Where Ancient Peaks Embrace Old Friends, Music Adds Its Wonder

Donald Runnicles conducted the Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra in Britten’s ‘Four Sea Interludes,’ Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations,’ and Carl Vine’s ‘Five Hallucinations’ for trombone and orchestra. (Concert photos by J. Gustavo Elias)

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. — Even when obscured by smoke drifting in from distant wildfires, the Grand Tetons’ towering peaks command awe. The tallest cluster, which dominates the promotional posters for this summer’s Grand Teton Music Festival, has been dubbed “the Cathedral Group.”

Runnicles has been GTMF music director since 2006.

It’s a setting that easily nourishes music’s transcendent power. No wonder so many of the musicians who make up the GTMF Orchestra are long-timers, returning, summer after summer, as if compelled by a migratory instinct. Numbering about 200 total, they come from 80 orchestras and more than 50 other institutions spread across North America, from the Atlanta and Toronto Symphonies to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. A few even make the pilgrimage from European ensembles.

“After a long symphony season, I see those mountains and breathe this sense of release,” says Susan Gulkis Assadi, principal violist of the Seattle Symphony, who has been part of the festival for 23 years. Because the Grand Tetons Festival lasts a full seven weeks, orchestral assignments are staggered across the summer, hence the unusually large roster of musicians. But Gulkis Assadi is one of a handful who stay in this outpost of the Old West to play throughout the entire festival. “Physically, I don’t think there’s a more beautiful place in the world,” she says. “I never get tired of the mountains. The moose I never get tired of. We see them all the time in our yard.”

That sense of restored wonder imbued the orchestra’s playing not only during its July 30 concert but in the two rehearsals I attended as well. Aside from a recent trombone concerto by the Australian Carl Vine, the program offered ultra-familiar repertoire: the Four Sea Interludes from Britten’s Peter Grimes and Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Yet no matter how much muscle memory they may have brought along, the musicians seemed freshly enraptured by the treasures of these scores. Multiply that effect across an entire orchestra and you get the collective ecstasy that gripped the players during the build-up of “Moonlight,” the third of Britten’s Sea Interludes, when brass and percussion intensified the swelling theme like sunlight shot through a looming thunderhead.

The festival is celebrating its 60th season. At an altitude of about 6,300 feet, it is at the base of the Teton Mountain Range.

The link between the playing and the surroundings is more than casual. Donald Runnicles, who was conducting, told me after a rehearsal that he believes the festival inspires “some of my finest music-making. Music in the mountains, I think, takes us all to a higher place, in more ways than one.” At around 6,300 feet above sea level, the actual altitude does require a little getting used to. “Just ask our wind players!” Runnicles adds. But it contributes to a sense of vigor and renewed energy for the conductor, who has served as festival music director since 2006.

[Read more stories by Thomas May here]

“After a few weeks you feel such superhuman energy, like the Bionic Man,” he says. “The mountain air here is also a metaphor for a renewal of one’s commitment to classical music and to orchestral playing, to why we are in love with music. For me, it’s like we are renewing our vows.”

Susan Gulkis Assadi, principal viola with the Seattle Symphony, has been playing at the festival for 23 years.

Bonds of Friendship 

The kind of bonding that takes place in this rural Wyoming setting is obviously just as crucial a factor as the natural setting on the doorstep of Grand Teton National Park. Together, they inspire the extraordinarily warm, intentional music-making that is a signature of this festival. Both are, in fact, intertwined: Runnicles frequently joins the musicians for hikes or bike rides around the park.

“It feels like we are an extended family,” Gulkis Assadi says. Along with the cherished friendships, some of which have lasted decades, comes the professional benefit of being able to compare notes from different orchestras. “We share ideas of how we play a piece. And then when I go home (to Seattle) and play a lot of this repertoire again, I take ideas back with me. It widens my horizons to hear what’s going on at other orchestras in the U.S.”

