The Philadelphians are viewed as visiting royalty.

Posted: July 08, 2007

VAIL, Colo. - Having landed a prime spot in Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, possibly for the next three years, the Philadelphia Orchestra is now discovering what precisely is involved. Few if any classical music institutions west of the Mississippi have flourished as Bravo has: What began in 1987 with chamber music now hosts three symphony orchestras in five weeks. And this in Vail - a ski resort that didn't exist before 1962.

Even orchestra president James Undercofler, who joined the organization after the Vail deal was signed last summer, admits to having Googled the town last Sunday to see where his orchestra will be ensconced for the coming week.

"They're wonderful hosts and presenters. And if the New York Philharmonic has been performing there, it's a good place," he said. The kind of place where, when a particularly rainy summer dampened the New York Philharmonic's spirits one year, local stores were raided to make sure each player had an umbrella.

Vail, for certain, is trying - one indication being that the festival's artistic director of the last decade is the articulate, stylish flutist/broadcaster Eugenia Zukerman.

The town can make few claims to cultural authenticity, having been created specifically as a commercial venture rather than evolving from deeper social need; its studied, storybook Swiss-chalet architecture would give Vail a Stepford quality were it not so intelligently integrated into the Rocky Mountain vegetation. The result is a singular juxtaposition of rugged terrain, theme-park ambience, and British-style traffic circles, which aren't quite as clogged with posh SUVs as those of its glitzier elder cousin, Aspen.

The main problem here is navigating construction, of which Vail seems to have as much as Center City Philadelphia. John W. Giovando, festival president and executive director, admits that 2007 perhaps isn't the ideal summer for "that fun mountain village experience." But, he assures, "everything will be all new by '08."

Unlike the Aspen Music Festival, where the likes of Jack Nicholson prowl the big weekend concerts, Vail draws few if any of the glitterati, says Zukerman. "We have a lot more Midwesterners and Southerners here. Aspen was always a bit of think tank - we're more regular folks here. We did have President Ford, whom we all loved. He came to concerts, would stand up and wave, and the people would go crazy.

"But we have people who like music. It's an enormously smart, multigenerational audience," she says. "Some of the people in the valley were the founders of Home Depot, MCI. They have worked very hard and were able to afford homes here early on."

Although festival personnel talk about the Philadelphia Orchestra almost as though it's visiting royalty, Bravo is considered, within the classical music industry, a very enviable gig. Festival audiences have doubled in the last 10 years, from 33,000 to 66,000, and those audiences have plenty to feast on. Though orchestra concerts tend toward greatest-hits programming, as in most summer festivals, Bravo has commissioned 18 new works by American composers (Kevin Puts is this year's composer in residence), and the chamber music programs, in some ways the heart of the festival, feature seldom-performed works by Erwin Schulhoff and Virgil Thomson.

Bravo's main venue, the Gerald Ford Amphitheater, is a jewel, with an attractive, inverted-triangle design that pulls audience attention to the center of the stage and is known to have relatively good acoustics. As semi-outdoor orchestra venues go, this one is cozy, seating 1,250 in inside seats and more on the boulder-studded lawn. (Coziness is a plus where evenings are so cool that concerts start at 6 p.m., before the temperature drops to uncomfortable levels.)

In this setting, the Philadelphians clearly intend to give Vail the works. They began last night, in an opening program led by music director Christoph Eschenbach. Generally seldom seen during the orchestra's summers, he was here to start things off with Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, one of his specialties, and tonight will conduct Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, the orchestra's latest CD release.

Tomorrow night the orchestra's associate conductor, Rossen Milanov, presents Dvorák, Ravel and Debussy. Programs later in the week include pianist Jonathan Biss on Thursday and guest conductor Hans Graf on Thursday and Friday. Things wrap up Saturday with Milanov leading Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, paired with Philadelphia composer Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra.

That last one might be pretty heady, especially at an 8,150-foot elevation, where snowcapped peaks aren't far away. That's why backstage has a few oxygen tanks. The lowlanders from Philadelphia (elevation 39 feet) arrived in two installments Thursday and Friday, the first group anticipating the unpredictable side effects of such rarefied air.

"The key is to drink a lot of water," said the festival's Giovando, dismissing altitude as an issue. "Most of the time when musicians have used our doctor, it was for sporting injuries from biking or hiking."

He was referring mostly to the New York Philharmonic, which plays July 20-27 in its fifth season here. The New Yorkers are those Type A people who fly in one day, concertize the next, and in between do enormous amounts of hiking, jeeping, jogging and motorcycling. Look for the Philadelphians at the breakfast buffet - which would be a relief for festival management, considering how much they've risked on the Philadelphia residency.

Bravo has most consistently hosted the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, an excellent second-tier orchestra; the Dallas Symphony also has visited. But this year Bravo features two Big Five ensembles, and putting the Philadelphia Orchestra alongside the New York Philharmonic required an $855,000 festival outlay, to cover travel, per diem fees, and housing in luxury hotels - or condos, for those wishing to do their own cooking.

Although Philadelphia Orchestra officials would not discuss the terms, Vail seems to have negotiated a good deal. But it's still, says Giovando, "a huge chunk" of the festival's $7 million 2007 budget, which is always in the black, and also it explains why there is a clause allowing it to opt out of the next two seasons, should it take a box-office bath this year.

But tickets are, in fact, selling well - especially for Saturday's Beethoven 9th concert - and orchestra officials are thinking of the arrangement as being long-term.

That's not a slam at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, which fills in for the absent orchestra this week with nothing less than the Royal Ballet. Says Undercofler, the Mann "is still our summer home." But he believes that the larger audiences there so far this season could be attributed to the orchestra's shorter Mann season.

"This," he said of the Vail festival, "is almost like diversifying our portfolio."


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/davidpatrickstearns.

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