Aspenite Tom Buesch: Playing classical catch-up
July 30, 2010
ASPEN – Tom Buesch wasn’t impressed with Philip Glass’ violin concerto, “The American Four Seasons,” which Buesch saw in its American premiere last week in Aspen. “To write new music just for the sake of being new …,” he said. Buesch wasn’t dismissing just Glass’ piece, but most of contemporary classical music. Though he has a fondness for Christopher Rouse, a longtime composer-in-residence with the Aspen Music Festival – “He plays on popular culture and what’s going on with music. He’s interested in all the parts of the orchestra. He’s having fun,” he noted – Buesch acknowledges his narrow tastes.
“I’m not very eclectic. Everything starts and ends with Beethoven for me. I’m very boring,” he said. Buesch concludes his self-analysis by stating his affection for Stravinsky and Debussy, but in a way that makes it clear that the two composers, both born in the 18th century, are at the exotic end of his listening range.
But Buesch, as well as anyone, knows that musical tastes develop over time; that, with exposure and guidance, listeners can be turned onto new sounds. And that you should never give up on something just because the early experiences are not immediately rewarding.
Since the late ’90s, Buesch has helped to expand appreciation for classical music by teaching the Listener’s Master Class, a series offered by the Aspen Music Festival in conjunction with Colorado Mountain College. The course combines classroom lectures with Music Festival performances. The majority of the students are older, seasoned concertgoers, looking to gain insight into upcoming performances and to deepen their overall grasp of music. But a substantial minority of the class – about a third of this year’s enrollment of 48 students – are young listeners with virtually no experience in concert halls.
“As far as I know, they have no knowledge of classical music whatsoever,” said Buesch, who this summer has taught such classes as The Enduring Elements: The Building Blocks of Music, and The Baroque Concerto, on Friday afternoons at the Crossroads Church. “But they go to the Tent or Harris Hall, and they get excited about seeing live music with these world-famous musicians. And they’re blown away. It overwhelms them. And I hope it converts them.
“That’s what I want to do – give them a better and earlier chance than I had. OK, I had a great chance. But I didn’t take advantage of it.”
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In fact, Buesch had a rare and early opportunity to experience classical music – and Aspen. Buesch’s late father, Andy, first came to Aspen on horseback, in 1942; within a few years, he had built the family a vacation house at the corner of First and Bleeker. Beginning in 1949 – the year the Aspen Music Festival was launched – the Chicago-area Buesches spent the summers here.
For Tom, summers in Aspen were glorious: “Loaded guns, horses, friends, shooting magpies off the roof of the Red Onion. I drove a car at the age of 12. There was only one police officer in town, and we always knew where he was. It was the greatest place in the world for a kid to grow up.”
The idyll, however, was interrupted each Sunday afternoon by the weekly Music Festival concert under Eero Saarinen’s original tent. Buesch can’t even recall any impression the music itself might have made on him; he was too focused on the disruption to his playtime, and the fact that he had to put on a pair of shoes for the occasion.
“Everybody had to dress up. Women wore pearls and evening dresses, the men in coats and ties. It was the fanciest thing in town,” Buesch said. “So kids were treated like miniature adults, in jackets and ties and shorts. And shoes – I hated that. It was brutal.”
Looking back, Buesch knows he saw Darius Milhaud conduct, and he heard works by Hindemith and Poulenc – “stuff that was radical and wild,” he said. “But my memory is [the experience] was stiff and uncomfortable. My mother had to drag me. But I like to think that was the seed.”
It took its time germinating. Buesch didn’t warm to music of any kind till the age of 12, when he heard a sound that struck him as radical, wild and irresistible. “Nineteen-fifty-four, when Chuck Berry came onto the scene, that was the beginning of the world,” he said.
Buesch began college at Washington University in St. Louis, studying engineering. But he quickly craved a liberal arts education and moved to Ripon College, in Wisconsin, and while he was discovering literature and philosophy and the German language, he also revisited the classical music he had been exposed to in Aspen. Buesch didn’t drink or date in college, but feasted on the boxes of records his mother sent, and found for himself a comfortable entryway through Baroque music.
“I played Handel and Bach – everyone should start with them,” he said. “They’re so accessible – [Handel’s] ‘Water Music’ and ‘Fireworks.’ Sweet, lovely pieces, very cheerful. They don’t make great intellectual demands, and as a kid that’s what you want.”
