The opening salvo of the Aspen Music Festival’s American-themed 2019 season comes Sunday, with pianist Joyce Yang performing George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F Major with the Aspen Festival Orchestra.
The summer’s “Being American” theme, over the next nine weeks, will offer an array of definitions and interpretations of the American sound and character.
“I think it is the American sound in that it has that great optimism and a dose of freedom,” Yang said of the concerto. “Whatever the quote-unquote American sound is for me, it has a lot to do with that optimism and finding magic.”
The jazzy orchestral piece challenges the soloist to move from intimate passages fit for a nightclub to galloping cinematic sections and Gershwin’s signature grandiose and soaring symphonic flourishes. It may be lesser known than Gershwin’s major works for piano and orchestra, eclipsed in popular culture by “Rhapsody in Blue,” but it’s no less worthy of Aspen’s biggest stage.
“The piece has quite a bit of magic in it,” Yang said. “I always feel like I’m going to fly away and lift from Earth — you’re constantly soaring to these great heights.”
In her words, it’s “less stuffy” than much of the classical repertoire and calls for a completely different stylistic touch than, say, the Mozart and Rachmaninoff pieces that Yang will perform during her solo recital Wednesday at Harris Concert Hall.
“I actually use different muscles attacking the piano in some of the really jazzy sections,” she said. “It’s like if you go to the gym and you work on something totally different and you have that slight soreness in some strange area of your body.”
Yang’s recital on Wednesday at Harris Concert Hall will include four Rachmaninoff piano works, culminating in the composer’s “Symphonic Dances,” reconfigured for two pianos. Yang will team with another beloved Aspen alum, Conrad Tao, to tackle the piece.
The pair, who also both studied under Yoheved Kaplinsky in the pre-college program at the Juilliard School, has performed it together once before at the Laguna Beach Chamber Music Festival. That experience convinced them they needed to bring it to Aspen.
“There are a handful of things that he did — I had no idea I could phrase something that way or color it that way,” she recalled. “It was a revelation and I said, ‘We have to do this again.’”
Sunday’s concert is the centerpiece of an auspicious opening weekend for the 2019 festival, which began Thursday night with a recital by the Pacifica Quartet. This evening’s Aspen Chamber Symphony concert in the Benedict includes the premiere of a new orchestral work by living legend of the bass Edgar Meyer, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 with Andreas Haefliger and Gershwin’s Catfish Row Suite from “Porgy and Bess.” On Saturday night the tent will host a tribute to Nat King Cole by vocalist Gregory Porter with special guests, in the Music Festival’s annual collaboration with the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience.
Yang, a Grammy nominee, 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition silver medalist and Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient, has been part of the Aspen Music Fest family since her youth as a student. She has performed here every summer as a featured performer since she was 19, when she became the youngest ever Van Cliburn finalist and instantly became a global star. Being the featured soloist at the opening Sunday, she admitted, adds some extra pressure to her annual pilgrimage to Aspen. But she welcomes it, she said.
“I’m touched that they trust me with such a big evening,” Yang said. “It means a lot to me.”
Sunday also marks her first time performing under festival music director Robert Spano, who will conduct Sunday’s performance.
The “Being American” theme will no doubt be a conversation-starter on the music school’s Castle Creek campus and on the lawn at the Benedict this summer. The conversation began Tuesday at the Aspen Music Festival’s convocation, when Spano took up the question in his opening remarks to students and faculty.
“I would like to keep the question open as to what ‘Being American’ in the music means,” Spano said. “It’s a beautiful question and a difficult one, because it goes back to the question of what it means, being American, in general.”
But he offered a few answers.
Like Yang, Spano strayed from music theory to define the American sound, focusing instead on four elements: dreaming, daring, doing and discipline. He pointed to rocket scientist Jack Parsons and the composer Aaron Copland as examples of those four D’s in action as they broke new ground of American invention.
Musing on the definition of the American sound, Spano also paraphrased the judge who, in the 1990 obscenity trial against artist Robert Mapplethorpe, famously defined pornography saying, “I know it when I see it.” The same, Spano argued, could be said of American music: “I know it when I hear it.”
The festival is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, as well as the 20th anniversary of the new Benedict Music Tent, occasions that led the festival’s leaders to the American theme.
“It felt like the right time — as one of America’s flagship arts institutions — to ask, through the lens of great music, what it means to be American,” President and CEO Alan Fletcher said upon the season announcement in February.