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Aspen arts: trimming fat, strengthening their core

Stewart Oksenhorn/Aspen Times WeeklyMichael Frantis March show at Belly Up sold out, and a second, early show was added. Weve proven to ourselves that the higher quality acts will draw a crowd, said club owner Michael Goldberg.
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ASPEN Given the economic what-have-you, entertainment options would figure to be one of the first things on the chopping block. Baby needs a new pair of shoes more than Dad needs reserved seats for the Govt Mule show.And it is true that programming cuts are being made by local arts organizations and other events presenters. But you have to look closer than you might expect to see the scaling back. Some organizations are steadfastly sticking to their customary schedules for the near future. The city of Aspen-owned Wheeler Opera House is actually looking to bump up their offerings. All promoters are squeezing the most out of their dollars combining and consolidating events, trimming fat in an effort to continue attracting and serving audiences. And for now, thankfully, no one has folded up the tent. (Although Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Festival is trading its own tent, in Rio Grande Park, and borrowing the Aspen Music Festivals tent for its headline acts, as a cost-saving measure.)In the big picture, the coming summer and the months preceding it should look a whole lot like summers past in the upper Roaring Fork Valley as an inviting cultural mecca, satisfying rock, jazz and classical listeners, dance lovers, food fanatics and theater buffs. A sense of apprehension rules, as presenters adjust to new realities of audience demand and artist fees. But no one wants to significantly lower their presence.Im being more cautious because as a responsible promoter, you have to be. We dont know what the climate is yet, said Josh Behrman, the event coordinator for Snowmass Village and the owner of the independent concert promoter, Mountain Groove. But Im not going to turn away good talent. Music and entertainment is the greatest source of relief. Were always going to need it.Behrman said Mountain Groove is not looking to downscale its schedule. (It has one concert Canadian singer-guitarist Bruce Cockburn, April 7 at the Wheeler Opera House currently scheduled.) But Snowmass Village will see some changes and downsizing due to budget cutbacks. Perhaps most significant for cash-conscious concertgoers, the Snowmass Free Series is being whittled down from nine Thursday night concerts on Fanny Hill to seven. The Independence Celebration, which has featured a high-profile musical act and fireworks, is being combined with one of the concerts in the Fanny Hill series. The Snowmass Wellness Experience is no more, but a new event as yet untitled, but focusing on food and music will make its debut July 17-18.The Snowmass Chili Pepper & Brew Fest is being cut back from three to two days, but it should still continue its ascendancy as a major local event. The chili and beer competitions for local chefs and brewers, typically held on day three, will be folded into the regional competitions. Behrman said he is going after bigger musical acts than ever, and that the beer and chili competitions will be expanded. Were trying to pack it in. Make it deep and narrow, he said. Thats an upgrade.The Aspen Music Festival released a preview of its 2009 festival its 60th last week, and it features the same names and events as in more flush times. Our board authorized us to put it all out there and take stock later, said Music Festival president Alan Fletcher. The festival will feature such big-bang events as the complete Bach Brandenburg concertos performed over two nights; an opening weekend program of Mahlers Fifth Symphony and Mozarts Violin Concerto No. 2, with Music Festival music director David Zinman conducting and violinist Gil Shaham; and an appearance by the genre-hopping string trio of Edgar Meyer, Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas.Also staying the course is Belly Up Aspen. In recent days, those watching the clubs website have seen the addition of such artists as roots legend Taj Mahal, a double bill of Hot Tuna and Loudon Wainwright, reggae singer Maxi Priest, and singer-songwriter Conor Oberst, who appears in his Aspen debut with his new project, the Mystic Valley Band. Soul-rocker Michael Frantis date was a quick sell-out, and an early show was added.Belly Up owner Michael Goldberg says that the club continues to take the approach that, if he brings the acts, fans will come. Weve proven to ourselves that the higher quality acts will draw a crowd, he said. You look at our schedule and you see big names the Pretenders, Govt Mule, Michael Franti. Were being aggressive as weve always been. But Goldberg