Amid Natural Splendor Of Bravo! Vail Festival, NY Phil Invokes Mahler

Bravo! Vail artistic director Anne-Marie McDermott in action. (Photo by Carly Finke for Bravo! Vail Music Festival)

VAIL, Colo. — More than one-and-a-half miles above sea level, there’s a special tang to the music. Or perhaps it’s a side-effect of the serene backdrop of wooded slopes, alpine flowers, and spectacular cloud formations. Whatever the reason, the fading A minor chord that closes the lid on Mahler’s Sixth Symphony reverberated with a peculiar blend of shell-shocked dread and exuberant release.

The New York Philharmonic’s performance of the Mahler under Jaap van Zweden marked the pinnacle of the residency they just concluded at the 2022 Bravo! Vail Music Festival amid Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Tranquilly perched in a valley within the White River National Forest, the ski resort town of Vail serves as the summer home for three symphony orchestras and one chamber orchestra, which Bravo! Vail presents in back-to-back residencies during the six-week festival.

This year’s program, running from June 23 to Aug. 4, included three concerts by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, five by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and six each by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. The New York musicians have been regular guests for 19 of Bravo! Vail’s 35 seasons, where they traditionally appear as the culmination of the orchestral part of the festival; it was just announced that their residency has been extended through 2027.

Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic at Bravo! Vail. (Photo by Tom Cohen for Bravo! Vail Music Festival)

My inaugural experience of Bravo! Vail (July 23-27) coincided with four of the New York Phil’s six programs — a period when the wildly unpredictable mountain weather turned out to be delightfully cooperative. Making the pilgrimage has a persistently physical component. You need some time to acclimate to the altitude, and the effort to keep properly hydrated is constant — a small toll to pay for the splendor of the natural setting, which, without doubt, is an inexhaustible component of the festival’s attraction. Nature’s presence frames each performance at the main venue: the open-air Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, whose 1,260-seat covered area conveys a surprisingly intimate atmosphere, with capacity for another 1,300 guests on the grass-covered hillside extending beyond the pavilion.

But nature has been known to make a subversive intervention. Longtime Bravo! Vail followers still talk about the stormy outburst that added a counterpoint of its own when Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the Philadelphia Orchestra in Verdi’s Requiem in 2013. During the ensemble’s residency this summer, thunder and lightning sirens necessitated an unplanned break during a concert under Nathalie Stutzmann. In the rain-drenched hours leading up to the New York Phil’s Mahler Sixth, I couldn’t help wondering whether a spontaneous thunderclap would restore the third hammer blow in the last movement. But the elements allowed van Zweden’s interpretation, which omits it, to proceed as planned.

Versatile, Hands-On Directorship

“There’s something special about hearing these masterpieces in this venue,” says Anne-Marie McDermott, Bravo! Vail’s artistic director since 2011 — the third person to hold that position since its founding in 1987. (Her contract was recently extended to 2025.) “Mahler especially, with the birds and the trees — and the storms.” For opening night of the New York Philharmonic’s residency (July 21), she points out, a pairing of Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto with Mahler’s First Symphony was greeted by a giant rainbow straddling the amphitheater.

The link with nature can apply to contemporary music at the festival, as well. In the first week of the 2022 edition of the festival, Fabio Luisi led the Dallas Symphony in the world premiere of Katherine Balch’s orchestral piece music for young water that danced beneath my feet — a co-commission with Bravo! Vail that exemplifies the role local color can play. It was inspired by the sounds the composer discovered were made by high-altitude ice-melt on the trails in nearby Keystone, where she spent a recent summer.

Conrad Tao was soloist with the New York Philharmonic in Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G major, K. 453. (Tom Cohen for Bravo! Vail Music Festival)

But along with the nature angle, McDermott understands that the social interaction at the heart of the festival is essential to its vitality. During a break in the New York Phil’s morning rehearsal for the final concert of the residency — the crowded schedule typically permits only one run-through before each performance — she shared her perspective on what she considers some of the festival’s most significant challenges and changes over the past several years.

