MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

A New Figaro at Seattle Opera

Ryan McKinny (Figaro) and Soraya Mafi (Susanna)

I reviewed the Figaro production that just opened at Seattle Opera for Bachtrack:

There’s a moment in Seattle Opera’s end-of-season production, as the threads are being steadily pulled ever tighter in the final act, when Figaro reaches out from his hiding place behind a tree, trying to make contact with Susanna…

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Filed under: Mozart, review, Seattle Opera

Roderick Cox Triumphs with the Seattle Symphony

Roderick Cox conducting the Seattle Symphony Orchestra; photo (c)James Holt

I left last night’s performance convinced that Roderick Cox is a major talent destined for something great. Winner of the 2018 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award, Cox had caught my interest last year leading a Barber in San Francisco Opera’s return to live performance. Those were unusual circumstances dictated by social-distancing rules (with a parking lot as the auditorium, the music transmitted to our car radios), so it was splendid to get to experience this young conductor in the limelight, with a full orchestra, unhampered by any pandemic restrictions more cumbersome than a mask. [UPDATE: Check out the film Conducting Life, an intimate portrait of Roderick Cox and his path toward his vocation.]

Cox chose a challenging program that revealed an impressive gift for communicating his musical vision. The first half was given to William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony of 1934–a landmark of early 20th-century American symphonic writing has been shamefully, disgracefully neglected while so many tireless mediocrities continue to clutter the repertoire.

This performance had the quality of a double epiphany, confirming what an excellent piece of music we’ve allowed ourselves to be missing out on and at the same time shedding light on the journey Dawson’s symphony traces–outwardly, the harrowing passage from Africa to the New World, but also an implicitly personal journey. He clarified the originality of Dawson’s response to the challenge Dvořák had issued to cultivate an authentically American voice. For Dawson, that meant writing a symphony that, as the composer put it, “is unmistakably not the work of a white man.”

Negro Folk Symphony is a marvel of the imaginative, indeed, symphonic, transformation of simple, ready-made folk material–Dawson draws on three spirituals in particular–into a complex, multi-faceted structure. Cox led a dramatically compelling account that highlighted Dawson’s elaborate use of rhythmic mottos as a unifying device, while also lavishing attention on the orchestral details that give this score such resonance. His spacing of the implacably tragic minor chords ending the “Hope in the Night Section” was especially memorable. This was the SSO’s first performance of the Dawson, and part of the excitement came from the sense of the players sharing in these discoveries along the way, clearly inspired by Cox’s guidance.

Concertmaster Noah Geller gave a deeply felt and polished interpretation of the 1904 Violin Concerto in A minor by Alexander Glazunov–who, like Dawson, straddled a period of drastic change in musical values and pressures. Basking in his warmly expressive lower register in the opening passage, the violinist kept the audience at an attentive hush in Glazunov’s extended cadenza, counterbalancing the piece’s gentler lyricism with its giddy high spirits and vivaciously articulated virtuosity.

Cox proved fearless in Belá Bartók’s Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, a piece that doesn’t tolerate weak-willed, insecure conducting. He drew an electrifying performance from the outset, never letting go of the ominous, hair-raising tension and danger that animate this early Bartók score. The music echoes, though in a very original way, impulses from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Strauss’s dancing Salome, also hinting at the spirit of film noir to come. Cox emphasized its brutal violence but also knew how to bring out the delicacy and spookily muted colors of Bartók’s orchestration, loosening the reins to give the platform to Benjamin Lulich for his arresting clarinet solos.

The glowing rapport between the players and Cox left me hoping to see much more of this conductor on the Benaroya stage. Thursday’s audience, though relatively sparse, was enthusiastic and grateful. What a pity it would be to miss this excellent program, which repeats Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm.

Review (c) 2022 Thomas May

Filed under: Bartók, conductors, review, Seattle Symphony

Ruth Reinhardt and Asher Fisch Lead the Seattle Symphony

Ruth Reinhardt conducting Seattle Symphony in Bernstein’s Candide Overture during her tenure as an SOO Conducting Fellow (2017)

Last week’s subscription concerts launched Seattle Symphony’s Sibelius Symphony cycle, which had been anticipated as a highlight of Thomas Dausgaard’s return since the pandemic. In the wake of the now-ex-music director’s sudden departure announced last month, a handful of replacement conductors has been enlisted to take over Dausgaard’s commitments for the rest of the season.

