For these young musicians, playing in Colorado – and being able to handle the altitude – means serious preparation

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Two students ready to play violins in an orchestra as they examine their sheet music.
Dan Boyce/CPR News
Violinists Miriam Viazmenski and Sophia Molina rehearse Igor Stravinski’s “Petrushka” on June 2, 2024.

For the Miami-raised Juilliard School senior Sophia Molina, her second year as a violinist with the Colorado College Summer Music Festival involved serious preparations for the altitude. 

"I actually got sick last year, the first week here. I was so lightheaded all the time and I kind of developed flu-like symptoms,” she said. “So, I've been chugging my water, drinking electrolytes, making sure I'm not going on a run on day two or anything crazy like that.”

It’s a common affliction for the 52 student musicians flying in from the nation’s top musical institutions for the festival in Colorado Springs. They survived an applicant pool of more than 400 of their peers to fly up to 6,035 feet of elevation for three weeks of intensive and personalized training, where their instruments may need as much acclimation as their lung capacity. 

A conductor raises his baton as a group of musicians sit around him with their eyes on him and their music.
Dan Boyce/CPR News
The 40th annual Colorado College Summer Music Festival has 52 music students from the nation's top music programs performing solo, in chamber ensembles and as a full orchestra until June 21 in Colorado Springs.

"I mean, it's almost laughable,” said Scott Yoo, who has served as conductor of the festival since 2002. “An oboe reed that works beautifully in Philadelphia, they come here and it feels like they're blowing through corrugated cardboard."

The experience seems to be well worth the necessary adjustments. Many of the students in this year’s class are back for their second, third or fourth seasons.

Celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2024, the boutique celebration of classical music has slowly grown a national reputation for giving promising young players ample opportunities for personalized coaching in everything from preparing for auditions to improvisation to detailed instruction in playing some of the most challenging pieces in a well-rounded classical repertoire.

"I think we're now realizing that actually we've created something that's special that (the students) are talking about,” said festival Assistant Director Ann Van Horn. “We're in the same conversation at the level of Aspen (Music Festival). We're there."

On June 2 — many having just arrived from the airport — the students readied for their first rehearsal, playing “Petrushka” by the influential 20th Century composer, Igor Stravinsky. It was the first time playing the piece for nearly everyone in the orchestra. Yoo acknowledged it “was a little rough.”

“I was a little terrified,” said Miriam Viazmenski, a 21-year-old violinist studying at Yale. She was meeting and playing with her peers for the first time. She also knew from her season with the festival last year that it was a shared struggle.

“We all leave the rehearsal a little stressed,” she said. “But we all can bond over it.”

A conductor raises his baton as a group of musicians sit around him with their eyes on him and their music.
Dan Boyce/CPR News
Conductor Scott Yoo rehearses Igor Stravinski's "Petrushka" with the 2024 Colorado College Summer Music Festival orchestra on June 2.

Yoo said he’s noticed a change in the festival’s student musicians in the years following the coronavirus. He said there is a seriousness and focus he did not see in years past, which he attributes to the challenges they faced attending high school and college during the pandemic.

"There's a kind of sincerity that I see in their eyes that they really want to get good,” Yoo said. “They want to get good as if their lives depend on it.” 

The Summer Music Festival has the students performing solo and in various formal and informal chamber ensembles. The full orchestra takes on “Petrushka” during their concert tonight and Friday, June 21 at the Colorado College Edith Kinney Gaylord Cornerstone Arts Center. Both performances start at 7 p.m. 

Editor's Note: Colorado Public Radio partners with Colorado College to operate KRCC.