“People keep coming back here because it’s a very social place,” McDermott said, adding that the pandemic disruption only intensified that longing to connect. When the normal orchestral festival had to be canceled in 2020, she brainstormed with her close associate Caitlin Murray, the festival’s dynamic executive director, to map out an alternative program of chamber concerts. These took place at the Ford Amphitheater (with the audience limited to 175 people spread across its space) and on a mobile concert truck stage, the Bravo! Vail Music Box, which technical director Todd Howe designed to enable bringing performances to homes and public areas around Vail Valley.

McDermott is convinced that the pandemic and the festival’s response to it “unlocked people’s realization of just how important live music is and showed the power concerts have for a community.” The versatility and hands-on commitment she brings to her leadership allow her to engage with that community on multiple levels. Along with curating the festival’s vision, McDermott — an active pianist throughout the year, touring widely and recording — frequently participates as a performer in orchestral and chamber concerts.

Near the start of the 2022 festival, for example, she joined with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra to premiere a piano concerto Bravo! Vail commissioned from the American composer Chris Rogerson, a former master-class student of McDermott. Rogerson has also written new cadenzas for some of the works she has been recording as part of her ongoing complete Mozart piano concerto cycle.

An Enthusiastic Audience

I got a glimpse of the Bravo! Vail Music Box in action on my first evening, when the New York Philharmonic Brass Quintet serenaded exiting concertgoers with a pop-up performance of arrangements from West Side Story. The enthusiasm of the audience became apparent at once during the preceding concert. In her new piece Lumina, Nina Shekhar, a protégée of Vijay Gupta, manipulates orchestral densities, register, timbral contrasts, and dynamics to evoke varying degrees of light and dark. Against the obscurity and occlusion that loudness sometimes betokens, sotto voce passages suggest the piercing presence of light.

Lumina was the only contemporary piece I heard during the New York Philharmonic’s residency, though the evening before they had given the world premiere of Carlos Simon’s Profiles (another festival co-commission). Shekhar’s music had to compete with some of the random ambient sounds of the venue, but the audience attended to it with the mindfulness it encourages.

I was inspired by the rapt connection Conrad Tao made with the public in his joyfully lucid account of the ensuing work on the program, Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G major, K. 453. A well-known soloist at this festival, Tao contributed extensive cadenzas of his own to each movement. They took on the dimension of substantial soliloquies, freshly illuminating the familiar score’s sense of harmonic surprise. His encore of “Le jardin féerique” from Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye proved to be the perfect complement, for both the Mozart and the slowly fading sunlight pouring into the Ford Amphitheater.

The young cellist Zlatomir Fung was soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations with the New York Philharmonic. (Carly Finke for Bravo! Vail Music Festival)

The concert concluded with Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony. Van Zweden’s account made much of the showdown between the work’s turbulence and pastoral rumination, encouraging tightly chiseled rhythmic articulation but also allowing for elegiac warmth in the slow movement.

The most intriguing example to me of the Bravo! Vail audience’s response came with the following night’s concert, which was solely devoted to Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. This was part of a special Mahler focus for this summer’s New York Phil residency, which they launched with a performance of the First Symphony. A modest exhibit at the Vail Public Library documented the orchestra’s close relationship with the composer during Mahler’s final years. Van Zweden had been sidelined by a shoulder injury when he was originally scheduled to conduct the Sixth on the orchestra’s home turf in 2019, so this was his first time leading the players in that formidable work.

From his years as concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, van Zweden acquired a deeply intuitive understanding of the composer that adds another layer to the New York Philharmonic’s deep Mahler roots. He was in top form throughout, guiding and adjusting the Sixth’s vast panoply of timbres — the expanded orchestra spread out to fill the entire Ford Amphitheater stage — like a precision engineer.

Van Zweden revealed how much of the score’s intricate counterpoint involves tone color as well as line. That’s an especially impressive feat in an outdoor venue that relies on amplification to take the place of concert hall acoustics. (Some of the credit goes to the subtle sound engineering ensured by the young conductor Jerry Hou.) Overall, van Zweden conveyed an extraordinarily transparent vision. The slow movement (performed after the scherzo, as Mahler originally intended) unfurled as a single, elongated breath, and he brought a laser focus to the sprawling finale. His Sixth clocked in at a relatively brisk 77 minutes, but its urgency never felt rushed. By the end of this unrelenting juggernaut, the audience seemed paradoxically refreshed, even exuberant.

