Aspen still sounds good to Zinman
“One must have a vision of what one wants to have,” said David Zinman.Zinman’s own vision is simply stated: As music director of the Aspen Music Festival and School, the ideal is to have an organization where the music is consistently excellent, the education first-rate, the experience for audiences sublime. Or, as Zinman puts it: “It’s always about asking the question: How can we be better, get better students, get better faculty?”The trickier part than creating that vision is infecting the entire Aspen Music Festival – which crams some 750 students, nearly 200 guest artists and artist-faculty members, and several hundred events, ranging from full-scale operas to free recitals into nine weeks – with that spirit and commitment. It’s impossible for one person to have a hand in educating all those students, inspiring all those teachers and ensuring the quality of all those concerts. So Zinman’s primary task is spreading that vision, from the youngest bassoonist to the most star-studded evening of music.”We don’t pay a lot of money to get people to perform or teach here,” said Zinman, sitting at the Aspen Music School’s rustic Castle Creek campus, where he is greeted by friends and colleagues. “But there has to be a spirit that people come for. That’s so important – you create an atmosphere and hope people want to do their best. So any time I talk to the board, or to management, it’s always in those terms: We must have that vision. We must be our best.”In communicating those ideals, Zinman has an authoritative voice in the classical music world. Short in stature, and celebrating his 70th birthday Sunday, July 9, Zinman still radiates energy, enthusiasm, comradeship and seriousness of purpose.
Alan Fletcher, who became president of the Music Festival in March, said that Zinman’s presence was a big factor in attracting him to Aspen. Fletcher added that he is not alone in being drawn by Zinman. “Extraordinary” is how Fletcher described Zinman’s ability to instill his vision into the festival.”One thing he does as an individual is help us recruit guest artists, conductors and faculty,” said Fletcher. “His presence here is an inducement for them to come – just as it was for me.”And David is tireless.”That last quality is most evident in the schedule Zinman has laid out for himself in the summer of his 70th year. If Zinman were not attracting people merely on his reputation, or persuading board members and faculty with his words, he would still be a fine leader by example by reaching, artistically, about as far as he can.Zinman’s season began with his conducting of the world premiere of a Kevin Puts’ cello concerto, commissioned by the Aspen Music Festival in honor of Zinman’s milestone birthday. The soloist for the piece was Yo-Yo Ma, perhaps the best-known musician in today’s classical music world, which meant a packed Benedict Music Tent, scores more on the lawn, and a huge air of anticipation. (Ma’s appearance, his first orchestral performance in Aspen in more than a decade, can probably be chalked up to the presence of Zinman. The two have recorded together often, and the cellist’s last Aspen appearance was on the occasion of Zinman’s 65th birthday.)Zinman barely pauses over the remaining six weeks of the festival. On his birthday, Sunday, July 9, he conducts the Aspen Festival Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, and Beethoven’s “Triple” Concerto. The latter piece further emphasizes Zinman’s ability to bring in talent. The “Triple” features violinist Gil Shaham and pianist Yefim Bronfman, both superstars of their instruments who make frequent appearances here. Joining them, in his Aspen debut, is Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk. (One hopes Zinman didn’t party too hard the previous night, when Shaham and Bronfman, as well as Leon Fleisher, Edgar Meyer, Joseph Kalichstein and members of the Emerson String Quartet, toasted Zinman in the Music for the Maestro benefit event.)
