Aspen Music Festival to close season on an epic note

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Aspen Music Festival and School concertmaster David Halen in rehearsal with the Aspen Festival Orchestra.
Alex Irvin |

If You Go…

What: Aspen Festival Orchestra

When: Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014, 4 p.m.

Where: Benedict Music Tent

Tickets and more information:

The Aspen Music Festival and School’s eight-week season comes to an epic conclusion Sunday, Aug. 17, with a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

Festival music director Robert Spano will conduct the Aspen Festival Orchestra in the closing concert at the Benedict Music Tent, featuring the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus and solos in its majestic final movement, “Ode to Joy,” from soprano Jessica Rivera, mezzo-soprano Carolyn Sproule, tenor Vinson Cole and bass-baritone and festival alumnus Eric Owens.

The orchestra’s concertmaster, David Halen, who also serves in that role for the St. Louis Symphony and for the Music Festival, has led the violin section in many of the closing concerts in the tent over the last decade.

“It’s always been a memorable, powerful closing of the season,” Halen said Thursday. “In a way, it’s sad that the students that are there have to leave this beautiful city, but at the same time, they are some of the most memorable concerts of my life.”

Halen himself spent a summer here as a violin student in the early 1980s. He has been on the faculty here for more than 10 years now.

“I learned more in those few weeks I was here than I could in a whole year,” he said of his time as a Music Festival student.

He said that feeling of intense enrichment continues each summer for him — his days filled with performing, teaching and listening to new music. Performing alongside the students, soloists and fellow faculty at the closing concert, Halen said, is a poignant moment.

“Watching them come to life as artists that are going to go on to greater opportunities in their lives, that’s really what Aspen is about,” Halen. “I’m hopeful that many of the young people on the stage with me will have the same kind of experience that I have in St. Louis, when they reach their dream.”

Owens, the soloist, also closed last year’s Music Festival season with a performance of excerpts from Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. He studied with the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen in 2010, played oboe in the orchestra, and has ascended the heights of the classical world as a vocalist through his acclaimed work with the Metropolitan Opera. In both 2011 and 2012, he won the Grammy for Best Opera Recording.

Beethoven’s influential symphony marks a fitting end to the summer season, themed “The New Romantics.” On Friday, also at the Benedict Music Tent, the Aspen Chamber Symphony performed Beethoven’s 8th, priming themselves and their audience for Sunday’s closing symphony.

Halen recalled his first time playing Beethoven’s 9th, at the outset of his career with the Houston Symphony, in an outdoor performance during a thunderstorm. The evocative Romantic symphony, from its otherworldly opening to its chorus finale, he suggested, is best experienced in an environment like the tent, surrounded by the grandeur of the outdoors.

While most everyone is familiar with the symphony — a touchstone for classical music aficionados and neophytes who know it from “Die Hard” or “A Clockwork Orange” alike — nobody really knows it until they’ve heard it performed in-person, Halen suggested.

“Beethoven’s 9th must be heard live,” said Halen. “No recording does it justice.”

Many of the symphonic traditions carried on by the late Romantics and into the 20th century began with Beethoven and his 9th symphony, from its epic proportions to its use of a chorus.

“If you read the words closely in the last movement, it inspired much of what western democracy is based on,” said Halen. “It was a signal of a new era, the rise of the middle class in Europe and the end of the aristocracy. It’s a pivotal work in Western history.”

According to music industry lore, Beethoven’s 9th’s running time also served as the template for the 74-minute maximum length on compact discs when they were developed by Philips and Sony in the 1970s.

Before the Beethoven symphony, Sunday’s concert opens with Arvo Part’s “Fratres,” followed by opera pieces from Rachmaninoff’s “Aleko” and Musorgsky’s “Boris Godunov.”