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Aspen arts: Summer picks from the experts

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times WeeklyAspen, CO Colorado
Courtesy Fleck/Hussain/MeyerThe trio of Bla Fleck, Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer perform Aug. 18 as part of the Aspen Music Festival.
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ASPEN – Before you start filling in the calendar with barbecues, road trips and cocktail gatherings, you might want to think about what you really want to experience this summer. We’ve called on some experts to share which cultural offerings they are most looking forward to.

Thievery Corporation (June 19, Belly Up): I am only a moderate fan of Thievery Corporation’s studio work, but I’ve been told that their live show – complete with 15 or so musicians – creates a global-lounge vibe that one would normally have to travel to Stockholm or Barcelona to encounter. I missed their last show at Belly Up and friends didn’t let me forget it. I won’t make the same mistake twice.Christopher Hitchens (July 13, Aspen Institute) is a polemicist of the highest order. I don’t agree with everything he says – in fact, I more often disagree – but his rhetorical skills and command of language are awe-inspiring. Every time I see him speak (which has been only on TV), it feels like I’m witnessing a performance. Plus, since this lecture starts at 6:30 p.m., there’s a reasonable likelihood that a half-dozen or so whiskeys will have further loosened Hitch’s famously spirituous tongue.”The Barber of Seville” (by the Aspen Opera Theater Center, July 17 and 19, Wheeler Opera House). I’m not embarrassed to admit that my introduction to opera was via the Bugs Bunny episode “The Rabbit of Seville.” I would bet that’s true for a lot of people. I just watched it for the first time in at least 25 years (on YouTube), and it’s still hilarious. The music Rossini wrote is familiar to anyone with ears, and certain parts of Cesare Sterbini’s libretto are equally well known (“Figaro, Figaro, Figaro!”), yet I’ve never seen the opera in its entirety. I’m looking forward to changing that.

Ros wine. Drinking ros means summer has arrived! I particularly like the Bieler Pre & Fils, a French ros I can’t get enough of… it matches perfectly with seafood, light salads, chicken and even a sunny Sunday breakfast! Aspen Music Festival. Is there a better concert series in the country? I became a classical music fan after moving to Aspen 10 years ago; now I can’t wait to see the students show up in the local restaurants and play impromptu concerts. Outdoor patios. Al fresco dining in the mountains – what could be better? Bocce Ball court at the Gondola. The plan is to level the ground in front of Ajax Tavern next to the gondola and put in an Italian Bocce Ball court. That and a 6-pack are all I need for a summer night’s fun. The return of the Farmer’s Market. The Aspen Market (opening June 19, and running Saturdays through mid-October) has grown in size and stature, and you have to give huge props to the Basalt Market (opening June 20, and running Sundays through Sept. 26) for its successful inaugural year. The weekend markets are a social scene not to be missed on sunny mornings. Buyer tip: go very early for the best selection and go late for the best haggling price!

It’s nice to see new faces on the Aspen Music Festival calendar, including a few conductors new to Aspen to take assignments left behind by David Zinman’s abrupt resignation: Christopher Seaman, the British conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic (July 7, with the American Academy of Conducting Orchestra); Jaap van Zweden, the Dutch leader of the Dallas Symphony (July 11, with the Aspen Festival Orchestra); and Larry Rachleff, music director of the Rhode Island Philharmonic (Aug. 20, with the Aspen Chamber Symphony). Among new soloists, I look forward to hearing cellist Sol Gabetta (July 30, with the Aspen Chamber Symphony) and violinists Jason Issokson (July 21, with the Aspen Concert Orchestra) and James Ehnes (July 27, recital).The concerts that have me most in a state of anticipation involve familiar names, however. We got a taste of Julia Fischer’s violin artistry with unaccompanied Bach in a 2008 Harris Hall recital. She’s back July 15 to play the three Partitas in the Tent. On Aug. 14, pianist Yuja Wang takes on the finger-busting Scriabin preludes and tudes plus some Liszt transcriptions that surely will show off her astonishing technique. And who can resist bassist Edgar Meyer with banjo master Bla Fleck and tabla man Zakir Hussain in the tent on Aug. 18? I can’t.Of the three operas, I am most interested in John Corigliano’s eminently listenable and endlessly fascinating “Ghosts of Versailles” (Aug. 19 and 21). The composer’s time-shifting rumination on the characters in the Beaumarchais plays and operas was designed as a spectacle for the cavernous Metropolitan Opera House. How will it translate into the confines of the Wheeler Opera House?