Later this month, Zinman conducts the Western states premiere of the Ned Rorem opera “Our Town,” adapted from Thornton Wilder’s classic American drama. He puts the cap on the season Aug. 20, conducting the Aspen Festival Orchestra in Britten’s War Requiem in the final concert of summer. (Zinman also appears in the High Notes discussion Wednesday, July 12, with Fletcher and Music Festival artistic advisor and administrator.)It is just the way Zinman would want to celebrate a birthday. He calls it a “kind of gala summer,” but adds that the blockbuster season isn’t overly taxing. “Being here is kind of relaxation for me,” said Zinman, who has some contact, either through conducting concerts or score-reading sessions, with all of the Music Festival’s orchestras.The Aspen experienceEight summers ago, Zinman was honing a vision for the next phase of his life. He had been conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra since 1985, and earned a Grammy Award, the first for the BSO, in 1987, for a recording of Barber and Britten cello concertos with Yo-Yo Ma. He had also taken over leadership of the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich, and had a busy schedule as a guest conductor, working with the world’s finest orchestras.But as he passed 60, Zinman decided he wanted a closer connection to the education of music students. Wooed by Robert Harth, the late past-president of the Aspen Music Festival, Zinman opted to spend his summers in Colorado. The decision meant setting aside other career options, like heading one of the top-echelon American orchestras, or amping up his guest-conducting calendar. Zinman hasn’t given a second thought to what he passed up.”It’s absolutely the correct choice for me,” he said. “I’ve had more fun here over the past nine years than I ever imagined. It’s growing, the kids are better than ever, the orchestras are better than ever.”I couldn’t have been more productive. I would have gone around on the circuit – Tanglewood and Blossom and the Hollywood Bowl and Ravinia. I’d rather be here. It’s always a real inspiration to work with new talent, not professionals but the people who will be professionals.”The one large bump in the road was the departure earlier this year of Music Festival president Don Roth, whose five-year tenure ended in dissension and some turmoil. Zinman called Roth’s leaving “a hard time,” but dismisses it as “a monkey wrench in one summer.”
Zinman notes that he can do large productions more easily in Aspen than in other places, thanks to the large student population. “If you want to do a Mahler symphony with a huge brass section, you can,” he said. “There’s an advantage to having a lot of students, and a lot of quality students.” Asked to mention some of his highlights since 1998, Zinman picked the big concerts: concert versions of the operas “Otello,” “Aida,” “Tosca” and “Intermezzo,” as well as Mahler’s Eighth – the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand.”What has given him even more satisfaction than any particular concert is the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen. Founded in 2000, Zinman’s pet project trains promising conductors using a breakthrough innovation: The program features its own orchestra, giving the young conductors unheard-of amounts of time actually standing in front of a symphony orchestra.”What has really been lovely is seeing a lot of the students who have come through here have gotten job, and are conducting,” said Zinman, who had just completed an Academy session before sitting for this interview. “It’s a huge success, and every year the quality of the student conductors and the playing of the orchestra goes up.”Another group that gets a big share of Zinman’s attention is American musicians and composers. “I wanted to make this a place for American artists to come, that says, we’re just as good as everybody else. We don’t have to rely on Europe for everything,” said Zinman, a native New Yorker who was educated at Oberlin College, the University of Minnesota, the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, and Pierre Monteux’s conducting school in Maine. (Zinman has homes in Zurich and on the New Jersey shore.)Zinman has a further vision for Aspen. Part of that includes renovating the Castle Creek campus that includes rehearsal facilities, administrative offices and a cafeteria. He would also like to create a choral institution, and a program that would have students practice and perform on Baroque and Classical period instruments. Thinking even bigger, Zinman would like to be able to offer every student a full scholarship.Looking aheadZinman’s thinking extends beyond Aspen. He still directs the Tonhalle Orchestra, which he considers to have become a top-notch symphony under his decade-plus leadership. Zinman and the orchestra are in the process of recording all nine Mahler symphonies; the first volume, featuring the first three symphonies, is due for release in September.
Zinman says that, even as he is becoming more in demand as a guest conductor, he is more selective than ever in his appearances. His 2006 engagements include concerts with the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic. Earlier this year, he was honored with the Conductors Guild’s Thomas Theodore Award, which recognizes achievements in the art of conducting.Zinman’s plans for the future even extend beyond music. In 2007-08, he will take a sabbatical, in order to finish the memoirs he has been writing for 10 years. The timing of the break indicates where his heart lies: It begins when the 2007 Aspen Music Festival season concludes, and ends in time for the start of the 2008 season, meaning he will miss no music in Aspen.”I hope that I will always be here, as long as I can, as long as I’m healthy,” he said. “If I only did Zurich and Aspen, that would be enough for me.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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