The Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in Vail, Colorado, the main performance stage of the Bravo! Vail Music Festival. (credit: Tomas Cohen)

Symphony of nature and music: highlights from Bravo! Vail Music Festival 2023

Gail Wein | 21 JUL 2023

With her gown billowing in the gentle outdoor breeze like a fashion model in a photo shoot, the violinist Hilary Hahn was accompanied by birdsong, crickets, and a world-class orchestra. She was standing on stage at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in Vail, Colorado, where, just beyond the back of the stage, a garden of colorful flowers was visible, and beyond that, majestic green mountains, blue skies, and cotton ball clouds.

This concert was part of the 36th annual Bravo! Vail Music Festival, in which Hahn was a featured soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, one of the four ensembles in residence at Bravo! Vail this summer. I had the opportunity to visit Vail for four days and took in three Philadelphia Orchestra concerts at the Ford Amphitheater, including this one on July 12, as well as indoor recitals by the Dalí Quartet and the Viano String Quartet.

Vail, like a dozen other destinations popular in ski season in Colorado, abounds with classical music in the summer months. For a tourist like me visiting from another part of the United States, the reason was obvious as soon as my feet touched the tarmac. Mountains! Blue skies! Sun! Warm days, cool nights, and no humidity. A true contrast to the steamy urban landscape I left behind in the Northeast.

Bravo! Vail started out as a ‘runout’ from the Music from Angel Fire festival in New Mexico. Now, in addition to chamber music performances throughout the summer, Bravo! Vail brings in top orchestras from across the United States: Dallas Symphony Orchestra (in residence since 1999), New York Philharmonic (since 2003), and the Philadelphia Orchestra (since 2007) each enjoy a residency in this high-altitude haven.

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Beyond a change of scenery, visitors are treated to outdoor performances that are more relaxed and less formal than in a conventional concert hall milieu. Some listeners may find the sounds of crickets, birds, and other wildlife, the distant roar of a rushing stream, and faint shouts of distant ball players invasive. But the entire idea of the natural sounds as an integral part of the experience is one that the experimental composer John Cage – famously fascinated by ambient sounds and random noises – would surely have approved of.

A move to contrasting surroundings after the end of the traditional concert season is not only beneficial for audiences, it’s also great for performers. One might argue that orchestras are not at their best in these settings, given the unpredictable vagaries of the weather, the challenges of outdoor acoustics and amplification, and wildlife distractions (a squirrel dashed across the stage during two of the performances I attended). One Philadelphia Orchestra staffer told me that the shift in environment sparks extra creativity and energy from the performers. And, during a panel discussion, Bravo! Vail artistic director Anne-Marie McDermott said that when she is in this environment, she actually hears music differently.

Though summer programming is so often relegated to “war horses”, light classics, and popular film scores, Bravo! Vail has become more adventurous over the years under McDermott’s artistic direction (she has led the festival since 2011). An outstanding initiative in this vein is the Symphonic Commissioning Project, a five-year initiative to create three brand-new orchestral works each year. This year the Dallas Symphony Orchestra gave the regional premiere of Angélica Negrón’s Arquitecta in June, the Philadelphia Orchestra gave Anna Clyne’s This Moment its world premiere on July 14, and Nina Shekhar’s The Mother is Standing will be performed by the New York Philharmonic later in July.

Tchaikovsky and Price

Hilary Hahn’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting, was languid and full of rubato, with an artistic, nearly continual bending of tempo. She had her way with the concerto, infusing extra emotion into the already-fraught score. Nézet-Séguin was with her every step of the way and it was apparent that the two were of one musical mind.

Hahn’s nimble virtuosity sparkled, and Nézet-Séguin and the entire orchestra gazed admiringly as she whipped through the cadenza in the first movement. Another admirer – a cricket – joined Hahn with a few chirps at the end of the cadenza.

Hahn responded to the enthusiastic ovation with a tender encore written for her by the composer and saxophonist Steven Banks. Through My Mother’s Eyes, musically depicts a child at bedtime, and Hahn dedicated the performance to her own young children.

Hilary Hahn performs Tchaikovsky’s "Violin Concerto" with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting, at the 2023 Bravo! Vail Music Festival. (credit: Tomas Cohen)

Hilary Hahn performs Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto” with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting, at the 2023 Bravo! Vail Music Festival. (credit: Tomas Cohen)

The second half of the July 12 program was devoted to Symphony No. 3 by the 20th-century American composer Florence Price (1887-1953), a 1938 work for which Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s recording earned a 2022 Grammy award. Much hoopla has been made over Price’s music in the past decade or so, especially after a treasure trove of lost scores were discovered in the attic of an abandoned Midwest home. Price’s historical distinction was as the first Black woman to have her music performed by a major orchestra – the Chicago Symphony, in 1933. On the whole, however, her chamber and solo piano compositions are far superior to her orchestral writing.

The dreamy quality of the first movement showed off Philadelphia Orchestra’s exceptional brass and wind sections. As usual, Philadelphia’s strings had impeccable intonation and dynamic control. The dull second movement, with its unmemorable theme, was required drudgery before the reward of the lively Juba dance in the third movement. Nézet-Séguin reveled in the Gershwin-esque sections, in which influences of holy spirituals and African dance rhythms were apparent.

The encore, also by Price, had a more cohesive style than her symphony – possibly because it was much shorter. Adoration, orchestrated for solo violin and strings by Jim Gray, was performed by Philadelphia’s associate concertmaster Christine Lim. Her gorgeous tone and assured presence belied the fact that Hilary Hahn is a hard act to follow.

