Jan Coles recalls the early years of the Breckenridge Music Festival Orchestra, more than three decades ago, when founder and conductor Kenneth Evans led the group in concerts at the Bergenhof Restaurant on Peak 8.
Coles served as treasurer and, later, president of the BMF board for a time, “not because I was particularly good,” she said, “but because I was here and willing to do it.” Breckenridge was a small town in those days, so there were not a lot of people to fill nonprofit positions.
Evans led the orchestra from its start through 1992. The next year, a selection process yielded three finalists from a pool of more than 90 candidates, among whom Gerhardt Zimmermann was the orchestra’s clear favorite. In 1993, Zimmermann took the helm as conductor and music director — posts he’s held with the five-week summer festival for the past two decades.
“The quality of the orchestra has improved every year,” Coles said of Zimmermann’s work. “We’ve always been proud of it, but it really has gotten better and better under his tutelage. … He’s chosen some more difficult pieces for the orchestra to perform, and they’ve always just done a fantastic job with it.”
“What really impressed me is that all the orchestra members love to play for him,” said Charlie Simpson, who was president of the board at the time Zimmermann was chosen. “They love what he does — the way he conducts, the way he picks a program and interacts with them. He’s very demanding but they like that.”
‘Less talk, more action’
From the start, Simpson was also impressed by Zimmermann’s efficiency, organizational skills and “less talk, more action” ethic.
Coles counts Zimmermann’s ability to see the need for playing, conducting and programming popular or familiar pieces among his strengths.
“The audience for pure classical music is shrinking,” she said. “Most conductors want to play the more esoteric stuff, but you have to fill those seats. The more popular or familiar it is, the more people show up,” she said, lauding Zimmermann for growing with the local community and recognizing its needs with his programming.
Zimmermann agrees that you have to play standard classical fare — Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, for example — to sell concerts. And “pops concerts sell,” he said. “It’s the same way throughout the entire country.” But at the same time, he is proud of some of his more nontraditional legacies — like bringing living, modern American composers to the forefront or transcribing a Shostakovich string quartet for chamber orchestra, to name a few. If he has grown with the community, he feels that the audience, too, has expanded its interests.
Under his tenure, the BMF Orchestra has seen the construction of the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge, where concerts are now held, including the Tuesday concerts that were once held in churches and community centers. The Sunday chamber concerts moved to private homes during his time, and they almost always sell out.
“Certainly the highlight during my tenure here was building and developing a truly wonderful group of musicians,” Zimmermann said. “In 2006, we recorded two works by Astor Piazzolla — the ‘Four Seasons of Buenos Aires for String Orchestra and Piano,’ as well as the ‘History of the Tango for Flute and Marimba.’ This is a recording of tangos that I am most proud of.”
He counts the Beethoven and Mozart symphonies and his collaboration with Robin Sutherland and Pan Lyras among the musical highlights of his Breckenridge career. For chamber music, two works came to mind — Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F Minor and the Piano Quartet in E-flat by Robert Schumann.
“The performances of those two great works transcended the world as I know it and somehow managed to connect to the very depths of my soul,” he said.
He also applauded Andre Watts and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg for donating their fees and services to help jumpstart the BMF’s rebirth in the early years.
“In the five years I’ve been here, I’ve seen the orchestra grow,” said Marcia Kaufmann, BMF executive director. “He has a way of attracting high-caliber musicians who are also good people. He has built an esprit de corps and stepped up the caliber of the playing.”
An orderly transition
Zimmermann will not retire fully this year or next but, instead, will work with the Breckenridge Music Festival Orchestra for an orderly multiyear transition. In the fall, a search committee consisting of the board, musicians and executive director will consider candidates, selecting three individuals to conduct the orchestra for one week each during the 2014 summer season as a final step in the interview process. Zimmermann will conduct for the remaining two weeks and be in residence all five. In 2015, the new conductor will take the helm, with Zimmermann returning in an emeritus capacity.
“Many thanks to Gerhardt — not just for his 20-plus years of excellent music-making with our orchestra, but also for setting in motion the search for a new conductor to make a transition for our future in such a positive fashion,” Kaufmann wrote to board members in an email last week.
With his newfound free time, Zimmermann hopes to transcribe and orchestrate Brahms’ Piano Quartet in F Minor and the rest of the 15 Shostakovich string quartets, eventually to record them with his orchestra at the University of Texas at Austin. He plans to spend time with his two grandchildren, now on the way, and travel a bit more — to Prague with his wife, to the University of Krakow in Poland to guest conduct and to Berlin “to see all those crazy operas they put on.”
“There’s so many things left to do in my life I don’t think I have time to do them unless I live to be 152,” said Zimmermann — among them, return to Breckenridge as a guest conductor with the BMF Orchestra. “I’m really going to miss the orchestra because it’s a great orchestra — particularly this year, particularly the string section. They’re just playing on an exceptionally high level.
“We certainly have appreciated and do appreciate (the community’s) support in coming to all of our concerts. There are a lot of concerts in a five-week span.”
Coles, too, expressed appreciation for the growing community that rallies behind the Breckenridge Music Festival and other nonprofit organizations.
“We now have a wonderful supply of second-home owners and early retirees who enable the nonprofits to thrive,” she said.
On Zimmermann, she said, “I think it’s unanimous that he will be missed. He’s done a marvelous job with the orchestra, and we just hope we can find someone to fill his big shoes.”
“When Gerhardt came to us, we had an already fine orchestra,” Simpson said. “He improved it every year he came. We look forward to even more improvements with the new conductor based on what he’s built.”
Erica Marciniec is a paid writer with the Breckenridge Music Festival.