Musical Destination: Sun Valley, Idaho
This summer Charlotte Smith attended Sun Valley’s acclaimed Music Festival, where she discovered a region of unrivalled, rugged beauty
Flying into Friedman Memorial Airport, the gateway to Sun Valley, is a truly dazzling experience. The Bald and Dollar Rockies slowly rise up to dominate the skyline – and if you’re lucky enough to be touching down during a summer sunset, the pink- and orange-hued sky above the sparsely populated pine-covered landscape is a wonder to behold.
Sun Valley is a resort city in Blaine County, Idaho – and the name used colloquially for the larger surrounding region, including the neighbouring town of Ketchum and the Wood River Valley area, encompassing Hailey and Bellevue. It is largely famous as a skiing destination during the winter months: the slopes of ‘Baldy’ and Dollar provide the perfect combination of uninterrupted verticals for expert sportsmen and gentler inclines for beginners, all bathed in brilliant, cloud-free sunshine for much of the year. The summer months, too, offer ample activities for outdoor enthusiasts, including hiking, biking, fly-fishing, golf, horse riding, sport shooting – and ice skating on an open-air rink kept permanently chilled, even on days of over 40C.
But it’s not just sport that thrives here – literature and the arts have long been associated with the region. Hollywood royalty has frequently visited, including the likes of Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Lucille Ball and Marilyn Monroe – while Richard Dreyfuss, Clint Eastwood, Janet Leigh and Batman’s Adam West can be counted among its famous residents past and present. And, of course, there’s writer Ernest Hemingway, who bought a house in Ketchum, in which he lived for the final two years of his life.
For classical music lovers, however, the biggest draw is the Sun Valley Music Festival – the largest privately funded admission-free classical music festival in the US, boasting Summer and Winter seasons, online broadcasts and a Music Institute catering for local school children and budding professionals with tuition-free initiatives and masterclasses.
2022's Summer Season ran from 24 July to 18 August, the first edition since the advent of Covid-19 to make the most of the impressive outdoor Pavilion – encompassing formal seating under a vast white acoustically-enhanced tent, and relaxed views (via a sound system and screen) for families, picnickers and pets on the expansive green lawn.
Key to the Summer experience are interval-less orchestral and chamber concerts of no longer than an hour and a genuinely joyful feeling of community, largely driven by a dedicated and generous group of donors. Comprising an all-star line-up of 100 musicians from leading ensembles across the US, many of whom return every year, the Festival Orchestra has a real sense of cohesion and identity – further fostered by its conductor Alasdair Neale, who himself is a loyal advocate for the festival, having served as music director for over 25 years.
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Neale is understandably proud of the orchestra he has built up. ‘As well as being one of the top orchestras in the country, I’d like to think it is one of the most visibly happy,’ he tells me. ‘The players look like they’re having fun and that is a very important part of communication with the people who come to watch our concerts.’
Tenor Nicholas Phan, who took part in two performances during this year’s Summer season – of Britten’s Serenade and Orff’s tub-thumping Carmina Burana – observed the same genial character in the audience. ‘The people who attend these concerts are very enthusiastic,’ he says. ‘Performing Britten’s Serenade was an interesting experience – the work has a lot of drama, but it’s an introspective piece at heart, and not presented very frequently. And yet the audience jumped to their feet when we finished. They were drawn to the work’s intimacy, even in this huge tent.’
It’s something I, too, can confirm from attending three Sun Valley concerts during my stay – the aforementioned Carmina Burana, featuring baritone Hugh Russell and soprano Meechot Marrero, which has to rank as the most entertaining and downright funny performance of the work I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing; a delightful Beethoven ‘Pastoral’, enhanced by the real-life sounds of birdcalls and gently rustling leaves that only an outdoor stage can provide; and an intense and brilliant performance of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto by Daniil Trifonov.
Mountains, music and merrymaking – it’s easy to understand why artists and audiences alike consider Sun Valley an essential fixture of the annual calendar.
In 1959 writer Ernest Hemingway bought a house in Ketchum verging on the Big Wood River. Plagued by health issues and unable to return to Cuba, he took solace in this remote region – his final residence, as in 1961 he took his own life.
Since becoming custodian of Hemingway House in 2017, Ketchum Community Library has overseen its restoration. It is now preserved as a non-profit residential space for writers and houses vital artefacts.
Hemingway himself is buried in Ketchum cemetery and a memorial inscribed with words he wrote for a friend stands just north of Sun Valley: ‘And above the hills, the high blue windless skies… Now he will be a part of them forever.’
Further info: www.svmusicfestival.org
Main photo: Caroline Woodham
Hemingway photo: Getty
Charlotte Smith is the editor of BBC Music Magazine. Born in Australia, she hails from a family of musicians with whom she played chamber music from a young age. She earned a bachelor’s degree in violin performance from London's Royal College of Music, followed by a master’s in English from Cambridge University. She was editor of The Strad from 2017 until the beginning of 2022, and has also worked for Gramophone Magazine and as a freelance arts writer. In her spare time, she continues to perform as an active chamber musician.