Hundreds of talented musicians apply for the National Repertory Orchestra every summer and only a fraction earn fellowships. Among those, there are a select few that manage to return, earning spots for multiple summers. The NRO Alumni String Quartet is comprised of four incredibly skilled individuals who spend their summer engaging with the community and showcasing their talent. They visit local schools and libraries, educating young listeners and sharing their musical passion. This year, they settle into Estes Park for a five-day residency June 24-30, during which they perform throughout the community where the NRO was founded 65 years ago. Their summer culminates with a series of free concerts in Breckenridge. Each of the four members of the Quartet credits their previous experience with the NRO for uniquely paving their path toward becoming professional musicians.

Sarah Elert

Violinist Sarah Elert joins the Alumni String Quartet following three seasons with the NRO in 2019, 2021 and 2022. Hailing from Annapolis, Maryland and launching her violin studies at age 5, Elert was soloing with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra by age 16 and went on to earn a Bachelor of Music from the University of Colorado Boulder, a Masters of Music from Boston University and Performance Diploma in Orchestral Studies through the San Francisco Academy Orchestra. She has performed with the Vallejo, Berkeley and Modesto Symphonies as well as a variety of ensembles around the Bay area. She says it was the NRO that delivered the necessary skills and experience with which to navigate such a varied professional career.

Sarah Elert

“I think the NRO experience more closely imitates my current life as a freelance musician than most other festivals out there. The ability to put together so many massive programs in such a short time frame is a real skill, and getting to do it over and over again in Breckenridge really put me ahead of the curve when I entered the professional world. It’s also been great from a networking perspective. I still run into people from NRO all the time at gigs, and we always have that immediate connection,” Elert says.

In addition to the camaraderie – she’s made lifelong friends at the NRO – and being back in the mountains (“nothing beats the stars on a clear night in Breckenridge”), Elert believes her Alumni String position will allow her to hone in expressly on the art of chamber music.

“Coming back to the NRO to play with the Alumni Quartet offers me a chance to really focus in on chamber music without juggling a whole bunch of other obligations at the same time – something I don’t really have the ability to do during the year,” she says. “I always find that playing great chamber music with great people is one of the best ways to improve as a musician, so I’m excited to see where this summer takes me.”

Luis Angel Salazar Avila

Also a violinist who made his NRO debut in 2019, Luis Angel Salazar Avila names highlights like working with Teddy Abrams, who played and conducted Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” and Karina Canellakis, who will return as guest conductor on July 31.

Luis Angel Salazar Avila

Growing up in Mexico before relocating to Chicago, performing with the St. Petersburg String Quartet and earning a Masters at DePaul University, Salazar describes the NRO as “the most intense and worthwhile summer festival out there.”

After his summer in Breckenridge in 2019 he joined the Great Falls Symphony, the Cascade String Quartet and the Erie Philharmonic. He went on to become a fellow at Miami’s New World Symphony and is currently finishing a one-year contract with the Louisville Orchestra to join the Orquesta de Baja California as their new concertmaster. He also subs in for the Minnesota Orchestra, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Peninsula Music Festival, among others. He believes his experience with the NRO provided helpful insight into the demands of the professional world.

“NRO’s schedule really prepared me for the full-time orchestral life,” he says. “Besides learning so much music at a very fast pace, it made me realize how much I enjoyed the intensity and challenge. Thanks to NRO, the jobs I’ve had after NRO have felt like a very natural transition. Intense, but worth it.”

Julius Adams

A Chicago native, violist Julius Adams earned a bachelor’s degree in viola performance from the University of Illinois and master’s degree from the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati in 2021, where he served as principal viola of the Philharmonia. He has also played the principal viola role for the Colour of Music Virtuosi Chamber and Festival Orchestras, Prague Summer Nights Festival Orchestra, Marrowstone Festival Orchestra, and Kentucky Symphony Orchestra. He has performed with Omaha Symphony, Quad City Symphony, La Crosse Symphony, and Illinois Symphony Orchestra.

