Breck's Got Talent
The Breckenridge Music Festival takes a cue from reality TV this summer, asking audiences to help choose a replacement for a much-loved director and conductor.
Gerhardt Zimmermann fondly recalls his first introduction to the orchestra as a young trumpet player at Bowling Green State University.
“When I heard the colors of the strings along with the winds and the brass, I was hooked,” he says. “I was really hooked. And I spent the rest of my years listening to and studying scores.”
Over the past twenty-plus years as director and conductor of the Breckenridge Music Festival (BMF), Zimmermann has been equally hooked on Breck, helping transform a small mountain nonprofit into a successful institution that routinely lures musicians and audiences from around the world to revel in all kinds of music, from classical to jazz to blues and folk.
“Gerhardt took us from a really nice festival to a really high-quality festival that never lost its spirit of community,” says BMF executive director Marcia Kaufmann. “He is a beautiful human being who loves music and loves sharing it with others. And that’s who we are.”
Established in 1981 as the Breckenridge Music Institute by Kenneth Evans (a classical conductor who holds a doctorate in music literature and woodwinds orchestra from the University of Iowa), the BMF began as a simple, summer classical music festival and youth camp. Its Bach, Beethoven and Breckenridge concerts were held in the cozy Bergenhoff Restaurant on Peak 8 as well as the Event Tent at the Blazing Saddles Center. After Zimmermann took over in 1993 (chosen from ninety candidates who had applied for the position), he helped build the new Riverwalk performance center and created additional performance outlets like the Champagne and Blue River Series, in which exclusive chamber concerts are held in private homes and popular musicians like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and George Winston come to town to showcase different musical styles.
After this season, however, the maestro is stepping down. In response to the news, the BMF launched a highly selective search this year—drawing applications from more than fifty of the best conductors from around the world—and carefully narrowed them down to three. Each of the remaining finalists is scheduled to conduct two key performances during the five-week festival this summer, to be judged by the orchestra, the board of directors, and members of the audience.
“We’re really looking for a persuasive voice,” Kaufmann explains. “Somebody who knows and loves the fabulous music that’s been written for the orchestra over the centuries and knows how to bring that music to the next generation of audiences.”
In other words, the BMF is eager to extend Zimmermann’s legacy.
“I love to make music, and I love to make music with musicians that are eager and want to rehearse,” Zimmermann says. “There are some orchestras I’ve conducted where after the concert, I was glad it was over. But not at the BMF. I will miss the orchestra the most because they truly care about the quality of the music.”
Following his departure, Zimmermann will continue making music, working as music director and conductor of the Canton (Ohio) Symphony Orchestra (which is renaming its concert hall the Zimmermann Symphony Center in his honor) and director of orchestral activities at the University of Texas in Austin as well as orchestrating the string quartets of Shostakovich. And next summer, he’ll be back as a festival consultant, perhaps returning to the stage as a conductor emeritus. During this summer’s festival, he will conduct several performances (July 24 & 26, August 15 & 16), the finale of which is aptly titled Gerhardt’s Favorites. Says Zimmermann, “These are all the works that are special to me, that represent my feelings for the orchestra, my family, and all the joy I’ve experienced over the years in conducting the BMF orchestra.”
Rossen Milanov (Sofia, Bulgaria)
- Music Director, Princeton Symphony Orchestra/NJ Symphony in C
- Music Director, Bulgaria’s New Symphony Orchestra
- Principal Conductor, Orquesta Sinfonica del Principado de Asturias
Friday, August 8
“The Composer Is Dead”
Family concert featuring Lemony Snicket’s illustrations/narrations, Beethoven, Smetana, and guest pianist Elise Solberg
Saturday, August 9
“Spring, Summer & Jupiter Symphony”
Barber, Bernstein, Copland, and soprano Disella Larusdottir
“The reputation of the BMF is very good, and I would like to tap all of the unrealized potential of making it absolutely first class. I would like to think of my concerts as opportunities to experience together moments of spiritual enrichment, emotional intensity, and renewing optimism.”
Francesco Lecce-Chong (Boulder, Colorado)
- Associate Conductor, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra
Thursday, July 17
“A Midsummer’s Opening Night”
Mozart, Gershwin, Broadway highlights, and vocalist Helen Welch
Saturday, July 19
“Inspirations from Abroad”
Haydn, Ginastera, and Mendelssohn’s “Scottish Symphony”
“I am drawn by the opportunity to contribute artistically to my home state as well as to support the festival’s commitment to diverse programming. As a conductor, it is especially exciting to collaborate with some of the best musicians from around the country. I also believe deeply in the festival’s dedication to the arts and education in the Breckenridge community throughout the year.”
David Danzmayr (Salzburg, Austria)
- Music Director, Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra
- Music Director, ProMusica Chamber Orchestra
Thursday, July 31
“Dream Ticket: NY, Buenos Aires, London”
Beethoven, Haydn, Grant Still, and Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons”
Saturday, August 2
“Bolcom to Beethoven”
Beethoven, Bolcom, and Friedrich Gulda’s “Concerto for Myself” with guest pianist Lisa Smirnova
“Summer festivals are really special in America, and it’s such an exciting opportunity. I’ve heard so many great things about the quality of the orchestra, the organization, and the natural beauty of Breckenridge (much like Austria). I’m looking forward to it. And what a great way to spend the summer, making and sharing music!”
After a worldwide search, the BMF assembled a committee of musicians, festival advisers, and community members to evaluate each of the candidates and whittle the pool down to three. This summer, each of the finalists will plan, practice, and perform two unique concerts during the festival. Based on feedback from the orchestra and audience via post-performance questionnaires, the board will make a final decision and announce the winner in the fall.