Pushing Beyond the Comfort Zone

While Bravo! Vail is mostly celebrated as an orchestral festival, McDermott and her team have significantly expanded the role of chamber music through various series presented at venues across the region. The festival’s commissioning program has a chamber focus, and a new initiative co-curated by the Dover Quartet, “Classically Uncorked,” was introduced this year as a kind of postlude to close out the festival following the orchestral residencies. The model is akin to New York’s Le Poisson Rouge venue and is intended to provide a relaxed, cabaret-style atmosphere where new music is juxtaposed with chamber classics.

The Verona Quartet and Anne-Marie McDermott performed Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Piano Quintet in G minor. (Carly Finke for Bravo! Vail Music Festival)

I sampled chamber-music at the midpoint of my visit with a trip to the handsome Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek (about a 25-minute drive from Vail) to hear a concert featuring the Verona Quartet. They opened with a haunted, fragrant account of the early Puccini miniature Crisantemi, which they followed with the F major Quartet from Beethoven’s Op. 18 set. Polished if slightly underfed emotionally, their Beethoven benefited from an impressive timbral balance and textural clarity.

The most exciting part of the program came on the second half, when McDermott joined the young players for Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s miraculous first opus, the Piano Quintet in G minor, composed at the age of 18 in 1893. It’s a big-boned and far-ranging piece, at times taking on the dimensions of a piano concerto with its elaborate keyboard part and lush string fabric. They played with conviction, reveling in Coleridge-Taylor’s astonishing flights of fancy — and demonstrating that his shamefully neglected achievement deserves a place in the repertoire.

McDermott mentioned that a gently incremental push beyond the audience’s comfort zone of familiar literature is increasingly part of Bravo! Vail’s mission. “We need to look forward with new commissions, but also backward,” meaning to history, to composers like Coleridge-Taylor who have been unfairly missing. “The most important thing is to build trust with the audience to bring them along.” Similarly, McDermott has insisted on ramping up the festival’s outreach through free community concerts and after-school programs that offer lessons in piano and violin to youngsters around the region throughout the year.

A Moving Tribute

One of the keenest pleasures of enjoying music in a festival setting like this one is the chance to let the aftereffects of the most recent concert percolate while taking in the relaxed charm of the town (founded as recently as 1962 but characterized by imitation old-town Bavarian farmhouse and chalet architecture). The musical experience gets an especially inspiring amplification from the surrounding nature. A spontaneous hike along a nearby path winding up from the valley through aspen groves opened up to breathtaking vistas that immediately called to mind Mahler’s dramatic use of shifting musical perspective.

That served to cleanse the palate for the final two, sold-out concerts of the New York Philharmonic’s residency. Both were originally scheduled to be led by Bramwell Tovey, a much-loved regular at Bravo! Vail. When his death earlier in July was announced, Leonard Slatkin was brought in to take his place, and he led the players in a moving tribute at the end of his first night, when they performed Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations as an encore. Their heartfelt performance offered a stirring closure to the vivid emotions stoked by the all-Tchaikovsky concert.

Leonard Slatkin led the New York Philharmonic in a Tchaikovsky program in place of the late Bramwell Tovey, whom they also memorialized. (Carly Finke for Bravo! Vail Music Festival)

If van Zweden brought to mind an intensely focused engineer, always balancing the vertical moment with the panoramic whole, Slatkin was the veteran captain navigating a majestic vessel through the stormy crests and troughs of the Fantasy-Overture Romeo and Juliet and the Fifth Symphony. Warhorses, yes, but there was nothing routine in his dramatically effective pacing. Slatkin juxtaposed Tchaikovsky at his most Romantic and melodramatic with a delectably suave take on the neoclassical role-play of the Rococo Variations, which drew poetically refined virtuosity from the young cello soloist Zlatomir Fung.

To conclude the residency and the orchestral season, Slatkin was joined by mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard and baritone Emmett O’Hanlon for a celebration of the late Stephen Sondheim’s legacy. Because this was the New York Philharmonic, it inevitably included some contributions from Leonard Bernstein, including an eccentric selection from his rarely heard late Arias and Barcarolles (“Mr. and Mrs. Webb Say Goodnight”), for which, like Sondheim, Bernstein combined the functions of composer and lyricist (though without the matched brilliance of his younger colleague). Three excerpts from West Side Story recalled the early collaboration that jump-started Sondheim’s career.