Fresh composers, local talent

An average day for Len Rhodes involves responding to a flurry of emails while also directing traffic, solving problems, answering questions, planning events, and all the other behind-the-scenes work that goes into leading Summit Music and Arts—a Silverthorne-based nonprofit that puts on an annual concert series while supporting music education in local schools.

Even still, he manages to keep his daily commitment to practicing, arranging, and composing music. “Being a performing artist is like being anathlete—you don’t take a day off training,” said Rhodes, who serves as music director and organist at Eagle River Presbyterian Church in Avon in addition to artistic director and artist-in-residence for Summit Music and Arts (SMA). “It’s time consuming, but I love what I do. I have always loved what I do.”

Originally from London, the longtime Colorado resident moved to the high country eight years ago with his wife Sandra, the creative mind behind SMA’s marketing efforts. Here, he envisioned a concert series to fill the quiet period in Summit County’s chamber music scene, when the local National Repertory Orchestra and Breckenridge Music Festival Orchestra were not in full summer session.

Summit Music and Arts hosts six to eight concerts each year, from September to March. In past years they were primarily chamber concerts featuring small ensembles of classical musicians, along with periodic spotlights on other genres such as Celtic music from Four Shillings Short and Native American storyteller and flutist Leon Joseph Littlebird.

Recently, however, they’ve been expanding their repertoire, this year adding boundarypushing acts including “From Blue River to Moon River,” an evening of movie scores by Academy Award-winning composer and lyricist Johnny Mercer; gypsy jazz standards and original compositions by Jason Anick and The Rhythm Future Quartet; and Spinphony, the “pop baroque fusion” string quartet whose contemporary show mashes up classics with pop and rock favorites, replete with a light show.

“I’m liking some of the new, diversified things we’re doing; it’s a fun mix,” said Bonnie Guthrie, a longtime volunteer with the organization who took on the role of board president this year. “Len is such a terrific artistic director; his enthusiasm carries through to all of us.”

Rhodes relies on an extensive network of contacts built over his 30 years as a professional musician and educator in Colorado to program the concerts. “Part of our mission is that we try to create a platform for Colorado-based artists,” he said. SMA also supports visual artists, with works by local painters, photographers, potters, jewelry makers and more available for purchase atconcerts, often with the artists on hand to discuss their work. Students are invited to attend all SMA concerts free of charge.

Collaborations with other Summit County organizations have allowed the small nonprofit to expand its reach. Its partners include Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge, where it presents chamber concerts; Lake Dillon Theatre Company, with whom Rhodes has served as music director and performer; the Town of Silverthorne; Dillon Community Church; and the Dercum Center for Arts and Humanities, featuring a long-term musical collaboration between Rhodes and the group’s artistic director, Chas Wetherbee, including their New Year celebration concert, “Music for the Season,” that sells out the Silverthorne Pavilion each year.

“I think Summit County is truly an amazing place,” Rhodes said. “I’m amazed, frankly, at just how much support there is for the arts here. It’s a wonderful place to be.”

Rhodes takes particular pride in SMA’s collaboration with local schools, for which the organization teamed with Summit Middle School teacher Mark Clark to create a music composition curriculum for students in grades 6-8. “We were looking at how we could encourage composition as a creative outlet for the instrumental kids at the middle school,” Rhodes said. “It’s been really quite well received.”

In 2015, Summit Music and Arts launched their Young Composers Competition, funded in part by The Summit Foundation, which is modeled after the internationally renowned Pikes Peak Young Composers Competition Rhodes created more than two decades ago on the Front Range. The local competition is open to young people in Summit County and nearby mountain communities, ages 10 to 18, and serves as a culminating activity for the Summit Middle School program. This year there were 34 entries, from public as well as home-schooled students, and a culminating concert featuring the students performing their own compositions.

“I feel music is more than just picking up a piece of music and trying to play,” said Rhodes, who not only mentors middle school students but also AP students at Summit High School. “There’s a wonderful creative opportunity in music to really create something of your own and put your own stamp on it.”

Composing music involves a structure—similar to how you would use a subject and verb when composing a sentence—but within that there are choices to be made in the selection of notes, the rhythms and basic melodic ideas, Rhodes explained. He encourages students to listen to what they’ve written to decide if they like it, or how they would change it. “You put the ball in the court of the student immediately,” he said. “They go practice it and come back, hopefully with a smile on their face. Then that’s a good start.”

“It was heartwarming to see the courage of these young musicians perform in front of a large audience, and the look of pride—and sometimes relief—when they received their applause,” said Tim Panczak, vice president of the SMA board.

As an organization, Summit Music and Arts is young—compared, for example, to a choir festival Rhodes attends in England that’s been going on for some 300 years. The concert series began in 2010, and SMA incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 2013. It is supported by a contingent of volunteers who handle everything from grant writing, musician contracts, website updates, and serving on the SMA board to setting up and breaking down the box office and concerts. “The volunteers who run the concerts do an amazing job, and they are just plain wonderful people,” said Panczak, who first found out about Summit Music and Arts through a friend. “I was very impressed with the professional caliber of the musicians, and the variety of music that was offered,” he said.

Soon, Panczak was not only attending SMA performances, but helping out in various capacities from strategic planning to stacking chairs after concerts. “I don’t carry nearly the load that other members do,” he said, listing the many volunteers involved at the leadership level, as well as those who handle the ins and outs of each concert.

“I enjoy being a part of a group that is committed to making Summit Music and Arts an outstanding organization, and it’s not hard,” he said. “They are a really great, fun bunch of people.”

Summit Music and Arts //
Len Rhodes //

Photos: Joe Kusumoto, Michel P. Neville