Grand Teton Music Festival

Maestro Donald Runnicles was the music director for the Grand Teton Music Festival’s 58th Season, which was a rocking success.

While the ultimate measure of the success of a music festival is how good the music was, it’s nice to have a little hard data on hand for a more objective assessment.

Few will argue about the quality of the performances at this summer’s Grand Teton Music Festival, and music fans in the Tetons experienced enough world-class playing to sustain them through the lean winter months. That included the usual players brought in to perform weekly chamber and orchestral programs — many of them principals in their sections at such ensembles as Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Added to those was the roster of guest soloists, conductors and ensembles such as pianist Yefim Bronfman, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, violinist Hilary Hahn, the Takács Quartet, and the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, to name but a few.

But even with that safe bet, audience attendance is never a certainty in the music world, perhaps especially the classical music world, which is why it is noteworthy, if not extraordinary, that the festival enjoyed audience growth, record attendance and sold-out houses this year — again.

Andrew Palmer Todd, president and CEO of the home-grown festival, reported 4% growth during the 58th season. That modest gain brings total growth since 2014 to an impressive 60%. And a little more context makes the gain even more significant.

“Audience attendance per series is up across the board,” said Todd. That is to say, all concerts — GTMF Presents, Festival Orchestra nights and the new Haberfeld Chamber Music series — enjoyed a share of the larger audiences. “Which is great. Each year we just think we can’t possibly go up any more, but then it does.”

This year for the first time, Todd said, average attendance for Saturday night programs exceeded 600, and 6 p.m. Saturday audiences grew at a faster rate than the 8 p.m. Friday crowd, a figure that tells the organization its earlier Saturday start time continues to be popular. Ticket data also show even growth across the three groups of attendees: residents, summer visitors and those from the larger region — Pinedale, Star Valley, and Rexburg and Idaho Falls, Idaho, a radius of about two hours driving time.

“When I talk to colleagues, there’s a continued concern about subscribers,” Todd said, referring to those supporters who purchase an entire season’s package of concerts. “That’s in decline everywhere, not just in classical music. It’s a buying habit.”

But the festival is happy to buck that trend, with more subscribers this year and just more people coming to hear what it has to offer.

“So we feel good about that,” he said.

A few big-name artists no doubt helped to push those numbers up. Evenings with Norah Jones and Kristin Chenoweth, for example, sold out well ahead of concert night. And while they and Michael Feinstein, who didn’t sell out but who attracted a large and enthusiastic crowd at the start of the season, Todd said, are not classical music (though one could argue that Broadway standards are a kind of American classical music), such cross-over events have always been important to the organization.

Plenty of other strictly classical events did sell out, including both nights of “Rite of Spring” and Branford Marsalis, both nights of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 and both nights of the closing weekend.

“I think there’s a broader recognition in the community of the quality of what we offer with the Fest Orchestra and across the board,” Todd said by way of explaining the secret of the festival’s success. He also credited the nonprofits’ multi-year marketing plan aimed at both local supporters and summer visitors. “I think that’s paying dividends.”

Finally, there’s the obvious key to success: programming.

“Denis Kozhukhin crushed it,” Todd said of the Russian pianist’s performances of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Music Director Donald Runnicles’ leading the orchestra in Mahler’s Fourth also exceeded expectations, he said, and being part of Runnicles’ first time conducting Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” was a particular point of pride.

“That that happened here with this orchestra, and that Donald had that experience, that was something I was really happy to have a part in. … Those were definite highlights for me.”

There were many others, too, he said: pianist Stephen Hough’s return for a solo GTMF Presents recital, Marsalis’ glorious performances of Glazunov’s Saxophone Concerto followed by impromptu duets with festival bassist Andrew Raciti, and bringing the esteemed Takács Quartet to Walk Festival Hall.

“That was a dream come true,” Todd said.

The festival chief wasn’t the only person impressed by the season.

“What I hear from first-time perfumers — Hilary Hahn or Branford Marsalis or Louis Langrée — is how warm the welcome is on stage,” Todd said. “I think we’re used to it here — you’re out West, you’re in our town, we welcome you — but for them it’s a very happy surprise.”

Todd was cagey about plans for the festival’s 2020 season and, in 2021, its 60th season, but he said information was forthcoming on fall and winter events, including monthly community concerts, “The Met: Live in HD” and the fourth annual Winter Festival. Stay tuned for details at GTMF.org. 

Contact Richard Anderson at 732-7068 or rich@jhnewsandguide.com.

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