It’s been a rough year for the Grand Teton Music Festival.
In November, just a few months after the close of its 58th summer season, a personnel spat grew ugly when festival President and CEO Andrew Palmer Todd dismissed several longtime participants. The rest of the orchestra protested, including Music Director Donald Runnicles, going so far as to suggest that the action put the 2020 festival in jeopardy. Ultimately, the three aggrieved musicians were reinvited, and Todd stepped down.
Then, in December, the world caught news of a strange, pneumonia-like illness spreading in Wuhan, China, caused by a new, “novel” coronavirus for which there was no vaccine and no standard treatment. The World Health Organization declared an international public health emergency on Jan. 30 and then, a full-blown pandemic on March 11.
By the end of that month, it had spread around the globe, including to all 50 of the United States. The global economy slammed shut as businesses closed, people quarantined at home and air traffic plummeted by 95% or more. And as uncertainty grew, with no end to the crisis in sight, organizers throughout the world began to cancel concerts and festivals.
On March 2 the Grand Teton Music Festival announced that tickets for its 2020 season (which included dates featuring Renee Fleming, Bernadette Peters, Midori, Gil Shaham and other international touring artists) were on sale. But on March 30 it issued a press release offering people nervous about gathering at Walk Festival Hall come July options to refund or exchange tickets. Still, the announcement said, the nonprofit would proceed as usual.
It hung onto that hope as artists canceled tours, orchestras canceled seasons and festivals canceled series — Glyndebourne, Aspen, Santa Fe, Tanglewood, Ravinia — until the inevitable became all too clear.
On May 13 the festival board announced, “with very heavy hearts,” its decision to cancel the 2020 59th annual Grand Teton Music Festival.
“However disappointing this news,” the press release read, “our first responsibility is to ensure the health and safety of our audience, musicians, guest artists, staff and the people of Teton County — and canceling the Festival is, sadly, the only way to do that.”
“Disappointing” has been the predominant emotion festival participants have been expressing.
“Some of my very best friends are the people I see just once a year at GTMF,” said trombonist Roger Oyster, a 32-year veteran.
In addition to enjoying all that a Jackson Hole summer has to offer, there’s music-making with some of the world’s finest instrumentalists in one of the world’s most inspiring, rejuvenating settings.
“It’s not just a summer gig,” Oyster said. “It’s a place where we can go back and get reacquainted with the reasons why we do this. … Lots of people I know will tremendously miss it this year.”
“We are all disappointed our summer season could not move ahead as planned,” board co-chairs John Costello and Barbara McCelvey wrote in a joint email to the News&Guide. “We were in ongoing contact with Wyoming health officials, our maestro, musicians’ players committee, board, and staff throughout the spring, and we hoped we would see trends showing large gatherings could be safe this summer. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.”
“We were waiting as long as we could,” said Simon Woods, who at the beginning of the year was selected to serve as interim director of the music festival. “We had known for a few weeks back that it was highly likely it would be canceled. … Over the last couple weeks it became obvious.”
In the end, he said, it came down to a “moral obligation” to the musicians and the community to cancel. By the time the festival’s executive board met earlier this month to make the call, “there was not a lot of doubt about where we’d have to land.”
‘Music in the Mountains’
Unlike some arts organizations, however, the Grand Teton Music Festival is built on an “incredibly solid base of philanthropy,” Woods said. “It is the philanthropy and the generosity in the community that enables the festival to happen. Experience shows from other kinds of national and international crises — 9/11, the Great Recession — that in hard times [donors] tend to stick with the causes they believe in.
“We have not had one single donor say, ‘I’m not going to give you my gift.’”
Nevertheless, Costello and McCelvey noted, “it’s very important to us that we do everything we can to continue to bring music to the valley and sustain relationships with people who love what we do.”
It has therefore begun work on an “immersive filmed festival experience,” dubbed “Music in the Mountains.” While details have yet to be announced, the concept is for festival musicians to convene in August to perform and film several programs that will be aired by Wyoming PBS and, thanks to Woods’ connections, the BBC.
“The idea of it is to come up with three programs of beautifully filmed music-making in Walk Festival Hall,” Simon said, “but also to paint a picture of the festival and what it means in the context of Jackson Hole.
“Donald Runnicles speaks about this alchemy of music, people and nature. That’s what we’re going to try to capture. … the spirit of the festival, the spirit of community … There hasn’t been much video of the festival, so we thought, ‘Well, let’s try to turn adversity into opportunity.’”
In addition to giving festival supporters at least a little bit of the summer music experience they will otherwise be denied, “Music in the Mountains” will help boost the 2021 season, which will celebrate the Grand Teton Music Festival’s 60th year.
“2021 is already planned,” said percussionist Richard Brown, the organization’s artistic advisor, who played his first Teton festival in 1972. “Some were hoping that artists we had to cancel for ’20, we’d get them for ’22.”
But touring stars schedule out years into the future, and not unexpectedly this summer’s guests were already booked for next year.
“So Donald and Jeff [Counts, the festival’s general manager] and I agreed to keep ’21 intact as planned,” he said.
60th anniversary planning
The festival hasn’t yet announced anything about its 60th anniversary 2021 season, but news about it and details about “Music in the Mountains” are expected in July.
The promise that the music will resume sometime — if not in 2021, God forbid, then in 2022 — offers the makings of some silver linings.
“It’s a silver lining which is yet to be seen,” said violinist Jennifer Ross, another 30-plus-year Grand Teton Music Festival stalwart, “but this will encourage more people to come to concerts, more people wanting that live experience. And after the drama of the fall, maybe it’s a good thing that we took a year to take a breather, to define what’s important to the festival, what our mission is and how we’re going to best execute it.”
“One thing that comes out of this for me is just how much live music matters,” Woods said. “I’ve been following a lot of what’s happening online these last couple of months, and it’s amazing — the creativity, the willingness to think differently, harnessing new ways of doing things — it has produced this outpouring of creativity.
“But also it serves to remind us that music is about coming together,” he said. “It’s a communal experience, and you can never replace that. … Nobody will take for granted ever again the miracle of 100 musicians coming onstage and making music for hundreds of people in rapt attention. That will be all the more meaningful.”