We’re just days away from the first day of spring — a time of rebirth, renewal, promise and hope — but the Grand Teton Music Festival has been running on optimism for months now.
After the coronavirus pandemic shut down its 2020 season, the venerable valley nonprofit proceeded undaunted to plan a complete, seven-week, COVID-safe 2021 summer of orchestral and chamber music concerts. The plan right now is for GTMF to launch its 60th season July 2 with a week of outdoor events on the lawn of the Center for the Arts followed — tentatively, if health guidelines advise it, and likely for limited audiences — by its return to its home base in Walk Festival Hall in Teton Village.
Many orchestras, ensembles and organizations have muddled through the past year with livestreamed or recorded concerts (including GTMF) or performances for sparse, socially distanced audiences, but that is no substitute for the full, live concert experience shared with one’s community.
“That’s what we lost — community,” said double bassist Andrew Raciti, an 11-year festival veteran and member of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.
Like so many, Raciti returns to the Tetons year after year to commune with the wilds but also to socialize with colleagues he has become close to over the years.
“And now I even recognize faces in hall,” he said. “The audience is as important as the people playing — the shared communal experience where your mind [and those of] 1,000 other people are focused and everyone shares this moment. … It’s really important.”
Trombonist Michael Mulcahy, of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, has made 28 seasons at Walk Hall and sits on the organization’s players committee, which represents the voices of the musicians throughout the year for staff and board members. He predicted a heightened musical summer, energized by months of anticipation amid uncertainty and sorrow, with a typically receptive and attentive audience amplifying that energy.
“The connection between the audience and the musicians in the Tetons is like no other place in the music industry,” he said. “The musicians can’t wait to play for our audience. … Every time we [the players committee] have a meeting, that’s what all the committee players say: ‘The energy is going to be really something.’”
Emma Kail, the festival’s new executive director since September, voiced a theme for 2021 of “coming home … welcoming home the musicians that have spent decades here and who love the festival.”
And Sir Donald Runnicles, back for his 16th season as music director, said he, the festival staff and board looked forward to “literally throwing our arms open” to greet their returning colleagues.
As has become the norm, the summer fest will welcome guest soloists and conductors each week, some of them returning to the Tetons (conductors Miguel Harth-Bedoya and Stéphane Denève, pianist Yefim Bronfman, and violinists James Ehnes and Leila Josefowicz), others making their festival debut (Broadway vocalist Capathia Jenkins, cello sensation Sheku Kanneh-Mason, rising star conductor Gemma New).
But after the painful 2020 lapse — the first time in festival history it has had to cancel a season — and a tumultuous fall of 2019, when long-simmering discontent about the house orchestra being upstaged by big-name guests boiled over, resulting in former President and CEO Andrew Todd stepping down — the emphasis in 2021 will be on the 200-plus musicians the festival draws from 64 ensembles and 47 institutes of higher learning from across North America. The orchestra and some of its individual members will enjoy the spotlight, like Mulcahy, who will solo in Australian composer Carl Vine’s “Five Hallucinations” for trombone and orchestra on July 30-31, and Elisabeth Remy Johnson and Angela Jones-Reus, who will be featured July 23-24 in Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp in C Major.
Maintaining a safe environment for musicians, staff and audiences will be priority No. 1, Kail said, which will be reflected in programming to a certain extent.
“I think [the musicians] all very much want to feel comfortable,” she said. “We are surveying them monthly. ... ‘With what you know right now, how do you think you’ll feel this summer?’ … Being really communicative, open about what we don’t know — and there are a tremendous number of unknowns — we’re building rapport where we can adjust and adapt.”
Quoting Mulcahy, she said the secret of the season will to be “patient, courageous and flexible.”
Runnicles said the singular circumstances of the year will not affect the quality of the music making or the quality of the experience for audiences.
“I know our audiences enjoy the challenges of unfamiliar repertoire,” he said, “but you cut the suit according to the cloth.” So works for huge orchestras, like those by one of Runnicles’ favorite composers, Gustav Mahler, will have to wait for another year. Instead, smaller orchestras presenting “enormously popular” favorites will define some programs, such as Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 and Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3 for piano and orchestra.
On the other hand, in 2020 the festival had planned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage and commissioned two new works from women composers. Those works will finally have their world premieres this summer: Australian Melody Eötvös’ tribute to computing pioneer Ada Lovelace, “The Deciding Machine” (July 16-17) and “Freedom Songs” by New York violinist and composer Jessie Montgomery (Aug. 13-14). Also, Brazilian-American vocalist-pianist-composer Clarice Assad’s 2019 carnival-inspired work for orchestra, “Bonecos de Olinda,” is programmed for July 23-24.
In addition to orchestral weekends, Wednesday evenings will be devoted to chamber music performed by orchestra members, and while Kail said it’s still to early to say for sure what might happen with “GTMF Presents” showcases, the purpose of those cross-over events has always been to develop new audiences, which she felt confident various other programs would accomplish, such as its outreach and enrichment events held at places like Teton County Library, Grand Teton National Park and the National Museum of Wildlife Art.
And, to mark the 60th anniversary milestone, the festival is “contemplating a special concert or event (TBD),” Kail said, “and maybe even list a glass of champagne on the stage.”
Raciti conceded that the festival made “absolutely the right decision” to cancel 2020, and he noted how “no one thought for a minute that it was gone forever — everyone circled the wagons and there was no way it won’t come back — it’s just not possible.”
“The leadership that’s in place there, the culture there, it’s just fantastic,” he said. “I feel very comfortable with the planning and the flexibility they’ve put in there, to be able to change with how the situation changes.”
Kail, while keeping the festival nimble and poised to execute contingencies, shared his positivity.
“I feel more optimistic than ever in the past six months.”
For more about the festival’s 2021 season, as well as updates in the coming weeks, visit GTMF.org.