First up this month was Ruth Reinhardt, a remarkable conductor of the young generation. She had the formidable task of taking on the first program of the Sibelius cycle, in which the Finnish composer’s symphonies are being combined with newly commissioned compositions. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Ellen Reid responded to Sibelius’s First Symphony with a work titled TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY AND TODAY. Lasting about a quarter-hour, it showed Reid as a composer who not only creates intriguing soundscapes but is able to illuminate them with psychologically resonant significance.

The Macbethian title (even more despairing than “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”) refers to the patterns of repetition and monotony endured during the pandemic. But her music stages various escapes — lyrical fantasias, utopian dreaming, even a down-to-earth party — from the stasis and repetition that threaten to drain each day of the joie de vivre. Reid uses the resources of the orchestra with great imagination and variety.

Moreover, as became clear in Reinhardt’s sweeping, panoramic vision of the Sibelius, Reid seems to have found a pandemic-era equivalent for the vision conveyed by Sibelius’s extraordinary debut symphony, which builds to a seeming lyrical breakthrough or even oasis, only to find it illusive. That connection certainly seemed apparent in Reinhardt’s overview of both works. Between them, we were treated to an exquisitely phrased, completely beguiling interpretation by Garrick Ohlsson of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, followed by thunderous, bell-like chords in his encore, the C-sharp minor Prelude.

What a gift to have Asher Fisch back in town after a long absence. The program he conducted on Thursday evening paired George Walker and Gustav Mahler, and the pairing works beautifully. Fisch infused Lyric for Strings with genuine warmth and underscored the fascinating entanglement of folk and modernist elements in the much later Folksongs for Orchestra, which dates from 1990. It continues to defy belief that this great American composer remains such a rarity in our concert life. How long is it going to take to change that?

Fisch was in his element with Das Lied von der Erde, and the Mahler-starved audience — the pandemic has been especially unkind to the composers who require enlarged orchestras — drank it up with rapt attention. I especially admired his flexible rhythms and feeling for Mahler’s Jugendstil ornamentation, but he also kept the emotional destination of the cycle clearly in view, illuminating the way to, and the journey within, the vast final song. Problems of balance left tenor Russell Thomas largely drowned out for stretches of the opening “Trinklied,” but his passionate delivery conveyed the flashes of bitter epiphany Mahler expresses.

Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor brought a rich, dark timbre to her three songs, carefully building the sense of inevitable leave-taking in “Der Abschied.” The expanded woodwind section was a special highlight, with eloquent contributions from flutist Demarre McGill and oboist Mary Lynch in particular. Fisch’s unpretentious, unfussy clarity allowed each detail to fall into place with memorable impact.

The program will be repeated on Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 4pm. It would be a shame to miss it.

Filed under: George Walker, Mahler, review, Seattle Symphony

Lee Mills Steps in to Conduct the Seattle Symphony in a Rare Program of Hannah Lash and Amy Beach 

Lee Mills with soloists Hannah Lash and Valerie Muzzolini and the Seattle Symphony (photo: James Holt / Seattle Symphony)

I reviewed Seattle Symphony’s latest program: a world premiere of a new double harp concerto by Hannah Lash and Amy Beach’s “Gaelic” Symphony:

SEATTLE — An unexpectedly last-minute round of musical chairs reshuffled the lineup for one of the most unusual and original programs of the Seattle Symphony season. As a double harp concerto, Hannah Lash’s The Peril of Dreams, an SSO commission, in itself represents a rarity in the orchestral literature. That it was paired with the seldom-programmed “Gaelic” Symphony by Amy Beach made the occasion all the more remarkable….

