Programming and transforming the sounds of music for the Bravo festival | VailDaily.com
Suzanne Hoffman
Behind the Scenes
Vail, CO Colorado

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Programming and transforming the sounds of music for the Bravo festival

Special to the DailySound technician John McKenna works his magic at his sound console during the last rehearsal of the New York Philharmonic.

On Friday evening, the last notes of Mozart’s Mass in C minor were played and sung. The last bottle of champagne was poured as the musicians and Bravo team toasted another successful evening. Instruments were packed and readied for shipment. Musicians and soloists waved farewell and boarded busses for the last ride back to their lodgings. Another successful season of Bravo – at least in the amphitheater – ended.

Now it’s Monday and time for me to fulfill my promise to give you more behind-the-scenes details of my experience with the incredible, often invisible Bravo team.

Artistic ‘construction’

Program development is a huge driver of a Bravo season’s success. For two seasons, the dynamic duo of Artistic Director Anne-Marie McDermott and Artistic Administrator Jacqueline (Jacqui) Taylor created line-ups that packed Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater for most of the three residencies. They begin constructing the following season’s lineup not long after a much-deserved break at the end of each festival, if not before. My 45-minute chat with Taylor indicated that the process never really begins at a specific time. It’s ongoing. With the annual program schedule release in January, much work needs to be done throughout the year.

But once the programming is completed, preparations begin to welcome and house the artists during the summer festival. Care and feeding of all the artists and musicians is an important aspect of Taylor’s job that she describes as requiring a “perspective on the whole.” In truth, “jobs” is a rather pedestrian word to use to describe what McDermott and Taylor do for Bravo, for their love of the arts runs deep and this is obviously a labor of love. I didn’t have the pleasure of chatting with McDermott – interviewing is not what I do to gain perspective and knowledge, chatting is better – but I can see from the quality of her work and hear from the beauty of her music that she loves her art and the art of bringing it to life. But, as usual, I digress.

For seven weeks each summer, Jacqui Taylor, her husband, Steven Sobol, and 8-year-old son, Taylor Sobol, move from Cleveland Heights, Ohio to Vail. Steven obviously is a great husband and dad, since he keeps things moving for the family during Jacqui’s days that begin between 6 and 7 a.m. and end after midnight. Jacqui lives with her smart phone in hand. Through a shared Google agenda, she is kept apprised of all the meetings and action items of each hectic day. The challenges of long days filled with back-to-back meetings are obviously made better by lunchtime breaks with Steven and daytime hugs from son Taylor.

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Jacqui explained to me how important it is for guest artists and musicians to feel welcome in Vail. Of course, welcoming guests is what we all do best here. She wants them to “feel the love” we have for them and what they bring to the community each summer. OK, that should be quite easy because Bravo has become as important to the summer as skiing is to the winter. That’s a fact, and it’s high time we all acknowledge it.

One aspect of Bravo often taken for granted – until something goes wrong – is the sound system. How do the musical sound waves travel from an instrument or a soloist to the ears of music lovers? Simple: through the magic the sound engineers make each night. Their work is crucial to the proper transformation of musical notes into pleasant neural transmissions to listeners’ brains.

Unassuming Colorado native John McKenna looks like a college freshman, which he is, but speaks like a well-seasoned sound technician. That’s because he began his on-the-job training at age 15 and is now formalizing it through his studies at Penn State. McKenna proudly explained the importance of sound engineering in live audiences’ enjoyment and those who later will hear the recorded performances through the New York Philharmonic’s 52 weeks of radio productions.

Every day presents a different challenge: Weather, musical pieces and musicians all impact the sound engineers’ job. The weather is particularly troublesome. Watch when it begins to rain hard. McKenna has to make mad dashes onto the stage to place small plastic bags over each of the mikes. The sound of rain on the umbrellas of lawn-sitters must be covered with white noise. Lightening will shut them down, as will heavy rain. But thunder just rumbles and nothing can be done. In truth, I find thunder to be rather exhilarating, particularly when Mother Nature wants to join in a rousing crescendo.

On the day I was there, 32 microphones were placed around the stage. Each orchestral configuration and type of solo performance demands different numbers and positions of mikes. Positioning, which is different for each type of instrument, is crucial for the proper sound conveyance. For example, a violin will require the mike be set above and across the instrument to capture the sounds properly. Sound emanates from a French horn’s bell. Accordingly, mikes must be placed behind, not in from of, the musician.

The sound from each instrument must be captured and synthesized to produce the sound heard inside the amphitheater. The only sound amplification is to the lawn to insure the audience there has the same quality of sound as those inside the “house.” A simple, free iPad application changed the quality of McKenna’s job. Now he can control the mikes from his iPad anywhere in the venue. The iPad screen is a duplication of what he sees on the console, allowing him to easily make adjustments as needed.

Speaking of adjustments, those required for lawn are fascinating. If it’s a chilly night and you have a jacket on or pull a blanket over your bare legs, you’ve just done something that requires McKenna to adjust the mikes. Shaved or bald heads for the guys seem to be all the rage. So if there are more bald-headed guys on the lawn than usual or if it’s sunny and everyone’s wearing hats, McKenna has to make adjustments. Why? Simple. Skin absorbs low-frequency sound waves and hair the high ones. So an empty lawn during rehearsal will result in one sound level setting. When the lawn fills up in the evening, the sound levels must be adjusted accordingly. As the sun sets and the air becomes cool, everyone covers up. Adjustments must be made. That’s the reason McKenna’s job is so much easier with the iPad. For a guy who has to make mad dashes to the stage to cover mikes before rain fries them, everything that makes his life easier makes your experience all the better.

One final thought. Does feedback drive you nuts? Seasoned engineers and technicians at Bravo rarely give you that experience. And no doubt that makes their risk-management team happy. Feedback can damage musicians’ or vocalists’ ears. Damaged hearing can be deadly to a venue’s reputation – and bottom line.

So the invisible curtain on 2012 Bravo at Ford Amphitheater has been drawn, but events continue throughout the valley. Check the schedule at http://www.vailmusicfestival.org, and try to catch the Musicians on the Move. Hearing the Jasper String Quartet is a special treat you don’t want to miss. With the jazz and dance festivals still to be enjoyed, an artistic summer in the Vail Valley is far from over.

Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. For more background, go to http://www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets.