This summer, the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival celebrates its 25th anniversary with more than 60 performances, offering chamber music, jazz, and 19 orchestral concerts from the Festival’s three world-class resident orchestras: the New York Philharmonic, returning under music director Alan Gilbert for its tenth summer; The Philadelphia Orchestra, whose new music director designate, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, makes his Festival debut; and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and its music director, Jaap van Zweden, Musical America’s Conductor of the Year 2012. Celebrated pianist Anne-Marie McDermott returns for a second term as artistic director, and an impressive guest-star roster boasts more than 30 notable soloists. The anniversary season also marks the final summer for the Festival’s founder and executive director, John Giovando. In an illuminating interview below, Giovando reflects on the Festival’s beginnings, how it has developed, and the impact it has had over the past quarter of a century – both on the city of Vail and on the wider musical world out West.
Q: What was the impetus for starting a summer music festival in Vail?
John Giovando: I was living in New Mexico and was general director of a chamber music festival – Music from Angel Fire. Vail Music Festival co-founder Ida Kavafian and I worked together there for several years. In the mid-1980s, I started thinking about creating a new festival in a new place. A friend owned a condo in Vail and he thought something like Angel Fire would work well in Vail, so I wrote a proposal to the town that we would make a tour there with Music from Angel Fire. When we arrived in Vail we brought in a proposal, and the town helped us get started in 1988 with an initial budget of $25,000 – so, for just about nothing! But from there we just kept building on the chamber music performances, until we realized we needed orchestras. First we had the Colorado Springs Symphony, then the Denver Symphony; the Rochester Philharmonic was in residence for 18 years, followed by the Detroit Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, The Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Dallas Symphony. We kept growing and growing and growing, from three concerts in the beginning to about 60 concerts this summer. This summer we have a mix of orchestral programs, chamber music, and educational outreach programs.
Q: What was the first season like at Vail?
JG: In 1988, we just had a few chamber music concerts. It was cold, and the concerts all took place outside. We quickly realized we couldn’t perform chamber music outside! The concerts took place at the Ford Amphitheater. It was so cold we would build bonfires in barrels on the stage, and the audience would sit around them just to keep warm! Once, I remember, we were doing the Schubert String Quintet in C, with rain on one side of the theater and a big bonfire on the other. Ani Kavafian, Walter Trampler, Richard Stoltzman, David Golub, David Jolley, Gary Burton – he now runs Berklee College of Music – all performed. We even had some jazz at the beginning – the jazz-fusion group Oregon. It was a young community, and we programmed a lot of Brahms, Beethoven, Bach, and Schubert. Then we started a commissioning project and brought in a composer-in-residence. The first was Vivian Fine; this year we have Gabriel Kahane coming back after a big success last year.
Q: What was the orchestral scene like at Bravo in the early days?
JG: The first orchestral concert was with the Denver Symphony – they did a July 4th Pops Concert for us. Once we started growing we started bringing in more classical orchestral music. In 1990 the Rochester Philharmonic came with Mark Elder, and that was the first time we had an orchestra-in-residence. At the same time, we had the National Repertory Orchestra from Keystone, Colorado. Before Rochester, the orchestras were just “in and out.” The artistic and musical impetus was always at the forefront but we had to build the organization with funding. We needed strong administration, a strong artistic voice, and a strong board.
Q: How has the Western festival scene evolved in the U.S. over the past 25 years?
JG: The very first festival that really took off was the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. Georgia O’Keeffe was very involved at the time, in the mid-1970s. As that one grew, others started popping up, like in Taos and Angel Fire, and then in Colorado. At first we took the Santa Fe festival to La Jolla, Seattle, and New York, and in some cases those performances helped some of the festivals that grew there to take root. It also led to an enormous growth of chamber music out West. Also, bringing some major U.S. orchestras to Western audiences was something new. It had a huge effect on the Rochester Philharmonic. They brought an enormous amount of repertoire for us – they also brought their families and their pets! Those families grew up with us. That happened a bit with Detroit, and now it’s happening with New York, Philadelphia, and Dallas.
Q: How has the Festival affected the local community?
JG: As the town grew and the valley grew, there was a real sense of pride that it was not just a town for sports – that there was a cultural aspect to the town as well. After we started, this interest in culture inspired the Vail International Dance Festival, the Vilar Performing Arts Center, and other non-profits to take root there. It really helped the performing arts in Vail. Now it’s helped the whole summer season in Vail but we all have to compete for funding and ticket sales. As we grew the repertoire grew, and we became a little more sophisticated with our programming. But the audience also comes for the social aspect. They latch onto big choral works and warhorses. However the heart of the Festival really is chamber music. It’s where we started and it’s still the core.
Q: What kind of audience does the Festival attract?
JG: Fifty-five percent of the audience comes from Colorado, then Texas, New York, Florida, and the Western States. People come from all over the world now, but particularly from Mexico and Canada.
Q: What is happening in the 25th anniversary season that’s particularly meaningful for you?
JG: One of the most meaningful things is Anne-Marie McDermott’s eclectic programming, and the fact that we get to hear these wonderful resident orchestras. With the Dallas Symphony we are doing an evening with jazz soloist Curtis Stigers. We have three hot music directors coming, and we’ve worked out great repertoire with each one. The highlights for me are the Mozart Great Mass in C minor (Fri, July 27), and also hearing Anne-Marie perform a concerto with the Dallas Symphony (Wed, June 27) and with the New York Philharmonic (Sat, July 21).
Q: After 25 years, do you have any regrets?
JG: All the headaches are worth it when you hear the first note. I think, “Wow, this is why we did this,” and it’s all worth it. We get to hear great music performed by great musicians.