Strings: The Majestic Sights & Musical Moments at the Grand Teton Music Festival

Strings
By James Ehnes

Writing about my experiences over the years at the Grand Teton Music Festival is a daunting prospect. How to describe the magic of a place where the physical beauty is beyond description, and where the quality of the music making defies rational explanation?

I first met maestro Donald Runnicles, music director of the Grand Teton Music Festival, about a decade ago in Miami, where we performed the Walton Violin Concerto together with the New World Symphony. He invited me to perform at the Grand Teton Music Festival shortly thereafter—my first performance at the festival was of the Barber Concerto, with Steven Sloane conducting. In the years since, I’ve performed the Sibelius, Mozart’s Fourth, Brahms concerti, and the Beethoven Violin Sonata in D major, Op. 61, with Donald, as well as various chamber-music works—some with Donald at the piano.

I’ve also joined Donald and the orchestra for performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, sitting in the second-violin section—one of the highlights of my musical life. The atmosphere within the orchestra is unique; I can think of few situations that blend relaxed fun with extremely focused and committed work in such a successful combination. The well-known expression of the orchestra as a whole being greater than the sum of its parts is very apt here, and when one considers the incredible assortment of distinguished musicians that make up this orchestra, that becomes high praise indeed! A huge amount of the credit must be given to Donald. We have become very close friends over the years, so perhaps I am biased, but I think he is a musical genius, and his commitment to musical excellence is absolute. He maintains a totally friendly, relaxed, and fun attitude, while at the same time the intensity of his music making is infectious. The performances I have heard or taken part in at the Grand Teton Music Festival have been, without exception, electrifying.

Teton Village, where the festival takes place, is located right on the edge of Grand Teton National Park. I am not a skier, but from what I’m told, this is one of the greatest ski destinations in the world. In the summer, the scenery is staggering. The mountains seem to come out of nowhere; one can admire what looks like endless prairie in one direction and craggy, spectacular peaks in the other. Wildlife is everywhere; I have seen herds of bison and elk, bears, moose, and birds of all sorts. There is a relaxed, “old west” atmosphere in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and the surrounding villages. People are friendly and laid-back. Many are of course part-time residents, and one gets the sense that everyone is aware of how special the area is both in terms of natural beauty and relaxed atmosphere, and everyone tries to do their part to keep it that way.

If I were to make an itinerary of “must-sees” for visitors to the festival, Jenny Lake would be a good place to start. Located only a 40-minute drive from Teton Village, the lake offers canoeing, hiking, and some of the most spectacular views in America. One of my favorite nonmusical Grand Teton Music Festival memories is an hour-long adventure on a rowboat with my wife in 2012. Before a performance a few years later, I went for a jog around the lake and was a bit alarmed to find a moose blocking my path about a half-mile from the trail exit, having a leisurely snack and seemingly (and luckily!) unaware of my presence. I was very relieved when she decided to move along!

The orchestra itself is an ensemble unlike any other. Made up of a rather unorthodox combination of instrumentalists from major orchestras both foreign and domestic, chamber musicians, and distinguished pedagogues, the players are united by their commitment to musical excellence and their love of the Grand Teton Music Festival experience. For many of my friends in the orchestra, Grand Teton Music Festival is the highlight of their season, both musically and socially. Many players come back year after year, bringing their families and sometimes even purchasing homes. Lifelong friendships are formed, and generations of “festival kids” grow up in the magical fairytale land of Teton Village. I have friends who tell me that although they spend only a few weeks at Grand Teton Music Festival each summer, Teton Village is their family’s true “home.”

This summer was a special one for me, as my parents were joining me at the festival for the first time. Runnicles’ wife, pianist Adelle Eslinger, is from my hometown of Brandon, Manitoba, Canada, and though my parents have known her since she was a little girl, this was their first time seeing her in years. It was an honor to introduce them to the Jackson Hole area, Grand Teton National Park, my dear friend Donald, and the incredible and inimitable atmosphere of the Grand Teton Music Festival, one of my favorite places on earth.