In mid-March of 2020—the earliest days of the pandemic, when you could see the lights shutting off all across the country and around the world—it was clear that large gatherings were not going to happen. During the summer, Bravo! Vail Music Festival typically hosts four world-class orchestras, one of them international, with hundreds of musicians and about 60,000 people attending events. When we made the decision to cancel the festival in late April, it was devastating, but early on we said, “You know, we’re in the lemonade business right now. We’re going to figure out how to make lemonade out of this.”
At Bravo! VAIL we looked for silver linings. And for me personally, absolutely one of the silver linings was spending time with my father and getting my hands back on the violin. Growing up in New Jersey, I played the violin. I had taken lessons since I was very young, but somewhere in the teenage years it stopped being a priority for me. When I went off to college at Rutgers to study journalism and history, my father, an attorney who had never played an instrument in his life, picked up my violin and started taking lessons; to this day, he plays violin in the Stone Soup Symphony, a community orchestra in Hackettstown. At some point, when he got himself a nicer instrument, he sent me mine. So at the onset of the pandemic, we started doing weekly Zoom violin sessions, playing Irish music and doing FaceTime concerts for our family. It was a nice connection that we kept going all through the lockdown in quarantine.
Five weeks after Bravo! VAIL canceled its 2020 season, we had come up with an idea that seemed crazy at the time but ended up being incredibly meaningful. It was called the Music Box: a mobile stage that’s towed on a trailer with a front wall that cranks open with a winch like a music box, which we fabricated with the help of a gentleman from Fort Collins who builds tiny houses. During that first summer of the pandemic, we wound up doing 49 concerts up and down the valley, all outdoors, all socially distanced, with BYO everything—your own lawn chair, your glass of wine. We brought it into the driveways of our patrons; we brought it into cul-de-sacs in neighborhoods, to the park in Eagle-Vail, to the fire station in Vail for the first responders. The smallest concert we did was for just a handful of people, and the largest was up to 175. It was an incredible experience.
There were about 12 musicians total. Some were the family of our artistic director, Anne-Marie McDermott—all professional musicians—as well as the Dover string quartet and the festival’s founding artistic director, Ida Kavafian. The musicians created their own “bubble,” and we had to be very careful because there were no vaccinations or testing yet, but the local community actually got to experience live concerts again. Multiple times throughout the summer, people would come up to me after these performances with tears streaming down their faces, and they’d say, “I haven’t heard live music in months, and I didn’t know how much I needed it. I didn’t know how much I missed it.”
One of the most powerful experiences for me was when we went to the Castle Peak senior center in Eagle. Many of the residents there are very high-risk and couldn’t come out to the parking lot, so we pulled up the Music Box and positioned it so the concert was played to the entire side of the building—the nurses opened windows so those inside could hear the music. When the concert ended, everyone was flipping the lights in their rooms on and off to applaud.
Last summer we returned to a bit more of a normal-looking festival. We had 20 orchestral concerts, but we brought in smaller ensembles of 60 musicians instead of the usual 100 or more, and we explored programming that was a little less familiar. For some of our resident orchestras or the ensembles that came to play, it was the first time that they were coming back together and playing in front of a full-size audience since the pandemic began.
This season, our 35th, we’ll return to hosting full-size orchestras and presenting major beloved works by Beethoven and Mahler and more. We’ll present our full Chamber Music Series. We’re bringing back just about all of our Education and Engagement concerts and events—over half of what Bravo! does every summer is actually free to the public. And we’ll be bringing the Music Box and other programs to different parts of the valley so that families with young children have a chance to access these incredible musicians that stay with us during the summer.
The pandemic REvitalized bravo! Vail’s mission in ways I never thought possible. For the past two years, it was hard to focus on anything but the immediate needs, and rightfully so. But ultimately, the whole arc of that experience underscored my very strong belief that the arts are necessary. Our mental health, our spiritual health is just as important as our physical health.
I saw the joy, the emotional release that these concerts provided for people. Even if they were at a distance and in a lawn chair in their cul-de-sac, they had the opportunity to at least see their neighbors and rekindle that sense of community. What we learned is that instead of asking people to come to us, bringing music and meeting people where they are is incredibly impactful. And that’s something that I’ll take with me forever.