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Strings Music Festival: Making music at altitude

The Strings Festival Orchestra will perform pieces from Mozart and Tchaikovsky for the first half of Saturday night's performance, while the second half features conductor Andrés Cárdenes on solo violin.
Courtesy Photo





The Strings Festival Orchestra will perform pieces from Mozart and Tchaikovsky for the first half of Saturday night’s performance, while the second half features conductor Andrés Cárdenes on solo violin.

When I moved to Steamboat last June, I thought I was prepared for the altitude adjustment period. A few days of breathlessness here and there? No problem. A week of slower-than-average runs? Piece of cake. I was even prepared to take it easy on the mountain bike all the way to July.

Longtime Steamboaters, you can stop laughing at me now.

Once I finally caught my breath — in October — I had gained a new appreciation for the challenges faced by Strings musicians. For singers, wind players and brass players, the altitude significantly affects breath control, which is a crucial part of proper singing and playing technique. For the string section, although a violin doesn’t much care about the altitude, stringed instruments are especially susceptible to the temperature and humidity changes that happen on a trip to Steamboat Springs from just about anywhere. Whether through a musician or an instrument, our high altitude and low humidity can ravage the most perfectly prepared performance.



Strings Festival Orchestra musicians start arriving Wednesday to get their instruments (and bodies) acclimated for the first orchestra concert Saturday night. The full orchestra will perform pieces from Mozart and Tchaikovsky for the first half of the performance, while the second half features conductor Andrés Cárdenes on solo violin. If you see me bustling around the Strings Music Pavilion, I’ll be distributing water bottles diligently and trying to maintain constant humidity levels backstage to protect those delicate instruments.

Tuesday morning is our first Youth Concert of the season. I give our Youth Concert performers a lot of credit for being incredibly cheery and energetic at a time in the morning when most musicians are still in REM sleep, having gotten home from gigs at 1 a.m. I have no doubt The Not-Its! will be as jolly as their pink and black tutus and socks, even for an 8 a.m. load-in at 6,700 feet.



On Tuesday night, George Winston gives a solo concert at the Pavilion. He calls his style “rural folk piano,” and he’ll bring his stride piano and rhythm and blues influences to Strings’ new concert grand piano (which is acclimated perfectly after spending several months backstage.) From an artist’s perspective, the Steinway Model D is the Jaguar of pianos — finely tuned, highly responsive and simply beautiful. From my stage manager’s perspective, the concert grand is 2 feet longer and 230 pounds heavier than a regular grand piano and has the turning radius of a bus. This is mostly to say that it requires more handling to move it around backstage and onstage, which in turn means that it requires more polishing to remove my sticky fingerprints before the performance. If you notice a stray smudge at the concert Tuesday night, please kindly look away.

Of all the musicians who will be performing this week, only Trevor G. Potter with Walt and the Ol’ 37 already are acclimated to being in Steamboat. Lucky band! They’ll kick off the first Music on the Green on Thursday starting at 12:15 p.m. — stop by the beautiful Yampa River Botanic Park for an awesome, free lunchtime concert.

I have nothing but admiration for visiting musicians who can perform at a world-class level while gasping for breath or babying a cranky instrument that wants to fall out of tune at a moment’s notice. Making music beautiful enough to complement our mountain scenery isn’t easy, but it sure is worth it.


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