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Music Fest’s season plan taking shape for this summer

Eight-week season expected to include six concerts per week at Benedict Music Tent

The Aspen Music Festival and School is planning to host an eight-week season this summer with three orchestral concerts and three recitals running each week in the Benedict Music Tent among its array of public events, AMFS officials said Wednesday.

The festival is scheduled to open July 1 with a recital by the 19-year-old piano phenom Matthew Whitaker and to run through Aug. 22.

Crowds, orchestras and the student body will be smaller than usual, in accordance with ordinances and industry protocols aiming to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, while concerts will be shorter.



“It’s going to be scaled in size and scope according to what the health ordinances will allow,” festival vice president for artistic administration Asadour Santourian said Wednesday.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the festival to cancel its in-person 2020 season. It hosted free virtual concerts last summer and also during this February and March this year.




With the continued unpredictability of events in the pandemic, the festival is making season announcements in stages. This week, organizers are releasing details about plans for safety protocols, followed by the full concert and event schedule April 8. Tickets are scheduled to go on-sale May 17. The delay, festival leaders said, will allow them to wait to determine details such as venue capacity, distance between patrons and seating assignments.

“Things do get better and we don’t want to start with a set of limitations that then disappear,” festival president and CEO Alan Fletcher said. “The reason we’re holding off is positive. We want to get ready for the best.”

The Benedict, with its flaps up and its extraordinary exhaust and ventilation system running, will host most concerts and orchestra rehearsals. Fletcher said the festival will ask the Pitkin Country Board of Public Health to allow it to operate as an outdoor venue, allowing more audience members than if it is considered indoors.

The Karetesky Music Lawn outside of the Benedict will welcome audiences and continue the tradition of listening picnics. But the grounds will be fenced, with reservations required and distancing measures in place.

All events, even free ones, are expected to require reservations both to control crowd volume and to enable contact tracing efforts if necessary. So, for instance, the traditional free Fourth of July concert in the tent will proceed, Fletcher said, but reservations will be required.

With major concerts running six days per week, and the delayed launch of the much-anticipated new Aspen Opera Theatre and VocalARTS program, under the direction of Renee Fleming and Patrick Summers, festival leaders are aiming to produce as much live music as possible, as safely as possible, in the confines of the pandemic.

“To the casual eye, no one is going to notice (the changes),” Santourian said. “They’re going to say, ‘Oh my god, the festival is at full tilt, isn’t that great.’”

The festival is expecting to host 270 students for the season, cut from a normal enrollment of about 670. The number of guest artists, which has been 135 in recent summers, is planned to be 80. The faculty count also will be reduced.

With distancing protocols in place, the size of orchestras and ensembles also will shrink. The Aspen Festival Orchestra, for instance, which normally performs Sunday afternoons with roughly 110 members, is expected to be limited to about 65.

“We’re still going to make a lot of joyful noise,” Santourian said.

Currently, the festival expects strings players to be spread 6 feet apart, winds players 10 feet apart and the sections spaced at a 15-foot distance, possibly performing on a stage extension at the Benedict.

Concerts will all run without intermission and in the 60- to 75-minute range, without food concession stands, to discourage crowds from congregating. Even Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” the debut production of Fleming and Summers’ new opera program, is expected to be presented in a condensed version without a chorus.

Students, faculty and performers are expected to be tested for the virus regularly. But, Fletcher said, they don’t at this point expect to do audience testing, temperature checks or to require vaccination cards for entry.

The Bucksbaum Campus, on Castle Creek Road, will host some small rehearsals and classes this summer but is not expected to be open to the public. Rehearsal rooms and practice spaces will follow a complex regime of guidelines that call for limits on the amount of time a room can be occupied with mandatory “resting” time to allow air to circulate between uses, Fletcher explained.

And, as with all things in the pandemic, everything is subject to change based on public health conditions.

While the full concert program has not yet been announced, it will include the themes from the canceled 2020 season celebrating the 250th (now 251st) anniversary of Beethoven’s birth and spotlighting women composers.

The smaller orchestras and distancing protocols, Santourian and music director Robert Spano said, have led the artistic leadership at the festival to select and discover works from a broader repertoire.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Spano said. “We’ve ended up exploring repertoire that we wouldn’t have so thoroughly explored otherwise.”

Added Santourian: “It’s been a great opportunity — really I feel thrilled to have my brain teased that way.”

Festival leaders also are acting this summer on plans to host concerts highlighting performers and composers of color, who are expected to be included in more than 75% of 2021 programs.

“We have been gathering information, studying scores and researching a repertoire, and you will see that there will be a very concerted effort on the part of the festival,” Santourian said. ”We have been compiling and studying for three years.”

Along with the concerts in the tent, the festival plans to produce its opera scenes and master class programs in the Wheeler Opera House. The calendar also will include pre-concert lectures, free student recitals and special events.

Fletcher said that festival donors, among other efforts to support the organization through the pandemic, have paid for the entire student body to attend on full scholarships this summer.

For Music Fest fans with routines established over decades, some smaller changes also will be noticeable. There will be no printed Music Fest season calendars, for instance, though printable PDFs will be available online this summer and digital calendars will be updated daily.

With most concerts in the tent, Fletcher is already preparing audiences to layer up for inclement weather.

“Bring a fleece with you,” he said. “We are never going to close the flaps.”

And after a painful year in the pandemic, a summer without live music and so many plans prepared and scraped, festival leaders are excited to be on the precipice of returning in-person in July.

“It’s more than exciting,” Santourian said. “Your heart is swollen with excitement and anticipation. It’s a feeling we all have, we can’t wait to embrace summer.”

atravers@aspentimes.com


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