Aspen Music Festival and School opens summer season
More than 600 of the most talented young musicians in the world gathered Tuesday morning in the Benedict Music Tent as the Aspen Music Festival and School celebrated its student convocation and began its 2017 season.
Students are beginning an intense eight-week summer of study and performance across the musical spectrum from strings to brass, composition to conducting, percussion to singing, and will perform in four orchestras alongside more than 100 guest artists including leading lights like Renee Fleming and Jonathan Biss.
This year’s class ranges in age from 11 to 36. It includes students from 36 states and 39 countries.
“I always love this day,” festival music director Robert Spano told students. “I love the beginning, the initiation of summer, the possibilities that lie before us, the energy it takes to start something.”
Music Festival president and CEO Alan Fletcher in a speech addressed the extreme challenges of pursuing a career in music. Noting that Leonardo da Vinci studied the lyre from age 14 onward and called it the most important pursuit of his life, Fletcher told the class of 2017 that their work this summer will enrich everything they do in their lives. Most of them, he acknowledged, will not end up in leading orchestras or becoming world-renowned soloists. Still, he argued, like Da Vinci, all they do beyond music will be powered by it.
“Are we doing the right thing by encouraging young people to study music, when the chances of a musical career are so slim and so difficult?” he asked.
Yes, Fletcher quickly answered.
“Success, when it comes, will almost certainly be something other than what you thought it was,” he told students.
He recounted the story of a 17-year-old student who came to study in Aspen with high hopes of becoming a concert pianist. She found the caliber of her play fell short of that standard, he said. But that student, Condolezza Rice, went on to become U.S. Secretary of State.
“We believe your choice to study music is a great choice, whether you end up as secretary of state or as the greatest genius in Western history or as a humble person,” Fletcher said.
The summer season is themed “Enchantment,” which Spano noted has more depth than students may initially think.
“There is certain surface meaning to that that is appealing,” Spano said. “‘Some Enchanted Evening,’ the fact that Aspen is enchanting, we like to be enchanted by the Aspen experience. But then I started thinking about some of the darker themes of enchantment.”
He noted that the season closes with Berlioz’ “The Damnation of Faust,” in which evil is quite enchanting. Young people, he noted, may be enchanted by junk food, television or abusive behaviors. He encouraged his students to instead choose to be enchanted by creativity, music and beauty this summer: “I would suggest we all stay close to the flame that drew us herein the first place: this art.”
Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron also addressed the students, thanking them for expanding his musical horizons and encouraging them to make the most out of their time in Aspen. He also offered a gift to Fletcher: two oversized toy ears.
“Aspen loves having you here,” the mayor said.
The festival’s concert season opens Thursday with a Harris Concert Hall recital of Brahms, Dvorak and Mendelssohn by violinist Arnaud Sussmann with Aspen favorites David Finckel playing cello and Wu Han on piano.
The first Benedict Music Tent concert of the season Friday features Aspen alumni and rising star violinist Simone Porter performing Mozart’s third concerto with the Aspen Chamber Symphony.
Porter, 20, is returning to Aspen as a featured artist for the fourth time. She first came to Aspen ten years ago, as a violin student. She recalled being a student attending convocation and the excitement of her summers. Being on the other side, she said, and being the featured soloist in the first concert that the class of 2017 will see in the tent, is a humbling experience.
“It’s an absolute honor,” she said on Saturday, “and it’s utterly terrifying, because I have experienced it form the other side. … It’s nerve-racking in the best possibly ways.”
Her performance opens what the festival has dubbed “The Year of the Concerto,” a summer-long exploration of the form that will include concertos new and old. Among the high points are Jennifer Koh performing Anna Clyne’s “The Seamstress” (July 19), the world premiere of a new piano concerto by Fletcher performed by Inon Barnatan (july 30) and another premiere piano concerto by Matthew Ricketts (Aug. 9).
The Mozart concerto that Porter is performing – one of three he wrote before he was Porter’s age – is her favorite.
“It’s just sublimely operatic,” she said. “And it has all of the narrative arcs and drama and expressive depth and range of an opera, which is why I love it so much.”
The season’s first Aspen Festival Orchestra concert, on Sunday at the Benedict, will feature Mozart’s ninth piano concerto – featuring Garrick Ohlson – and Mahler’s first symphony.
Spano, who will conduct Sunday, said Mahler’s symphony is an ideal, if ambitious, way to start the symphony season.
“I was thinking how great it is that we’re starting with Mahler,” Spano said Saturday, following his first workshop with the Aspen Conducting Academy. “The skills that go into being a great orchestra are demanded by that music, but also invited. He knows how to make everything work. There’s something, in terms of setting up the summer, that is great about starting this way.”
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