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Filed under: Musical America, new music, review, Seattle Symphony

Gabriel Kahane Returns to the Stage

Gabriel Kahane (photo Josh Goleman)

My review of Gabriel Kahane’s return to live performance at the University of Washington’s Meany Center with a preview of the new crop of songs from his internet hiatus:

SEATTLE — In November 2019,Gabriel Kahane embarked on a yearlong hiatus from the internet. He disengaged himself completely from social media and cut off the cell phone umbilical cord. But several months into this experiment, he was forced into further isolation by the pandemic. His appearance Nov. 6 at Meany Center, the University of Washington’s main performance venue, marked one of Kahane’s first occasions enjoying live contact with the public since lockdowns began. The singer-songwriter-pianist is one of four Meany Center Creative Research Fellows this season at the UW.

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Filed under: Classical Voice North America, Gabriel Kahane, review

Fidelio at San Francisco Opera

A scene from Act One: image (c) Corey Weaver

There was a lot of excitement in the air at the opening of San Francisco Opera’s new production of Fidelio, which had been delayed for a year for obvious reasons. Here’s my review for Musical America:

Filed under: Beethoven, Musical America, review, San Francisco Opera

BBC Proms 2021

The recently concluded BBC Proms concerts are available online. Here’s a guest review of the 2021 edition of the Proms by Tom Luce:

BBC PROMENADE CONCERTS 2021: REVIVAL OF PUBLIC MUSIC-MAKING DURING THE PANDEMIC

Last year, in compliance with pandemic restrictions, the BBC had to limit both the number and accessibility of its annual Promenade Concert Festival concerts. There were fine and interesting concerts as usual in London’s huge Albert Hall. They were all broadcast but had no public audiences present.

This year, with great skill and imagination, the BBC has achieved a full program which complies with pandemic public health precautions. The Albert Hall stage was enlarged so that orchestral members could social distance from each other and the audience, and the public were admitted after showing proof of double vaccination or negative Covid tests. So nearly a year and a half after the near closure of public music-making, it has been revived.

The 46 concert programs had great diversity in content and performers. The classical composers and their modern successors were fully represented, but there was also a lot of non-European music and popular and folk-based items. How many festival programs have included not only Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, along with the usual Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Stravinsky, etc., but also music by Florence Price and Gity Razaz, n accordionist playing a Piazzolla tango, an evening devoted to a jazz saxophonist and composer, and another to the Golden Age of Broadway?

International travel restrictions meant that nearly all performing groups were based in the UK. As well as the BBC’s own and other regular British orchestras, a fine concert was provided by the Chineke! orchestra, and a chamber group consisting largely of members of the Kanneh-Mason family (cellist Sheku having memorably played Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations with the Seattle Symphony three years ago), which delivered a charming performance of Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals.

All of the concerts remain internationally available on BBC Sounds until mid-October. It’s hard to pick those most worthwhile to hear out of such a fine collection. My own preferences include a wonderful St. Matthew Passion performance by the Baroque-style Arcangelo group under their founder and director Johnathan Cohen, who with excellent soloists delivered both the dramatic crowd interventions and the intimate and reflective arias and recitatives with equal effectiveness (9 September); a magnificently played and conducted Tristan und Isolde from the Glyndebourne Festival (3 September); John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi team in a Bach cantata and a stunningly energetic performance of Handel’s Dixit Dominus (1 September); Simon Rattle and the London Symphony in a Stravinsky program (22 August); a fine delivery of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony by an orchestra of pandemic-impoverished freelance musicians specially brought together by the BBC (8 September); the Chineke! Orhcestra’s fine evening with rarely performed but very welcome  music by Florence Price, Samuel Taylor Coleridge Taylor, and Felo Sowande, as well as a Vivaldi concerto (24 August); and a superb rendering of Mozart’s last three symphonies by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (1 August).

In accordance with British tradition, the first and last nights were national events. I have elsewhere described the first night’s programming as very suitable to pandemic circumstances. A remarkable feature of the last night was a  beautiful choral arrangement of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Arranging the words from the Agnus Dei (“Grant them rest……….Grant us peace”) to this celebrated expression of grief was a wonderful addition to a public concert  occurring on 9/11, 20 years after the tragic events in the USA — a commemoration subtly conveyed by Hall ushers gently lifting the Stars and Stripes as it was sung.

