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A Music Festival In The Grand Tetons

July 19, 2011

Just returned from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where I spent five days singing Mahler's Symphony No. 2 with the Festival Chorale of the Grand Teton Music Festival, hiking, biking, swimming and generally enjoying what must be one of the most beautiful places in the world.

I have a massive backlog of blog post ideas to catch up with, but I wanted to start with a few words about my experience there.

The Festival is 50 years old. It's led by Donald Runnicles, the former music director of the San Francisco Opera, which explains why so many top-tier Bay Area-based musicians and choral singers make their way up each summer. Though the orchestra members and singers come from all over the country, the largest contingent for the Mahler came from San Francisco and nearby owing to already-established relationships with Runnicles and chorus director Ian Robertson (who also runs the San Francisco opera Chorus and San Francisco Boys Chorus) and have been performing at the Festival for a number of years.

I only managed to catch one concert other than the one I was performing in while I was there. But it strikes me from looking at the festival program and catching a glimpse of it in person, that the Grand Teton Music Festival is a gem of a summer music event.

The standard of the musicianship is very high. Another asset is the variety of the chamber music programming: Where else can you hear Bach's Suite No 2 in D minor for Unaccompanied Cello on the same program as Joan Tower's Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman? The chamber music concerts are one of the greatest delights of the festival. In the single concert I saw, I heard two of the Festival orchestra's percussionists giving a lickety-split performance of Steve Reich's Nagoya Marimbas, a quirky world premiere by David Vayo (a setting of the Robert Grave poem "Welsh Incident" for trombone, French horn and two unseen, amplified narrators), Bohuslav Martinu's Duo for Violin and Cello No 1, a passionate song cycle by Fernando Obradors (Canciones Clasicas Espanolas) performed beautifully by soprano Leah Crocetto (one of my favorite up and coming opera stars and the soprano soloist for the Mahler 2) and pianist Adelle Eslinger, and Sergei Prokofiev's Quintet in G minor Op 39 for the unusual grouping of violin, viola, double bass, clarinet and oboe. I particularly appreciated this little-performed quintet for its sinister sense of humor. However, I could have done without the long introductory notes given by the bassist, who insisted on telling us her group's 'interpretation' of the work. Her attempt to make the audience listen to Prokofiev's piece in a programmatic way -- she said it was all about different goings on at a circus -- was annoying and unnecessary. Still, the playing was lovely.

The Mahler itself went pretty well. It's a formidable piece. I've sat in a Mahler orchestra before as an oboist, but this was the first time I've ever sung in one of the composer's works. It was so much fun sitting behind the horns and trumpets and watching them go wild.

On the downside, schlepping to Wyoming to sing what amounted to about 10 minutes of music -- most of it very quiet and contained -- seemed like a lot of effort for relatively little musical reward. With so many great singers hauling ass from all over the country to sing the Mahler, why not have a special choral concert to showcase their talents? I gather this has happened in previous years, but I still don't know why the chorus was so under-used this time around. Also, the Walk Festival Hall, the 700-seat space where the concerts take place throughout the festival, is drab. It reminds me of a high school gym. It's tolerable for chamber music concerts, and even quite fun if you sit in the front row as I did where you are about a foot away from the musicians (there is no pit or raised stage). But it's way too poky for big orchestral works.

On a final note, it's easy to see why musicians and singers make space in their calendars to travel to Jackson Hole in the summer. Not only is the landscape spectacularly beautiful, but going there under the auspices of the Festival is like a free(ish) vacation. Even though choristers pay their own way to Wyoming, the accommodation, in well-appointed ski homes at the Teton Village resort, is provided at no cost. The musicians, some of whom come for the duration of the seven-week event while others come and go for parts of it, are paid an allowance, and receive the chance to play some wonderful music and be among different colleagues for a while. Everyone can bring their families and friends. It's really a giant music camp for adults, though I'm grateful to violinist Holly Mulcahy for pointing out that the term "summer camp for adults" isn't quite fair because the musicians are all professionals and prepare their music at the same standards expected in our home professional orchestras.

I'll go again, if I get the chance. Rumor has it that we'll be doing Verdi's Requiem next time around which'll mean less sitting on hard wooden risers and more singing. Hooray.

P.S. I've been receiving some rather heated comments in response to this blog post. I should stress the following as my words seem to have been misunderstood or taken in a very extreme way:

1. I had a great time at the Festival and enjoyed singing in the chorus immensely.

2. When I say that there was "little musical reward" I'm not criticizing the work itself (which is magical) or the festival's interpretation of it, which was good. I even shed a few tears during the final movement on the second night, I was so moved. I enjoy singing all kinds of music at all volume levels, quiet music included. I do not think that music has to be loud and bombastic to be enjoyable to sing. I just think that relative to the amount of travel and time that most people in the chorus put into preparing and performing the work, the payoff was quite small. For the orchestra, Mahler 2 is an achievement. For the chorus, not so much.

3. I stand by my words about Walk Hall. And a bunch of people I chatted with at the festival agreed with me so I know I'm not the only person who thinks the place needs an overhaul.


  • Prokofiev's Quintet began life as musical accompaniment to a ballet called Trapeze. It's not her interpretation, it's actually Prokofiev's. It IS programmatic.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At July 19, 2011 at 5:23 PM  

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