Vail festival’s tour de force
July 2, 2010
VAIL, Colorado – In a Vail Plaza hotel room, classical musician Eugenia Zukerman stands in bare feet. She taps her toe and breathes life into her flute. Her eyes fill with emotion.
She stops and asks, “Are we OK on tempo?”
“It feels good to me,” harpist Yolanda Kondonassis replies.
The musicians meet eyes and the music picks back up. Mozart’s “Concerto for Flute and Harp” again fills the room.
There’s another pause in play; Zukerman shuffles closer to a sunlit window to better see her sheet music.
“I’ve always said my eyes will go long before my hands,” Kondonassis says, gently resting her fingers on the harp’s strings.
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“Well, mine have already gone. Yes, that’s better,” Zukerman says, straightening her sheet-music stand.
Kondonassis now fiddles with her instrument. “I have to fix this,” she says.
“How can you tell with the drill,” Zukerman nods toward the window, joking about the noise of construction below.
And the musicians just laugh.
Rehearsal goes on like this. In between Mozart, two old friends banter about life, about where the closest Starbucks is, about double-chin photos that wind up on the Internet or about the last time they played this piece, when Kondonassis was pregnant and hurling with “night sickness” into a garbage can before show time.
Watching Zukerman and Kondonassis rehearse, you see classical music loosen its bow tie and relax. And for Zukerman, tension has released. In her 13th year as Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival’s artistic director, Zukerman is saying good-bye.
In her tenure, she’s doubled audience numbers from 33,000 to 66,000. Zukerman landed three major orchestras to take up residency: The New York Philharmonic, The Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra. No other classical music festival can say the same.
She jests about a little-known accomplishment during her summers in Vail – she convinced City Market to carry Greek yogurt.
“I had to buy a case, but now they carry it,” Zukerman says.
She also climbed her first fourteener – Quandary – despite her exhaustion after the six-week long festival ended.
But for her 13th year, after many years of trying, Zukerman finally booked the cherry on top: Yo-Yo Ma. The acclaimed cellist kicked off the season with a one-night-only recital June 25 and joined local young musicians during Bravo!’s Imagination Celebration, an event combining education and the arts.
“Yo-Yo Ma came to Vail because I’m his close friend, and I’m very proud of the festival for taking the risk. He has a whopping fee, and they raised the money,” Zukerman says. “And Yo-Yo Ma changed people’s lives that day. People were in tears.”
As artistic director, Zukerman’s role is three-fold. She has to plan the program, invite artists, negotiate their fees and sign them on, which is just one fold, and, Zukerman says, “is much harder than you think. You have to have real networks.”
Then, she has to be a presence at the festival. She has to help create a friendly atmosphere, something she does with the utmost grace. During Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s rehearsal one morning, Zukerman glides through Ford Amphitheater to welcome the musicians back to Vail. Later that day, she was headed to listen to violinist Nadja Salerno rehearse because the artist likes having someone in the audience. She greets volunteers who are stuffing programs, asking one if he’s been on his skateboard lately, and waves to amphitheater staff rolling in cases of wine. She knows everyone, top to bottom, and everyone knows her, too.
Part of creating this inviting atmosphere is building a relationship with the audience. Zukerman opens each concert with a greeting and makes a point to talk to the audience about the music they’re about to hear.
“I create a portal to understand the music,” Zukerman says. “When I’m reading a novel, I find myself wanting to know more about the novelist. I need background. When you know the back-story of a piece, you listen to it differently.”
Although she wears many hats for Bravo!, Zukerman’s final role is arguably her most comfortable – that of a flutist. She’s responsible for who’s going to perform at the festival, too, and with that comes the job of gauging chemistry and collaboration – putting the right musicians together in the right way, answering the question “who will work well with whom,” Zukerman says.
“As a musician, I understand the process. I know how hard it is to be a part of a group, put something together and perform it at the highest level,” she says.
Born in Cambridge, Mass., Zukerman originally had plans to become a writer. She enrolled in Barnard College as an English major when her flute teacher, Julius Baker, said to her, “What are you doing fooling around with liberal arts? Come play music – and then you’ll write the great American novel.”
“That’s when I thought – game plan!” Zukerman exclaims, recalling the moment she transferred to the Juilliard School.
She never stopped writing while being “one of the finest flutists of our time,” as the Boston Globe describes her, and the discipline paid off. She has published two novels and a non-fiction book. She’s written articles for the New York Times, Vogue and has had three screenplays purchased by major movie studios.
Her music and writing landed her yet another artistic endeavor. Shad Northshield, co-creator of the CBS’ News “Sunday Morning” had heard Zukerman play the flute, read her novel and called her up one day and said, “I have a job for you, and you are going to do it, and you are going to love it,” Zukerman remembers.
“I thought it was a crank call,” she says.
But Zukerman said yes, and for 25 years she worked as an arts correspondent, interviewing more than 300 artists, including Yo-Yo Ma and Paul McCartney.
Eyeing Zukerman’s many artistic accomplishments, one can’t help but wonder how she gets it all done. Where does her drive come from?
Her dad used to tell her, “You can do it all, if you apply your ass to the chair,” meaning everyone is talented, but you have to do the work. Music taught her how to do the work. In Juilliard, kids didn’t want to be just good, they wanted to be the best in the world. That drive, she says, is contagious.
“Music is the center of my life. It’s the core of my being. Music allows me to see the world in a positive way. Music has given me the discipline to allow me to do a lot of the things I wanted to do. It’s allowed me to do a lot of things at the same time,” Zukerman says. “Music has helped me to find out who I was.”
And for Zukerman, that means a mother, a sister, a wife, a divorcee, a race-walker, a hiker, a resident professor, a CBS anchor, a flutist, a novelist, an artistic director, and the list continues to grow – soon to include entrepreneur (see boxed text) and newlywed this October to “a prince of a guy.”
But as she leaves Bravo! behind to embark on exciting new ventures, Bravo!’s influence on Zukerman is sure to stay. With a tendency to be hyper sensitive, she says, Bravo! has forced her to get tough and stick up for her own program ideas that she feels were best for the festival.
“I can easily plummet into the abyss of self doubt,” Zukerman says. “I think I’ve learned that I’m responsible for my own confidence, and that’s been really helpful.”
Taking up residency in Vail each summer has also taught her a lot about community, she says. She’s become friends with people of all strata, and the experience is quite special.
“I wanted to tell the patrons – the people who come to the concerts, people who support us from the littlest amount to the biggest – are really the ones responsible for this festival,” Zukerman says.
Cassie Pence is a freelance writer based in Vail.