Aspen Music Festival stages concerts inspired by great books and the Bauhaus |

Aspen Music Festival stages concerts inspired by great books and the Bauhaus


* Saturday, July 13, 4:30 p.m. Aspen Contemporary Ensemble performs Copland’s “12 Poems of Emily Dickinson,” Harris Concert Hall

* Sunday, July 14, 4 p.m. Aspen Festival Orchestra performs Jake Heggie & Christian Macelaru’s Suite from “Moby-Dick,” Benedict Music Tent

* Monday, July 29, 6 p.m. John Adams’ “The Wound-Dresser,” Harris Concert Hall


* Sunday, July 14, 4 p.m. Aspen Festival Orchestra performs Gunther Schuller’s “Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee”

* Saturday, July 20, 4:30 p.m. Aspen Contemporary Ensemble performs Arnold Schoenberg’s “Fünf Klavierstücke”

* Monday, Aug. 5, 6 p.m. Percussion Ensemble performs George Antheil’s “Ballet mécanique”

* Saturday, Aug. 17, 4:30 p.m. Aspen Contemporary Ensemble performs Paul Hintemith’s Concert Music for Piano, Brass and Harps, op. 49

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The poet Walt Whitman proudly described his sound a “barbaric yawp,” but composers of symphonies and songs have some other ideas about him and his fellow great American writers, as evidenced this summer at the Aspen Music Festival.

The opening weekend of the festival last month included baritone Zeki Nadji performing composer Kurt Weill’s settings of Walt Whitman’s war poetry, including the high drama of “Beat! Beat! Drums!” and the elegiac “Oh captain! My captain!”

The following week, the Aspen Chamber Symphony opened its Friday concert with Gustav Holst’s “Walt Whitman Overture,” the British composer’s attempt to instrumentally capture the “Leaves of Grass” author’s unbound, vibrant multitudes.

In between those two, at pianist Conrad Tao’s solo recital, the festival audience heard an unruly 1996 piece by composer Jason Eckhardt inspired by the recently deceased U.S. Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin’s “Echoes’ White Veil.”

All this is to say that this summer season at the Aspen Music Festival is a feast for bookworms as well as the classical crowd.

Concerts are showcasing direct vocal adaptations from the texts of poets like Whitman and Emily Dickinson as well as instrumental works inspired by American authors, in what Music Fest vice president for artistic administration Asadour Santourian described as “a metaphysical relationship to the author.”

The literary subtheme began, Santourian said, with the fact that both Walt Whitman and Herman Melville were born in 1819, and the world is celebrating their bicentenaries this year.

Festival CEO Alan Fletcher sees the literary subtheme as an integral part of ongoing musical debate about the definition of “Being American,” the festival’s over-arching theme over its two-month season.

“Looking at the way composers — American and not — have responded to these literary works seems like a great conversation to be had,” Fletcher said.

This weekend’s concerts include two of the centerpiece events in the literature subtheme. On Saturday evening, the always adventuresome Aspen Contemporary Ensemble will perform three of Aaron Copland’s settings of poems by Emily Dickinson, sung by soprano Jennifer Niles.

The following afternoon, in the Benedict Music Tent, the Aspen Festival Orchestra will perform a suite from Jake Heggie’s opera inspired by Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” The orchestra is performing under conductor Christian Macelaru, who has conducted the opera so often that Heggie himself asked him to compose the suite for this concert.

“The composer said, ‘Go ahead, you know it better than I do now,’” Santourian said.

If you missed the two Whitman-inspired concerts early in the season, there’s one more on the schedule July 29, when baritone Geoffrey Han will perform John Adams’ mournful adaptation of Whitman’s Civil War poem “The Wound-Dresser.”

“Whitman is inspiration for so many works, so we had to scale back to make sure others were not eclipsed by him,” Santourian said.


Seemingly every cultural organization and artist in the Roaring Fork Valley has taken part in Aspen’s yearlong centennial celebration of the Bauhaus art school and movement, which shaped the resort after World War II.

The Aspen Music Fest — where concerts for years were held in a tent designed by Bauhaus master Herbert Bayer — is joining in the “Bauhaus 100” festivities with five concerts this summer. (No, there’s nothing in the lineup from the ’80s rock band also called Bauhaus.)

The Bauhaus’ global multidisciplinary design revolution blew the doors open for contemporary composers who were tossing out the established forms.

“These musicians and composers jumped on the bandwagon because they needed an outlet for expression for their own new ways,” Santourian said. “All the bad boys of classical music are coming up.”

The most high profile of the Bauhaus-inspired concerts is this Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra performance, under Macelaru, performing three pieces from Gunther Schuller’s “Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee.”

Klee, the Bauhaus painter, is among the most music-minded of artists. The son of a music teacher, he played violin as a child and aspired to be a musician in his youth. In his years at the Bauhaus in Germany, he adapted classical works quite literally in his paintings (“In the Style of Bach,” “Harmony in Blue-Orange,” “The Entry of the French Horn”) and based paintings on musical patterns and structures, often using musical notation on the canvas.

Schuller picked up on Klee’s ideas for his ethereal orchestral work, written in 1959 at a time when the composer was playing French horn on iconic jazz recordings alongside the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.

The Aspen Contemporary Ensemble on July 20 will stage a solo piano piece by Bauhaus associate Arnold Schoenberg, composed in the early days of the school in 1920. On Aug. 5, the festival’s Percussion Ensemble will perform George Antheil’s “Ballet mécanique,” which originally scored an experimental 1926 film by the French cubist and Bauhaus-adjacent artist Fernand Léger. And on Aug. 17, the Contemporary Ensemble will perform Paul Hindemith piece written — in Germany in 1930 — for an unusual combination of piano with orchestral brass and two harps.

“They are amazing,” Santourian said of these Bauhaus-inspired compositions’ still-shocking originality. “None of these works follow any known form or format.”