For these young musicians, playing in Colorado and knowing how to handle the heights means serious preparation

For Sophia Molina, a Juilliard School student who grew up in Miami, her second year as a violinist at the Colorado College Summer Music Festival involved serious preparation for the heights.

“I actually got sick last year, my first week here. I felt dizzy all the time and had flu-like symptoms,” she said. “So I was drinking water, drinking electrolytes, making sure that on day two I wasn’t going to run or anything like that.

It’s a common occurrence among the 52 student musicians who fly in from some of the nation’s top music institutions for the Colorado Springs festival. They outlived a group of more than 400 of their peers who soared to 2,000 meters above sea level through three weeks of intense and personalized training, during which their instruments might need as much acclimatization as their lung capacity.

Dan Boyce News/CPR

The 40th annual Colorado College Summer Music Festival features 52 music students from the nation’s top music programs performing solo, in chamber groups and in a full orchestra through June 21 in Colorado Springs.

“I mean, it’s almost ridiculous,” said Scott Yoo, who has been the festival’s conductor since 2002. “The oboe outfit that works beautifully in Philadelphia comes here and it feels like it’s blowing through corrugated cardboard.”

The experience seems worth the necessary adjustments. Many of this year’s class are returning for a second, third or fourth season.

Celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2024, the boutique classical music venue has slowly built a reputation across the country for providing promising young musicians with extensive opportunities for personalized coaching in everything from audition preparation to improvisation to detailed instruction on how to play some of the most difficult pieces in a rich classical repertoire.

“I think we realize now that we actually created something special that (students) are talking about,” said assistant festival director Ann Van Horn. “We’re having the same conversation at the Aspen (Music Festival) level. We are here.”

On June 2 — many had just arrived from the airport — students prepared for their first rehearsal, playing “Petrushka” by the influential 20th century composer Igor Stravinsky. It was the first performance of this piece by almost all members of the orchestra. Yoo admitted that it was “a little hard.”

“I was a little scared,” said Miriam Viazmenski, a 21-year-old violinist studying at Yale. She met and played with her peers for the first time. She also knew from last year’s festival season that it was a shared fight.

“We all come out of rehearsal a little stressed,” she said. “But we can all connect over this.”

Dan Boyce News/CPR

On June 2, conductor Scott Yoo conducts a rehearsal of Igor Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” with the Colorado College Summer Music Festival 2024 orchestra.

Yoo said he has noticed a change among the festival’s student musicians in the years following the coronavirus. He said there was a seriousness and focus he hadn’t seen in previous years, which he attributes to the challenges students have faced while attending high school and college during the pandemic.

“I see a kind of sincerity in their eyes that they really want to get better,” Yoo said. “They want to get better like their lives depend on it.”

During the Summer Music Festival, students perform solo and in a variety of formal and informal chamber groups. The full orchestra will perform “Petrushka” in concert tonight and Friday, June 21 at the Colorado College Edith Kinney Gaylord Cornerstone Arts Center. Both performances will start at 7:00 p.m

Editor’s note: Colorado Public Radio partners with Colorado College to operate KRCC.