Tony Award-winning vocalist Annaleigh Ashford waits for her cue to join the orchestra onstage at the New York Philharmonic’s  “Bernstein on Broadway” Bravo! Vail debut last  summer

Image: Zach Mahone

To the picnicking masses sprawled on the great lawn of the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater on a bucolic summer’s night, the orchestral musicianship that happens onstage at Bravo! Vail might appear to be as effortless—and as thrilling—as a downhill glide on the Vail Pass bike path. To those sitting or standing onstage, however, coaxing concertos out of the cool, dry, thin outdoor air at 8,150 feet above sea level is more like an uphill pedal.

“The rest of our summer is usually spent performing in very hot and very humid places, like China, Europe, and Philadelphia,” says the Philadelphia Orchestra’s first violinist and concertmaster, David Kim. “Vail is the only place where it’s dry mountain air at altitude, and then, of course, you’re playing outside, which is different.” Different, as in the instruments don’t carry sound quite as voluminously as they do in a climate-controlled metropolitan concert hall. Which means that Bravo! musicians must compensate by performing with more verve than they do elsewhere, a technique New York Philharmonic violinist Qianqian Li describes as “playing out” to the audience.

The New York Philharmonic’s George Curran ascends from the underbelly of the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater.

Image: Zach Mahone

However, “playing out” has its hurdles, too—thinner air (there’s 20 percent less oxygen to play with in Ford Park than there is in Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall) can be especially taxing for woodwinds and brass players during a performance. “Our phrases are about 20 percent shorter than they’d normally be,” explains the New York Philharmonic’s bass trombone player, George Curran, of the length he can carry a note. “Out in the audience you don’t hear it as much, but one of my friends described it as playing with a sock in your bell.”

Brass and woodwind sections tend to go flat, and string players often notice their notes going sharp thanks to the dry, chilly mountain air. (“We keep cool humidifiers in the concert hall dressing room and the hotel rooms going all the time,” says Kim.) And don’t forget about the hazard of ultraviolet rays a mile and a half above sea level. “Sunburn is not great for an embouchure,” laughs the Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal tuba player, Carol Jantsch. 

Getting all those large instruments over Vail Pass is a haul, too—quite literally, as each orchestra’s harps and harpsichords and bass drums and timpani are loaded into large cargo containers, packed into a semi, and trucked across the country. Once the precious payload arrives in Vail, instruments are uncrated and retuned in time for daily morning rehearsals before the alpenglow-timed shows at Ford Amphitheater. Some musicians travel with a second instrument to hold them over while they’re waiting for their performance piece, which isn’t exactly easy if, say, you play the sousaphone. “Flying with a tuba is so miserable,” says the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Jantsch. “So having it magically arrive at the venue where you’re going to play is one of the best perks of this job.”

Despite all the tribulations, ask any member of any orchestra who’s played Bravo! Vail if the experience was worth the hassle, and the refrain is the same—and resounding. “Sometimes when I’m playing, I just look around at this beautiful area right next to the mountain,” says the New York Philharmonic’s Li. “We performed a piece by [Aaron] Copland called An Outdoor Overture, and to play that one outdoors in Vail, it just makes me feel so much more a part of it.”

And a part of the community, too. “I was playing golf in Wolcott [last year] and my caddy said, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow night; I’m going to the show!’” says Kim. “Things like that are just wonderful.”

Judging by the nightly standing ovation, both under the canopy and out on the lawn, it’s safe to say the feeling’s mutual.

Bravo! Vail Music Festival

June 20–Aug 4, Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater; bravovail.org 

Orchestra Performances: Anne-Sophie Mutter & Chamber Orchestra Vienna-Berlin, June 20–23; Dallas Symphony Orchestra, June 28–July 4; The Philadelphia Orchestra, July 5–13; New York Philharmonic, July 17–24; lawn seats $5–$29, amphitheater seats $44–$109

Don’t miss: Bravo! Vail’s very first opera, Tosca: A Premiere Opera Production, performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, July 11 and 13, 6 p.m.

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