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Digging into the Aspen Music Fest’s inclusion initiative

When the Aspen Music Festival and School announced the program for its summer season last week, the big news and the headline was that live music and orchestras would be returning after the long silence of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The comeback of Aspen’s oldest and most storied cultural tradition is monumental and promises to mark the beginning of the post-pandemic era here. But all of the related public health info and chatter about the still-unannounced crowd capacity for Music Fest concerts may, so far, have overshadowed the actual concert lineup and details about the 150 events running July 1 to Aug. 22.

If you’re a fan of the festival, the annual program announcement is always followed by days of discovery — you go down YouTube rabbit holes, search music streaming sites and libraries to find recordings of the tantalizing titles for pieces of music and composers you didn’t previously know.



This summer the festival is emphasizing this discovery track more than before, as the 2021 season marks the launch of its initiative to spotlight diverse composers who identify as AMELIA (African-American, Middle Eastern, Latin, Indigenous, and Asian). It is the product of three years of evaluating diversity, equity and inclusion at the festival as well as canon-expanding scholarship and research by the festival’s artistic administration, led by Asadour Santourian.

“We did not reach to the same shelf that some of our colleagues are reaching to, we actually have been amassing and looking at different scores over the last three years,” Santourian explained. “And we are presenting people from all over the world, we’re not just performing the same for work that seem to be appearing in other places.”




Santourian said the festival is hoping to help lead the way in the classical community to properly ushering composers and pieces of music that have been historically sidelined due to structural racism into the repertoire of musicians, orchestras and festivals.

Some 75% of performances this summer will include works by AMELIA composers.

As it announced the season’s concerts, the festival detailed the inclusive programming of 10 orchestral works, eight pieces to be performed by the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble and 22 on recital programs – a cheat sheet for the annual post-announcement listening binge (the full list of composers and works is on the Music Fest website).

They range from new works by living composers to works by 18th century writers sidelined by history to 20th Century African-American women like Julia Perry whose “Short Piece for Small Orchestra” is on the bill for the opening orchestral concert July 2, with conductor Leonard Slatkin leading the Aspen Chamber Symphony through it alongside Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 and Symphony No. 5.

“This will be the beginning of bringing her music to our audiences,” Santourian said of programming Perry’s 1952 neoclassical work.

Florence Price, the groundbreaking African-American composer whose string quartets are set for July 8 and 22 performances, was successful in her own time and was nationally recognized in the 1930s and ‘40s. Her work fell into obscurity, but has been newly embraced over the past decade, after he discovery of her papers and unheard compositions were discovered.

“We have analyzed for ourselves that (Price’s reputation) didn’t last for external, structural, racist reasons, rather than because it was not as good,” Music Fest president and CEO Alan Fletcher said, drawing a comparison to how Mahler nearly fell into obscurity due to anti-Semitic programming and bans. “These are sensational works.”

The African-American composer William Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony” from 1934 is on the bill of the Aspen Festival Orchestra on July 18. Four out of the eight Sunday afternoon concerts this summer feature works from the AMELIA initiative, including works vital living American composers like Gabriela Lena Frank, whose Concertino Cusqueño – a 2012 piece celebrating Frank’s Peruvian heritage – is also on o the Aspen Festival Orchestra schedule on July 25 with Vasily Petrenko conducting.

Dawson’s symphony is emblematic of what listeners have lost out on. It premiered to huge acclaim at Carnegie Hall in 1934 with Leopold Stokowski leading the Philadelphia Orchestra, followed by a national radio broadcast. It should have been a star-making performance for Dawson, but instead it fell quickly into obscurity with just a few recordings and rare performances, while Dawson never wrote another symphony.

The neglected 19th century Black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Clarinet Quintet is due for a July 17 chamber music performance and his “They Will Not Lend Me a Child” will be performed by pianist Jeremy Denk in an Aug. 19 recital that also includes Blind Tom Wiggins Civil War era “The Battle of Manassas” and the Scott Joplin/Louis Chauvin ragtime piece “Heliotrope Bouquet.”

The festival reaches further back in music history to find Joseph Bologne, a Black French composer who was a contemporary of Mozart. He has two orchestral works coming to Aspen this summer, his “Overture to L’amant anonyme” to be played by the Aspen Chamber Symphony (July 9) and a violin concerto to be performed by the Aspen Conduction Academy with soloist Gallia Kastner (July 5).

Mid-career composers on the schedule include Tebogo Monnakgotla, a Swedish composer whose playful 2018 flute and guitar work “Timecraft” rearranges classic children’s song melodies, is to be performed by flutist Marina Piccinini July 7. A new work, “Osoko,” by the Chinese Pulitzer Prize winner Du Yun, is also on the Contemporary Ensemble lineup July 29.

The effort toward equity will be sustained in years to come, festival officials said, and will include commissions of new work by AMELIA composers.

“We think it’s crucial for the future of our genre,” said Music Fest president and CEO Alan Fletcher. “Classical music, although many people think of it as this extremely elitist thing, throughout its history has been extremely incorporative of new stuff, cultures and folk traditions and new practices in music. So it’s organic in that respect, but we also just think bringing historically underrepresented music forward and then commissioning new work is in service to all of us.”

atravers@aspentimes.com


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