added that he has passed on several acts that he might have booked in the past, particularly mid-level artists who have played the club recently.Goldberg is keeping a closer eye on ticket prices. For certain concerts, Belly Up has offered a limited number of lower-priced tickets for the earliest buyers. He has also negotiated with certain artists to lower their fees. We are being more sensitive, on every level, whatever level, to pricing, to keep prices on a par with what it was in the past, or less. And Id say the artists have gone along with that, he said.The Wheeler Opera House is taking orders from its owner, the city of Aspen, to upgrade its programming. We, as a city, do not want to lower our profile as a resort destination, Gram Slaton, the Wheelers executive director, said. Thats what our RETT Real Estate Transfer Tax funds are for.Slaton said that he expects to increase the amount of programming: This past falls schedule was light on events, a response to what he says is the free entertainment provided by a presidential election. But he would like to raise the Wheelers profile with more only-in-Aspen events like last years Whats So Funny stand-up comedy series, co-produced by David Brenner; and the Stories Behind the Songs series, hosted by Woody Creeker John Oates, which begins next week. Also in that category is the RoofTop Comedy Festival in Aspen, a partnership with the San Francisco-based website, RoofTop Comedy, that returns in June for its second outing. Slaton is at work with Mountainfilm in Telluride to present a film festival at the Wheeler.Jazz Aspen Snowmass announced changes for the upcoming summer festival season several months ago, and they amount as much to a different-sizing as a downsizing. Its June Festival gets both smaller there will be just three nights of headlining acts instead of the usual four and bigger a second weekend of jazz-oriented club shows has been added. The festival has also been relocated, from its own tent in Rio Grande Park to the Music Festivals tent, a move that slashes the huge expense of erecting a temporary, 3,000-seat venue. Jazz Aspens Labor Day Festival has been cut back by a day, though Mondays turnout has always lagged well behind the events first three days. Jim Horowitz, executive producer of Jazz Aspen, said he is pursuing the same level of artists that the organization has presented in the past, and that there is no other scaling-back of the events planned.Aspen Film is looking at ways to increase its earned income, so it might add single screenings of movies to its lineup of festivals. Its festival schedule remains intact, though executive director Laura Thielen said that, for this springs Shortsfest, the organization will concentrate its resources on the International Competition, the core component of the event.The Aspen Art Museum, which tends to schedule its exhibitions far in advance, does not foresee cutting back in its programming. Our response to the current economic situation is to continue to be true to our mission by presenting innovative and timely exhibitions of contemporary art. We strive to be a place where people come to experience art and that goal will not change in any economic climate, museum director Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson wrote in an email, and pointing out that the museum doesnt charge admission.The 2009 summer season at Theatre Aspen will feature more dates than last year, thanks to a cooling system that will allow for testing out afternoon showtimes. But the organization is cutting back from three feature productions (plus one childrens show) to two.The Aspen Writers Foundation has scheduled its Aspen Summer Words, with both its literary festival and writing retreat seemingly intact.Aspen Santa Fe Ballet is taking a wait-and-see approach to its future programming. Executive director Jean-Philippe Malaty said the organization has a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C regarding its upcoming summer, and which it will implement depends on how the rest of its current winter season goes. Malaty noted that the company has made some late additions to its touring schedule, an indication that they are held in high regard. One solid piece of the schedule is a performance this summer in the Aspen Music Festival tent, an event that has become a premiere part of the culture calendar.Malaty added that Aspen Santa Fe Ballet finds itself in a tough position. It has always run a tight financial ship, and is accustomed to being careful with its funds. But that also means that any cuts could mean slicing away from the core of its mission.Weve always operated like were in a recession, he said. So thats not new for us. But we dont have anything to cut. Programming would be the last thing we want to cut.stewart@aspentimes.com


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