Aspen Music Fest is back

Post-vaccine 2021 season opens with pianist Matthew Whitaker in the Benedict Music Tent

Jessica Everts, right, scans a patron's ticket to watch pianist Matthew Whitaker perform in an Aspen Music Festival and School recital to kickoff the summer season on Thursday, July 1, 2021, inside the Benedict Music Tent in Aspen. Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times.

After a long year without in-person performances, the Aspen Music Festival and School opened its 2021 season Thursday night at the Benedict Music Tent and hosted its first concert with a live audience since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

With pianist Matthew Whitaker on stage, the festival faithful returned, thankful for summer tradition’s post-vaccine resurrection.

“It’s nice to be able to see a live performance and to share it with others,” Aspenite Murray Cunningham said before the concert, attending for with his wife, Claudia, for their 52nd Music Festival season.

Bill and Jane Dinsmoor, of Woody Creek, came out to begin their 50th season of Music Fest concerts.

“The pleasure and the thing people are excited about is to have it go back to normal, and hopefully not going into COVID 2 with some other variant coming in,” Bill Dinsmoor said.

Seated outside the Music Tent as concert-goers trickled into the tent among the aspen groves on a cool early July evening, despite the many cancellations and tragedies of the past year, did appear normal.

“It’s normal as it can be,” Jane Dinsmoor said. “We’ll see how normal we can get.”

The season-opening recital has traditionally been held in Harris Concert Hall, but for this bounce-back year, it — like the vast majority of performances this summer — was hosted in the open-air Benedict. It drew an audience of about 450 inside, which would have been a nearly full house at Harris Hall, and about two dozen people outside on the lawn.

“It was hard to not come last summer and we’re feeling excited to come back,” said Olga Doehling, seated on the lawn with her husband, Gary. “It’s an unbelievable feeling, like, ‘Are we really here seeing live music right now?'”

The joy and gratitude among the faithful was echoed in the opening moments of Whitaker’s hour-long performance, which began with the pianist saying “Let’s have some fun!” before launching into his winding and jazz-inflected take on “My Favorite Things.”

The Music Tent’s seating for the season is separated among socially distanced sections and non-distanced. Masks were not required Thursday night, nor was a proof of vaccination for entry, though ticket-buyers had been asked to affirm they and their party was vaccinated at the time of purchase if they are seated in the non-distanced section.

While responding to rapid changes in public health protocols over the past few months and adjusting daily, the festival is entering its season with more precautions than required. A temporary fence surrounds the Music Tent’s environs, allowing the festival to track and control the number of people coming to its largest events, for which it is requiring free registration for lawn seating.

The festival will have its first tests of capacity this weekend, with major orchestral events running Friday, Saturday and Sunday (see related story) and expected to fill the tent and possibly the lawn, for which reservations open the day before performances.

Festival officials said about 150 people had signed up for lawn spots for Friday afternoon’s much-anticipated Aspen Chamber Symphony performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and did not expect to reach capacity far in advance.

Also as a precaution, the festival is proceeding with COVID-19 tests for all of its 100 artist-faculty and all of its 270 students this season, though public health orders do not require any. As of Tuesday, according to festival president and CEO Alan Fletcher, there were no positive cases within the festival.

Some ancillary traditions are still on hold. The lemonade stand is not open, for instance, to discourage large groups from congregating. Performances, expected to run under 75 minutes, are running without intermissions for the same reason.

Modified though it may be, the festival’s return was greeted with joy and gratitude and, of course, with an extended standing ovation for Matthew Whitaker at the conclusion of his performance.

“It’s a magnificent beginning,” Michael Klein, chair of the Music Fest board of trustees, said outside the Music Tent after the concert. “It’s exciting just to be performing, it’s exciting to have the students back and you can tell from the atmosphere tonight. … It’s going to be a great season.”