Aspen Music Festival and School cancels 2020 season because of coronavirus pandemic

Renee Fleming photographed at the Benedict Music Tent in 2016.

The Aspen Music Festival and School has canceled its 2020 summer season, the nonprofit announced Monday, because of the novel coronavirus pandemic and public health restrictions expected to continue through August.

The full cancellation follows an earlier announced effort to present a shortened season of concerts and educational activities, which would have run July 16 to Aug. 23.

This marks the first season cancellation since the Music Festival’s founding in 1949 at the dawn of modern Aspen.

“We take this action in solidarity with our musical community, our Aspen community, and indeed the world community, as we commit first and foremost to keeping each other safe at this historic moment,” Music Fest President and CEO Alan Fletcher said in the announcement.

Fletcher and Music Fest leadership had been consulting daily with public health experts, local officials and arts leaders to guide its decision. The Music Fest board of trustees’ executive committee formally voted to cancel Friday. Students were informed of the cancellation Sunday.

With social-distancing protocol and restrictions on gatherings likely to extend through the summer, Fletcher said in an interview Saturday, it became clear the festival could not continue even if groups of 250 might be permitted to assemble come August.

“We determined that we can’t bring 600 students and put them in a dormitory and hold orchestra rehearsals and then give major concerts with that level of restriction,” he said. “We would have had to have believed that by August we would be able to have 500 or 1,000 people in a gathering. We just got to the point where clearly that is not going to happen.”

Originally scheduled to begin July 2, the season was to include more than 400 concerts and public events while hosting more a student body from around the world studying under 150 artist-faculty members. It was to include a season-long celebration of Beethoven, on the 250th anniversary of his birth, and of female composers coinciding with the centennial of U.S. women’s suffrage.

“There is nothing we can do to prevent this from happening,” Fletcher said of the cancellation. “But we will come back and we are going to do great things again. That is what we are going to look forward to.”

After a cascade of canceled events since mid-March, few major cultural events remain on Aspen’s summer calendar. But no arts organization’s programming impacts the rhythms of local life during Aspen’s summer high season and the local economy like the Music Fest, which hosts three orchestras and fills the Benedict Music Tent, Harris Concert Hall and other venues throughout its eight-week classical music season.

Fletcher estimated the cancellation will mean a $2 million loss for the nonprofit. But, he said, because the Music Fest is funded primarily on donor support, it can weather the cancellation and economic crisis caused by COVID-19 without long-term damage to its programs.

“We are going to come through this,” he said. “We have a lot of strength. Our business model does not primarily depend on ticket revenue, unlike many orchestras and opera companies. So we will be OK. This doesn’t mean we don’t need support, but we are a good investment right now because we are going to make it through this and continue our mission.”

The festival’s administrative staff have taken pay cuts, but Fletcher said the organization will not be laying off or furloughing any of its year-round employees. The organization also committed to pay its summer faculty, he said, though they won’t be teaching.

Ticket buyers and passholders for the canceled season have the option to donate the value of their tickets to the nonprofit. Refunds and 2021 credit also is available. Patrons must contact the Music Fest box office with their choice by May 22, after which all ticket values will be credited to the 2021 season.

While there will be no traditional in-person events, the Music Fest has virtual programming in the works for summer. Fletcher suggested that the virtual calendar might include showcase performances by students, faculty and guest artists as well as interactive programming, interviews and seminars. They also are working on a virtual version of their summer fundraising benefit event.

“We think we are not going to try to monetize this, and will instead do it as a service to the loyal audience that has kept us going all these years,” Fletcher said.

The artistic administration is already at work on planning the summer 2021 season, which Fletcher predicted will be “an explosion of musical joy.”

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