If all the people involved in the Bravo Vail Valley Music Festival participated in a spelling bee, the competition would be fierce. Each one can rattle off the spelling of a complicated, almost unpronounceable name like 'Jaap van Zweden' as easily as most of us can spell potato. Well, except Dan Quayle. If you get that joke then you might have been around when Bravo! started 25 years ago. Needless to say, the brains at Bravo! can recall quite a bit. We had them recap the last 25 summers, telling us what made them laugh, smile, and even cry. Like the spelling of "Nikolaj Znaider," there's something about this festival that sticks in one's mind, making it impossible to forget.
'More people on stage than in the audience'
John Giovando, Bravo's first and only executive director, remembers typing up the festival's articles of incorporation on an old Smith Corona typewriter. Fellow founder and violinist Ida Kavafian was also there from the beginning. Back in 1987, their resources were so meager they couldn't even afford four walls.
"The office was in the hallway of somebody else's office," Kavafian said. "If anybody had to move, everybody else had to get up."
The audience for Bravo! was small, but passionate.
"We didn't have that many people in the audience, but we did have some people who were really enthusiastic about it," Kavafian said. "In true Vail predictability, they wanted to buy it. But John said, 'It's not for sale.'"
"When we started, there was just a little tiny ski thing with this magnificent mountain behind it," Giovando said. "It grew right along with the ski industry. We literally put it together with nothing. It was all part of a dream to do it and we just did it ... then people started coming and loving it."
During the first few summers, the audience was so tiny they used to invite everyone on stage when it rained.
"More people on stage than in the audience, we use to joke about that," Kavafian said.
Behind the scenes
When the lights come up and the show begins, those who made it happen want you to believe it was as effortless as playing "Chopsticks" on the piano. But behind the scenes there's a frantic rush, figuring out how to button up a complicated button-down, or locating sheet music that mysteriously got misplaced sometime between rehearsal and lunch. Monica Wentz, who served as the artistic administrator and artists' liaison between 2007 and 2010, remembers one performance with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra that wasn't exactly wrinkle-free.
"They got in so late they didn't time have to iron their whole shirts," Wentz said. "(The interns) decided to only iron the front of their shirts, because that's what the audience would see."
Rob LeVine, who runs the Antlers at Vail in Lionshead, has been hosting Bravo! musicians for more than two decades. LeVine has found that not every musician's personality is what you would imagine.
Although he won't name any names, LeVine described a "young, petite, attractive, diminutive" piano player who played at Bravo! a few years ago who caught him off guard.
"If you catch her off-stage she has a mouth that would make a sailor blush," LeVine said, laughing. "It's amusing seeing someone who you think is going to be so polite and quiet, and then they let out a blue stream like you wouldn't expect."
Flutist Eugenia Zukerman served as Bravo's artistic director for 13 years. Her first summer on the job she got a knock on her door early in the morning. Pianist Andre-Michel Schub cut his hand slicing a bagel and was bleeding pretty badly. Zukerman was about to take Schub to the hospital, but he refused.
"He said, 'No, I'm going to play,'" Zukerman said.
Schub bandaged up his hand and played the concert.
"It went wonderfully well until the last moment," Zukerman said. "Suddenly blood started spurting from his hand, all over his keyboard, all over his white jacket. It was a great moment; a gruesome but funny moment. I told him he ought to do that every night because he got a great response (from the crowd)."
This year Joshua Bell's name was buzzing on everyone's ears as the classical music celebrity to see - and for good reason. But Bravo's had big names in the past, and those at the festival got to rub elbows with the best of them. Ida Kavafian was so excited about meeting trumpet player Doc Severinsen, who led the band for the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, that she took it upon herself to be his chauffer.
"One of his riders was that he has to be driven around in a luxury car," Kavafian said. "My husband and I had just bought a really cute Lexus coupe sports car. I was so enamored with Doc that I said I wanted to be his driver, so I drove him all over Vail and got to know him."
Back in the day, Gerald R. and Betty Ford were a staple at Bravo concerts. Giovando would always give a shout-out to the Former President and First Lady before the concert began, but the greeting wasn't always pitch-perfect.
"One evening I said to the audience, 'Please welcome the President and Mrs. Betty Alpine Ford," Gionvando said, mistaking the Former First Lady with the local Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. "The audience got a kick out of that. She was cracking up."
'They stayed sobbing wet on the lawn and in the seats'
One of Giovando's most touching moments was when Bravo! added a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, 'Ode to Joy' in the summer of 2002, following the events of Sept. 11 in 2001.
"After 9/11 in '01, the country went into such a shock," Giovando said. "It was such a downer time, and we wanted to do something really uplifting."
Ten years ago, the debut of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra was considered a turning point for the festival. Chair of Bravo's Board of Trustees Argie Tang could feel the anticipation in the air before they took the stage.
"The audience was overwhelmed by the sound," Tang said. "We were waiting to hear if they would sound different (from the other orchestras). New York did not disappoint in any regard, it was a big moment for Bravo."
"The first time they ever set foot in Vail, just before their concert, the whole sky opened up and the rain was enormous," Giovando said. "No one moved. They stayed sobbing wet on the lawn and in the seats."
This season, Bravo's 25th, marks the end of an era. Giovando is retiring after this summer, passing the baton along to another executive director next year. "Bittersweet" was the resounding sentiment about Giovando leaving. Reflecting on Bravo's journey, Giovando thinks the festival's uphill climb has been worth the view from the top.
"(When) you hear the music, you know it was worth every bit it took to put it together for one year," Giovando said.