Aspen Music Fest CEO reflects on historic season
Coronavirus precautions in place, Aspen Music Fest returned without cancellations or outbreaks
With mostly masked orchestras, a trimmed down calendar, distanced seating in the Benedict Music Tent and an aggressive testing regime backstage, the Aspen Music Festival and School completed its full summer 2021 season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The festival hosted three symphony programs in the tent weekly, along with regular recitals and two semi-staged operas — some 150 events in all from July 1 through last Sunday, when the Aspen Festival Orchestra closed the season with Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony.
“The ingenuity, creativity, and dedication with which musicians coped with the pandemic and various degrees of lockdown and isolation have been moving and impressive,” festival president and CEO Alan Fletcher said this past week. “They have also reinforced repeatedly the fact that there is nothing like a truly social, acoustic experience. Returning to that has been a blessing for us all.”
Some features of the pandemic-safe 2021 season will become permanent, Fletcher said, including livestreams of major events. The festival reported that a live audience of between 350 and 950 households logged on from around the world for the webcasts, with the July 3 Aspen Festival Orchestra performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony drawing most.
The Concert Truck, producing popular remote concerts up and down the valley throughout the season, will also be back.
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“That got a lot of enthusiasm and it let us reach communities downvalley that we never reach,” Fletcher said.
Some shorter concerts are also here to stay. The 2021 season’s shortened and time-limited concert programs, operating with a strict 90-minute limit without any intermissions, kept a lot of music unheard this season. But festival producers also believe it brought new audience members into the fold who, due to taste or schedule constraints, prefer the shorter and intermission-less events.
Before the canceled 2020 season, the festival had already planned to experiment with some shorter events on the calendar. Based on the response to this summer’s version of it, Fletcher confirmed, the festival will move its Wednesday Aspen Philharmonic Orchestra and Friday Aspen Chamber Symphony concerts to a 5:30 p.m. start time and will limit them to run roughly 75 to 90 minutes without an intermission.
For solo recitals, they’ll move performances back to 7:30 p.m. as this year’s 7 p.m. starts drew audience complaints.
Other procedures will be left behind when the pandemic wanes, Fletcher said. The fencing around the grounds — installed when registration was required in early season for free lawn seating — will come down. Solo recitals and chamber music will move back into Harris Concert Hall, for instance, and fully staged operas will return to the Wheeler Opera House. The two Benedict sections reserved for distanced seating are also expected to be gone for 2022.
With limited capacity this season, the festival reported, the Sunday concerts were all at least 95% of capacity. Tickets remained available for all until day-of-show, except for the closing Sunday concert featuring violinist Augustin Hadelich with the Aspen Festival Orchestra, which sold out early. In early season, festival regulars expressed fear that tickets would be unavailable due to the limited capacity.
The new “Season Pass” option, replacing three standard pass options and providing more flexibility to concertgoers, proved popular and is likely to remain available in some form.
After fierce pre-festival backlash over a plan (soon abandoned) to charge a fee for lawn seating at the tent, the rollout and production of the season went smoothly.
“[It] felt like such a validation of all the months of gut-wrenchingly hard work for us all,” said vice president of marketing Laura Smith. “There was beauty, artistry, joy, community, and safety.”
The Music Festival’s reported record fundraising efforts during the pandemic also continued apace through the season. The Season Benefit, honoring Joan W. Harris and women in music, raised more than $1 million for the 2022 season.
Regular coronavirus testing of students, faculty and staff allowed the festival to proceed – even as the delta variant emerged this summer – without cancellations or outbreaks.
With hundreds of people and thousands of COVID tests running this summer, Fletcher reported there were a total of three positive coronavirus cases within the festival community and no spread beyond those individuals. One was a person who tested positive upon arrival, before entering Music Fest facilities or coming in contact with anyone, who was able to quarantine. Another tested positive when leaving Aspen, and was unable to fly home, but the breakthrough case did not spread to others at the festival according to the contract tracing efforts.
For 2022, the faculty and student body — reduced by more than half for the pandemic year — are expected to rerun to pre-COVID numbers. Fletcher expects to bring enrollment back up to about 600 students for 2022.
“I think next summer will feel pretty much like the old times,” he said.
Most concerts in the Beethoven-themed season included a major Beethoven piece, along with works from the season’s additional “Uncommon Women of Note”-themed pieces and works by non-white composers as part of the festival’s new AMELIA (Africa-American, Middle Eastern, Latin, Indigenous, and Asian) initiative.
The AMELIA works, featured on the majority of programs and spotlighting composers like Julia Perry, Joseph Bologne and Gabriella Lena Frank, went over well with audiences.
He also suggested that the theme for the 2022 season – still unannounced – will also raise up some of those AMELIA voices previously sidelined by prejudice.
“It’s going to be something that really elicits a lot more work like that and really focuses on it,” Fletcher said.
Beyond the 2022 theme, the AMELIA initiative is here to stay, Fletcher said.
“There is a lot more music there that we need to explore,” he said. “So that is definitely a permanent fixture of our programming.”
Fletcher also will be back in summer 2022 as president and CEO he said, entering his 17th season at the helm.
He and husband, Ron Schiller, sold their Missouri Heights home this summer and bought one in New Jersey. They rented a home in Aspen for the summer season. But Fletcher said the home sale is not part of an exit strategy, but instead said it’s a shift — inspired in part by the pandemic — to be nearer to East Coast family in the off-seasons, to work virtually and to benefit from the booming Roaring Fork Valley real estate market. Also, the daily commute from Missouri Heights to Aspen was getting old, Fletcher said.
“We loved the place, we loved Missouri Heights, we loved our neighbors, we loved Carbondale,” he said. “But for me driving to Aspen two times a day in summer was not so great.”
How the pandemic might affect future Music Fest programming remains to be seen.
The winter music series, which normally hosts recitals in Harris Concert Hall between January and March, has been booked and scheduled, Fletcher said, though artists and dates remain unannounced.
Fletcher said he expects to wait to announce until it is clearer what public health precautions will need to be in place to make those performances safe.
With the return season in the rearview mirror, Fletcher said, he is hearing gratitude from musicians, students and audiences and feeling overwhelmingly thankful himself.
“Grateful is the primary feeling – we’re feeling pretty good,” he said. “It was a lot of compromise this summer that was needed and a lot of contingency planning. And we really needed people to stay flexible with us. … And I felt the primary response was, ‘Thank you, we’re glad you’re doing this.”
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