Bravo! Vail Festival Blends New Music with the Classics at its Lavish Colorado Rockies Home

It wasn’t until I’d taken the gondola down from Eagle’s Nest, perched 10,350 feet up on Vail Mountain, that I took in the full idyllic scenery of the Rocky Mountains, where the Bravo! Vail music festival makes its home. It was the third day of my trip and I was rushing to the Ford Amphitheater, after a morning hike to the top of the ski lift, to catch the end of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s rehearsal for that evening’s concert.

From July 12 to 14, I attended the last three concerts of the famed orchestra’s 16th Bravo! Vail residency with seven other members of the Music Critics Association of North America. We got a window into the six-week, $9.2-million summer festival — now in its 36th season — which brings in more than 50,000 visitors every year.

Hungry for the music of today, I gravitated toward the contemporary offerings during my visit, the highlight of which was the world premiere of Anna Clyne’s This Moment. The festival has recently committed to commissioning new symphonic pieces; in 2022, they presented premieres of works by Chris Rogerson, Katherine Balch, and Carlos Simon.

Anne-Marie McDermott, a renowned pianist and the festival’s artistic director since 2011, told my group that the goal is for each new piece to have a life after its premiere. “It’s very important to contribute to the future canon of classical music, whether it’s chamber music, solo piano, or orchestral,” she said. This Moment was commissioned by a multi-orchestra consortium led by the League of American Orchestras, and created to celebrate women composers. Five orchestras will perform the piece during the 2023–24 season.

Anna Clyne (center), with executive director Caitlin Murray (L) and McDermott (R)–Photo by Tomas Cohen Photography

This Moment opened the Philadelphia Orchestra’s last concert at Bravo! Vail 2023, which runs until Aug. 3. Described in the program book as a prelude to Mozart’s larger-than-life Requiem, the six-minute orchestral work still stands on its own. It quotes themes from the Requiem’s “Kyrie eleison” and “Lacrimosa,” and also takes inspiration from a line by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (1926–2022): “When you meditate on death, you love life more, you cherish life more.”

In a conversation between Clyne and my group, the British, New York-based composer gave us a brief outline: after a slow introduction, “you go through a sort of journey within the Mozart, and at the end you’ll hear the same music but transposed up a major third,” she said. “The idea is that it’s somehow transformed through your experience of the music in between.”

Solemn and wrenching, This Moment emerges from glacial strings, with a lightly-brushed ominous gong and a bowed vibraphone. A long, anguished theme starts taking shape in the strings, with languid responses from the woodwinds. Suddenly, the music gets much louder, with tuba and trombones blasting sustained tones; when the theme for strings returns, it is transmogrified, its character changed and shaken up by loud gong crashes.

In her orchestral writing, Clyne arranges fundamental material in layers, a process that she attributes to her background in electroacoustic composition. “You might have an oboe playing a melody, but I’ll double that with both vibraphone and low clarinet,” she said. “That way you combine the colors of the instruments to create new sounds.”

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra at Bravo! Vail 2023–Photo by Tomas Cohen Photography

The multi-layering gives This Moment a constant atmosphere of restlessness. But it’s never sulfurous or uncomfortable; the episodic cycles arrive at respites in major modes, until the music ends in quiet weightiness, suggesting not resignation but acceptance. On the podium, Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted with expressive attentiveness. “Yannick really understands the spirit of my music and is able to get to it quite quickly,” said Clyne, though she added that she’s already contemplating making small adjustments to the score before the next performances — by the Philadelphia Orchestra in their hometown in October, and by the Portland Columbia Symphony in November.

Two days before, on July 12, Nézet-Séguin had led the Philadelphians through Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, with a razor-sharp Hilary Hahn as soloist, and Florence Price’s Symphony No. 3. In the first two movements of the Price symphony, the brass and woodwinds blended mellifluously even in the open-air amphitheater — under the pavilion, the sound comes through almost entirely acoustically, but it is amplified over to the family-friendly tiered lawn in the back.

The orchestra’s sound alternated between lush, sustained sweeps from the strings, and percussion-driven emphatic outbursts, with touches of celeste. In the third movement, “Juba,” Nézet-Séguin channeled the rhythm of the percussive African-American style of dance with verve. In the finale, there was minutely-calibrated phrasing in the way the climactic segments were introduced, with each phrase briefly quieting down for a second before booming up to an orchestral forte.