I’d love to see Dorothy Allison (appearing at the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Aspen Summer Words Literary Festival, June 20-25), since “Bastard Out Of Carolina” was one of the few fiction works I read, probably 10 years ago. Great straightforward style and I’m betting she’ll be something a little different for Summer Words, as will all the Southern writers. They’re just a different breed, and I can say so, having been raised in Virginia. Audra McDonald (July 24, Aspen Music Festival) is an event I’ll chew through concrete to get into. Not only does she have an amazing classical voice, but she’s been able to keep her Broadway chops going too. And she just has amazing charisma. “The Marriage of Figaro” is an opera I haven’t experienced live, so I’m grateful the Music Festival’s Opera Theatre program is doing it. So great that they’re doing this side-by-side-by-side summer of the Beaumarchais “Figaro” works. And this is the summer I’m determined to actually make it down to Carbondale and catch a show at Steve’s Guitars. I don’t even care what it is, because the room makes the show. Plus I need to get out of town.

Frances Stark’s performance, a collaboration between the museum and Aspen Music Festival (June 30, Wheeler), and part of the museum’s Restless Empathy exhibition. Frances takes the first musical theater piece presented in Aspen, “I’ve Had It,” in 1952, and updates it as “I’ve Had It! And I’ve Also Had It!” It includes a popular song played backwards by classical musicians, and two divertimentos played simultaneously. The whole thing should be intricate and unusual and cool.The Halle Collection (June 14-Aug. 24 at the Aspen Institute’s Doerr-Hosier Center) is a world-renowned collection of Latin American art. Twelve works will be exhibited. I think it’s a unique opportunity to see these significant and powerful works all together.There’s a session at the Aspen Ideas Festival (running July 5-11) – Will the Arts Survive Economic Hardships? It features the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Rocco Landesman. I think that’s an essential question that affects all of society – not just people who think they’re interested in art.Sarah Charlesworth (opening July 30, Baldwin Gallery). The exhibition is titled Work in Progress, and I love that notion. I think all of our work is in progress if our work is our practice, our life. I love that acknowledgment that creativity is never finished, it’s always in motion.

There’s no better way to put the Aspen Music Festival’s behind-the-scenes drama back where it belongs – behind the scenes – than with a one-two punch of the Emerson String Quartet and Gil Shaham to kick off 2010. The phenomenally ambitious Emerson plays Dvork, Barber and Shostakovich on opening day, July 1, with violinist Shaham joining the Aspen Chamber Symphony and conductor Hans Graf on July 2 for an evening of Beethoven, Brahms and Christopher Rouse. At the tail end of the festival is the not-to-miss concert by the trio of banjoist Bla Fleck, percussionist Zakir Hussain and bassist Edgar Meyer (Aug. 18).In pop music, the thrills come from two acts who haven’t been here before: the hippie folk ensemble Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes (June 18, Belly Up), on a steep rise since the release of their debut album, “Up From Below”; and the rock band of the era, Wilco, playing one of their very few U.S. dates this summer at Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival (Sept. 3).The odd, unpredictable, cutting-edge event of the summer is John Wesley Harding’s Cabinet of Wonders (June 24, Belly Up), an Aspen Writers’ Foundation gig that brings together British folksinger Harding, with assorted musicians and writers for a left-of-center variety show. Also well outside the usual boundaries is Frances Stark’s restaging of “I’ve Had It.” The promising new film series New Views: Premiere Documentaries, a collaboration between Aspen Film and the Aspen Institute, launches July 8 with “The Furious Force of Rhythm,” Josh Litle’s globe-trotting examination of hip-hop as a social instigator.On the food front, the new event Big Aspen Barbecue Block Party, an extension of New York’s Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, gets served up Aug. 28-29 at Gondola Plaza, and features six pit masters and a concert.The collaboration between the Music Festival and Aspen Santa Fe Ballet has been everything a collaboration should be, as the dance illuminates the music, the live music sharpens the dance, and the setting shakes up all expectations. This year’s performance (Aug. 16, Benedict Music Tent) features Helen Pickett’s “Trace of You,” with music by Ligeti and Rachmaninoff, and Thierry Malandain’s “Mozart 2.”After complaints that Theatre Aspen doesn’t tap local talent, two of the most interesting Theatre Aspen events this summer are all about locals. “Defying Gravity” (June 17-26) is a song-and-dance show featuring Aspen’s top theater performers, and the second edition of “What’s Your Story” (July 18) presents real-life stories from real-life locals including Aspen Times columnist Su Lum, Aspen Choral Society director Ray Adams and businessman/social agitator Lo Semple.On the big screen, make mine “Life During Wartime” (July 23 release), in which Todd Solondz revisits characters from his heartbreakingly funny 1999 film, “Happiness.” Featuring Alison Janney, Ciarn Hinds and Ally Sheedy, it earned best screenplay honors at the Venice Film Fest, and a nomination for the top prize, the Golden Lion. Also: “The Extra Man” (July 30), by the team that made 2003’s “American Splendor.”stewart@aspentimes.com


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