By Andrew Palmer Todd, President and CEO of Grand Teton Music Festival
I grew up in rural Ohio, surrounded by thousands upon thousands of acres of corn and soybeans. Fields vast enough that you could legitimately get lost as a young person, and sometimes I actually did. But from a very early age, boxed in by this bucolic Midwestern setting though I was, I dreamt of mountains. I happily remember drawing pictures of mountains for hours on end. My favorite TV show was that short-lived 1970s show set in the mountains, Grizzly Adams. I mean, I really thought everyone should grow up and have a pet grizzly bear named “Ben”!
There were no musicians in my family. The only thing remotely musical about my family was my grandfather’s 1914 silver Conn trombone. That said, music spoke to me from very early on. I remember being 6 or 7 years old and rushing up to the choir loft to watch the church organist play the postlude each Sunday. The sounds of the pipe organ. Those four manuals. The pedal board. All of those organ stops and buttons. It was mesmerizing.
Eventually, my parents did two things for their young son, captivated as I was by mountains and music. We embarked on the compulsory family vacation to Yellowstone, complete in a faux wood-paneled station Chrysler LeBaron station wagon towing a stylish Jayco camper to bask in the majesty of the mountains. And more importantly, they supported my dream to learn the piano.
As a studious pianist, I practiced my scales and my arpeggios and fell in love with the music of Beethoven and Brahms. I certainly didn’t know at the time that Beethoven and Brahms were enamored with the outdoors, but it makes sense to me in retrospect. Both men lived the bulk of their professional lives in Vienna, but it is also true that both were happiest when they were in the pastoral Vienna suburbs (Beethoven) and the foothills of the Alps (Brahms). It was later in high school that I discovered the music of Mahler, which must have happened reading Stereo Review or pouring over the BMG monthly catalog. But as a pianist, Mahler’s music wasn’t immediately accessible the same way as Beethoven’s and Brahms’. And going to hear a live performance of a Mahler symphony in rural Ohio was out of the question.
When I did manage to leave Ohio for college, I spent my weekends attending the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was there where I really heard Mahler symphonies for the first time. That buzz saw brass sound of the CSO is forever etched in my memory (Bud Herseth, Frank Crisafulli and Arnold Jacobs come to mind). I remember vivid performances of the First, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth symphonies. This was at a time when Pierre Boulez was doing a lot of guest-conducting with the Chicago Symphony, much of it included Mahler. But there were performances led by Solti and others too.
It wasn’t until I was a music student in Aspen that I truly began to understand the “geography” of Mahler. That part of Mahler that is so intimately and inextricably linked to the mountains. And hearing those works in a setting, quite literally surrounded by mountains, was a eureka moment for me. All of those horn calls and off-stage trumpet solos, evoking the echoes off mountain walls. The sheer breadth of Mahler’s music makes the most sense to me in the backdrop of rugged mountain peaks and high alpine meadows. To experience these vast symphonies, which, for me, encompass the entire human condition, and the to walk into the mountains before and after a concert was a revelation. (It was also at this time that I met Dan Haggarty, the star of Grizzly Adams at a Thanksgiving dinner. True story.)
When the opportunity arose to be the CEO of the Grand Teton Music Festival in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I jumped at the chance. Jackson Hole was the mountain and musical setting I had been dreaming of since childhood. (Of course, I had the obligatory Ansel Adams print of his iconic photo of the Tetons, which I dutifully carted from apartment to apartment as a young adult.) And further, it was a chance to work with Donald Runnicles, a conductor whom I had viewed (from afar) as one of the leading Mahlerians of our time. I will never forget addressing the Festival Orchestra during my first summer in 2013 at the opening rehearsal, seeing Larry Combs (clarinet), Russel Hershow (violin), Gail Williams (horn), and Charles Pikler (viola) – all of whom were in Chicago Symphony for those towering Mahler performances of my youth. It was a humbling moment, addressing my musical heroes who had become colleagues.
Because of Donald, our Festival Orchestra musicians, and this spectacular backdrop we call home in Jackson Hole, Mahler is enmeshed in the very fabric of our Festival. Each year, we proudly present a Mahler symphony in a way that always has pride of place in our 7-week season. This year it is Mahler on the grandest scale—his third Symphony.
During the performances this weekend, I will have no doubt gone on a hike or a run through the mountains, feeling restored for that time in nature, just as Beethoven and Brahms and Mahler did. I will then immerse myself in this vast sonic canvas, marveling at the colors Donald evokes from this Festival Orchestra. I will ponder Mahler’s program for this work, so connected as it is landscape (Summer marches in, what the meadow flowers tell me, what the creatures of the forest tell me). I will take solace in the text of Nietzsche, which Kelley O’ Connor will sing with heartbreaking tenderness (The world is deep, and deeper than the day imagined. Deep is its grief! Joy, deeper still than heartache.) And after, I will walk outside and stare at the magnificent peaks of the Grand Teton Range, thankful that a boy from rural Ohio could find his way to this ever-expanding universe of Mahler in the Mountains - my faith in humanity once again restored.