Hilary Hahn performs at Bravo! Vail 2023–Photo by Tomas Cohen Photography

Hahn was predictably impressive in the Tchaikovsky, though for me, the highlight of the evening — like my mountainside hike, the highlight of my trip — was not programmed: as an encore, she played Steven BanksThrough my Mother’s Eyes, composed for her. The winsome, wide-eyed lullaby evolves from a condensed whimsical motif into full-blown statements, reaching the extreme registers of the violin and gradually ebbing down to a peaceful close. It was beautiful.

The second of the three Philadelphia Orchestra concerts, with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 as the main draw, opened with Jennifer Higdon’s rhythmically saturated Fanfare Ritmico. Part of me wished that her Pulitzer Prize-winning Violin Concerto, written for Hahn herself, had been programmed instead of the Tchaikovsky. Still, it was a fiery performance of the Fanfare; the Philadelphians bustled along Higdon’s busy score, which calls for 26 percussion instruments, capturing the variety of colors and timbres and scurrying every which way under Nézet-Séguin, who was precise, emphatic, and unequivocal.

Besides top-ranking orchestras — the New York Philharmonic, in residence July 19–26, will premiere Nina Shekhar’s The Mother is Standing, a Bravo! Vail co-commission — the festival offers stellar chamber music. The evening I flew in, on July 11, I saw the Dalí Quartet make its Bravo! Vail debut in nearby Beaver Creek. A highlight of the concert was the ensemble’s relentless vigor and unabashed humor during the jaunty String Quartet No. 2, Magueyes, by Silvestre Revueltas.

After intermission, Ricardo Morales, the principal clarinet of the Philadelphia Orchestra, joined in for Weber’s Clarinet Quintet in B-flat. At an altitude of 8,080 feet, it was a test of endurance. The incredibly agile clarinetist was unfazed, although the quartet had to take a short water break after the opening number — an agitated and exciting Quartet in F minor (op. 20), by Haydn.

Dalí Quartet with Ricardo Morales–Photo by Tomas Cohen Photography

I also caught the young ensemble Viano String Quartet, though a scheduling conflict made my group miss the first piece: Reena Esmail’s Zeher (Poison), which combines Indian classical and Western classical music. Formed in 2015 at California’s Colburn School, Viano is committed both to demanding repertoire from the past and to contemporary composers. At Bravo! Vail, their performance of Bartók’s String Quartet No. 3 was biting and nimble, burbling with precision and cohesion between the four members. The encore was a rattling, nearly debauched arrangement of “Fly me to the Moon,” by violinist Hao Zhou.

Cellist Tate Zawadiuk and violinist Lucy Wang told me that they’d found Zeher by chance and had wanted to play it for over a year. At Bravo! Vail 2021, Viano performed Caroline Shaw’s Evergreen, and next week, at Chamber Music Northwest, in Portland, they will premiere The Little Things by Kian Ravaei. Zawadiuk told me that an album in the works will include Moonshot, a recent piece by Alistair Coleman, paired with one of Beethoven’s late quartets (op. 130).

On my last evening, after the Colorado Symphony Chorus had sung the last measures of the Requiem, an air of sadness hung over the amphitheater, though it was broken too soon by an overexcited crowd — Bravo! Vail patrons are quick to take their seats, in couples under the pavilion or with their families on the lawn, and to erupt in applause. Looking around, I could almost see how this picturesque resort town I was about to leave, and its dream festival — tucked away in the Rockies — belongs to the affluent few.

Viano String Quartet–Photo by Tomas Cohen Photography

But McDermott emphasized, when she spoke to my group, the festival’s commitment to new music, which can attract newer, younger audiences, and ensembles that specialize in contemporary music. “It’s very important that we not only look back but that we look forward,” she said. The festival’s Symphonic Commissioning Project, inaugurated in 2022, made This Moment and the upcoming Nina Shekhar premiere possible; on July 2 the project also presented the Colorado premiere of Arquitecta, by Angélica Negrón, performed by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra during its residency. Barely a week later, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the string trio Time for Three, under conductor Stéphane Denève, played Kevin Puts’ Grammy-winning Contact (2022).

Overall, 16 pieces by living composers are being performed this year. One of the featured new-music ensembles is Sandbox Percussion, which in early August is playing Andy Akiho’s 80-minute-long Seven Pillars, and, on a different program, shorter works by Viet Cuong, David Crowell, and others, ending with an excerpt from Reich’s classic Drumming.

Though the full details of Bravo! Vail 2024 won’t be made public until January, it was already announced that Mexico’s Orquesta Sinfónica de Minería — the first Latin American orchestra at Bravo! Vail — will open the festival with three performances in June. Judging from this year’s programming, with its blending of classics and contemporary music, Bravo! Vail 2024 will be worth another hike up to the Rockies.


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