BBC Music Magazine: Musical Peaks in the Old West

BBC Music Magazine
By Oliver Condy

Tucked into the northwest corner of Wyoming sits the majestic Teton mountain range, its peaks rising 2,000 meters either side of the vast, flat valley floor, known as Jackson Hole. In winter, the Tetons host world-class skiing, but come summer, the lush grassland, forests, lakes and rivers of Jackson Hole teem with wildlife, including eagle, elk, moose and grizzly bear, along with thousands of tourists who head there for kayaking, walking, rafting, fishing, horse riding... Jackson Hole styles itself as the 'Last of the Old West' and there are still ranches where you can see cowboys at work.

But if, like me, you don't catch so much as a whiff of a moose or bear, you can console yourself with the sight and sounds of one of America's most impressive music festivals. Located in the ski resort of Teton Village, the Grand Teton Music Festival (GTMF) is, at over 50 years old, almost as well established as the geyers in nearby Yellowstone Park. Scottish conductor Donald Runnicles, who's often seen sporting a stetson, has been the festival's music director since 2006, bringing the GTMF to a wider international audience and attracting world-class soloists and conductors. Most of the concerts take place in the 600-seat Walk Festival Hall, built in the 1970s. 'A lot of people think this is an outdoor location.' Runnicles says over a coffee at one of Jackson Hole's ranches, 'but they're astonished to find we have this jewel of a hall.'

And playing in it is a jewel of an orchesta, an unpaid, crack team of players made up of members of the finest orchestras across the US. Many of them have been coming to Jackson for over 10 years (one or two for almost 30) and most of them stay for at least two or three weeks during the summer - over the course of the festival's five weeks, hundreds of musicians pass through Jackson Hole. Simply playing for the joy, they say, is a chance for them to 'renew their vows' with orchestra music, to remind themselves why they play music, without the crushing pressures they're up against at home. 'It's not a gig,' says Utah Symphony Orchestra's Ralph Matson, festival veteran of 20 years. 'Everyone's here because they want to make music together' chips in Seattle Symphony violist Susan Gulkis Assadi, who has made Jackson Hole something of a second home during the summer. 'It's the most collegial orchestra in the world.' 'Each member of the orchestra is reminded what a privilege it is to be performing great music with great musicians,' says Runnicles. 'There are moments during performances that I'm viscerally aware of who I have in front of me.'

Runnicles faces the challenges of not only pleasing his faithful audiences but also the orchestra - feeding them repertoire that doesn't make them feel they're on a busman's holiday. 'I'm not going to attract people from Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas or The Met if I programme Tchaik Five, Rach Two...They've done those sorts of pieces. I see the music we play as nutrition - they have to do something where they're challenged.'

2015's curveball was Vaughan Williams's Symphony No. 3, a work that most of the musicians, plus Runnicles himself, hadn't performed before. The previous year it was Vaughan Williams's Fifth Symphony, also well received. 'Every one of our players will return to their orchestras and share their new love of Vaughan Williams. So many of the musicians have come up to me and thanked me for introducing them to this music.'

Jackson Hole's elevation also presents its demands: the dryness and lack of humidity makes playing a reed instrument a lot trickier. And singers, who have to take more frequent breaths than usual during performances, are advisde to acclimatise by arriving a few days earlier. Not that they need any encouragement to spend more time in Jackson Hole...