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A lot of conscience, some beauty — and even some happiness

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times

Nicho Sodling

Composers of music easily can be seen as people isolated from the issues of the world, sitting alone trying to make pretty sounds. But this summer, the Aspen Music Festival offers a different perspective. The summer season is presented under the theme of “Conscience & Beauty” and spotlights the way composers engage with society and comment, with their art and on the world around them.

“The overarching nature of the theme is, it represents the composer in his or her society, and reflecting their experience in their music,” Asadour Santourian, the Music Festival’s artistic adviser, said. “There’s the religious fervor of Arvo Pärt and James MacMillan; John Corigliano’s reaction to the devastation of AIDS; Shostakovich, who telegraphed the repressive conditions of living under Stalin.”

And there is Benjamin Britten, the 20th-century English composer known for putting his sentiments — pacifism, empathy for those on the fringes of society — into his music. The Music Festival originally considered structuring the season around Britten, who was born 100 years ago, and who gave a notable speech in Aspen in 1964, on the importance of the arts. The festival organizers opted for a broader theme, but the late composer’s music will receive a thorough examination, with performances of some 20 of his pieces over the festival’s eight weeks.

There is no Britten on tonight’s season-opening performance by the Aspen Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Mei-Ann Chen. That program features Aspen Music School alumnus Conrad Tao as soloist for Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, and a performance of Philip Glass’ multimedia piece “Icarus at the Edge of Time.” But then the Britten emphasis hits strong; concerts each day, Friday through Monday, feature his work, topped on Sunday with Aspen Music Festival music director Robert Spano conducting the Aspen Festival Orchestra in Four Sea Interludes from the opera “Peter Grimes.”

The Four Sea Interludes are just a taste of what is to come. On July 27, Spano will conduct a semi-staged performance of the full “Peter Grimes,” in what Santourian calls “the crown jewel, the pinnacle for the ‘Conscience & Beauty’ theme.” The opera, a psychological thriller, tells of a man unjustly pushed to the margins of society.

“Britten, we know through the choice of his opera librettos that he was always attracted to themes of the person exiled by society, the person outside of society, or in self-imposed exile,” Santourian said. “He’s dealing with the conscience of these exiles.”

Sunday’s concert, the first of the season by the Aspen Festival Orchestra, offers a deep look at ideas of “Conscience & Beauty.” The program includes, in addition to the Four Sea Interludes, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s violin concerto and Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” symphony. The concerto was Salonen’s farewell piece to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which he directed for 17 years. Santourian called it an “extraordinarily personal work,” and adding to the poignancy, it will be performed on Salonen’s birthday, and the soloist, Leila Josefowicz, was the violinist for whom Salonen composed the piece.

The Tchaikovsky symphony is also a farewell. “A farewell to life,” Santourian, who will give a pre-concert talk on Sunday, said.

“By then he had decided he was not going to last long on the planet. It’s the inner turmoil, the inner drama of dealing with his homosexuality, with not fitting into Russian society, dealing with his chronic depression.”

Of the summer’s operas, Santourian pointed to Bernstein’s “Candide,” an adaptation of Voltaire’s satirical novel, as the one that demonstrates artists engaging with society. Voltaire was criticizing the monarchy system in 18th-century France.

“He satirized the conditions of the time by creating characters and telling a story,” Santourian said.

Lillian Hellman, who wrote the libretto, and Bernstein believed that the material could be adapted to work as a critique of 1950s McCarthyism. (A double bill of Puccini — “Suor Angelica” and “Gianni Schicchi” — and Monteverdi’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea” round out the opera season.)

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6, scheduled for July 28 (on a program with Britten’s Cello Symphony), spotlights another Russian composer addressing difficult circumstances. Santourian explained that Shostakovich, after Soviet officials publicly lambasted him for his 1934 opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” retreated with his Fifth Symphony — “heraldic, a standard operational success, which he didn’t attach much meaning to,” Santourian said.

“No. 6 goes back to telescoping sympathy with the people. It’s dealing with the conditions of the time. It’s not happy because there’s nothing to be happy about. There’s deprivation all around him, people disappearing all around him.”

While composers seeking to engage with society have focused on political repression, war and emotional agony, Santourian said that “not everything about the theme is a downer.” He noted that the opera “Candide” was bound to produce laughter and some spectacular moments of singing. Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony, on Aug. 9, addresses uplifting circumstances.

“It’s his happy reflection of arriving in the Rhine Valley as music director of the Düsseldorf Orchestra,” Santourian said. “He felt a new beginning. It’s a portrait of seeing the cathedral in Cologne, the happy people at a country fair, a reflection of a solemn ceremony at the cathedral. Very joyful.”

And Salonen’s concerto, set for Sunday, was written as a celebration.

“You will be on your feet applauding,” Santourian said. “It’s a true virtuoso piece, with a brilliant opening movement and an even more brilliant closer. Salonen’s not a sad person. He’s a happy person.”

The 2013 Aspen Music Festival opens tonight and runs through Aug. 18 with daily presentations including symphonic music, operas, chamber music, recitals, master classes and discussions. For further information, go to aspenmusicfestival.com.


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