored.

My family and I — including children aged 6, 3 and never quite 1 — began with the up-and-coming Colorado Music Festival in Boulder, which is inside easy reach of Rocky Mountain National Park. Then it made sense to a climb as much as the ski resorts west of Denver — first to Bravo! Vail, then to the following valley for the Aspen Music Festival and School. Jackson Hole, Wyo., didn’t look all that far-off, really. There, the Grand Teton Music Festival plays just outside the park of the identical name, with Yellowstone National Park an hour to the north. Why not?

After all, we could have left at that, and that may probably have been sensible. Still, there’s also an alluring route back south, down through the Canyonlands of Utah and on toward Santa Fe Opera. Tempting.

They’re all quite different, serving discrete audiences in distinct atmospheres even when spending time at a few of them is dear, regardless of the ticket price. Each has its own idea of what — and whom — a summer festival must be for, and every turned out to be invaluable in its own way.

Glance at it from a distance, and you would possibly mistake the auditorium of the Colorado Chautauqua, where this 44 year-old, five-and-a-bit week festival is predicated, for Wagner’s temple in Bayreuth. In-built 1898, it’s perched on Boulder’s southwestern flank, the Flatiron rock formations brooding behind it with climbing trails throughout. Get there at the appropriate time, and you possibly can nearly hear a rehearsal from the playground down the hill. Our youngest watched deer wandering the grounds from his swing, while I eavesdropped on some John Adams.

Fetchingly ramshackle, the picket hall offers an acoustic that’s as comfortable for string quartets as for the festival’s orchestra, and it draws an audience that listens closely. It’s a solid platform, one from which the music director, Peter Oundjian, who has recently taken over the Colorado Symphony in Denver, hopes to show this festival from a primarily local event to something with broader reach.

That’s a straightforward enough mission to imagine in if you’ve got friends like Adams. Contemporary scores are dotted through even the more traditional evenings here, which this season included commissions from Wang Jie and Wynton Marsalis, and there’s a flair to the programming that mixes barely unusual works with cornerstones of the canon.

Even so, my visit coincided with the beginning of a latest music week that Adams took part in organizing as composer in residence, albeit without offering any novelties himself. The Attacca Quartet got here in for a night to feast on works by Philip Glass and Gabriella Smith, but of the three live shows I heard, the 2 orchestral programs were most revealing of this festival’s virtues.

Take the second: a transient premiere from Timo Andres, “Dark Patterns,” prefaced Samuel Adams’s Chamber Concerto, a violin concerto in disguise that smartly refracts Baroque forms and was played amazingly by the soloist Helen Kim, before Samuel’s father, John, stepped as much as conduct his own, pulsating “City Noir.”

Adams visibly enjoyed himself on the rostrum, and with good reason: The festival ensemble is an admirable one. The players mostly hail from regional orchestras — the wind soloists, as an illustration, include regular-season principals from Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii and Florida — and so they come together each summer to play with terrific commitment and no shortage of virtuosity.

They’ll play just about anything, too. The first program I heard was certainly one of three that intriguingly paired the piano concertos of Beethoven with works by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Oundjian busily drew crisp, energetic support for Jan Lisiecki, who was a reasonably clangorous soloist within the “Emperor” Concerto, but the true shock was the rarefied eloquence that his orchestra lavished on the Vaughan Williams’s World War II-era Fifth Symphony. I’m still excited about it, weeks later.

Celebrating its thirty fifth season, the delightfully friendly Bravo! Vail is a wholly different sort of affair. Digging deep into its donors’ pockets, it brings three major orchestras, in addition to a chamber ensemble, to town for six intense weeks of performances, probably the most distinguished of them in a shocking outdoor amphitheater named for the local vacationer-turned-civic-booster Gerald R. Ford (yes, that one).

It’s a jaunt that the ensembles clearly value. The fourth one rotates from 12 months to 12 months; this season, it was the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. However the Dallas Symphony Orchestra just signed up to look through 2024, while the Philadelphia Orchestra is contracted through 2026 and Latest York Philharmonic through 2027.

The magical setting — cradled in forested mountains, the amphitheater abuts a botanical garden and backs onto a creek — doubtless has so much to do with that, and the players and their families have time to benefit from the ski resort’s abundant amenities.

But Juliette Kang, the primary associate concertmaster of the Philadelphians, told me during a break in rehearsals that she and her colleagues also take inspiration from the hardy folk who turn down a seat within the pavilion, where the atmosphere is relaxed enough that no person minded my six 12 months old drawing the flowers behind the stage during Brahms’s Fourth, for the tiered lawn. On the market, where our baby babbled his way through Bruch to no complaints, lightning warnings are routinely ignored and no amount of rain sends the attentive patrons scuttling for canopy; tarpaulins, not only golf umbrellas, are crucial here.

Classics and pops are mostly what these audiences brave thunderstorms for — the Texans brought the Beatles in addition to Beethoven — even when the artistic director, Anne-Marie McDermott, has valiantly begun a commissioning project that this summer saw three premieres reach the fundamental stage. And the chamber music and free community concert series roam more enthusiastically across the repertoire.

