Behind the Scenes: Singing the song of the unsung Bravo heroes
July 27, 2012
Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series. Pick up Monday’s High Life section to read the second part.
This week, I seized the golden opportunity to leave culinary arts for a moment and work behind the scenes with the Bravo Vail Valley Music Festival. The New York Philharmonic’s residency created the perfect opportunity to experience the harmony of sounds after so many months focusing on the harmony of food in fine dining restaurants.
For about seven weeks every summer, Vail Valley is transformed into one giant music hall. Bravo events spread the international language of music from its mothership – Ford Amphitheater – throughout Vail Valley venues, including private homes, chapels and schools. All through the Vail area, one can walk past creeks and parks and hear world-class musicians practicing in nature’s concert hall. So with one of the world’s greatest symphony orchestras in town, I hung up my apron and traded my cook’s jacket for civilian clothes to go behind the scenes for a day in the life of Bravo and the New York Philharmonic. And what a day it was!
Anne-Marie McDermott, artistic director, and Jacqueline Taylor, artistic administrator, spend months matching artists with pieces and orchestras in a metaphorical chess game. The result is a cogent program Julie Johannes, chief administrative financial officer, and her staff of nearly 100 unsung heroes produces.
The New York Phil, as it is colloquially known, was of course the center of attention. But how the majestic amphitheater is prepared and who prepares it was the real story of the day.
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I started my 13-hour day with a rehearsal of the Very Young Composers. This great program brings together members of the New York Phil and local aspiring musicians who compose pieces within the parameters of a story about mythical “Instrument Village.” Since much has been written lately about the program and I only spent a short time observing, I will leave the full story for another time and place. But just a few words since the rehearsal colored everything I experienced the rest of the day.
It was fascinating to observe musicians at the pinnacle of their profession working with aspiring young composers and musicians in their nascent artistic life. I marveled at the professional interaction between the conductor, Jon Deak, and the New York Phil musicians playing the young composers’ pieces. These were serious, albeit lighthearted, discussions about how each composer envisioned his or her piece to be played. All involved treated the composers with deference. No pampering, no condescension. It made me wonder how musical elders treated Mozart when at age four he penned his first composition, Andante in C. Did they recognize the genius that was Mozart when he composed what some refer to as a Classical Era version of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star?”
After two hours, I transitioned from the before – the very young composers – to the after – the seasoned professionals of the New York Phil – for the orchestra’s rehearsal at the amphitheater. This was my first experience observing such an orchestra rehearse. The musicians looked relaxed in their “play clothes” instead of their traditional black and white performance attire. I enjoyed watching conductor Allen Gilbert’s affable demeanor as the musicians played full pieces then repeated passages to work out kinks that my untrained, but highly appreciative, ear could not perceive. I enjoyed one of my favorite pieces, “Polonaise” from the opera Evgeny (Eugene) Onegin, three times in one day. I love this job!
During the rehearsal, there was busy activity as the production crew prepared for the night’s sold-out event. Unfortunately, some of the activity included the constant thumping of a construction helicopter’s engine and blades just above the village. One would think that with the importance of Bravo to the summer economy the powers-that-be would give the orchestra two hours of quiet to rehearse. One would think.
Renowned pianist, Yefim Bronfman, ran through Thursday night’s piece, but quickly retreated to quieter quarters away from the helicopter. He returned in the afternoon, to rehearse on the empty stage – and under quieter skies.
While the orchestra played on, the sound crew was at work. Sound technician John McKenna stopped long enough to give my Bravo host for the day, Meredith Richards, and I a quick primer on the complexities – and importance – of sound mixing and amplification. You’ll have to wait for Monday’s column for details, but for now, I would like those sitting on the lawn at these final performances to take special notice of the sound engineers and technicians at the control console. They record the performance and, equally important, replicate the sound quality heard inside the amphitheater for those on the lawn. Not an easy process. Have I teased you enough to come back on Monday to learn more about it?
After Bronfman completed his afternoon rehearsal, the worker bees swarmed in and the pace of activity quickened. Wow! Just like in a restaurant in the final hour before service. So my metaphorical description of a restaurant experience as a symphony is spot on. And finally, some work for me to do!
Before each performance, interns Christine Kim and Courtney Keller prepare the Green Room – soloists’ and conductor’s dressing rooms. So together we tidied up, delivered baskets of goodies to each artist’s room and set up a “hydration station” – lots of Gatorade and water.
Just before 5 p.m., I reported to the front gate. Attendees anxiously waited for the gates to open and their mad dash to grab a prime spot on the lawn to begin. Try giving survey sheets to those folks on a mission! Actually the entire survey experience was a lesson in humanity. Have you ever cringed when you saw someone waiting to hand you a survey? Please don’t do it. They’re just trying to do a job and, as in the case of this one, it might be an important information gathering exercise that can ultimately improve your Bravo experience.
My next task was working at will-call. Here’s where the pressure is on. I passed the 10-minute test of handing out tickets and dutifully checking IDs. My thanks to those of you who presented your IDs without being asked. It’s such a great help to the agents. Then if was off to help usher first time Bravo attendees from the American Trial Lawyers Association (plaintiffs’ attorneys) to their seats. Lord, but I didn’t want any of them to trip and fall on the steps! OK, next. Ticket scanning. Bar codes greatly improved the Bravo experience for everyone, including the ticket checkers. Whew. Time to sit down and eat my first meal of the day while the orchestra played Respighi’s “Fountains of Rome.”
But it was during intermission where I had the best experience: when 6-year-old music-lover, Jade Morris-Whiting of Eagle and her mom Emma Whiting met violin soloist, Sheryl Staples, principal associate concertmaster. The day had gone full circle. I was back in the presence of a nascent musician. Jade proudly informed me she began piano lessons at age 4 and now plays a grand piano. Surely she’s a candidate for the Very Young Composers program.
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 completed the evening’s program. After a rousing encore, it was time for the musician’s traditional post-performance champagne toast before they left for a much-deserved dinner and rest. Like Scarlett O’Hara would say, “Tomorrow is another day” and another performance. The 215 musicians and Bravo workers had two more days ahead, so time for rest for all of us.
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. She is passionate about all things gastronomique. For more background information on her “Behind the Scenes” series, go to http://www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.