All of the concerts I observed were attended by thousands in the Albert Hall, who responded very strongly, and these performances were no doubt heard by millions via radio. To experience such a public revival of real concerts and the profound effect of music on society has reminded me of two historic observations on music’s importance:

-Plato’s comment: “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe and wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm to sadness and gaiety to life and to everything”.

-”Musica: Laetitia comes medecina dolorum” (“Music: pleasure’s companion: grief’s remedy”), the inscription on the virginal in Vermeer’s painting The Music Lesson.

Filed under: BBC Proms, review

Music on the Strait: Opening Weekend, Part 2 (at Concerts in the Barn)

The Barn entrance; photo credit J. Gustavo Elias

For the first time since it began in 2018, Music on the Strait (MOTS) is partnering this summer with Concerts in the Barn to present a third performance for each of the festival’s two weekends. Scheduled for Sundays in Quilcene (about an hour southeast of Port Angeles), these concerts repeat one of the Friday/Saturday programs and are available to the public on a free/pay-what-you-can basis (prior registration required).

Determined to have the full experience of MOTS both at its Port Angeles venue (Peninsula College’s Maier Hall) and at the Barn, my partner and I caught the Takács Quartet on Sunday afternoon in its repeat of Friday’s opening program. Connected with the Concerts in the Barn series is a moving story of its own involving reconciliation with the descendants of the Japanese American family who had owned the land before they were forced into internment camps in the Second World War. Alan Iglitzin, the legendary violist who founded the Port Townsend-based Olympic Music Festival and cofounded the Philadelphia Quartet, established the series in 1984 in an abandoned dairy barn at Trillium Woods Farm near Quilcene (venue pictured above and just below).

With the Takács, MOTS’s co-founder, the Grammy Award-winning violist Richard O’Neill, was able to present what he has been up to most recently as the newest member of that revered ensemble. He offered some prefatory comments recalling his epiphany in this very space, as a youngster spellbound in the audience on July 3, 1993, when he heard a performance of the Death and the Maiden Quartet and realized he wanted to spend his life making music like this. O’Neill gave a touching tribute to Iglitzin (who remains active as he heads into his 90s), pointing out how his efforts have left a lasting imprint.

Inside the Barn; photo credit J. Gustavo Elias

We found a comfortable spot atop a hay bale for the first half and tried out the loft in back for the second; the acoustics were consistently warm, natural, direct. As far as could be ascertained, this was the first time the Takács Quartet was performing in an actual barn (though O’Neill and violinist Harumi Rhodes had individually appeared in the same space before). The relaxed setting, with audience reclining on the grass outside and listening via speakers, was inversely proportional to the intensity of involvement in the music-making (for the Takács and audience alike).

The program presented three hefty staples of the repertoire, in the process tracing a branch of the Viennese Classical tradition and an early modern offshoot. Melancholy and subdued serenity took the lead at the start of Haydn’s F minor Quartet from the genre-defining Op. 20 set of 1772.

Edward Dusinberre’s exquisite descants in the slow movement had the flexibility of first-rate jazz, blooming across the basic lilt of the siciliana, while ensemble ebb-and-pull at a breakneck pace imbued the double-fugue finale with thrilling emotion. From this kind of realization, it became understandable how Beethoven would later mine such potential from what must have seemed, to contemporaries, the hopelessly antiquated constraints of string counterpoint.

Gears were immediately shifted for Ravel’s sole essay in the genre, the early Quartet in F major from 1903, both modeled on and knowingly independent of Debussy’s contribution from a decade before. O’Neill’s rich, demonstrative viola personality — amply on display as Ravel’s writing ventures ever further into timbral experiment — was but one strand of a winningly characterful account. At one moment of mysterious tremoli, a dulcet breeze wafted through the open barn doors and across the space, a perfectly timed accompaniment.