While the Philharmonic often uses its time in Vail to check out programs for the Lincoln Center season to return, the Philadelphians repeated pieces from the season prior, given the one rehearsal on offer for every evening. Nathalie Stutzmann, their principal guest conductor, who was on the rostrum for the 2 live shows I heard, said she finds that performances appear to breathe more naturally within the mountain air; there was not even a whiff of complacency in hers.

Vail’s amphitheater, with its four-paned roof redolent of ski runs, offers fair sound, and though it’s a tad reticent with details, it has enough body that the Philadelphians still appeared like the Philadelphians. Deluge be damned, Stutzmann turned in some of the truthfully moving Tchaikovsky Sixths that I even have heard.

For the musical tourist, the issue with Aspen is that its title is a misnomer.

Founded in 1949 as a part of Chicago businessman Walter Paepcke’s plan to show a sleepy Colorado town right into a haven for the soul and mind alike, this venerable endeavor is best considered a ending school for budding elite musicians, about half of whom now receive a free ride scholarship for the considerable costs.

Although loads of guest artists go through for recitals, a lot of the a whole lot of performances within the sprawling, eight-week season here have a primarily pedagogical purpose, as the scholars put to make use of what they’ve learned from the enviable faculty. Renée Fleming, no less, now directs the opera program with the conductor Patrick Summers.

The festival serves the scholars, in other words, and the reverse is less the case.

Not that Aspen sprawls quite as much because it once did, despite a stunning, $75 million campus renovation that was accomplished in 2016. Wind the clock back a few a long time, and you’d have found a thousand students here; this 12 months, officials needed to cut a whole orchestra from this system due to a housing shortage, leaving the coed body at 500 or so. Alan Fletcher, Aspen’s chief executive, said that it’s not yet clear whether that number will turn out to be the norm.

The Benedict Music Tent, which succeeded two previous structures as Aspen’s fundamental venue when it opened in 2000, could do with as much of a refresh because the programming, which is dismayingly staid given the often eclectic tastes of the music director, Robert Spano; next to the ostentatious glamour of town, the tent looks unkempt. Tickets also don’t come low cost to sit down on the hard blue benches indoors, though anyone — families included ­— can listen at no cost on the meadows outside.

That may nearly have been price doing for the concert I heard, a Sunday afternoon feature from the varsity’s leading ensemble, the Aspen Festival Orchestra, that Fletcher said from the stage was “purely emblematic” of what the varsity goals to realize.

Faculty take the principal seats while their students play alongside them; alumni often return as soloists, on this case the ever-popular violinist Gil Shaham, who shared the highlight with the wonderful young cellist Sterling Elliott in an attractive Brahms Double Concerto. Although the tent’s acoustic is distant, and the conducting of the guest maestro John Storgards in Saariaho’s “Ciel d’Hiver” and Sibelius’s Symphony No. 6 was oddly brusque, the playing standards were high.

I’m undecided that the residents of Jackson Hole, whether or not they are fortunate enough to enjoy their first or their fourth homes in sight of the Grand Tetons, quite understand what they’ve going for them at Walk Festival Hall, a happily unpretentious, 700-seat indoor theater beside the gondolas in Teton Village.

Donald Runnicles, the music director here since 2006, is a no-nonsense man with a no-nonsense festival. Though a piano series began this 12 months and there are weekly chamber music nights to attend — for those who, unlike my wife, can tear yourself away from seeing the sun set from the mountaintop — the fundamental attraction is the Festival Orchestra, which operates on a subscription-season schedule, performing programs twice and rehearsing thoroughly.

It shows. That is one other ensemble made up of players from across the country: some retreat here from orchestras as prestigious because the Boston and Chicago symphonies, while a number often play in opera pits, including on the Metropolitan Opera, and a couple of are even conservatory professors who come here to sharpen their performance skills. A few of the musicians stay for the entire season, but most can only manage two or three weeks. If that continuously changing roster might pose problems — five concertmasters are listed in this system book, and 15 horns — it also lends an eagerness to the playing.

Runnicles, some of the underrated musicians of his generation, knows the right way to use it. The all-Russian program I heard was of unerring quality, one through which even a political statement was fastidiously conceived for its musical value.

Before a robust, big-boned account of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10, which is commonly considered the composer’s declaration of liberation after the death of Joseph Stalin, the Pittsburgh Symphony violinist Marta Krechkovsky, whose family stays in Ukraine, played the solo line in Myroslav Skoryk’s “Melody,” which has been in wide use as a hymn to freedom for the reason that Russian invasion. Heard in that context, the Shostakovich became all of the more immediate.

You might have asked for a mite more focus to the orchestral sound within the concert, though you’d struggle to listen to a more astounding rendition of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2, or anything to be honest, than the one which soloist Augustin Hadelich contributed.

You might ask for just a little more variety in Grand Teton’s programming generally, too, although there’s a dexterity to the way it incorporates latest music — John Adams’s “Absolute Jest” alongside Stravinsky’s “Petrushka,” as an illustration — and it’s no small feat to placed on Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony and Puccini’s “La Bohème” in a spot where bears roam the night.

But to quibble like that may be to miss the purpose; not every festival must be an Ojai. What Grand Teton offers, like Bravo! Vail and the Colorado Music Festival in their very own ways, is a less complicated sort of joy, of excellent music in glorious surroundings. I do know where I’d while away my summer, if I could.

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