Strings of success
Popular concert music series has grown from humble beginnings
On the morning that a city official said it wasn’t acceptable to seat two people on the roof and two people on a chair, Strings in the Mountains founders Kay Clagett and Betse Grassby knew they had outgrown their first venue.
Strings was founded in 1988 to see whether a community could support chamber music in a town that was sports-oriented. The first venue, from 1988 to 1991, was at the Storm Meadows Athletic Club overlooking the ski runs Vogue, See Me and Voo Doo.
Clagett hoped for an audience of 30 to 35 people on that first night, but more than 100 attended. In its first summer, Strings reached 1,200 people. Now in its 19th year, the concert music series reaches 30,000 annually and has a radio listening audience of 14 million.
John Sant’Ambrogio brought the idea to start a music festival to Clagett, a buyer for Sports Stalker, and to Grassby, a Realtor.
“Neither of us had any classical music background, but we knew the community. It was the right combination at the right time,” Clagett said. “We didn’t have any music festival education or formulas to do it correctly. We’ve done it differently, and that’s why it is so unique.”
The Strings in the Mountains summer music festival runs for nine weeks, which is one of the longest running and most diverse festivals in the country.
“We’re the cultural mainstay in Northwest Colorado, and we have developed some tentacles that are far reaching,” Clagett said.
Strings has a reputation throughout the country of offering the highest quality music with world-renowned musicians in an intimate venue. In the early years at Storm Meadows, pianos sometimes had to be moved through the audience to make room on the small stage for a quartet. When concerts were held on the deck of the Storm Meadows Athletic Club and storms came through, concert attendees have gotten out of their seats to help move chairs, music stands and the piano back under cover.
Strings perpetuates the perfect composition of casual elegance. Each year, the organization raises the bar with the artists and quality of performances. One thing that hasn’t changed — the dress code.
“We see everything from hiking shorts and flip flops to dresses,” Clagett said. “I can count on one hand how many ties I’ve seen.”
Throughout the years, Strings has had its share of mishaps. Musicians have left instruments in restaurants, page-turners have slid off the stage, and the electricity has gone out in the middle of a concert. That didn’t stop exiled African performer Samite Ugonden who continued playing acoustically when the power went off. And nothing can stop the energy transfer that Grassby said occurs between the audience and the performers.
In Strings’ newest venue, a tent that is 80 feet in diameter, there is no bad seat.
“Wherever you are, you are closer than any concert in the city,” Grassby said.
The intimate venue is a great place for second-home owners to meet the locals, Clagett said. “They can run into their friends and will not lose them in the crowd of a larger venue.”
Strings moved out of its Torian Plum location three years ago because it outgrew that location, which it occupied for 11 years. Strings has grown from eight concerts in 1988 to 85 concerts this year, and its audiences include not only all ages, but many different species, as well.
“We’ve had dogs charging through performances, deer looking in and foxes run by,” Clagett said.
When Strings moved to the Torian Plum location, Clagett noticed how many families were expressing interest in the shows.
“We started the youth concerts, which built up to where there were too many people attending,” she said. “So we started the family concerts for the overflow of kids to come with their parents.”
“We think it’s an important concert setting experience for them to sit in the concert hall and experience it,” Grassby said. “And the winter concerts give us the opportunity to bring in top artists for the kids to experience.”
Strings educates children on the beauty, importance and origins of music in its Youth Touring Program. This year’s program, “Cultural Rhythms,” reached children all over the Northwest quadrant of Colorado including Meeker, Walden, Oak Creek, South Routt, Steamboat Springs, Hayden and Craig. “Cultural Rhythms” is a unique hands-on and interactive experience that teaches children about the history of music from the Caveman to the iPod.
“The Youth Touring Program reaches 2,500 children in a five-day period,” Clagett said. “We’ve taught kids how to make musical instruments at home including rain sticks, bass drums and stringed instruments made out of sound boxes with rubber bands.”
Strings’ growth comes from being on top of the community’s needs, knowing what’s hot and knowing who the up-and-coming artists are. Strings’ classical musical directors Katherine Collier and Yizhak Scotten are professors in the School of Music at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. They produce the program and book all the classical acts.
“They are brilliant at putting the right people together,” Clagett said. “And it’s a wonderful opportunity for the musicians who have always heard about the reputation of other musicians but never got a chance to play with them.”
“Too often we focus on the audience,” Grassby said. “They are here to hear great things, but we forget what it does for the artists. It’s an opportunity to perform with the best.”
The Classical Music Series has always been the heart of the Strings Musical Festival and this summer it will include principal players from the New York Philharmonic, Detroit Symphony and National Symphonies, as well as the Miami String Quartet.
Strings has been offering verbal commentaries before every piece since its inception. Dr. Ken Greene gives a three to four minute overview of the history, music and political context before each piece. Greene has been with Strings since the beginning and is also the chairman of the music department at Trinity University in Austin and is the conductor of the Trinity Symphony Orchestra. His pre-concert talks provide another way for audiences to get involved and have a better understanding of the music and the musicians.
To reach the younger demographic, Strings started the “Contempo Program” to cultivate a new generation of chamber music enthusiasts. The program offers reasonable ticket prices, familiar and contemporary music and hosts a small gathering beforehand for the younger population to meet other people in a casual setting.
Strings’ Friday night Different Tempo Series features Grammy Award winners and nominees as well as legendary and rising stars in country, bluegrass, big band, world music and jazz. The staff of Strings in the Mountains wants to make sure that nobody is left out of enjoying the seven-acre park where guests can listen to music under the setting sun.
Strings has not only grown its audience base throughout the years, but it has also increased the number of people who make Strings operate. There are 21 members of the board of directors, 75 members of the volunteer guild, close to 40 people on the advisory council and more than 100 community volunteers.
“It’s a wonderful success story and community supported organization,” Clagett said.
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