Music in the Heart of Nature

Classic Arts Features   Music in the Heart of Nature
Kenneth LaFave is your guide to the New York Philharmonic'supcoming return to the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, acombination of high art and the raw beauty of nature. The ensemble plays the fest through July 29.


If you look deep enough you will see music; the heart of nature being everywhere music." So said the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle, whose intuition is borne out by concerts of the New York Philharmonic in the breathtaking outdoor beauty of Vail, Colorado. Look deeply into the pine-covered mountains above the amphitheater at the Bravo! Valley Vail Music Festival and you will, indeed, see music even as you hear it : music and nature blended in unique kinship.

The Philharmonic is returning to the Rocky Mountains, July 22 _29, for its ninth annual residency at the festival. The six concerts will be led by three different conductors : Music Director Alan Gilbert leading three concerts; Ludovic Morlot, one; and Bramwell Tovey, the final two. The soloists will be violinists Augustin Hadelich and Gil Shaham, and pianist Kirill Gerstein, as well as violinist Veronika Eberle and pianists Alexander Romanovsky and Jean- Efflam Bavouzet, three artists who are making their Philharmonic debuts.

Given the majesty of the mountains and their potential for cradling great music, it is difficult not to wax poetic. "I have on memorable occasions experienced a blissful synergy of beauty while listening to the New York Philharmonic in Vail, punctuated by a light breeze blowing through the amphitheater carrying the fresh mountain air, or the sound of a bird singing in what seems to be in response to the Orchestra," says Argie Tang, a Philharmonic Patron, vice-chairman of Bravo!, and, beginning this October, its chair. She and her husband, Oscar Tang, host an annual party at their Vail home in which a notable group of Philharmonic friends celebrates the Orchestra, an event that Mrs. Tang acknowledges "has become a sort of Vail summer tradition. we are honored to have the opportunity to show the New York Philharmonic how much it means to Bravo!"

The dialogue of music with nature is one of the things that Anne-Marie McDermott, the festival's new artistic director, first noticed about the place. Like most of us, she is used to thinking of the Philharmonic in Avery Fisher Hall, where she has performed with the Orchestra as piano soloist, and where her sister Kerry is a member of the Philharmonic's violin section. Still, she finds the Orchestra's annual visit to the Rockies a remarkable combination, saying: "Music and nature go hand in hand, and so many of our most beloved composers drew their greatest inspiration from the sounds of nature. Being surrounded by such a vividly dramatic and inspiring mountainous backdrop brings the music to life and opens our imagination to the sounds of both music and nature." For the New York Philharmonic musicians, going to Vail to make music is almost an aesthetic homecoming. Says cellist Eric Bartlett: "I wake up to a babbling brook, the temperature is 48 degrees and there is fresh clean mountain air sailing through my condo. I ride my bike to work and I am there in seven or eight minutes." Quite a change from waking to traffic noise and rushing for the subway or fighting traffic in a daily commute. But if the pristine natural environment has its attractions, those same elements can easily become distractions. Mindy Kaufman, solo piccolo and a flutist in the Orchestra, recalls a memorable day during the Philharmonic's first Vail summer, when the allure of nature nearly kept her from being on time for a concert: "Between rehearsal and the concert that day, I decided to take the tram up [Vail Mountain], hike around, and then take the tram back with another musician. It was a beautiful day, and we did a nice little hike and then headed back to the tram at about 3:30 for a 6:00 p.m. concert. There was not a cloud in the sky, but way, way off in the distance there was a dark cloud, so they shut down the tram! We weren't sure if it would start up in time to get us to the bottom in time for the concert : it was seven miles down! : so we decided to run down. I was limping by the time we got to the bottom. We just made it!" She never takes the tram anymore, preferring to hike on foot when there's a concert that evening.

The 8,000-plus-foot altitude at Vail poses other specific challenges for wind players, as Ms. Kaufman explains: "I cannot play as long a phrase as at sea level, so it is necessary to plan additional breaths. And because of the dryness, my embouchure doesn't feel the same. It takes some getting used to."

Mr. Bartlett usually arrives in Vail a day earlier than required in order to adjust to the thin air. "For most of the past seven summers my friend Paul Kozel has joined me for the first week," Mr. Bartlett says. "We go out a day early and get in one hike to 12,000 feet before the Orchestra arrives. On the first day off, four days later, we climb to 13,000 feet, and then on the next day we usually attempt one of the 14,000-foot peaks. So far I have scaled five of them, one of them by bicycle.

For audiences, Vail is a radical change not only of venue but of cultural context. Eric Bartlett explains: "As musicians, we don't have the opportunity to process the beauty of nature while we play. I think it is different for the audience. The more relaxed nature of being outdoors : of eating and drinking, of mingling, of sitting on the grass : takes some of the stuffiness out of classical music and makes it a fun cultural event."

"we have such a loyal audience," Mindy Kaufman notes. "Even when it's cold and raining, from my seat on stage I'll see the entire lawn filled with umbrellas." The Philharmonic audiences in Vail make the most of the varied offerings that are available. Meredith Richards, who directs marketing and public relations for the festival, notes that both visitors and locals "are programmed to get as much play as possible out of a day in Vail. The abundance of activities makes people want to do it all. It's very possible to play golf in the morning, bike Vail Mountain in the afternoon, and watch the sunset at a Bravo! concert in the evening."

But when all is said and done, the heart of the residency lies in the music, with six different programs in eight days. One concert will couple Rachmaninoff's ever-popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with Act II of Tchaikovsky's perennial The Nutcracker; another follows a Broadway medley with a suite from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

There is also Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, Ravel's arrangement of Musorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, and more, including Mahler's Fifth Symphony, capping off the Philharmonic's season-long tribute to its former Music Director who died 100 years ago. Of all the major symphonists, Mahler's relationship to nature was perhaps the most explicit. "Don't bother to look at the view," he once said to a visitor gazing out his window at the beautiful countryside. "I have already composed it."

No need to choose at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, where it's possible to see your music and hear it, too.


Kenneth LaFave composes and writes about music.

Today’s Most Popular News: