Aspen’s summer of arts – from those who know
June 9, 2011
ASPEN – In my childhood, in Livingston, N.J., my cultural calendar featured exactly one entry, and it’s not something that I would even consider these days as “culture.” It was the Kiwanis Carnival, which each May would deliver to my town of 27,000 four days of corn dogs, cotton candy and funnel cakes, and then rides like the Roundup and Swiss Bob – not a great combination. During Kiwanis time, the chatter in school wasn’t so much about the food or the rides or the number of goldfish somebody won by landing ping-pong balls in a little fish tank; it was whose vomit landed on whom.
I don’t remember going to a single play, outside of my school, in Livingston. There were no festivals, no art exhibitions, no concerts – or venues in which to stage them. Or at least, not that I knew of. My cultural tastes were narrow indeed, and the most exciting thing that ever happened in the vicinity of Livingston was when the Jerry Garcia Band played at Caldwell College, a few towns over. I planned to ride my bike to the show, just so I could say I biked to see Jerry, but it rained, I probably didn’t own a bike at the time, and mixing a Garcia Band show, a bike and crowded suburban highways was probably an even worse combination than carnival rides and fried junk food.
The last thing I needed was a guide to the Livingston arts scene. The Grateful Dead tour schedule was all the info I needed.
Aspen ain’t Livingston. Mercy, much as I spend my days digging into the Aspen area’s cultural offerings, fending off press releases on this festival and that theater presentation and the other lecture and that new film series, I can’t keep track of it all. Meaning that you, who don’t devote your hours to charting the local culture calendar, can use some help. Time is tight, events are plentiful, and information is thus at a premium.
I’ve called on some local experts to serve as your guides to the best of what’s coming this busy summer. Plus, I’ve added my own selections at the end. Please note: while I love the Grateful Dead as much as ever, my tastes have expanded over the last few decades.
“The Interrupters” (Opening the Aspen Ideas Festival film series. Check aifestival.org): Of everything I saw at Sundance this year, Steve James’ epic yet intimate portrait of former gang members working to diffuse street violence in Chicago engaged me like no other film. Lengthy, yes, but it’s urgent, moving and rich with importance. With a panel featuring the director, as well as film subjects, this promises to be a powerhouse evening.
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Girl Talk returns to Aspen as part of Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Labor Day Festival (Sept. 2, Snowmass Village). This mash-up artist extraordinaire creates fresh, vibrant new sounds by meticulously sampling thousands of pop music classics on a personal computer. What may be a music exec’s nightmare is a breathtakingly fun music experience. To get a taste of Girl Talk and a look at copyright counter-culture, sample the 2009 open source documentary, “RIP: A Remix Manifesto.”
A trio of moviehouse picks: J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” (opened June 10), because Abrams’ “Star Trek” prequel was fun and smart; Terrence Malick’s long-awaited “The Tree of Life” (open in limited release), because Malick is always interesting cinema and this Cannes Film Festival winner sounds sublime; and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” (opening July 15), because Harry and crew have been part of my life and a family touchstone since the first book appeared way back when … in 1997.
Sandy Duncan at Theatre Aspen in “Becky’s New Car” (opening June 24, and running through July 23). Finally, a new play staged in the summer (or anytime!), and in a new tent, and with a huge star. That certainly starts the summer with a bang.
The Aspen Music Festival’s Opera Theater Center performing “West Side Story” (Aug. 16, 18 and 20). So wonderful to see them producing perhaps the most operatic of American musical classics. You can’t fake it with Bernstein, and this might prove to be the best operatic presentation of my five summer seasons here.
Vladimir Feltsman at the Aspen Music Festival (July 6th). I don’t even care what the program is. The man kills the keyboard with such loving kindness.
Lar Lubovitch Dance Company (July 15-16, Aspen District Theatre, presented by Aspen Santa Fe Ballet). America’s most elegant choreographer, certainly more balletic than modern. I have never seen a false move from Lubovitch. Guaranteed great evening.
MountainSummit: Mountainfilm In Aspen (Aug. 25-28, Wheeler Opera House). Hey, you didn’t say we couldn’t mention our own stuff this year, and in all honesty it’s the one event that the entire Wheeler staff looks forward to with such passion. We doubled our audience last year, and this year looks like a real winner.
Stephen Shore (July 29-Oct. 9, Aspen Art Museum) gained fame capturing Andy Warhol’s factory in the late 1960s and is renowned for his depictions of American life. This exhibition includes 36 images from Shore’s iPhone photography series captured in Abu Dhabi in 2009. He’s been doing these iPhone books, and they’re unbelievable, giving you a first-person window into a different world.
Deer Tick (July 25, Belly Up) puts on an entertaining, charged display of rock ‘n’ roll music. Originally from Providence, R.I., the band has gained a national following for its on-stage antics, quality lyrics and musicianship. The band says if you don’t want to get covered in beer or confetti at their show, they suggest not standing up front.
“Lime Creek,” by Joe Henry. Local poet, lyricist and songwriter Henry is releasing his first novel on June 14, published by Random House. Known for his collaboration with John Denver, Garth Brooks, and Rascal Flatts, Henry has written a debut about a Wyoming ranch family and their connections to each other and the land. It is the first part of a series of novels by Henry. [The Aspen Writers’ Foundation will present Henry in an event, featuring a reading by actor Anthony Zerbe, on June 20 at the Aspen Institute’s Doerr-Hosier Center.]
Here are the concerts I’m gonna try and make:
Aspen Chamber Symphony, July 22, with conductor Peter Oundjian and violinists Julia Fischer and Augustin Hadelich; program including Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Fantasy” Overture and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite: Typically Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky are played by much larger orchestras, so I’m excited to hear what these standard war-horses will sound like when an elite chamber orchestra tackles them. And I’m a sucker for a good Firebird.
Aspen Festival Orchestra, July 31, with conductor Robert Spano and violinist Robert McDuffie, program including Barber’s Violin Concerto and Mahler’s Symphony No. 5: Some of the most beautiful music ever written in one concert! Nothing compares to the American beauty in the first two movements of the Barber. As for the Mahler, I proposed my to my wife, Blythe Gaissert, by playing an arrangement of Adagietto from this symphony, outside, with Sybarite5 in front of a huge crowd. So you could say the piece has even more special meaning for me. Expect tears.
Aspen Percussion Ensemble, Aug. 1: I have never been to a boring Percussion Ensemble concert, period. Percussionists are not afraid to hit things, break things, and in general turn concerts on their head and make a scene. If you haven’t been to a percussion ensemble concert you should go to this. It’s not just drums and cymbals, it always outta the box and never pretentious.
Aspen Festival Orchestra, Aug. 21, with conductor Robert Spano, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Choir, and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke; program including Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection”: This program makes me wish I was a student again just so I could play! Mahler 2 is one of my favorite works and I have fond memories of playing it as a student for the opening of the new Music Tent in 2000. This is one of these pieces that encompasses everything, and chronicles a life in kind a different way – death to life as opposed to life to death. Sasha Cooke is also a fabulous mezzo. (I should know; I’m married to one.)
Rebecca Horn’s Crickets Song exhibition (July 29 – September 5, Baldwin Gallery). Each installation she produces has a sense of timelessness, drama and poetry that are evocative yet elude language and easy definition. Her use of materials is always smart and the results elegant. It is very exciting to see an exhibition of new work here in Aspen.
Huma Bhabha’s Artist Lecture (July 21, Anderson Ranch Arts Center). Her rough-hewn but highly evolved sculptures are visceral and carry a sense of being from some other time or place. I look forward to getting to know more about her process in advance of her December exhibition at the Aspen Art Museum.
The musical “Annie” (July 7 – Aug. 20, Theatre Aspen). My kids love “Annie,” and how can you not love a song whose chorus is a reminder that “the sun will come out tomorrow” – especially after the past few damp weeks of spring? It will also be great to enjoy a performance of such a terrific show with my family in the new Theatre Aspen tent.
Steely Dan (September 3, Jazz Aspen Labor Day Festival). I have been a fan throughout my life and, by the way, haven’t they been around about forever now? Great songs that are quirky and narratively offbeat, sophisticated and acerbic. JAS always really hits the right show for Labor Day and this is a do-not-miss.
Aspen Art Museum’s Nico Muhly Drones for Aspen and 4th of July (ongoing through July 17). His original musical composition commission for us is a unique chance to interact with us, each other and, on the Fourth itself, with the rest of town. In the meantime, bring an instrument to the museum and play along with the piece or borrow a radio and experiment with the sheer possibilities of sound itself. Or, like I did earlier this week, scan your car radio dial and encounter it unexpectedly!
And I’ve got a pick or nine to add.
Topping my must-see pop concerts list are three acts that have tested my patience.
Steely Dan’s early tours were said to be disasters, and the accepted wisdom from the mid-’70s on was that their performing days were over. But in the early ’90s they tried the road again, apparently with much better results. They finally get to Aspen (Sept. 3, Labor Day Festival) with their Shuffle Diplomacy tour.
Guitarist Bill Frisell tours plenty (and records prolifically, on his own and with Rickie Lee Jones, Loudon Wainwright III, Elvis Costello, John Zorn, Lucinda Williams and on and on). But despite having been raised in Denver, he hasn’t appeared in the valley (at least not in the last 20 years). That streak ends in a big way, as Frisell brings two combos – the 858 Quartet and the Beautiful Dreamers trio – to play the first jazz show at Carbondale’s PAC3, on Aug. 3.
I’d been indifferent about singer-songwriter Amos Lee until his album “Mission Bell” convinced me he of his merits. Circumstances were ideal for his early-March Belly Up date; “Mission Bell” hit the top of the charts just as he was getting to town. But Lee took ill and the show was canceled. He plays a make-up on Aug. 5.
On the classical end, the Robert Spano era at the Aspen Music Festival kicks off in earnest July 3, when Spano makes his first conducting appearance as music director-designate. He’ll lead the Aspen Festival Orchestra in a program of Mahler, Rachmaninoff and R. Strauss. It’s the first of four conducting engagements for Spano this summer; he also appears in two concerts as a pianist.
I’ve been fascinated by Gabriel Kahane since I first heard of him a few years ago. The son of pianist and Aspen Music Festival regular Jeffrey Kahane, Gabriel has worked in musical theater, classical and the downtown New York scene. The singer-pianist makes his debut Aug. 3 with a solo recital.
The first few shows at Carbondale’s PAC3 have been everything a downvalley music fan could hope for. The lineup is killer, with Steve Earle (July 3), Dave Alvin (July 22), Robert Earl Keen (Aug. 16) and Leon Russell (Aug. 17). And keep an eye on Hayes Carll (June 23), a rising Texan with an outstanding new album, “KMAG YOYO.”
Two years ago, Fred Tomaselli instantly became my favorite visual artist; I went over and over to his mid-career retrospective at the Aspen Art Museum. While leading an Anderson Ranch workshop this summer, he gives a public lecture on Aug. 3 at the Ranch.
The Aspen Art Museum’s new building is a few years away from opening, but there is that saying: Give an artist a space, and she’ll make art. So while the Art Museum gears up for construction this summer, it makes use of the vacant lot as an unimproved, outdoor gallery of sorts for sculpture, film, sound installations and a ping-pong tournament staged on a unique table. Programming begins today with With Hidden Noise, a group exhibition of sonic pieces curated by Stephen Vitiello.
For a summer page-turner, pick up “The Man in the Rockefeller Suit,” by Aspenite Mark Seal. The story of an impostor who for 15 years pretended to be Clark Rockefeller, this is near-impossible to put down. It was published earlier this month; Seal does a book event June 20 at Explore Booksellers.
On the heavier side of literature is Tea Obreht, whose novel “The Tiger’s Wife” is an accomplishment for any writer – especially so for a 25-year-old making her debut. She appears in an Aspen Writers’ Foundation event this summer, date to be announced.
What is a remake of a 1970s made-for-TV movie doing here? The new version of “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” was written by Guillermo del Toro, the master of art-horror, and stars Guy Pearce. Plus there are those who swear that the original, about creatures in an old mansion who try to claim the new inhabitants as their own, was the scariest thing ever.
The Aspen Ideas Festival (June 27-July 3) features the usual array of brainy writers, academics, artists, politicians and more. But the smartest attendees know the place to be at Ideas Fest is the hot dog cart. That’s where you’ll find me. You analyze and strategize; I’ll nosh.