Eyeful Of Grand Vistas, Earful Of Great Music: Critics Hit Bravo! Vail

The Bravo! Vail Festival’s largest venue is the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, where the Philadelphia Orchestra performed recently. (Photos by Tom Cohen Photography)

VAIL, Colo. — Nestled in the mountains of Colorado, the town of Vail is practically synonymous with snow, skiing, and winter sports, but during the summer it becomes a mecca for classical music lovers with its acclaimed Bravo! Vail Music Festival. For six weeks, from June to August, Bravo! Vail offers orchestra concerts, chamber music, recitals, and music-education events, drawing more than 50,000 fans to the town, which has an elevation of 8,150 feet.

Founded in 1987 by arts administrator John Giovando and violinist Ida Kavafian, Bravo! Vail started with a few chamber concerts and a budget of $25,000. Now in its 36th season, the festival’s budget has grown to $9.2 million in support of more than 60 events, generating an economic impact of $29.2 million for Eagle County. Since 2011, it has been led by artistic director and pianist Anne-Marie McDermott; executive director Caitlin Murray joined five years ago.

Bravo! Vail is the only music festival in North America that presents four major orchestras. This year’s lineup comprises the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Fabio Luisi, the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the New York Philharmonic under Jaap van Zweden, and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields with Joshua Bell. The first three bands are regular returnees, while the fourth showcases an ensemble from outside the United States (from London). Next year, Mexico’s Orquesta Sinfónica de Minería, led by Carlos Miguel Prieto, will be featured, marking the first time a Latin American orchestra performs at the festival. Other prominent conductors who share the podium this season are Stéphane Denéve, Giancarlo Guerrero, Hannu Lintu, and Marin Alsop.

Bruce Liu was soloist in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

On the chamber-music side of the ledger, Bravo! Vail offers a variety of concerts with top-notch quartets, such as the Dover Quartet, the Dalí Quartet, the Galvin Cello Quartet, the Viano String Quartet, and the Sinta Quartet (saxophone). The Soirée series serves chamber music with culinary delicacies at private homes where you can say “bon appétit” and be serenaded by Bell, McDermott, violinist Maxim Vengerov, members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, violist Cynthia Phelps, or the Isidore String Quartet.

The Classically Uncorked series spotlights new music with exciting groups like Sandbox Percussion, which will collaborate with soprano Susanna Phillips and pianists Gloria Chien and McDermott on Aug. 3 for an evening of John Cage, Charles Ives, and George Crumb. This summer, McDermott, Anna Geniushene, and Ilya Shmukler are performing the complete set of Prokofiev piano sonatas.

Bravo! Vail has eagerly participated in the commissioning of new works. This summer saw the world premieres of This Moment by Anna Clyne and The Mother is Standing by Nina Shekhar plus the Colorado premiere of Angélica Negrón’s Arquitecta. There are also programs for youth, family concerts, and an Inside the Music series.  

The festival’s detailed 200-page program book was an invaluable guide for eight members of the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA), including myself, who sampled the activities July 11-14. That coincided with Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s residency, a real plus for those like me who have only heard them on radio and recordings.

The critics hit the ground listening with our first concert occurring the evening of our arrival. It took place at the 535-seat, handsomely wood-paneled Vilar Center for the Performing Arts in Beaver Creek Village, about a 30-minute ride from Vail, and featured the Dalí Quartet (violinists Ari Issacman-Beck and Carlos Rubio, violist Adriana Linares, and cellist Jesús Morales). In 2021, the ensemble received Chamber Music America’s Guarneri String Quartet Residency and the Silver Medal at the Piazzolla Music Competition. The Dalí Quartet gave incisive performances of Silvestre Revueltas’ dissonance-driven String Quartet No. 2 (Magueys) and Astor Piazzolla’s light yet smoky Tango Ballet. Their playing of Haydn’s String Quartet in F minor, Op. 20, No. 5, had a well-balanced sound but was marred by loud breathing from one of the members.

Bravo! Vail artistic director Anne-Marie McDermott discussed Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 6 as part of the Inside the Music series.

Ricardo Morales, the marvelous principal clarinetist of the Philadelphia Orchestra (also the brother of the Dalí Quartet’s cellist), joined the ensemble for a first-rate performance of Weber’s Clarinet Quintet in B-flat major, Op 34. His breath control and amazing technique created impeccable chromatic runs and spectacular leaps from a low D to a high B-flat nearly three octaves above, making it all sound like a walk in the park. The collective blitz to the finish line in the final movement brought down the house.

Morales and the quartet topped off their program with Paquito D’Rivera’s colorful, jazzy Preludio y Merengue. The scratchy, rhythmic passages (played above the bridge of the violin) and the sinewy textures gave the piece a delightful edginess.

On July 12, the critics reassembled to hear McDermott discuss Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 6 as part of the Inside the Music series. McDermott ranks the composer’s nine sonatas among the greatest body of works for the piano written during the 20th century. She described his Sixth Sonata, written in 1940 and categorized as the first of his three War Sonatas, as apocalyptic because of its violent, militaristic themes. She delved into the piece enthusiastically, deconstructing and demonstrating its passages in a one-hour presentation that clarified the sonata and made it more relatable.

A few hours later, the journalists made their way along the path beside crystal-clear Gore Creek, which is more like a river, to the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater for a Philadelphia Orchestra program. The acoustics of the amphitheater, which seats 2,800 including the lawn, are fairly good for a large outdoor venue.

