‘An Explosion of Musical Joy’: After year of cancellations, Aspen Music Fest brings orchestras back in triumph
Back in the quarantine doldrums of May 2020, when the Aspen Music Festival and School finally canceled its summer season amid the coronavirus crisis after valiant efforts to stage a shortened one, festival president and CEO Alan Fletcher promised that he and his team were already at work on a 2021 season.
At the time, he hopefully and boldly predicted it would be “nothing less than an explosion of musical joy.”
That memorable phrase echoed through the head of many a music lover in the long year since then, amid so many more cancellations and, until the past week, no concerts of any kind in Aspen. What, we might have wondered would this “explosion of musical joy” sound like when it came, if it ever did come?
We’ll find out this weekend as the festival opens this long-awaited season with three orchestral concerts in the Benedict Music Tent including, naturally, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
The Aspen Festival Orchestra will return to the Benedict on Saturday, under the baton of music director Robert Spano, performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Denver-based Kantorei choral ensemble and soloists from the Aspen Opera Theater and VocalARTS program.
After more than a year of plans and tearing up of plans and meeting after meeting with government leaders and public health officials and ventilation experts and fellow arts presenters and producers, Fletcher finally on Monday found himself back in the Benedict for the Aspen Music Festival and School convocation beside the artist-faculty and artistic administration, welcoming the 270 students in the class of 2021.
“It was a very beautiful moment,” Fletcher said. “Very emotional.”
From there, he made the rounds at rehearsals for this weekend’s concerts, finally once again seeing students beside faculty in orchestras and lessons.
“Every single one is a joy to behold,” Fletcher said. “The looks on people’s faces, the work they’re doing.”
Like everything else, this celebratory post-vaccine return of the Aspen Music Fest doesn’t look exactly like it did in the beforetimes. The season (running through Aug. 22), has been slimmed down as a public health precaution, hosting 150 events, a faculty of about 100 and a student body of 270. Nearly every concert will be held in the open-air Benedict, where COVID-19 vaccinations are required for seating in the full-capacity sections and where distanced seating is also available. On the lawn, free reservations are required for Aspen Chamber Symphony and Aspen Festival Orchestra concerts along with some special events. Concerts will run without intermissions and will all be under 75 minutes.
Planning a program for smaller, distanced orchestras proved perfect for the season’s celebration of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, as they fit the composer’s scores for even the most epic of symphonies, including the Fifth and the Ninth, both on the schedule this weekend.
Friday’s Aspen Chamber Symphony concert marks the first orchestral presentation since 2019. To mark the occasion, the festival is bringing back the legendary conductor Leonard Slatkin, who began his career here in the mid-1960s and remained an Aspen fixture until 2014, when he retired from guest conducting.
The pandemic appears to have spurred a return to the Benedict for Slatkin, who last visited in 2019. Once Slatkin was confirmed, Fletcher said, they soon decided on staging Beethoven’s iconic Fifth Symphony for the opening.
“It is about difficulty and challenge and then ends in a burst of triumph,” Fletcher said. “So that’s a good emblem.”
The iconic symphony is paired with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, performed with Aspen favorite Inon Barnatan.
The program will open with Julia Perry’s “A Short Piece for Orchestra,” marking the beginning of the season’s much-anticipated AMELIA initiative spotlighting works by diverse composers who identify as African-American, Middle Eastern, Latin, Indigenous, and Asian. The product of three years of evaluating diversity, equity and inclusion at the festival, this canon-expanding initiative includes works in 75% of the season’s concerts.
Also launching this season, and maybe overshadowed by the return of its beloved orchestra’s to Aspen, is the new Aspen Opera Theater and VocalARTS program co-directed by luminaries Renée Fleming and Patrick Summers. The program will host its first public master class on Saturday at the Wheeler Opera House.
The traditional Fourth of July concert on Sunday brings back Independence Day staple Lawrence Isaacson conducting a selection of patriotic music from Sousa marches to Duke Ellington and “America the Beautiful” to Copland’s “Rodeo.” The traditional patriotic concert perhaps carries weightier meaning this holiday weekend, following the pandemic, its attendant economic crisis and political divisions, the insurrection and the rise of the new movement for Black lives.
For a prominent arts presenter and educational institution like the Music Fest, the holiday concert is an opportunity to reflect on and engage with the state of the nation.
“The essence, to me, of patriotism is questioning the country, not taking it blindly,” Fletcher said. “’Liberty and justice for all’ is an aspirational statement — it was never a reality. We aspire to that, we don’t assert that it’s reality.”
FRIDAY, JULY 2
Aspen Chamber Symphony Dress Rehearsal, Benedict Music Tent ($20)
Preconcert Chamber Music, Harris Concert Hall (Free)
Aspen Chamber Symphony, Benedict ($82; lawn reservations required)
Leonard Slatkin, conductor
Julia Perry, “A Short Piece for Orchestra”
Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat major; soloist Inon Barnatan
Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C minor
SATURDAY, JULY 3
Aspen Festival Orchestra Dress Rehearsal, Benedict ($20)
Opera Theater Master Class, Wheeler Opera House ($40)
Special Event: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Benedict ($95; lawn reservations required)
Robert Spano, conductor
Livestream: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, aspenmusicfestival.com (Free)
SUNDAY, JULY 4
Fourth of July Concert, Benedict (Free; lawn reservations required)
Lawrence Isaacson, conductor
MONDAY, JULY 5
Tunes and Tales, Pitkin County Library (Free)
Aspen Conducting Academy Orchestra ($25)
Copland, “Appalachian Spring”
Bologne, Violin Concerto No. 9 in G major; soloist Gallia Kastner
Brahms, Serenade No. 2 in A Major
Tickets and more info: aspenmusicfestival.com
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“The Sweetest Sounds“ will be the second Richard Rodgers go-around for the Aspen Music Fest and Theatre Aspen, who first collaborated in 2019 for a concert version of “South Pacific” at the Music Tent.