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August 4, 2012
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The music man

VAIL - Could it be 25 years since John Giovando launched Bravo?

Could it be that Giovando is calling it a career?

Organizations and people come and go.

But, "Mozart is stronger than anybody," Giovando said. "We really believed in our product. We believed in the music."

In 25 years, the Bravo Vail Valley Music Festival has had one executive director. The music lives on, and that's what matters, Giovando said.

"Mozart is alive and well and lives in the Vail Valley. So does Bach, Beethoven and Brahms," he said.

Musical chairs

We're pretty spoiled and used to Bravo being big, but like everything else, it was born tiny.

It was 1987 and Western Colorado was still reeling from the collapse of the energy industry. Giovando and fellow founder and violinist Ida Kavafian decided to roll the dice in Vail.

They schlepped all their computer gear back and forth between Vail and Angel Fire, N.M., where Giovando was running a similar festival, and set it up on the floor of Brad Quayle's office in Lionshead's Concert Hall Plaza.

"The timing was just perfect. The community was eager and waiting for something to come along, culturally, musically and with a sound business model," Giovando said. "We had a solid business plan that we submitted to the town of Vail. Even from day one in the first year, it was designed to turn a profit."

That first year they made a whopping $750, but only because Quayle donated the office space and Giovando and Kavafian didn't take salaries for the first three years. When they did draw paychecks, they were the size of piccolos.

Giovando said great musicians kept returning because they were treated with respect. It wasn't the money. They were paid $300 a week in those early years and had to perform three concerts a week. The first orchestra, the National Repertory Orchestra, was paid $2,000 total.

They traded tickets for just about everything. Hotel people got on board to house the musicians. Restaurants came up with meals. Now, Bravo pays for it all.

Bravo opened an endowment account its second year with the surpluses - $260 - because Giovando and others browbeat all the board members into investing $8 each. Now, the endowment is around $5 million, mostly from the surpluses. They keep $50,000 or so to pay operating expenses, and they've tapped the principal a few times to buy things such as a piano, but it has never been tapped for operating expenses and never will, Giovando said.

Fundraising is still huge. Ticket prices cover about 33 percent of the costs. The rest comes from donations.

Think big, push boundaries

Giovando tried all kinds of things; some worked, some didn't.

"We struck out a lot of times, but we didn't make the same mistake twice," he said. "Once in a while you'd get slapped down, but you'd get back up."

Bravo took a huge leap when the board had a chance to bring the New York Philharmonic to town. It was a two-year commitment and a major patron's financial world was falling apart, and it looked like the deal would fall apart.

"If we walked away from them, we'd never get them back," Giovando said.

The Philadelphia Orchestra joined the Dallas Symphony, making Bravo home to residencies by three of the nation's finest orchestras.

"They added enormous prestige to the festival. It became a destination event," Giovando said.

Local residents came along quickly, even those who preferred opry to opera.

"Regardless of whether they liked Bach, they thought they had to act like they did," he said.

And before long, people did like the music. Bravo kept ticket prices low, and people made it a family affair.

And what about the time ...

Giovando has thousands of stories collected during two and a half decades. He shares most of them. Some he'll carry with him.

It rains in the mountains and during the first few summers, the audiences were so tiny they used to invite everyone on stage when the skies opened up.

"More people on stage than in the audience, we used to joke about that," Kavafian said.

Jerry and Betty Ford were Bravo regulars. Giovando would acknowledge the former president and first lady. There was the time he said, "Please welcome the president and Mrs. Betty Alpine Ford." True to her nature, Betty cracked up.

Giovando loves choral music right down to his very marrow. With the country still reeling from 9/11, Giovando added Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, "Ode to Joy."

"After 9/11 in 2001, the country went into such a shock," Giovando said. "We wanted to do something really uplifting. It was a salute to freedom I will remember forever."

The New York Philharmonic showed up 10 years ago for the first time, and it's still considered one of the festival's turning points.

"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 sopping wet on the lawn and in their seats."

When the New York Philharmonic ended its Vail stint this year, the sky opened up again. A few people moved, but not many.

And there's that time when no one raised the flag. The Philadelphia Orchestra has an enormous connection with the "Star Spangled Banner" and gave one of its first public performances after Congress made it the national anthem.

Of course, that was the night they forgot to fly the flag.

"Some of the military guys wanted to crawl into a hole," Giovando said.

Anne-Marie McDermott, current artistic director and pianist, is the latest of only three artistic directors. Kavafian and Eugenia Zukerman were the others. Giovando, 67, was an attorney in one of his previous lives.

"John Giovando is one of a rare breed of leaders who combines a deep love of music with exceptional managerial skills," McDermott said.

Giovando looks back on 25 years and knows it was all worth it.

"(When) you hear the music, you know it was worth every bit it took to put it together for one year," Giovando said. "It's been a super journey for me to be able to live my dream."

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Aug 4, 2012 04:52PM Published Aug 4, 2012 04:50PM Copyright 2012 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.