Robert Harth dies in NYC | AspenTimes.com

Robert Harth dies in NYC

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Robert Harth, who became executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall in 2001 following a 12-year tenure as president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School, died Friday at his home in Manhattan. The victim of an apparent heart attack, Harth was 47.

Harth’s death brings to an end one of the most successful and still promising careers as a music impresario in the United States.

Harth was hired to the dual positions of general manager of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and managing director of the Hollywood Bowl in 1979, at the improbably young age of 23. He took over the top job in Aspen, where he had spent summers as a youth with his musician parents, in 1989. In April 2001, Harth announced that he had accepted the position with Carnegie Hall, which he called “one of the best jobs I could imagine having the opportunity to take” in a 2001 interview with The Aspen Times.

While his career took him from coast to coast, it is in Aspen where Harth’s legacy will be most evident. Under his leadership the Aspen Music Festival built the $7 million Harris Concert Hall in 1993 and the $11 million Benedict Music Tent in 2000.

Harth’s tenure in Aspen was also marked by the hiring of current music director David Zinman in 1997, a move that bolstered the reputation of the Music Festival, especially on the education side; the creation of the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen, a unique program for top student conductors, in 2000; and the creation of an endowment for student scholarships. A conducting prize at the American Academy of Conducting had already been named for Harth.

“The 12 years that Robert was here were years of tremendous growth,” said Zinman in 2001, adding that Harth’s presence was the most important factor in his decision to leave the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for Aspen. “He renovated the tent, started the conducting program, raised a tremendous endowment. He revamped the way the festival operated, and that’s a tremendous accomplishment.

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“Robert was the catalyst for everything that’s happened here.”

Harth’s relatively brief time in New York was eventful. He began working at Carnegie Hall, taking over for his embattled predecessor, Franz Xaver Ohnesorg, on Sept. 16, 2001, five days after the attacks on New York City. Among those who died in the World Trade Center towers was Jeff Hardy, the son of Harth’s predecessor at the Aspen Music Festival, Gordon Hardy, and a longtime close friend of Harth’s. On Sept. 22, 2001, Carnegie Hall President Isaac Stern, a revered figure in the landmark venue’s history, died.

Harth oversaw the inauguration of Carnegie’s Zankel Hall last fall, an opening he decided to delay in the wake of Sept. 11. The theater has been hailed for diversifying the programming at Carnegie.

Harth oversaw negotiations, which ultimately failed, to bring the New York Philharmonic back to Carnegie Hall. The decision not to merge the two organizations only seemed to enhance Harth’s stature at Carnegie Hall. Harth envisioned a lengthy tenure at Carnegie.

“My track record shows that I like to make a long-term commitment. I hope I get the chance to do that here,” he said in a New York Times interview this past November.

In a press release, Sanford I. Weill, chairman of Carnegie Hall’s board of trustees, said, “During the time that Robert was at Carnegie Hall, he quickly became a force that symbolized and embodies the spirit of this great institution. He was a sensitive leader, dearly beloved by the staff and the entire Carnegie Hall family. He constructed a compelling vision for Carnegie Hall’s future, and it is tragic that he will not be able to see his dreams carried forward.”

While he became a significant presence in classical music, Harth stood noticeably apart from the confines of that world. Trained in violin and flute, Harth sang and played guitar in the Indian Band, a folk-rock group that performed in Aspen during the summers of Harth’s youth.

While passionate about classical music ” he often noted that his favorite part of the job in Aspen was attending concerts at the end of the day ” he was conversant about such rock acts as the Dave Matthews Band and Jethro Tull. He favored leather jackets, rode motorcycles and had an engaging manner, with none of the stuffiness often associated with the upper reaches of classical music.

Harth is survived by his girlfriend, Stacey Buck, a former staff member at the Aspen Music Festival, as well as his parents, Sidney Harth and Teresa Testa Harth; a son, Jeffrey; a sister, Laura Harth Rodriguez; and his former wife, Melanie Harth.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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