When Jim Palermo accepted the directorship of the Bravo! Vail music festival after John Giovando announced his retirement last season, it meant significant lifestyle changes. Palermo, a Cleveland native who has made a career of managing big-city classical music festivals and orchestras, would be living in the mountains, and in a resort, for the first time in his fifty-three years.
Still, when he settled into the job full-time last September, he hit the ground running (albeit panting; it took him awhile to acclimate to the altitude). “It felt like a great fit, the day I arrived—no adjustment period,” he says.
Credit that smooth shift to Palermo’s gradually familiarizing himself with Bravo! Vail over the years. Palermo was in Colorado Springs, training as an orchestra manager with the American Symphony Orchestra League, when he first attended Bravo! Vail in 1988. It was the festival’s second season, and Palermo’s clearest memories involve the setting and the scene: “I remember the amphitheater—breezy, cool, lots of sunshine. A magical place. The conductor’s wife went into labor the day of the concert. I think President Ford was there.”
In 2009, while running the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Palermo finally returned to Vail—an eye-opening, ear-opening experience. “The New York Philharmonic—the quality was out of this world. The amphitheater was packed,” he says. “It wasn’t what it was back in 1988.”
Palermo began seeing the interplay of three elements he considers essential to Bravo! Vail: music, landscape, and people. “You’re seeing some of the greatest views in the US,” he says. “You’re hearing the New York Philharmonic, one of the three great resident orchestras. And the social aspect—people are proud of this festival.”
Last summer, as incoming executive director, Palermo watched Bravo! Vail from behind the scenes, seeing how the concerts ran, meeting donors, getting to know his staff. “It was a nice way to transition in,” he says.
Palermo made his peace long ago with the move from musician to administrator. In 1987, with a master’s in trumpet performance from Indiana University, Palermo embarked on an orchestra tour of Europe and South America. Pulled into emergency duty as an orchestra manager, he found he preferred performing off-stage. Palermo laid his instrument down and began a career that has included running Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival for fourteen years and a three-year stint heading the Colorado Symphony.
With the help of artistic director Anne-Marie McDermott, Palermo says he looks forward to taking the festival to new places. (This summer, for example, features the first Vail performance of Verdi’s “Requiem,” by the Philadelphia Orchestra on July 13.) And, as an endurance racer who has completed several half-marathons and took up downhilling last winter, he anticipates a celebratory postseason snowshoeing excursion/competition with his staff—“a bunch of hardcore athletes,” he says.
But first, he has a festival to run.