Curtain Call

As Bravo! turns 25, the festival’s founder looks back and takes a final bow.

By Andy Stonehouse June 1, 2012 Published in the Summer/Fall 2012 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

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Image: Bravo!

It’s amazing what one dynamic and wonderfully eccentric guy can do for a town in just a quarter-century. Witness the lineup for the 25th iteration of the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, a coda for executive director John Giovando.

The 2012 season, which runs June 25 to August 4, continues a recent tradition of bringing a quartet of genuinely world-class orchestras to the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater—the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and Summit County’s own National Repertory Orchestra. It also presents a litany of chamber-music performances, unique shows at private homes, and even some very laid-back community music events (“Silver Nights,” July 31 through August 2) at the Donovan Pavilion and at Minturn’s Little Beach Amphitheater.

There’s crossover appeal with performers such as jazz vocalist Curtis Stigers (July 2 and 4) and this year’s most anticipated event, the Cirque du Soleil–style dance and acrobatics show Cirque de La Symphonie, backed by music from the full Philadelphia crew, on July 8. And the 25th-anniversary gala (“Under the Silvery Moon,” July 21) at the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens is sure to be one of the highlights of the summer social season. That’s because in addition to being an A-list party, it’s also a bon voyage for Giovando.
The quarter-century mark signals a major changing of the guard, as the festival’s cofounder and executive director steps aside and helps welcome a new leader, former Colorado Symphony Orchestra president and CEO James W. Palermo, who starts the job in September. Anyone with even a passing involvement in Bravo! understands the significance of Giovando’s impact, his vision, and his hard work for the festival over the years.

“Working with him is pretty indescribable—he’s brilliant, creative, and insightful, and he has so much wisdom,” says classical pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, Bravo!’s artistic director and a member of New York City’s Lincoln Center chamber orchestra. (McDermott kicks off this summer’s festival herself on June 25, performing a free show of works by Bach, Shostakovich, and Liszt.) “It’s astonishing what he was able to accomplish here,” she adds. “I really get a little tongue-tied when I try to describe what he did, as his spirit is forever and profoundly imbued in this festival.”

Looking Back

For his part, the ebullient godfather of Vail’s classical scene humbly says it’s time to pass the baton—and perhaps commemorate the occasion by wrapping his fingers around a half-rack of ribs.

“When the end comes, I think I’ll go over and get some Moe’s barbecue and ... it’ll just go on without me,” says the 69-year-old Giovando, in his signature self-effacing tone. “Really, I’m stepping down at the right time in my life, and how many people do you know who can say they’ve actually been able to live the dream they had? I tried to make it fun. I think we also managed to create an absolutely stupendous American music festival, one of the country’s hidden gems.”

As for the genesis of Giovando’s dream, well, that’s a long story. The thin and elegant Arizona- and Chicago-educated lawyer, who’s always looked and sounded a bit like a 1920s movie star, says his love affair with classical music really began with visits to his Italian immigrant grandparents in Texas, where opera filled the house.

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Image: Zach Mahone

After an early stint working as legal consultant to Hopi and Navajo tribes in northeastern Arizona, Giovando and his family landed in Santa Fe. There he found an opportunity to blend his lifelong musical interests with his developing business acumen and scored a job as director of operations and touring with the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. From there, he was cherry-picked to help revitalize the Music from Angel Fire classical series, set in the mountains above Taos; for that project, he enlisted the help of celebrated violinist Ida Kavafian, whom he’d met during the Santa Fe team’s visits to New York and who would also play a pivotal role in the founding of Bravo!

By 1987, Giovando had become a mover and shaker in the then-cloistered world of mountain music festivals, and he had been summoned to the Vail Valley as a hired gun to help develop a new, tourist-friendly chamber-music series in Beaver Creek. Giovando says he’d never visited the valley but had previously floated a proposal to Vail’s mayor, sensing that the Colorado resort and its access to I-70 might make a great home for a new series. Giovando and Kavafian borrowed their Angel Fire resources (including several prominent members of the Lincoln Center orchestra, plus the jazz fusion quartet Oregon) for what proved to be a rocky test run in Eagle County.

“The Dvořak quintet they played was really one of my most memorable shows ever, our first big piece of music and quite sophisticated,” Giovando recalls. “Ida was playing, and we’d set up about 300 chairs in the audience ... and they were all sorta empty, unfortunately.” He admits that the first season’s selections might have been a little extreme for an all-new event, but says it was an important lesson.

“We worked on trying to make it more fun,” Giovando explains. “We learned what worked from talking to people at all the other summer music festivals—and that’s to always have your ear to the idea of making music relevant to the public.”

In the years that followed, the festival gradually began picking up steam, landing an extended visit by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in its third season. The Detroit Symphony was brought on board in the eighth year, and Giovando and Kavafian used the growing reputation of their little mountain festival to entice an increasingly impressive cast of visiting musicians to the Vail Valley.

“Rochester catapulted us to a new level and gave us the impetus to dream bigger—that led to absolute coups, such as the New York Philharmonic or the Philadelphia Orchestra, truly some of the greats in the world,” Giovando attests. “We’ve remained financially stable, and we’ve even created a small endowment fund through our surpluses and the help of our donors.”

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Image: Zach Mahone

Building for the Future

Perhaps more important, Giovando and Kavafian also created a bevy of community education and outreach projects—including an instrument petting zoo for tykes, $2 after-school piano lessons for grade-schoolers, free concerts for families, and pre- and post-concert lectures and Q&As—that continue to spark the multigenerational enthusiasm that’s a hallmark of the annual event.

“We’ve tried our best to get the kids here,” Giovando says. “And we’ve had stuff like the New York Philharmonic Young Composer Program, where very, very young kids wrote out their images of music for the orchestra to play. The Imagination Celebration in 2010 was also great. We teamed up with Damian Woetzel from the Dance Festival to create a performance with kids; Yo-Yo Ma played a youth concert with our students, and Damian’s students danced with him. We’ve kept the event alive for the past two years and are doing it again.”

In addition to making classical music accessible, Bravo! has also evolved into a significant economic engine for the Vail Valley. The six-week festival injects more than $16 million into the community, much of it in the direct lodging, dining, and even spa and massage budgets of the visiting orchestras.

While the bulk of the action still centers on the Vail Valley Foundation’s Ford Amphitheater, which has become synonymous with Bravo!, Giovando says he is especially happy to have helped play a role, along with the Beaver Creek Arts Foundation and namesake patron Alberto Vilar, in the construction of the Vilar Performing Arts Center. While the Vilar hosts its share of baby boomer–era rock shows, it was initially created as (and remains) one of the nation’s premier chamber concert halls.

Just because he’s leaving Vail and soon will be turning 70 doesn’t mean Bravo!’s founder plans to retire anytime soon. He and McDermott, who is in her second year helming Bravo! on the artistic side, have teamed up to guide both the Ocean Reef Chamber Music Festival in Key Largo and the Avila Chamber Music Celebration in Curaçao. Although Giovando says he’s looking forward to spending a bit more time with his extended family, he also plans to continue his summertime pilgrimages to the Colorado High Country for Bravo!—he just won’t be the one pulling the strings.

“I really got to live it, you know?” Giovando says of his tenure in charge. “I dreamed that Bravo! would grow, and it did. Even with all those ups and downs, we kept saying that it wasn’t about anything but the music, and that’s turned out to be true. So I’ll be staying here all summer to help out, and then I get to say a great farewell to the festival and the community.”

And an enthusiastic hallo to Curaçao.  

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