All Fired Up

Chick Corea headlines the 30th-anniversary season of Music from Angel Fire.

Picture one of America’s most accomplished classical musicians arriving at the Albuquerque Sunport. He’s performed in some of the grandest music venues in the nation, perhaps even the world. He drives his rental car three hours north, up the Río Grande Valley and into the high mountains, where the roads become narrower and more twisting by the moment. Following the directions he’s been given, he drives over Palo Flechado Pass, and slows to turn right at the blinking light. Then he pauses to peer ahead, at the tiny ski village of Angel Fire, a sprinkling of valley homes vastly outnumbered by the spruce and pine trees foresting the mountain. This must be a mistake, he thinks. I’ve taken a wrong turn.

Ida Kavafian, artistic director of the Music from Angel Fire festival, laughs as she recalls this musician’s confusion, and says he’s not alone in his reaction. Artists soon realize what a special place Angel Fire is, but it’s not the sort of bustling cosmopolis they’re used to. Neither are Taos, Ratón, or Las Vegas, the other venues for this annual touring chamber-music festival. But still, they come.

“It’s a world-class festival,” says Kavafian. “Great musicians who play in the biggest halls across the world choose to come to this small community.”

The 2013 season promises to be even more of a party as Music from Angel Fire (MfAF) celebrates its 30th anniversary, August 16 through September 1. Ensembles and soloists include the Harlem Quartet, Imani Winds, pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, and cellist Peter Wiley. Everyone is abuzz over the appearance, as composer-in-residence, of jazz icon Chick Corea, who was commissioned to write a new work that will premiere in Angel Fire.

“I consider that one of my greatest coups of all time,” says Kavafian. “I said, ‘I want something really spectacular for this 30th year,’ and Chick managed to fit it into his schedule, in a year he was competing against himself in the Grammys.” Corea was nominated for five Grammy Awards in 2013, and won two, to add to the 18 already on his mantel, including one for an instrumental composition, Mozart Goes Dancing. The prolific musician has worked in just about every genre imaginable, and every shade of fusion. In honor of Mozart’s 250th birthday, he was commissioned to compose a piano concerto, which premiered in Vienna; he’s toured with the Bavarian Chamber Orchestra; and his 2012 CD The Continents: Concerto for Jazz Quintet & Chamber Orchestra, featured members of the Harlem Quartet and Imani Winds. He’ll be right at home in Angel Fire.

“Ida Kavafian is an old friend, and we have had some good times making music together,” says Corea. “I’m honored to be able to write a piece of music for these great musicians, and extra excited about just being together with my friends.”

At the time of the interview, Corea was in the middle of a world tour, and was elusive about the new work-in-progress. “It has many notes that fall in particular places that, in my mind so far, have some relation to one another . . . and when the four of us get ahold of these notes and start to play them, then something is surely bound to happen. I’m really looking forward to the warm, dry weather. It’s my favorite climate.”

The theme of the 2013 festival is “Thirty Years, Thirty Treasures.” Highlighted are 30 audience favorites, including J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and two of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Kavafian is proud that the audience trusts her to give them new works as well as the music they love. “They know they’re going to hear great music played by great musicians, done in a way that’s not stuffy and formal, but friendly and accessible. The musicians talk to the audience; they play golf with them!”

Kavafian’s list of music credits is longer than her violin bow. She’s played internationally, and she teaches at the Curtis Institute of Music, in Philadelphia. She joined the fledgling festival for its second season, in 1985, and in 1999 initiated the Young Artist program, inviting selected Curtis Institute students to Angel Fire, where they work with the festival’s musicians and receive invaluable coaching.

The Young Artists also travel around rural New Mexico schools, giving classroom concerts and talks. This year they’ll give nearly 40 Music in Our Schools concerts.

Violinist Nathan Cole, who went on to the Chicago Symphony, and is now First Associate Concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, cites his Young Artist experience as one of his best memories. “It let me see my musical heroes in a fuller light: not just as teachers and authority figures, but as wonderful people who worked hard at their craft and used their varied life experiences to inform their music-making.”

Nearly half the festival audience comes from outside the state, and 18 percent from New Mexico communities other than the concert locations. Another six million listeners tune in to MfAF concerts on Performance Today, broadcast by American Public Media.

Some concerts are performed at the Angel Fire Community Center, others in the United Church of Angel Fire, where you can gaze at the mountains through the window behind the players. Heading west on the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway, the festival visits the Taos Center for the Arts, where visitors rub shoulders with local artists and gallery owners, all loyal festivalgoers, including some who contribute to the festival’s auctions. For example, Taos Pueblo musician and artist Robert Mirabal has painted a violin that will be on display at all MfAF concerts; audience members can submit sealed bids for the work.

MfAF’s home in Las Vegas is the Ilfeld Auditorium, a 1914 Romanesque Revival building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The festival’s northernmost venue is Ratón’s historic Shuler Theater, which boasts an ornate auditorium and, in the lobby, WPA-era murals.

The festival’s general director, Nancy Ondov, remembers an electricity outage during the Miami String Quartet’s performance at Angel Fire. “The lights went out, they kept playing, they did not miss a beat.” People ran to fetch flashlights to shine on the music so the quartet could continue.

“Sometimes people have a preconceived idea that chamber music is stuffy,” says Ondov. “But I have found it so exciting and so intimate. They’re small ensembles, and you’re right there up close, you can see the expressions on the artists’ faces and experience their passion in their performance. It’s a really wonderful experience for people’s hearts and souls.”

30th-Anniversary Highlights

August 16, Angel Fire Traveling Through Styles, including Mozart’s Piano Trio in C Major, K. 548, and works to be announced featuring Chick Corea.

August 16, 21, Angel Fire Closer Encounters open rehearsals. Get a peek behind the scenes and talk with musicians. Free.

August 17, Taos Bookending Two Masters, including Mozart’s Piano Trio in G Major, K. 564; String Quintet in G Minor, K. 516; and works to be announced featuring Chick Corea.

August 18, 29, Angel Fire Musical Conversations concerts, with a talk to introduce the evening’s program, which includes two of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.

August 20, Ratón Free community concert of Schubert’s String Quartet in A Minor, D.  804; and String Quintet in C Major, D. 956.

August 21, Angel Fire A New Birth. The world premiere of a new work by Chick Corea commissioned by MfAF, and Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581.

August 28, Taos J.S. Bach’s complete Brandenburg Concertos.

Tickets are $20–$35, depending on the venue. For the latest details on all Music from Angel Fire events, and to purchase tickets, see musicfromangelfire.org or call (575) 377-3233.