Meet new Aspen Music Festival general manager Justin Brown
Justin Brown has been seemingly ubiquitous this summer at the Aspen Music Festival and School.
The institution’s new vice president and general manager, 36, has been on hand at nearly every concert and popped in at most rehearsals during his first month on the job. On campus and in the concert halls, he’s been hurrying to meet and get to know the festival faculty, students, guest artists and listeners coming from near and far.
“It’s amazing how many familiar faces you see at concert after concert — or at two concerts a day,” he said of loyal audiences on a recent afternoon in his office. “There are people who for years have relationships with the festival and the faculty. That’s really unique. I’ve never experienced that.”
Brown’s first month in Aspen has been fast and furious. His first day on the job was June 20, just as the first of the season’s 600-plus students were arriving and registering for a season packed with some 400 events.
A Juilliard-trained bassoonist, Brown’s career has included management posts with the New York Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and at his alma mater.
“We are very fortunate to be bringing Justin to join the team in Aspen,” Music Fest CEO Alan Fletcher said upon Brown’s hiring in April. “He brings a wealth of knowledge from the field’s top institutions, both educational and performing, and a passionate vision for classical music.”
But his resume also includes something much more rare among arts administrators: a stint as an acclaimed artisan baker.
After burning out in his first professional gig in the orchestra department at Juilliard — a period Brown dubbed an “early-life crisis” — he threw himself into bread-making as a hobby. He started with a counter-top bread machine at home, then refined his skills with a Dutch oven, and apprenticed in early morning sessions with a baker in his Brooklyn neighborhood. As his skills progressed, she offered him an assistant baker job.
“I thought, ‘I gotta do this, I don’t need Juilliard — I’m gonna be a baker!’” he recalled with a laugh.
His initial interest was in naturally leavened breads, but he learned to make croissants, expanded his skill set and was soon poached by a competing Brooklyn bakery and went on to work in Michelin-starred restaurants in New York and in San Francisco. His work as a baker made him something of a food star, getting written up everywhere from Food & Wine and Forbes to GQ and The New York Times.
When the operations manager job opened at the San Francisco Symphony, however, he left his baking adventure behind and returned to the music world. But he carried the lessons of the kitchen with him, including the vital importance of meticulous preparation.
“It’s really a lot of boring and rudimentary work that can translate into artistry, and allowing that artistry to follow,” he said. “I learned a lot about interpersonal skills, conflict resolution, training and communication. I learned a ton, which was no part of why I was pursuing it, but coincidentally there were a lot of benefits there.”
(After doing it professionally, he left the bread behind and has yet to run the culinary gauntlet of baking at altitude in Aspen.)
The unwieldy general manager job includes working with Fletcher and music director Robert Spano on educational and artistic planning, while leading year-round operations, events, facilities, contracts and housing for upward of 100 faculty members.
He works with orchestra managers, library staff and facilities crews, and the Music Fest production team, which pulls off daily miracles moving truckloads of pianos, percussion gear, stands and such between the Benedict Tent, Harris Hall and the Castle Creek Road campus.
Brown said his background as a conservatory-trained musician is critical to his work here. He understands where Aspen’s students are now in their careers, and personally understands the pivotal role that their teachers can play in their lives.
Brown was attracted to Aspen, in part, because he wanted to be back in that education-driven environment after working at the New York Philharmonic.
“There was something I was missing, and I think that was working with students,” he said.
Brown has relished seeing faculty members facilitate artistic breakthroughs for students this summer, witnessing how they nudge young artists toward new challenges.
“The way you make an advanced student an excellent student isn’t just one more lesson; it’s creating a moment of challenge to see if they will take that step,” he said. “You can’t make them take it, or take it for them. You have to present the opportunity, step back and see.”
Getting face-time with the faculty, who he calls “the flagstone of the festival,” has been a priority for Brown in his first days here, because they spread around the world for the 10 months when they’re not in Aspen.
And for all of its operational complexities and its unrelenting schedule, Brown has found an inspiring and nurturing new home at the Music Fest: “I had guessed it would be a positive environment, and when I got here I found that to be true — maybe even more than expected.”
During his time as a student at Juilliard, Brown did come visit Aspen twice to see friends who were studying here. It was an ideal introduction to the pleasures of Aspen in summer, he said, without the rigors of practicing and performing.
“I had a terrific time,” Brown recalled. “From the faculty to the concerts to the environment, the culture, the history — this is a very special summer place.”
He and his wife will live year-round in Snowmass Village. As a full-time local, Brown said, he’s looking forward to backpacking around the Mountain West and getting back into the skiing he’s neglected since his boyhood in Texas, when his family would make regular ski trips to Colorado.
Brown also has been astounded witnessing the heightened cultural life of this remote mountain town, pointing to the programming at the Wheeler Opera House, Aspen Film, the Aspen Art Museum and Aspen Institute, and the crowds of locals and tourists who support them.
“Every organization is batting above its weight producing cultural activities,” he said. “We’re not moving to a country town; we’re moving to a very special place.”