Grand Teton Music Festival

Maestro Donald Runnicles will return as the Grand Teton Music Festival’s music director for its summer 2019 season, which is set to kick off July 3 with a performance by vocalist Michael Feinstein.

For 57 years the Grand Teton Music Festival has delivered Jackson Hole some of the world’s greatest musicians: pianist Emmanuel Ax, guitarist Sharon Isbin, violinist Itzhak Perlman, soprano Renee Fleming and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, as well as award-winning composers, celebrated conductors and august ensembles such as the New York Philharmonic and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

And the roster keeps growing. This summer will bring piano polymath Stephen Hough (July 10), violin virtuoso Hilary Hahn (July 26-27), multimodal sax man Branford Marsalis (Aug. 9-10), and jazz singers Michael Feinstein (July 3), Norah Jones (July 21) and Kristin Chenoweth (Aug. 15).

But as exciting as it is to have Colin Currie, Gil Shaham or Joshua Bell come visit, the true miracle of the Grand Teton Music Festival is how Jackson Hole becomes home each summer to one of the best symphony orchestras in North America.

For its 58th season, which will start July 3 and run through Aug. 17, with up to eight events scheduled per week, the festival applauds its perennial star: the Grand Teton Festival Orchestra, led by Maestro Donald Runnicles. While more than enough big names will still come to perform — Andrew Palmer Todd, president and CEO of the organization, called the summer 2019 season a “season of gala artists” — the hometown ensemble will headline the summer, starting with opening weekend’s “Carmina Burana” fundraising gala (July 5-6).

Start of something new

With three guest vocalists (including soprano Meechot Marrero, who brought the house down last summer as Maria in the concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story”) and two choruses from Salt Lake City, Todd said Carl Orff’s rousing cantata extolling the pleasures and pains of everyday life will give the orchestra plenty to chew on. It will also lay the groundwork for a plan that has been in the works for some time.

Runnicles is known around the world as an interpreter of opera. Among his various titled positions, he is in his 10th year as general music director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and for 17 years he served as music director of the San Francisco Opera. Throughout his 13 years with the Grand Teton Music Festival he has hosted dozens of vocalists and vocal groups to perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 and other works for orchestra and voice, but logistics have made presenting actual opera difficult. This year that’s not going to stop Runnicles from trying.

To open the “Carmina Burana” gala, the festival will also present highlights from Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” as an early step toward bringing opera to the Tetons.

“It fits into the gala theme,” Todd said of the comic favorite. “We’ll do arias and duets. There will be acting and singing … and maybe, eventually, well, you can let your imagination run rampant.”

‘In the Key of Nature’

If there’s one festival stalwart that can beat the orchestra, it’s the Teton environment. To reflect that, this summer’s theme, “In the Key of Nature,” is rich with possibilities.

“We’ve been working on this concept for a while,” said Todd, who, alongside Runnicles, is responsible for the season’s programming. “Obviously, where we live everything ties back to nature.”

The theme will run through most events, from chamber music — Olivier Messiaen’s “Le Merle Noir” or “The Blackbird” (Aug. 13) or Thomas Osborne’s 2004 work for piano “And the Waves Sing Because They are Moving” (July 9) — to symphonic works, including Russia’s Anatoly Lyadov’s “The Enchanted Lake” (Aug. 16-17) and Stravinsky’s chthonic “The Rite of Spring” (Aug. 9-10).

The difficulty of creating a nature-themed season isn’t finding enough material; it’s poring through the endless amount that fits. The solution, Todd said, is to “have fun with it.”

Some scheduled works are musical impressions of specific places, like “The Moldau,” Czech composer Bedrich Smetana’s tone poem for the famous Bohemian river (July 19-20) or “Moon Over Jenny Lake” by longtime festival cellist Steven Laven (July 23) or Tchaikovsky’s “Peter and the Wolf,” which will presented by innovative quintet WindSync as part of this year’s series of family concerts (Aug. 8 and 12).

Other pieces were inspired by composers’ experiences in nature. Sibelius, Brahms and Debussy, for example, all loved hiking or being outdoors, and though they didn’t always write music depicting a place or scene, the sense of fresh air, the sound of water, the dark of the woods and the quality of light in the alpine zone is there for us to hear in many of their compositions.

“How do you take a mountain or a river or the sea and put it down as notes as paper?” Todd asked. Audiences will have plenty of opportunities to find out.

Balancing act

Balancing standard repertoire and longtime festival traditions with new experiences and music is always a tricky proposition. But Todd, Runnicles and the rest of the organization works hard to sate audiences’ appetite for favorites by Mozart, Mendelssohn, Bach and Schubert while sampling new tastes of Stravinsky, Part, Faure, Grieg, Vaughan Williams, Debussy and Adams. Some new names on programs this year include Marc Mellits (Aug. 6), Lera Auerbach (July 11), Hermann Beeftink (July 23), Michio Miyagi (July 30) and Mary Kouyoumdjian (July 30).

The outline of a typical week at Walk Festival retains the highlights of past seasons (chamber music most Tuesdays and Thursdays, “GTMF Presents” most Wednesdays and orchestral programs on Friday and Saturday) but there are a few adjustments.

Chief among them is Tuesday’s Haberfeld Chamber Music Series, which replaces the “Inside the Music” lecture-demonstrations of seasons past. These free one-hour programs will take place starting at 6 p.m. each week at St. John’s Episcopal Church. The church has proved itself an excellent venue through the past few years’ offseason Community Concert Series. Moving Tuesday’s events there acknowledges that and accomplishes a few goals.

“There’s a continued demand for music in town,” said Todd and audiences like the early 6 p.m. start to Saturday’s orchestra concerts. But folks are hard-pressed to get from town to Teton Village for a 6 p.m. Tuesday concert, so the Haberfeld series makes it easy.

“You can walk over from work,” said Todd, and stay in town for dinner after.

Upping its game

Another tweak is how the festival is upping the ante on its “GTMF Presents” programs. That series has always brought in must-see guests and must-hear music, but this year it is especially robust, with a broad selection of performers and repertoire, ranging from classical music by Orion Weiss and the Takacs Quartet to crossover programs by the Anderson and Roe piano duo and the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet.

The festival is also set to continue offering outstanding events for kids and family, but, once again, raises the bar this summer with a total of eight concerts in the Hartley Family Concert Series. Highlights will include matinee performances by several guests, up-close looks and listens to various members of the orchestra, and a full orchestra concert titled “A Day in Paradise” (July 24) led by Stephanie Rhodes Russell, the festival’s new associate conductor.

And, if that’s not enough there will also be Friday morning open rehearsals with the Festival Orchestra, preconcert talks one hour before weekend programs begin, free Movies on the Mountain each Monday, starting July 8, and the free Fourth of July blow-out “Patriotic Pops” — which is so popular it’s already sold out.

It sounds like a lot, but by closing night on Aug. 17 it won’t seem like nearly enough.

For tickets and details visit or call the festival box office at 733-1128. 

Contact Rich Anderson at or 732-7068.

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