In the tent: Music vs. nature | AspenTimes.com

In the tent: Music vs. nature

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Anyone affiliated with the Aspen Music Festival knows that the natural world – the music tent in a meadow, the surrounding mountains, a setting that invites in trees, birds and sunlight – is an element that makes Aspen special in the music world. Rarely, though, has nature announced itself as part of the music-making experience as it did Thursday night, in the Music Festival’s season-opening performance under the Benedict Music Tent.

Mother Nature played it cool for the first half of the all-Gershwin program, leaving soloist Inon Barnatan at peace at his piano – and giving conductor Robert Spano a mercifully calm debut as music director at the Music Festival.

Then the weather gods joined the ensemble, showing up as composer, orchestra, conductor, sound engineer and stage manager, all rolled into one. First came the booms of thunder, then the rain beating on the tent roof, while lightning made it a multi-media event. Fortunately, the skies opened up in the intermission, and the initial disruption became a short delay in starting the second half of the program. When things quieted down some, Spano took to the piano for a spontaneous interlude that demonstrated he was flexible.

Pianist Conrad Tao’s performance of Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody was embellished with the occasional clap of thunder and a few brief showers. A second downpour was again well-timed, coming between pieces.

Then came the flood. Seconds after Marc-Andre Hamelin started in on the immortal Rhapsody in Blue, the heavens started roaring, the horns and drums no match for the volume. Rain drowned out the piano. Not to dismiss Hamelin’s understandable frustration, but it was wonderful: The weather broadened the audience’s awareness; the musicians were forced to show patience and humility. When the skies did quiet down, the music became clearer than ever.

The elements became an orchestra of their own: big bangs of thunder echoed by gentler rumbles, showers pounding the tent or smoothly sweeping across it. Sometimes the noise was in perfect sync with the music, sometimes it was a garishly out of rhythm.

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And always it was a reminder: This place we have chosen to make and listen music in is a little closer to heaven than most.

stewart@aspentimes.com