Time and again, as in András Fejér’s superbly articulated solo work in the cello-centered variation of the second movement of the Schubert, the Takács demonstrated their winning secret of accommodating strikingly individual voices while maintaining coherence and unity of purpose as an ensemble. This is, in large part, the result of the sort of close listening that allowed such an impressive display of dynamic range and control in the Assez vif, as well as such infinite tenderness amid the tempo changes of Ravel’s slow movement.

An intriguingly balletic quality enriched the final movement. Dance of a far more dreadful vividness was the driving force in the last two movements of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden from 1824, to which the concert’s second half was devoted.

Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre, Harumi Rhodes, Richard O’Neill, and András Fejér) ; photo credit J. Gustavo Elias

But the Takács set the stage with a surprising take on the opening movement: here, they almost downplayed the obvious drama and emphasized melodic consolation instead, clinging to Schubert’s Siren-like phrases as if to a life raft. As the afternoon sun stole through a crack in the wood above the players, a gleam briefly lit up the body of Fejér’s cello during the variation movement from which Schubert’s Quartet got its nickname; later, the whispered violin-and-viola reprise of the theme was as chilling as a prolonged death rattle.

The final tarantella kept looping back in terrifyingly relentless repetitions, a nightmare Groundhog Day with no escape in the Takács’ feverish, sweat-soaked rendition.

There is one more weekend to experience the 2021 Music on the Strait Festival; both programs feature Jeremy Denk, James Garlick, Ani Aznavoorian, and Richard O’Neill. Friday’s concert (20 August) is titled A Belated Beethoven Celebration; on Saturday (21 August), the Barn-Burning Brahms finale presents music by Jessie Montgomery, Paul Hindemith, and Johannes Brahms, which will be repeated Sunday (22 August) at 2pm as part of the Concerts in the Barn series in Quilcene.

–Review (c) 2021 Thomas May — All rights reserved

Filed under: chamber music, Music on the Strait, review

Music on the Strait: Opening Weekend, Part 1

James Garlick and Richard O’Neill; image credit: J. Gustavo Elias

In 2018, local sons James Garlick and Richard O’Neill together founded Music on the Strait (MOTS) in partnership with the Port Angeles Symphony, as a summer chamber festival in Port Angeles. The aim is to make chamber music performed by artists of international caliber accessible to residents of the Olympic Peninsula. This marvel-filled region on the “other side” of Puget Sound — paradise for nature lovers — is surprisingly close to Seattle but vastly distant in ethos and even climate. Though only 80-something miles away, Port Angeles requires a substantial day trip from the Emerald City (via either a ferry ride or a longer detour by land).

The prolonged, silent fermata caused by the pandemic intruded after just two years of building up momentum (though Music on the Strait was able to produce two live-stream programs over the past year). Even so, MOTS pulled off an inspired and inspiring opening weekend with a return to live performance at Maier Hall on the main campus of Peninsula College located in Port Angeles. It’s a small, warm, intimate space ideal for chamber music and seemed to be pulsating with anticipation as the audience gathered on Saturday night for the second program of this opening weekend (the first I was able to catch). MOTS required vaccination cards as well as masks, and patrons effortlessly complied.

Garlick is a violinist who hails from Port Angeles itself but is currently based in Minneapolis, while the violist O’Neill, a native of nearby Sequim, has long been a regular presence at the Seattle Chamber Music Society festivals. Earlier this year, O’Neill joined the storied Takács Quartet and won his first Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental solo (for his recording of Christopher Theofanides’s Viola Concerto).

image credit: J. Gustavo Elias

The two MOTS cofounders and artistic directors started off the program with a duo for their respective instruments by the Norwegian composer, conductor, and violinist Johan Halvorsen — or rather, Halvorsen’s late-Romantic elaboration on the Sarabande from Handel’s D minor Harpsichord Suite. The harmonic sequence is mighty reminiscent of the ear-wiggy La Folia craze that took Europe by storm centuries ago — hence the nickname “Handel’s Folia” — but Halvorsen’s treatment engraves the music with a tremendously “non-HIP” solemnity that requires its own historically informed practice, so distant has this Victorian era aesthetic become. It was intriguing to hear (and see) Garlick and O’Neill exchange and fuse their notably different playing styles and gestural languages.