The rapport with Runnicles, whom Gulkis Assadi has known since she played in the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, is an integral part of the attraction for the musicians, she points out. “I’ve spent more than 30 years playing with the guy, and he brings such passion to every single rehearsal and concert. It’s a joy musically. I wouldn’t say the Festival Orchestra has a signature sound, since the members change over time. But the sound that Donald draws from us in this hall is amazing, so beautiful and lush. He knows how to encourage us to get what he wants without telling us what to do. He lets us bring our own musical ideas into our playing.” 

Additionally, Runnicles’ vast experience as an opera conductor brings a significant advantage. Following his tenure at San Francisco Opera under Lotfi Mansouri and Pamela Rosenberg, he became general music director of Deutsche Oper in Berlin. Gulkis Assadi notes that in rehearsals he strikes a satisfying balance of offering commentary and background without talking too much (a cardinal sin in orchestral rehearsals). “Many of us have played the Sea Interludes thousands of times. But because he knows the opera they come from so well, he brings in stories and an understanding of the characters” that, she says, adds depth to her playing.

Vice versa, by bridging what Runnicles calls “this ridiculous continental divide between orchestral playing and opera” in the U.S., players from opera company ensembles gain insights into symphonic integration and shaping. Ultimately, the conductor says, “great singing informs great playing.” Indeed, the inaugural week of this year’s festival featured an evening of opera arias with the orchestra in an open-air concert in nearby Jackson.

Summering with a Purpose

The Grand Tetons Music Festival isn’t a place where these musicians come to merely relax and, as the saying goes, “phone it in” while enjoying the resort surroundings. Unlike most other summer festivals, a weekly pattern of four full rehearsals is scheduled for each program with performances on Friday and Saturday nights. There’s an evident desire to continue working, to gain new insights into pieces from the canon along with preparing for some premieres (the most anticipated of which was still to come: Jessie Montgomery’s new Five Freedom Songs, a fesstival co-commission created in collaboration with soprano Julia Bullock).

“Why come here during vacation? Why not just one rehearsal? Because they really want to come here and enjoy the challenge of repertoire that may be new for them,” Runnicles says. “The orchestra is so interesting because it is such a heterogeneous mixture, coming from large and small orchestras, some chamber orchestras, some professors. Some of them never get a chance to play Mahler with their institutions back home.” In addition to which, “there are certain works that you want to hear in this setting” — Mahler, Richard Strauss, or Bruckner above all being ideal experiences against the titanic Teton backdrop. “So they have a sporting chance of enjoying their rehearsals. There’s no stress about being here except, at the moment, because of COVID.”

The Cathedral Group mountains provide an awesome setting for works of Mahler, Bruckner, and Richard Strauss. (Wikipedia)

Runnicles was referring to the troubling news that had just arrived from the CDC about the transmissibility of the Delta variant. The festival accordingly announced a sudden change in mask policy, advising (though not mandating) that all patrons wear one. Since the start of this year’s festival, the audience in Walk Festival Hall, the home venue in Teton Village, had been limited to half of its 750-seat capacity. As of this writing, in mid-festival, there were no plans to curtail any events.

While feeling reassured by the fact that the organization “is 100% vaccinated,” Gulkis Assadi admitted some anxiety stemming from the larger-than-usual crowds in Jackson, with many vacationers substituting a trip to the national parks this year for the regular outing to Europe.

Being deprived of the customary reunion at last summer’s festival keenly enhanced anticipation for the current season, for the sense of homecoming to Jackson Hole and the chance to perform live again. Some of the musicians had been without in-house audiences with their “regular” orchestras since the pandemic began. The temptation to play with unbridled brio resulted in some rough edges in the concluding, violently accented “Storm” from the Four Sea Interludes and in the “Troyte” movement and finale of the Enigma Variations. But sometimes (as in now), such adrenaline-charged exuberance is exactly what you want – a welcome alternative to coiffed, über-massaged playing.

Curiously, the urge to “overplay” is an ongoing challenge in the intimate all-wood Walk Hall, which platforms the players right in front of the audience with no intervening proscenium. The acoustics are so bright and responsive that you feel elated and enveloped by the sound. According to Gulkis Assadi, Runnicles reminds the musicians to be continually aware of that power and when it needs to be reined in. The balance allows for an enormous dynamic range that was richly exploited, for example, in the sustained notes and fraught silences of “Dawn” in Britten work.

