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Aspen celebrates 50 years of music

Stewart Oksenhorn

Fifty years ago to the week, violinist Erica Morini was the featured performer at a concert under a brand new tent in a meadow in Aspen’s West End.

The performance, part of the Goethe Bicentennial Convocation and Music Festival, began a tradition of music in the mountains that would help define Aspen.

Tonight, another female violinist, Sarah Chang, will play her instrument under a tent in that same picturesque meadow. Instead of kicking off a tradition, however, Chang’s performance will be in celebration of a venerable institution.

The Aspen Music Festival and School, which grew out of the Goethe Bicentennial gathering, begins its 50th anniversary season tonight with a concert, “Embracing the Past, Looking to the Future: An Evening with Sarah Chang and Friends,” at 8 p.m.

And instead of inaugurating a new tent, Chang’s performance will begin the summer-long process of saying goodbye to an old, familiar Aspen site. As soon as the festival season ends Aug. 22, the 35-year-old Bayer-Benedict Music Tent will be replaced by a new tent, designed by Aspenite Harry Teague.

Tonight’s chamber concert embraces the Music Festival’s beginnings by including a pair of Brahms compositions – Scherzo in c and the Violin Sonata in d – performed by Morini 50 years ago. Chang will be joined by Alexander Kerr, Masao Kawasaki, Catharine Carroll, Eric Kim and Michael Mermagen for Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence.”

For the 18-year-old Chang, an alumna of the Aspen Music School and frequent Aspen performer, it is an honor to help begin the Music Festival’s 50th celebration.

“I was thrilled when they asked me to open the 50th anniversary season, and to start the orchestral season,” said Chang, who will also perform tomorrow with the Aspen Chamber Symphony, conducted by Aspen Music Festival music director David Zinman. “They sent me a fax of the program Erica Morini had played, and it was amazing – a Mozart concerto which is just not done anymore, Brahms. They asked if I could pick and choose, so it would connect to the festival’s beginnings.

“The Brahms leaped out because it was one of my favorite pieces. And it’s timeless, so this is perfect. When there’s a special project attached to a concert, it means a little more. It’s like an event, especially when you’re doing the concert just once.” The festival family Aspen Music Festival president Robert Harth frequently calls the festival “a family,” comprised of the faculty, alumni, guest musicians and guest conductors, and the nearly 900 students who study in Aspen each summer.

The family feeling will be especially strong this summer, as the Music Festival celebrates its anniversary by bringing a host of distinguished alumni to Aspen to join the party.

Few musicians, however, represent that family aspect of the festival like Philadelphia native Chang. She began coming to Aspen almost as soon as she was born, accompanying her father, Min Soo, who was a violin student of Music School faculty member Dorothy DeLay. The elder Chang completed his studies in 1986; Sarah, then 6, began studying with DeLay in 1987. Chang has spent time in Aspen every summer since.

Chang has gone on to become one of the most celebrated violinists in the world. She has made her debuts in almost every major music city, and has performed with nearly every major orchestra. Recently, Chang became the youngest artist to receive the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant.

Through all the tours and travels, Aspen stands out for Chang not only as a place to make music, but to relax, recreate and even reminisce. Over the years, Chang has taken time in Aspen to ride horseback, hike and river raft; to the horror of her associates, she has even suggested she might like to paraglide this year.

“It’s like a home for me,” said Chang, who over the last few weeks graduated from both the Friends School in Philadelphia and the Juilliard School in New York. “There are people here I grew up with.

“And now to be playing with these people, and relaxing with these people, is so great.”

The atmosphere of which Chang speaks, echoed by countless musicians with deep ties to Aspen, has an impact on the music, according to Chang.

“One of the greatest things about playing here is, because you’re in such a beautiful environment, it affects the playing. You get on stage here and you feel comfortable. The main capital cities – Berlin, London, New York – they’re great, but they’re very official.” The joy of music Chang began playing piano at age 4, but was overwhelmed by the size of the instrument. From the start, she favored the violin, which she also began studying at 4.

Within a year, she was playing her first concerts around Philadelphia; by 9, she was performing regularly with major orchestras and conductors.

She says she has “no idea” where the musical gift comes from. Obviously, it helps to have musical parents, but her younger brother Michael, 11, is limited to “fooling around on the piano,” said Chang. One word of advice she has for would-be prodigies, however, is that the music must come from the child’s love of the instrument.

“Music making should be a joy,” said Chang. “If the artist doesn’t love what he’s doing, the audience senses that. The most important thing is that it must come from the child. The child must love it.”

Chang loves it. She loves the travel and the pace.

But if there is an aspect of the musician’s life she could do without, it is the business end. But even there, she knows it is a necessary evil, and she allows others to handle the business side as much as possible.

“When I started out, there were points I didn’t know about,” she said. “I thought it would all be music making, just play your heart out every night. I wish it was that way, but it’s not.”

There are things outside of music Chang would like to accomplish. She applied to colleges and has deferred her acceptance to one school; she is thinking of attending college in Europe, where schedules are more flexible. Chief among her topics of interest are literature and language.

And then there is the interest in simply growing up – of graduating from high school, of maturing, of seeing that she is no longer the kid of the classical music world.

“I’ve always been the youngest one,” said Chang. “On the concert scene, I’m still the youngest one. But it only just struck me that there are kids here [in Aspen] shorter than me. I’ve been waiting forever to say that.”

The Aspen Music Festival and School’s 50th anniversary season opens tonight and continues with daily events through Aug. 22. For tickets and program information, call 925-9042, or stop by the ticket office in the Gondola Building.

The Music Festival is inviting the public to a Community Picnic this Sunday on the lawn outside the Music Tent, just after the conclusion of the Aspen Festival Orchestra concert. The festivities will include food, birthday cake and the dedication of the David Karetsky Music Lawn.


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