BBC Music Magazine: An American Adventure

BBC Music Magazine

'Welcome to Jackson Hole', says the sign at the exit to the airport, 'The last of the old west.' Driving through the wide open plains of the Grand Teton National Park framed by the majestic Teton Range, calls to mind Jerome Moross's evocative music to the opening minutes of the 1958 film, The Big Country. You can still see genuine cowboys at work here, who share the spectacular landscape with bison, elk, moose, eagle, bear (black and grizzly) and the odd peckish mountain lion, who add a frisson of excitement to any hill runner's morning constitution.

Just down the road from Jackson Hole (in American terms, that is – it's a three-hour drive) is Yellowstone National Park, packed full of thrilling geological wonders, the most famous being the Old Faithful geyser that spouts a gigantic column of boiling water almost 200 feet into the air every hour and a half, and the otherworldly, primordial Grand Prismatic Spring that reflects the entire spectrum of colours around its rim accompanied by warm, eggy gusts of sulphurous steam.

The Teton area, by winter, is one of the finest places to ski anywhere on earth, but by summer, its mountains and valleys, now devoid of snow, seduce lovers of cycling, climbing, kayaking, bird watching, fishing, and hiking. It also plays host to one of the oldest and best classical music festivals in America.

Since 1962, Jackson Hole has been the backdrop to a seven-week celebration of orchestral and chamber music, the Grand Teton Music Festival, at the heart of which is the festival orchestra, a super-ensemble comprising the finest players from America's orchestras, from Atlanta to Louisiana, Dallas to Pittsburgh. And the conductor of this staggering group of musicians is none other than Donald Runnicles, musical director of the Deutsche Oper, principal guest conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and, until September 2016, principal conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, after which he becomes conductor emeritus. 'It’s a testament to this place that the players keep coming, year in, year out'. Runnicles has been the festival's musical director since 2006.

The players themselves, some of whom stay for a couple of weeks, some for the entire seven, see it as a chance to renew their vows with orchestral music, as it were, among friends and away from the stresses of unions, orchestra politics and the school run. ‘Each and every musician is here because they want to be’, Runnicles explains. ‘There’s no compulsion to be here – their focus is on this bucolic experience and great music-making. And many of their absolute best friends were made here. They can’t wait to get back.’

The festival audience benefits from this unique chemistry through exciting, fresh, often revelatory performances in the stunning 800-seat Walk Festival Hall, although the real challenge, Runnicles admits, is finding repertoire that will fascinate his group of musicians but that will still attract audiences. The final two concerts of this year's festival featured Vaughan Williams's Symphony No. 3, a work that Runnicles had never conducted before, and which only two members of the orchestra had played before. ‘So many musicians have thanked me for bringing this repertoire to the festival – that’s beautiful,’ he smiles, ‘and each of these musicians will return to their institution and share their new love of Vaughan Williams.’

The GTMF closed with a stupendous performance of Respighi’s breathtaking Pines of Rome – a grand ending to the Grand Teton. The festival traditionally allows its players to stay for one more day following the final concert, easing them gently back into the real world. Just about enough time for a decent mountain hike and one last moose encounter…