By David Templeton | From the November-December 2020 issue of Strings magazine
Early this year, as the pandemic reared its head and performing-arts organizations quickly realized the enormity of the impact it would have on their plans for 2020, pianist Anne-Marie McDermott—artistic director of Bravo! Vail Music Festival in Vail, Colorado—was characteristically hopeful that her team would respond to the crisis with some innovative solutions for salvaging at least part of the season. Among those innovations, along with livestreamed concerts and socially distanced outdoor performances, was the whimsical new Bravo! Vail Music Box series.
The “Music Box” is a sweetly designed, mobile performance stage meant for small, free community concerts, specially commissioned as a pandemic-response measure, allowing Bravo! Vail to take the show on the road to local businesses, retirement communities, and other community group settings. Those concerts, sometimes more than one a day, featuring a notable roster of professional musicians, took place over a monthlong period in July and August. The program was so successful, and the Music Box itself so attention-grabbing and inspirational, that McDermott has since been fielding calls from arts groups around the country asking for information about how they can create something similarly delightful to keep the music going under such difficult conditions.
I spoke with McDermott recently from her home in Vail.
Strings: When did you know your scheduled season was in jeopardy?
Anne-Marie McDermott: We held onto optimism, for as long as we could, that we’d have our full season. Then the day came when the county presented its new guidelines and clearly a full orchestra was simply not going to be able to come out to Vail. We gave ourselves a breather of about a week, and then we started throwing every idea we could think of onto the table, with the intention that Bravo!, existing where it does—in this glorious, spectacular, outdoor resort community—had to happen one way or another. It didn’t feel like an option for us to just be quiet and not bring music to people this summer. We had to dig a little deeper and find another way.
How did the “Music Box” idea begin?
It started out as the idea of a flatbed truck. Somebody suggested, “Well, why don’t we put some musicians on a truck and take the music to the people?” We had even crazier ideas, too. We even considered drive-in concerts, but that didn’t feel like it fit our community. We had come up with a model of bringing out a small collective of musicians, what we call a “work group” in Colorado, a small team of people who wear masks for the first few days, and then work together once they are all comfortable and everyone is confirmed to be healthy. So we knew we’d have some musicians, and then needed to figure out what to do with them once they were here.
So… the flatbed truck?
Well yes. But our technical director and sound engineer, Todd Howe, had gotten really lit on fire with the idea of a mobile stage that was much more than just the back of a truck, and he started coming up with all of these drawings and things, and consulted with a company called SimBLISSity that makes tiny homes—those popular little houses on wheels. It was a challenge, that’s for sure. We needed the front of the tiny home to flip down and form a stage. We needed it to work as a quality venue for presenting concerts, even if it was small, so the sound had to be impeccable. Todd obsessed about all these details, and decided the roof of the “Music Box”—as we started to call it—had to lift up so acoustically we weren’t dealing with all flat surfaces. And then he subtly enhanced the sound with tiny Bluetooth speakers on the outside of the structure. When it was set up and open, it looked very, very elegant, which is a vibe the festival always strives for. It was a tiny little mini concert hall, and people just loved it!
How did you address social distancing among the musicians on such a small contraption?
The comfort and safety of the musicians was, of course, the most important thing, so there was plenty of space for a string quartet and a small piano. Yamaha lent us one of their AvantGrand pianos, an electronic/acoustic hybrid that takes up a very small footprint. And because professional musicians want things to sound good, the Music Box was designed so the musicians could hear themselves playing on the stage. It wasn’t like playing in a tent, where the sound doesn’t come back at all.
What kinds of ensembles did you end up bringing to perform in the Music Box?
We had string-quartet concerts, we had solo piano concerts, and everything in between. String duos, string trio, piano and strings. We ended up using the Music Box 41 times. And I can’t describe how incredible it felt to pull up to a place, with the Music Box being towed on the back of a pickup truck, and then watch the faces of people as they watched our crew, who got very good and fast at this, hop out and set this thing up.
Whom did you play these concerts for?
We played for the Vail Fire Department, we played at a number of senior centers, one of which had their residents open up their windows and watch and listen, because it wasn’t safe for them to come outside. We played for the children of essential workers. We also played in the driveways of a bunch of beloved patrons who make Bravo! possible, but who’d have no opportunity of coming to a concert right now because of age or pre-existing conditions.
What was the largest audience you played for?
The maximum we were allowed to play for, according to health guidelines, was 25, and everybody had to wear a mask and have their chairs socially distanced six feet apart. We made it clear that if people couldn’t do that, we couldn’t play. Safety was important from the very beginning.
This was, clearly, a well-received addition to Bravo! Vail’s summer season.
Oh, people just loved it. We all knew it was an exciting idea, and it gave us a way to bring music to people even during a pandemic, but this is something we now have and will continue to bring forward every year. I don’t think any of us could have predicted just how deeply touching it was, after having such a sudden drought of live music making, for us to show up at a school or nursing home or a home or a fire department and play a 30-to-40-minute concert.
The impact was immense. It was so joyous and wonderful, every single time. I still get chills thinking about it. It became so much bigger than we imagined, and it began with such a small idea. Literally. That’s the power of music.