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Bravo! Vail Music Festival

(© Zack Mahone)

Imagine being 8,000 feet above sea level in the foothills of the American Rockies—amid coniferous forests and under an azure‑blue sky—basking in the sounds of the fabulous Philadelphia Orchestra! This is just one of the glories of the Bravo! Vail Music Festival, now in its 36th consecutive season in the resort town of Vail, Colorado.

Bravo! Vail is one of the finest summer music festivals in North America, and the Philadelphia Orchestra is just one of four top‑flight orchestras that participated in summer residencies this year. The others included the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.

Running from June 22 to August 3, this edition of Bravo! Vail, under the inspiring leadership of Executive Director Caitlin Murray, and Artistic Director, pianist Anne‑Marie McDermott, consisted of more than 60 live music performances as well as a broad range of educational and development opportunities for residing artists and local communities.

The range of activities is nothing short of astonishing—orchestral, chamber and solo performances; symphonic commissioning; student education (in conjunction with local school boards and libraries); master classes; artists’ talks; nature walks with live musical illustrations; gifted piano fellows and chamber musicians in residence; internships; free community and family concerts and soirées in magnificent private residences. The festival began featuring a fully‑staged opera in 2019 with Tosca and will continue the tradition next year with La Bohème. To the organizers’ credit, the festival continued without a break throughout the Covid period, but with a scaled‑down version concentrating on chamber music.

In conjunction with this year’s festival, the Town of Vail invited eight members of the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA) to attend part of this summer’s season during the visit of the “Fabulous Philadelphians” under their Music and Artistic Director, Yannick Nézet‑Séguin. I was particularly pleased to attend as Montreal is my home town and have been following “Yannick’s” career with fascination since he was appointed Music Director of Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain in 2000 at the age of 25!

During my “residency” from July 11‑14, I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra on three consecutive evenings at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, a delightful 15‑minute walk from the center of town. The orchestra had already performed three concerts at the amphitheater under the direction of Stéphane Denève (Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Artistic Director of the New World Symphony) before Yannick’s and my arrival. On Wednesday, July 12, Nézet‑Séguin and Hilary Hahn joined the ensemble for a flawless performance of Tchaikovsky’s challenging Violin Concerto. Although Ms Hahn has played this myriad times, it still exuded freshness, elegance and warmth. With her impeccable technique, she nimbly navigated the double, triple and quadruple stops as well as treacherous arpeggios, and tossed off the taut finale with aplomb.

This was followed by Florence Price’s Third Symphony, for which, along with her First Symphony, the orchestra won the Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance in 2022. Although the piece is inspired by various musical styles of African-American folk music, it is worth quoting what Price wrote to conductor Serge Koussevitzky in 1945: “It is not program music. I merely had in mind the life and music of the Negro of today and for that reason treated my themes in a manner different from what I would have done if I had centered my attention upon the religious themes of antebellum days, or yet the ragtime and jazz which followed; rather a fusion of these colored by present cultural influences.” The orchestra handily brought to life the various colors and rhythms of the score with captivating playing from the lower strings, flute, clarinet and harp.

Before the concert of July 13, Nézet‑Séguin announced the sad passing on July 12 of pianist André Watts, at the age of 77. One of the first Black superstars of classical music, Watts grew up in Philadelphia and made his debut with the orchestra in 1957 at the age of 10. He went on to perform with the orchestra 130 times! The concert opened with American composer Jennifer Higdon’s Fanfare Ritmico (1999‑2000). The six‑minute work for large orchestra incorporates 26 percussion instruments, an augmented brass section (including five trumpets and three tubas!), and celebrates, according to Higdon, the “rhythmic motion of man and machine, and the energy that permeates every moment of our being”—an appropriate theme to have introduced the new millennium. The mighty forces of the orchestra were in full play as the churning music built to an apocalyptic climax.

Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, his last orchestral composition, is leaner and more tightly written than earlier works, yet does not lack for lushness and melodic content. The Philadelphia Orchestra gave the world premiere in 1941, and the work must be by now in its DNA! Thursday’s performance was playful and quick‑spirited in the outer movements, nuanced and serene in the middle, with a lovingly-rendered saxophone solo in the first.

Montrealer Bruce Liu, First Prize‑winner of the 2021 Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw, concluded the evening with an elegant, but too often restrained interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. His exceptionally slow tempo in the opening and in the Adagio proved too big a contrast with the more vigorous sections, making it more difficult to provide a unifying arc to the work.

The orchestra’s residency concluded on Friday evening with Franz Beyer’s edition of Mozart’s Requiem. A requiem is an odd choice as a farewell for an orchestra’s visit, but nevertheless it was a rewarding one. Nézet‑Séguin excels as a choir conductor and engages intimately with the soloists and chorus, mouthing expressively as he sings along sotto voce with soloists and chorus. The soloists—soprano Rosa Feola, mezzo‑soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, tenor Issachah Savage and bass‑baritone Kyle Ketelsen—were outstanding. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus, with about 100 members prepared by Duain Wolfe, sang with ardor and nuance as required.

The program began with the world premiere of American composer Anna Clyne’s magnificent This Moment, commissioned by the League of American Orchestras and part of the festival’s Symphonic Commissioning Project. Inspired by the writing of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Zen master and peace activist Thích Nhất Hạnh, who passed away in January, 2022 at the age of 95, the short but colossal work incorporates themes from Mozart’s Requiem and was presented as a prelude to that work. It reflects on Thích Nhất Hạnh’s words “this moment is full of wonders”, which encourages us to live in the present moment and to reflect (according to the program notes) on our “collective grief and loss in recent years”.

Despite the delights of the Philadelphia Orchestra, I enjoyed most the performance by the sensational Dalí Quartet on Monday, July 11, the first evening of my visit. Hailing from Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the U.S., the Quartet presented a fascinating program ranging from European classics (Haydn and Weber) to sizzling 20th Century Latin American works (Revueltas, Piazzolla and Paquito D’Rivera). Ricardo Morales, Principal Clarinet of the Philadelphia Orchestra, joined the ensemble for a ravishing rendition of Weber’s Clarinet Quintet, garnering the most enthusiastic applause of all the concerts I attended. This was presented at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in the gated community of Beaver Creek, a short distance from the Town of Vail.

Finally, as part of the festival’s “Inside the Music” series, Anne‑Marie McDermott “deconstructed” Prokofiev’s epic Sonata No. 6 at the charming Edwards Interfaith Chapel in Vail to a mostly local and enthusiastic audience. Ms McDermott, speaking and illustrating from the piano, shed light on details that illuminate the music and help bring this massive work to life. I only wish I could have been at the Festival on July 17 and 18, when as part of the “Immersive Experiences” series, McDermott, Moscow native Anna Geniushene (Silver Medal‑Winner at the 2022 Cliburn Competition), and Ilya Shmukler (also a finalist at last year’s Cliburn), performed all nine Prokofiev sonatas over the two consecutive evenings.

Bravo! Vail, with its rich and diverse offerings, deserves to be on every mélomane’s bucket list for years to come!

Learn more at:

Bravo! Vail Festival
Classical Voice North America (Journal of the Music Critics Association of North America)

Earl Arthur Love



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