Looking back on the Aspen Music Festival
August 23, 2013
It's probably not a coincidence that after an Aspen Music Festival season that prominently included some two dozen pieces by Benjamin Britten, plans for 2014 aim at something different. "New Romantics" is the working theme for next year, sending the not too subtle message that much of the music will be easier on the ears, even if more contemporary.
Not that all the Britten was difficult. Anyone who heard the "Peter Grimes" in a semi-staged production in the tent on July 27 basked in the emotional sweep and stunning individual performances in one of Britten's most listenable scores. That evening stands as a signal achievement, one of those rare occasions when richly detailed music, soloists, orchestra, conductor and staging came together into an unforgettable triumph. Other pieces were as congenial. For the first several weeks, however, a repeated complaint among concert goers was "too much Britten." Part of the problem, no doubt, was that too much of Britten's thornier pieces came in the first few weeks and disappointed audiences. Even with Wu Han playing the Piano Concerto and David Finckel the Cello Symphony, it's safe to say that most of the audience would rather have heard these popular artists play something juicier. Longtime attendees noticed more empty seats than usual this year. "Attendance was down in the Friday and Sunday concerts in the tent by about 100, on average," Alan Fletcher, the festival's president and CEO, acknowledged in a candid interview, adding that individual ticket sales missed the budget. However, he hastened to add, concerts in smaller Harris Hall drew better than previous years, most notably the Saturday afternoon and Monday evening chamber music programs featuring artists associated with the festival's school. Also, the festival sold more season passes and local's passes than ever. Fund-raising beat the budget, so the festival finished the summer with "a big surplus," he added. If pass holders used their privileges less this year than in years past, that could have been because they found fewer programs or visiting artists as scintillating as usual. As easy as it might be to blame it all on Britten, that's too simplistic. Conductors, asked to suggest works to include with the specific Britten pieces on their programs, often chose similarly spiky music. "We ended up with a whole chunk of a program with the same type of music," Fletcher admitted ruefully. "I should have known better." One welcome trend saw visiting stars take fuller advantage than ever of the talent among faculty artists and students. Instead of focusing their recitals entirely on solo works, they wanted to play more works with chamber ensembles. Pianist Jeremy Denk, for one example, filled the Harris Hall stage with a small orchestra for Janacek's Capriccio and a wind ensemble for Stravinsky's Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments. In their "recital," violinist Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg and pianist Anne-Marie McDermott added a string quartet of faculty for a glorious Chausson Concert in D Major. Bassist Edgar Meyer played his entire "recital" in duos and trios with a young violinist and cellist. Those concerts were among the season highlights. Other standout performances (among many) included the Takács Quartet's traversal of all six Bartók string quartets and Gil Shaham's unexpectedly individualistic approach to all six of Bach's unaccompanied sonatas and partitas for violin. Alisa Weilerstein invested emotional power in Elgar's Cello Concerto and Yefim Bronfman brought delicacy and restraint to Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 3. The single most stunning moment of the year might have been Bronfman's encore, scattering fairy dust over Chopin's fleet Etude Op. 10 No. 8. It was sheer magic. Conductor Leonard Slatkin introduced Aspen to a major new work by Steven Stucky, now head of the festival's composition studies department. His Symphony showed the kind of compositional mastery, flair for orchestration and ability to create exciting episodes that can make new music connect with audiences. Fletcher's bassoon concerto, written for faculty artist Nancy Goeres, also was well received. For next year, Fletcher and music administrator Asadour Santourian will focus on contemporary composers like Stucky who are writing — as Fletcher himself does — in such communicative idioms. "It's music with narrative purpose," Fletcher said, choosing his words carefully. (Music administrators are loath to disparage abstract dissonant music as easily as audiences can.) "It's more about the emotional content." There will be music from Beethoven to Strauss, plus more than the usual amount of Bach. These are the antecedents who may have inspired contemporary composers of this ilk, who now occupy the mainstream of modern classical music. There will also be a mini-festival of mid-20th-century modernism, for comparison purposes, Fletcher said. The festival's brain trust has its work cut out to repair an ongoing distrust of the unfamiliar among regular attendees. A 2014 season with exciting new music that speaks from the heart directly to listeners could go a long way toward that goal.