He soon worked his way up to more complicated material, especially a set of records of the London Philharmonic playing Beethoven’s symphonies. “That was my prized possession,” Buesch said. “Those versions, from 1962, are the versions I still want to hear. I completely grooved on Beethoven and he became the great composer for me, for my life. Beethoven is the man.”
(Buesch has a similar, old-school taste in popular music. The 67-year-old father of two, who favors a ponytail and black T-shirts, says he doesn’t own a single album made after 1980, the year Led Zeppelin drummer John Henry Bonham died. “When Bonham died, it was over,” said Buesch, whose attendance at Belly Up is mostly limited to tribute acts.)
While earning a masters in German language and literature, Buesch saw the importance of a deep, well-rounded education. “You know those Germans. You’ve got to have history, philosophy, language. And music. Those Germans are tough,” said Buesch, who taught in Chicago-area colleges and then became, like his father and grandfather, an engineer in the automotive industry, and designed diesel fuel injection systems for agricultural and construction vehicles.
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In 1990, Buesch moved to Aspen, but he kept the Music Festival at arm’s length at first. When he taught a Shakespeare class for CMC, however, one of his students was Melanie Harth, whose husband, Robert, was the president of the Music Festival. Buesch met Robert, and Ara Guzelimian, the festival’s artistic administrator at the time. He accepted an invitation to start teaching “Music And …” classes, which introduced classical music through art, literature and philosophy. Guzelimian taught the music component, while Buesch, who had no formal training in music, stuck to the “And” part.
“I’m not teaching the music. But I’m there; I’m listening,” he said. “And I’m devouring books on music, getting into it academically. I’m learning the periods and the styles and the instruments. And I pump Ara and his associate for information.”
In 1997, Buesch was ready to offer his own Music Appreciation course. He says the success was based on two inspired strokes. One was picking the right text – Roger Kamien’s “Music: An Appreciation” – which was a no-brainer; every college music department he called pointed him in the same direction. The second was convincing the Music Festival to donate concert tickets, so he could bring his students out of the classroom and into the concert hall. Buesch’s class, a three-credit course transferable to any school, grew over time from 12 students to 48.
The next step for Buesch might be a continuing education course that he gives to himself. After dismissing contemporary music, Buesch reconsiders his stance. It’s not that he finds newer music entirely unworthy, or a topic he is uninterested in. But his education in Beethoven, Bach and Brahms he finds barely sufficient to his task, and moving into a whole new universe of minimalism, microtonality and Messiaen may be beyond him, especially as he doesn’t plan to give up his other two loves, skiing and hiking, to devote time to studying. (It should be noted that his final class of the Music Festival season, on Aug. 13, is Rhythms of the 20th Century.)
“I’d love to have someone teach me more of what’s going on in contemporary music,” Buesch said. “But I’m such a late bloomer. I’m still behind on the masters, and I have such a complex about being the catching-up guy – catching up with the major composers, the major performers. I have all these holes in my background.”
Buesch adds a philosophical note in his defense, one related to his background in academia.
“It’s very difficult to understand your own culture,” he said. “You’re right in the middle of it; it’s in your face. Postmodernism – who understands that? It’s complex and hairy – and the great commentators haven’t handled it yet. It hasn’t been codified. I’ve got that academic thing – I need to understand it, as well as appreciate it. That hasn’t happened for me. But if I live long enough, I’ll explore the contemporary repertoire.”
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Buesch can get started on his immersion in new music on Sunday, Aug. 1. The concert by the Aspen Festival Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, opens with Cindy McTee’s Tempus Fugit, a movement from her 2010 piece, “Double Play.” McTee is native of Washington State who retired this year from her teaching position at the University of North Texas College of Music. “Double Play” was commissioned by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and is dedicated to Slatkin, the orchestra’s director.
Buesch might also try attending the Monday, Aug. 2 concert at Harris Hall by the Aspen Percussion Ensemble. Jonathan Haas, the forward-looking director of the group, has assembled a program of works by Cage, Zappa, Takemitsu, Manfred Meinke and Stravinsky.
The Friday, Aug. 6 concert by the Aspen Chamber Symphony includes Kevin Puts’ Clarinet Concerto, written in 2009 for Bil Jackson, the Aspen Music Festival faculty member who will be featured as soloist.
And while it doesn’t represent the cutting-edge, the program for the Thursday, Aug. 5 special event with Jean-Yves Thibaudet is all 20th century. The French pianist will play works by Bernstein and Gershwin, including a band arrangement of the latter’s Rhapsody in Blue.