Julius Adams

He earned fellowships with the NRO in both 2021 and 2022 and considers his time in Breckenridge the most memorable of his career thus far.

“I had some of my favorite musical and personal moments during my two summers in Breckenridge,” he says. “Performing Max Bruch’s Double Concerto for Clarinet and Viola as a soloist with the orchestra was a dream come true. I also had the opportunity to learn and perform some of my favorite pieces for orchestra such as Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony, Sibelius’ 2nd Symphony, Brahms’ 1st Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony, and so much more. It was incredible to perform with such renowned violin soloists such as Midori and Joshua Bell.”

Following his second season with the NRO, Adams joined the Kansas City Symphony for a one-year contract where he also performed chamber music with fellow orchestra musicians in public elementary schools, retirement homes, local parks, and a maximum-security prison.

“NRO allowed me to gain insight on how a professional orchestra operates. I remember feeling exceptionally prepared to start my first season with a professional orchestra directly after completing a summer in Breckenridge. I felt a sense of comfort and ease adjusting to the professional season schedule after such an intense but rewarding summer of music making at such a high level with the NRO,” he says.

Joining the NRO Alumni String Quartet this summer, Adams hopes to further advance his chamber performance prowess.

“I am challenging myself this season with learning mostly new repertoire for string quartet that I’ve never played. I hope to gain more of an understanding and appreciation of the role the viola plays in the string quartet, since much of my career has been learning my role as an orchestral player,” he says. “One of my favorite parts of NRO is the comradery among the young professional musicians and the lifelong connections you make with your colleagues. I’m looking forward to another summer of connecting with such talented and wonderful people. I’m looking forward to horseback riding at Platte Ranch, reconnecting with the many friendly faces and families in Breckenridge, and finally hiking my first 14er in Colorado.”

Jessamyn Fry  

Growing up in California’s Bay Area and learning to play cello at age 9, Jessamyn Fry studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music and is currently working on a master’s degree in Orchestral Performance at the Manhattan School of Music.

Jessamyn Fry

Fry earned fellowships with the NRO in both 2021 and 2022, serving as co-principal cellist. She made her Alumni String Quartet debut last summer and is eager to return, having developed a unique ability to connect with the music emotionally when performing in the mountains.

“I hope to reignite my love for chamber music, grow closer with my incredible colleagues, and to explore the more personal side of my musical expression alongside theirs,” she says. “Getting to work so intimately with the other alumni was a privilege, and I’m very grateful to be back. NRO inspired me from day one. Michael Stern’s emphasis on the meaning and emotionality in the music we played really sparked my love for playing in an orchestra; one that I had previously felt but had dwindled a bit during my undergraduate years. I have been moved to tears many times on that stage.”

Following her summer with the NRO, Fry took a semester off her studies last fall to serve as interim principal cellist of the Louisville Orchestra.

“Getting to lead a section in such an accomplished and innovative orchestra was an unexpected privilege that still feels surreal, and I will be forever grateful to everyone who helped me get there,” she says. “I gained a lot of insight into what it means to be professional, leadership, and what an important connective role an orchestra can play in its city.”

She emphasizes that her summers with the NRO distinctly seasoned her for such a prestigious role.

“NRO has prepared me in many pivotal ways for the career path I’ve chosen,” Fry says. “I can confidently say that had it not been for the lightning speed music-learning and experience as principal at NRO, I would not have felt remotely as comfortable or capable stepping in as principal in Louisville. The quality and amount of music we learn at NRO provides invaluable context to music that appears on our audition lists, and that we will inevitably play again down the line.”

The NRO Alumni Quartet kicks off the summer performing at a private residence for the intimate Champagne Series on June 21, then present a free outdoor Pop-Up Concert at 12:30 p.m. on July 4 at Blue River Plaza and free Chamber Concert at 6 p.m. July 17 at the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge.

Lead photo: The 2023 NRO Alumni String Quartet. By Nat Hickman.