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Searching for the best of a busy Aspen summer

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Stewart Oksenhorn The Aspen Times

My cultural highlights for the first few weeks of this summer season are an odd assortment: a guy I saw not on stage but in the audience, a guy I didn’t see at all and a few buildings. So thank goodness for a group of untrained musicians hailing from Alaska — who, the last time they played Aspen, drew some 20 people — to make this collection seem a little less curious.

As the newspapers had it, fireworks were canceled for the Fourth of July. Maybe it was just a case of people looking in the wrong place; instead of gazing over Aspen Mountain, they should have been looking in Belly Up.

As it was, Belly Up was packed for the July Fourth show by Portugal. The Man. Bassist Zach Carothers, who co-founded the rock group with lead singer John Gourley in Alaska a decade ago, pointed out that the band’s last Belly Up gig was sparsely attended. But Portugal. The Man has been releasing albums at a rate of more than one a year, and the work has paid off. This show sold out in advance, and there was a visceral buzz about it.

I can’t say whether the booking was thematically tied to Independence Day, but Portugal. The Man, now based in Portland, Ore., sure has a streak of self-reliance to its songs. The show opened with “Purple Yellow Red Blue” and its first lines, “I live in ecstasy/I know what’s best for me.” To reiterate the point, the band reprised the song later in the show. Other highlights included “Creep in a T-Shirt” (“Sorry Mr. Policeman/If I wanted to talk I would have called a friend”) and “Modern Jesus” (“The only faith we have is faith in us”). But these cries of outsider independence aren’t given sullenly; the music is a soaring mix of pop, electronica and old rock. It stands among the best shows I’ve seen at Belly Up.

“In truth, this summer has, so far, been a blur of high points, virtually across the arts spectrum.”

On Tuesday, I watched the first half of the Takacs Quartet’s concert of Bartok, engaged in the intricacy and precision of the string playing. During intermission, though, I saw another string player of an even higher caliber — Chris Thile, leader of the groundbreaking modern string band Punch Brothers and a musician whose technique and range are probably unsurpassed. (His latest recording, due out Aug. 6, is a collection of Bach sonatas and partitas on solo mandolin; he has been in Aspen writing music with bassist Edgar Meyer for their second duo album.) Seeing Thile sitting in the back of Harris Hall erased my concentration, and I watched the Takacs play the final Bartok quartet hearing, instead, bits of Punch Brothers songs and reliving some of my favorite Thile moments, which are many. (Chris, I repeat my invitation: You feel a burning desire to be interviewed while here, ring me up. We can talk Bach, Punch, whatever. I can even tell you about the time we jammed together for a whole minute or two.)

The guy I didn’t see at all was Dwight Howard, the NBA All-Star and, of late, frequent Aspen visitor who came here to contemplate whether he should re-sign with the Los Angeles Lakers or go elsewhere. Hearing of Howard’s presence, my daughter and I, a pair of basketball fanatics, scoured the town, from fancy restaurants to back corridors of exclusive hotels. We never found him, but as a father-daughter bonding experience, it was a rousing success.

The buildings lodged in my mind these days are those that make up the Aspen Music School’s new Bucksbaum Campus up Castle Creek. The campus, subject of a thorough $65 million renovation (has there ever been a $65 million renovation that wasn’t thorough?) by Basalt’s Harry Teague Architects, is a sparkling jewel in Aspen architecture and should be seen by everyone regardless of their interest in the music being rehearsed inside those buildings.

In truth, this summer has, so far, been a blur of high points, virtually across the arts spectrum. Last weekend, the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet company opened its season with a program that included two world premieres. “Fold by Fold” was probably the more anticipated; it was by Norbert De La Cruz III, who kicked off his professional choreographic career last year in Aspen with the instant hit “Square None.” “Fold by Fold,” for eight dancers, built on De La Cruz’s reputation for dance that balances theatrical drama with solid movement. But the other premiere, “Beautiful Mistake,” by Cayetano Soto, another choreographer with a history in Aspen, was equally riveting, an ideal display of the unique muscularity of the local company. For those too busy with other events to see the premieres, the good news is that the program gets repeated Thursday and July 20 at the Aspen District Theatre.

On paper, the Aspen Festival Orchestra concert Sunday didn’t thrill me, and I attended with modest expectations. But conductor Larry Rachleff brought to life Debussy’s “La mer”; Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, which spotlighted the glamorous playing of pianist Joyce Yang; and for me the big surprise, Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” which made no excuses for being grand or using all the tricks of sound to please an audience.

Over at the Aspen Historical Society, under an inviting colorful tent, I checked out events at Chautauqua Aspen, a celebration of the Historical Society’s 50th anniversary. Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson gave a lively talk about the state of the media and newspapers. (Best observation: If digital media had been the dominant mode for the past 50 years and then someone introduced print, print would probably be seen as a solid bet for the future.) Wednesday night was a screening of “Dr. Strangelove,” which endures as a classic of dark, strange, satirical comedy. Thursday morning was a talk on the business end of Aspen through the decades, with asset manager Wally Obermeyer an absorbing speaker, quoting Dickens, Warren Buffett and Hildur Anderson, his second-grade teacher at Aspen Elementary School. The Chautauqua has just two more days (both with abbreviated schedules), today and Saturday.

Best bets for the weeks ahead: Railroad Earth, which I often refer to as my favorite current band, plays its Celtic-and-bluegrass-infused folk-rock Sunday at Belly Up. Also looking good at Belly Up: rising Colorado band You, Me & Apollo, led by young soul singer Brent Cowles (tonight); Robert Randolph & the Family Band (Monday); roots-rockers Son Volt (Wednesday); songwriter extraordinaire John Hiatt (July 23); and two nights of the Pink Floyd tribute band Brit Floyd (July 31 and Aug. 1).

The crowd-pleasing dance-theater company MOMIX brings its flora-inspired “Botanica” back to the Aspen District Theatre with performances tonight and Saturday.

Aspen Music Festival Music Director Robert Spano conducts the Aspen Chamber Symphony tonight; the program includes Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony and Britten’s Piano Concerto with soloist Wu Han. Spano returns Wednesday to conduct the Aspen Philharmonic Orchestra in a program that includes Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with Jonathan Biss and the world premiere of “Bounce,” by Adam Schoenberg, a composer who has become a regular presence in Aspen.


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