Gene McDonough is an intellectual. He speaks with an expanded vocabulary and is prone to psychoanalyzing the classical greats – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven – so he better understands their soaring musical scores. He can also yell. Really loud. Aspen Music School Dean Joan Gordon had the honor of informing McDonough that, after trying and failing twice before, he had been accepted into the elite American Academy of Conducting at Aspen on his third summer of applying. “I lost quite a bit of hearing,” Gordon says wryly, recalling the high-decibel hoorays that reverberated through the telephone receiver. (Only 16 students were accepted to this branch of the music school this summer.)McDonough is no stranger to Aspen, though. The 22-year-old has attended the music school “for many years as a very fine bassoonist,” notes Gordon. But it was obvious his interests were elsewhere: The instrumentalist spent his free time corralling available music students to practice conducting. Still, the transformation from bassoonist to conductor isn’t an easy one. Bassoonists read music one line at a time; pianists read two at a time. Conductors must grasp 30 lines of music at one time. And aside from the volumes of library books he’s studied and a few random lessons, McDonough has never taken a conducting class – until now. The aspiring virtuoso spent his childhood between California and Japan, his mother’s birthplace and the location of her import/export textile company. Until the seventh grade, the longest McDonough spent in either place was a little more than four years. The result, he says, is that he wasn’t able to keep friends and frequently fell outside social circles. The handful of close friendships he has developed came from his high school jazz band in Walnut Creek, Calif., and the San Francisco Young People’s Orchestra.So it was the music that has remained his constant companion. “Without it, I don’t know how I’d make it,” McDonough says. “Music in its purest form can’t hurt your feelings.”Music can frustrate you, he continues. But before being performed, music compositions are an “antisocial form.” They are open books ready for emotional interpretation. This is the connection McDonough seeks with the classical art form – the intimacy of being its first interpreter, face to face, or rather, face to sheet music. In fact, the recent New York University graduate says he never liked slaving away for the bassoon (although he majored in the instrument), but he will gladly study written music for eight hours at a time.McDonough calls himself a polygamist – he romances each composition he studies, practicing until the symphony is almost a part of him, like a marriage. “You don’t ever lose them,” he says. Katie Clary
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Amid the pre-Thanksgiving gloom of grim pandemic news here in Aspen, across Colorado and the mountain west came a small but significant dose of hope in the unlikely form of an Aspen Music Festival and School announcement.