Hilary Hahn played the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Nézet-Séguin.

One would think that Hilary Hahn, who has played Tchaikovsky’s beloved Violin Concerto in D Major a thousand times, would grow tired of it and crank out a mindless rendition, but she loves the piece and gave it a superb performance, pouring everything she had into it. Immaculate and thrilling arpeggios in the first movement flew from her fingers with such elan that it was easy to imagine a passel of sparky notes starting a forest fire. The audience erupted in applause, which caused Nézet-Séguin to turn around with a smile and yell, “There’s more to it!” That was followed by Hahn and the orchestra delivering the tenderest of second movements and then a brilliantly spirited finale, which drew a sustained standing ovation.

Hahn responded with a lovely encore, Through My Mother’s Eyes, which was written for her by Steven Banks. She dedicated the performance to her children, and it was touching to see Nézet-Séguin listening from a seat in the orchestra.

After intermission, Nézet-Séguin led the orchestra in a robust interpretation of Florence Price’s Symphony No. 3 in C minor, for which they won a Grammy in 2022. They dug into the piece with a lot of emotion, and that might have inspired one of the resident squirrels to make an appearance on the edge of the stage near the first violins (a couple of them noticed with a smile). Folk melodies were enhanced by marvelous brass choirs and expressive solos for trombone and bassoon, and the loosey-goosey Juba dance and scherzo with jazzy trumpets and snappy percussion brought the piece to an exciting close.

The orchestra’s associate concertmaster, Christine Lim, treated the crowd to an exquisite encore, Price’s Adoration, in an arrangement by Jim Gray.

The next morning (July 13), back at the Ford amphitheater, the Philadelphians were rehearsing Jennifer Higdon’s Fanfare Ritmico, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, and his Piano Concerto No. 2 with soloist Bruce Liu, who won the 2021 Chopin International Piano Competition. The stylish Nézet-Séguin, more into designer outfits than many conductors, was garbed in pink shorts and matching T-shirt. The squirrel, perhaps looking for more popcorn under the seats, made a brief appearance as well.

The Dalí Quartet and Philadelphia Orchestra principal clarinetist Ricardo Morales performed Weber’s Clarinet Quintet in B-flat major.

Due to a tight schedule, the critics were late in getting to the Viano String Quartet’s concert at the 300-seat Vail Interfaith Chapel. So, we missed Reena Esmail’s Zeher (Poison) but heard most of Bartok’s String Quartet No. 3. The Viano foursome(violinists Lucy Wang and Hao Zhou, violist Aiden Kane, and cellist Tate Zawadiuk) displayed precise attacks, huge tutti glissandi, and a passage in which they seemed to create a hive of gnawing insects.

Next came Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1 in E minor (From My Life), which received an ardent performance by the ensemble that included an impressive change in mood from happy-go-lucky to melancholy in the final movement — perhaps hinting at the composer’s failing health. The audience responded with rapturous applause, and the Vianos obliged with “Fly Me to the Moon” in a magical and virtuosic arrangement by Zhou.

That evening at the amphitheater, the Philadelphia Orchestra cruised through Higdon’s propulsive and percussive Fanfare Ritmico. I couldn’t hear the piano at all, but that may have been due in part to the loudness of the piece and the outdoor acoustics. The sound from the piano in the Symphonic Dances fared much better. Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra shaped the piece extremely well, eliciting wistfulness and a dusky nostalgia that must have been part of Rachmaninoff’s DNA before wrapping up the piece in a wild, driven way that was ecstatic.  

Unfortunately for me, the listener on my right returned in the second half with a big cup of liquid filled with ice. So for much of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, the ice-bearer crunched the cubes. As with Hahn the day before, Nézet-Séguin was very much in sync with the soloist, even when Liu slowed down the second movement a notch. That perhaps made the faster pace of the last movement more exciting. At least the patrons around me thought so. They were cheering, whistling, and applauding like crazy, which brought Liu back to center stage several times, resulting in an encore, an ambling, uninteresting Bach prelude transcribed by Alexander Siloti

Soprano Rosa Feola, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, tenor Issachah Savage, and bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen were soloists in Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus and Philadelphia Orchestra led by Nézet-Séguin.

On our last day at the festival, the critics met with Anna Clyne to talk about her commissioned piece, This Moment. She described how she was inspired by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thích Nhất Hạnh, who said, “This moment is full of wonders.” She also took two themes from the “Kyrie” and “Lacrimosa” in Mozart’s Requiem and shaped them into the work, using her own style. When we heard the piece later that evening, it felt gentle but not static. The shimmering gong, bowed xylophone, sorrowful low brass, calm strings, and slowly pounding drums gradually transitioned to higher and brighter tones from the flutes and bells as if to suggest a spirit rising.

Mozart’s Requiem featured the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus with soprano Rosa Feola, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, tenor Issachah Savage, and bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen as soloists. With Nézet-Séguin urging the combined forces forward — often from movement to movement with only the slightest pause — the Requiem was taut and intense throughout. The soloists blended well for the most part, and the chorus, prepared expertly by Duain Wolfe, did well with the lion’s share of singing, but it seemed that the tenor sound became a little thin toward the end. Maybe the elevation and dry air had something to do with it.

It is too bad that the orchestra’s rehearsal time is limited to one and done for each piece. Still, the panoply of high-quality events makes Bravo! Vail a top draw for summer festivals.