ASPEN - The Aspen Music Festival has never taken a seasonlong, in-depth look at Bach, Beethoven or Brahms, the three big B's of classical music. Nor has the festival in recent memory devoted a summer to any single composer, preferring to present seasons under such themes as nature, the arts, mythology and America.
But this year, while presenting the summer under the theme "Conscience and Beauty," the Aspen Music Festival will take an unusually close look at Benjamin Britten. The retrospective on the 20th century British composer will feature performances of 25 of Britten's works, including two of his best-known: the opera "Peter Grimes," which will be presented in a semi-staged version conducted by Music Festival music director Robert Spano; and "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," which spotlights the different sections of the orchestra and their sounds. The season also will feature Britten's Violin Concerto, with soloist Daniel Hope; the Cello Symphony; and the song cycle "Les Illuminations," conducted by James Gaffigan.
The Music Festival originally thought of structuring the entire season around Britten to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth and also to commemorate the fact that Britten, in 1964, was awarded the Aspen Institute's Aspen Gold Medal, an occasion on which he delivered a famous speech about the importance of the arts. Other ideas came up, including an examination of Britten and Shostakovich, who were close friends, or Britten and Schubert, who was Britten's favorite composer.
"Then we said, 'Why don't we focus on Britten but also look at his ideas: the artist in society, and social, moral, ethical presentations in music?'" said Alan Fletcher, the president of the Aspen Music Festival.
Britten notably addressed social issues in his music. A pacifist, he gave his "War Requiem" a strong anti-war tone. Fletcher observed that much of Britten's work centered around society's outsiders.
"Above all, 'Peter Grimes,' which is about how society treats people who are different," Fletcher said. "It's about someone being treated unfairly, being falsely accused."
Other works to be performed that address the season theme include Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6 ("one of his great war symphonies," Fletcher said); and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, "Pathetique" ("which really has a message of 'How do we live?'" Fletcher said). The season-opening concert, on June 27, spotlights the theme with Philip Glass' multimedia work "Icarus at the Edge of Time."
"It's about experimentation: How far do you go in pursuing experimentation and truth?" Fletcher said.
The Aspen Opera Theater Center's season, featuring Bernstein's "Candide," Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi" and "Suor Angelica," and Monteverdi's "L'incoronazione di Poppea," also focuses on the theme, addressing moral choices.
Among the other highlights of the 2013 season, which runs June 27 through Aug. 18, are Aspen Music School alumni pianist Conrad Tao and conductor Mei-Ann Chen, performing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, which is also part of the opening concert; the Aspen debut of Joyce DiDonato, who has been named Musical America's singer of the year; a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Harris Concert Hall with violinist Robert McDuffie; a collaboration between pianist Simone Dinerstein and singer-songwriter Tift Merritt; the world premieres of works by Paul Dooley, Hannah Lash and Adam Schoenberg; and a Baroque evening led by conductor and harpsichordist Nicholas McGegan.
Also scheduled to appear in the summer festival are pianists Jonathan Biss, Lise de la Salle, Orli Shaham and Wu Han; violinists Sarah Chang, Gil Shaham and Stefan Jackiw; cellists David Finckel and Alisa Weilerstein; bassist Edgar Meyer; and ensembles the Emerson String Quartet, the Jupiter String Quartet and the Takacs Quartet.