…It’s a setting that easily nourishes music’s transcendent power. No wonder so many of the musicians who make up the GTMF Orchestra are long-timers, returning, summer after summer, as if compelled by a migratory instinct. Numbering about 200 total, they come from 80 orchestras and more than 50 other institutions spread across North America, from the Atlanta and Toronto Symphonies to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. A few even make the pilgrimage from European ensembles.
“After a long symphony season, I see those mountains and breathe this sense of release,” says Susan Gulkis Assadi, principal violist of the Seattle Symphony, who has been part of the festival for 23 years. Because the Grand Tetons Festival lasts a full seven weeks, orchestral assignments are staggered across the summer, hence the unusually large roster of musicians. But Gulkis Assadi is one of a handful who stay in this outpost of the Old West to play throughout the entire festival. “Physically, I don’t think there’s a more beautiful place in the world,” she says. “I never get tired of the mountains. The moose I never get tired of. We see them all the time in our yard.”
…The link between the playing and the surroundings is more than casual. Donald Runnicles, who was conducting, told me after a rehearsal that he believes the festival inspires “some of my finest music-making. Music in the mountains, I think, takes us all to a higher place, in more ways than one.” At around 6,300 feet above sea level, the actual altitude does require a little getting used to. “Just ask our wind players!” Runnicles adds. But it contributes to a sense of vigor and renewed energy for the conductor, who has served as festival music director since 2006.