Michael Mulcahy was the soloist in Carl Vine’s trombone concerto inspired by five case studies by neurologist Oliver Sacks.

Vine, Britten, Elgar

Runnicles usually shares the baton with a few guest conductors who cover three weeks of the orchestral programs (not originally scheduled for the period I attended, Week 4 – July 28-31). New Zealand conductor Gemma New was set to make her festival debut, but when she had to cancel, Runnicles took over. New had set the Britten and Elgar as bookends to a new work from Down Under: Australian composer Carl Vine’s Five Hallucinations for Trombone and Orchestra, commissioned for and premiered by festival principal trombonist Michael Mulcahy in 2016 with the Chicago Symphony.

The intriguing title refers to five case studies by the brilliant, late neurologist Oliver Sacks involving auditory or visual hallucinations: One patient hears random sentences while falling asleep (“I smell the unicorn” – first movement), another is overtaken by visions of animated geometrical figures (“Hexagons in pink” – fifth movement).

The work proved conceptually a good deal more intriguing than the actual musical result, which remained tethered to a volatile, free-wheeling modernist idiom without pushing to the extreme invention that such material might suggest. The opening especially suggested a kind of free-form fantasy on the craggy, trombone-laden passages from the first movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3.

Still, the solo challenges are considerable, and Mulcahy masterfully limned a spectrum of personalities from his instrument, from oracular, cantorial pronouncements often grounded in the absolute lowest pitch possible on the instrument, to smoothly flowing cantabile. Vine wrote an extensive cadenza that further explores the notion of the solo trombonist as experiencing these hallucinations in the context of the orchestral “real” world (which includes three trombones and tuba as part of the ensemble).

If the Vine left the weakest impression, that is because the Britten and Elgar were each performed with such fervor, passion, and nuance. The program might as well have been tailored for Runnicles. The Britten was far more than a seascape — a veritable condensation of the desperation, loneliness and brutality worked out at length in the opera, laced with heavy doses of Mahlerian passion.

With Enigma, Runnicles again proved his flair for late Romantic repertoire, delivering the sequence of Elgarian friends with dramatic pacing. An enjoyable sense of the score’s humorous elements leavened the seriousness and melancholy so present already in the first statement of the theme, glowing with a sumptuous undertow of viola and cello. 

A New Era

Each week at festival culminates in a full orchestral concert, performed twice. The offerings that preceded it hinted at the programming range the festival plans to explore further under its new executive director, Emma Kail. Following an impressive tenure as general manager of the Kansas City Symphony, Kail took over from interim director Simon Woods last September, in the middle of the pandemic, so this is her first full season .

As part of its New Gateway series of concerts, Third Coast Percussion gave an intermission-less performance of music by Danny Elfman, Philip Glass, Devonté Hynes, Clarice Assad, and Jlin. The series is intended to mirror the adventure-inducing diversity of natural settings in the area by presenting genre-crossing artists and programs, and to judge by this enthusiastically attended example alone, it’s a brilliant move. I have written about this concert in more detail here.

Third Coast Percussion performed a program of music by Danny Elfman, Philip Glass, Devonté Hynes, Clarice Assad, and Jlin.

The week began with a chamber concert — widely and wildly ranging in instrumentation — as part of the series curated by Adelle Eslinger-Runnicles, who is married to the conductor. In addition to what I have written elsewhere about this event, I would like to underscore the delight of making the unexpected discovery here of a young American composer, Kimberly Osberg, whose quintet Just Another Climb captivated the audience with its compact, vivid depiction of the first “manless” ascent of the Grand Teton in 1939 — in a state that preceded the 19th Amendment by more than a half century in granting women’s suffrage.

By way of setting the stage for his Festival Orchestra concert, Runnicles shared an Aldous Huxley quote: “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” Silence, after our prolonged trauma of the past two years, has become intolerable without music as its counterpart. This year’s Grand Tetons Music Festival offered an exhilarating way to re-acclimate to the experience of live music shared with other people.