Higdon and Rachmaninoff

The Philadelphia Orchestra had a chance to shine on the program on July 13. The boisterous concert opener, Fanfare Ritmico by Jennifer Higdon, was one big splash of percussion with fanciful frenetic turns driving the syncopated rhythm.

That driving rhythm continued through the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. The strings dug into the lyrical section with an uncommon amount of sweetness, and the winds, saxophone, and English horn each had turns with solo passages.

The second movement, a waltz, elicited a heartfelt solo from the concertmaster, who led the violin section with sweetly tender phrases as if he were dancing with his lover. In the third movement, Nézet-Séguin grinned widely at the first smashing downbeat. This section was another workout for the percussion and brass; the entire composition was practically a concerto for orchestra.

Bruce Liu performs Rachmaninoff’s "Piano Concerto No. 2" with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting, at the 2023 Bravo! Vail Music Festival. (credit: Tomas Cohen)

Bruce Liu performs Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting, at the 2023 Bravo! Vail Music Festival. (credit: Tomas Cohen)

The performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 was dedicated to the memory of the groundbreaking pianist André Watts, who had passed away earlier that day at age 77.

The Chinese-Canadian pianist Bruce Liu, whom Nézet-Séguin introduced as “a new star,” gave the most polite reading of “Rach 2” I’ve ever heard. Graceful and assured, he came off as calm and sedate. In the third movement, his runs were fluid and harp-like; finally, at the recapitulation of the theme, there was a perception of power. Throughout his performance, Liu never created a sense of urgency, lacking the fire that makes Rachmaninoff’s music so compelling. On the other hand, the orchestra pounded away at appropriate moments.

Clyne and Mozart

Anna Clyne’s This Moment, one of the new works created as part of Bravo! Vail’s Symphonic Commissioning Project and commissioned by the League of American Orchestras, received its world premiere on July 14. The composition was bucolic, with sustained tonal chords creating a contemplative mood. The title was inspired by poetry by the late Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, “This moment is full of wonders.”

Knowing that it would be paired with Mozart’s Requiem, Clyne borrowed themes from that masterwork’s “Kyrie” and “Lacrimosa,” the latter of which was inspired by another of Hanh’s lines, “Yesterday’s tears are tomorrow’s rain.”

With its introspective mood and use of Mozart’s material, Clyne’s work was a fitting companion to the Requiem. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus’ beautifully blended voices dovetailed with the Philadelphia Orchestra’s instrumental chords. The choir, directed by Duain Wolfe, exhibited excellent dynamic control and balanced nicely with the soloists and orchestra. The soloists, soprano Rosa Feola, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, tenor Issachah Savage, and bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen, were each superb and especially shone in quartet passages in the “Recorare” and “Benedictus.” It was a special performance that affected the audience deeply, judging by the long and loud ovations.

Chamber Music

The Dalí Quartet is an ensemble that literally breathes together, as heard from my seat in the fourth row of the hall on July 11. In their recital at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek, Colorado, about ten miles from Vail, the four moved and played as a single unit, virtually locked in an embrace, playing Haydn’s String Quartet in F minor, Op. 20 No. 5, with impeccable ensemble.

The String Quartet No. 2 by the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas was played with the same exacting togetherness. The work’s rapidly shifting moods, tempo, and dynamics were a pleasant contrast to Haydn’s more conventional score. The quartet has a very physical style of playing. On a number of occasions, the first violinist Ari Isaacman-Beck and the violist Carlos Rubio rose out of their chairs in a joyful unraveling of Revueltas’s dance rhythms.

In the second half of the program, the group was joined by Riccardo Morales, principal clarinet of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and brother of Dalí’s cellist, Jesus Morales, for the Clarinet Quintet by Carl Maria von Weber. Riccardo Morales displayed his virtuosic technique, with clean articulation in the rapid passages, and matched timbres with the strings. The music brought to mind characters like a mini-opera, with a lyrical slow movement like a sad aria and a galloping conclusion ending on a cliffhanger.

The Dalí Quartet with clarinetist Riccardo Morales. (credit: Tomas Cohen)

The Dalí Quartet with clarinetist Riccardo Morales. (credit: Tomas Cohen)

In Paquito d’Rivera’s Preludio y Merengue, the Dalís employed some Latin-American string techniques, including a percussive effect called chicharra (literally “cricket”). Riccardo Morales wailed effortlessly, accompanied by pizzicato strings in this whimsical piece.

On July 13, the community was treated to a free concert – one of several during the festival at the Vail Interfaith Chapel. The young Viano String Quartet, who took first prize at the prestigious Banff competition in 2019, gave a committed performance of Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 3, along with convincing readings of works by Bedřich Smetana and Reena Esmail. The audience left the hall humming the jazzy tune Fly Me to the Moon after the Viano’s performance of a swinging arrangement created by one of their violinists, Hao Zhou.

These were but five of the 80 concerts over the course of the six-week Bravo! Vail Music Festival. In a long-running series that prides itself on top-quality classical music-making, Bravo! Vail fulfills its goal.

The 2023 Bravo! Vail Music Festival runs through August 3.


About the author:
Gail Wein is a journalist and publicist in classical music. As a freelance radio reporter, she creates classical music features for NPR, Voice of America and KUSC in Los Angeles. Her writing credits include The Washington Post, Musical America, Playbill, Symphony Magazine, New Music Box, Classical Source and other publications.