Jeremy Denk; image credit: J. Gustavo Elias

Jeremy Denk has close ties to MOTS — he was a featured artist in the inaugural season — and he is cast in a central role in the 2021 edition as well. Though his mask made him appear slightly surreal in the heat of the moment (especially given his fondness for turning from the Steinway to glance at the audience or, later, his fellow musicians), the pianist’s gregarious, stimulating, and entertaining artistic personality was fully on display. Denk prefaced his account of J.S. Bach’s G major Partita No. 5, BWV 829, by describing it as the work of a “wicked, smiling, rambunctious rapscallion” who delighted in confounding the church elders with wild modulations and far-roaming fantasies. And that was just how he played the Partita, emphasizing every moment of wit and invention with a willful, winning eccentricity. It seemed very much of our time, of a desperate need to accentuate how music matters, even at its most playful. Amid all the frolicking, the Sarabande had a directness that was deeply touching.

Denk approached the final Gigue as if it were a study for late Beethoven (admittedly, easier to do with Bach-on-piano). Similarly, he found in Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins’s The Battle of Manassas a provocatively avant-garde take on program music and a fascination for sound collage and cluster chords decades ahead of Charles Ives. The piece also calls for spoken (shouted) “tags” from the pianist, with Denk briefly pulling down his mask to announce such events as the approach of the Southern Army in this extraordinary evocation of the 1861 victory of Confederate forces in the First Battle of Bull Run — a musical equivalent of the once-popular panorama paintings that were 19th-century precursors to film.

The Battle of Manassas was part of a set that included Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s transcription of They Will Not Lend Me a Child (Op. 59, no. 4), played with spacious grandeur and an affectionately meditative account of Scott Joplin’s 1907 Heliotrope Bouquet (cowritten with Louis Chauvin), culminating in one of the North American Ballads by the late Frederic Rzewski. Denk chose Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, inspired by a folk song connected to the labor struggle of textile workers at a South Carolina plant in the 1930s. Rzewski’s grinding, machine-like ostinati suggested a provocative counterpart to the “Blind Tom” Wiggins piece — in both cases, Denk thundered relentlessly from the lower depths, using the keyboard to transport us inside the action. But the victory in Rzewski’s mini-epic is intensely rewarding: the emergence of song, of humanity, that hoists itself above brutal, indifferent implacability.

Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre, Harumi Rhodes, Richard O’Neill, and András Fejér); image credit: J. Gustavo Elias

Denk joined with the Takács Quartet — another clear win for this edition of MOTS — in a deep dive into Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet, Op. 44 (which the Takács has recorded with Marc-André Hamelin). They reveled in the enormous diversity of this pathbreaking score’s emotional terrain, at times stretching the flexibility of its language to a near-breaking point. The opening movement, with its outsize exuberance, plummeted into gloom in the funeral march that ensues and which they rendered with a powerfully effective slow burn — seemingly encapsulating the composer’s polar extremes. It’s become a challenge not to read a subtext of our recent collective suffering into these familiar musical journeys — in this case, the nervous pauses and pent-up tensions of the march seemed especially telling. The Scherzo, effusive and ebullient, helped light the way back toward a hope that took root in the finale’s polyphonic splendor, brightening into plausible joy.

–(c)2021 Thomas May — All rights reserved

Filed under: chamber music, Music on the Strait, review

Where Ancient Peaks Embrace Old Friends, Music Adds Its Wonder

Donald Runnicles conducted the Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra in Britten’s ‘Four Sea Interludes,’ Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations,’ and Carl Vine’s ‘Five Hallucinations’ for trombone and orchestra. (Photo by J. Gustavo Elias)

My report on the 60th-anniversary Grand Teton Music Festival currently under way:

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. — Even when obscured by smoke drifting in from distant wildfires, the Grand Tetons’ towering peaks command awe. The tallest cluster, which dominates the promotional posters for this summer’s Grand Teton Music Festival, has been dubbed “the Cathedral Group.”

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Filed under: festivals, Grand Teton Music Festival, review

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