McDuffie and Spano to conclude Aspen Music Fest virtual series |

McDuffie and Spano to conclude Aspen Music Fest virtual series

Aspen stalwarts reflect on pandemic and look ahead to summer season

Aspen Music Festival music director Robert Spano is taking a seat on the piano bench for a virtual performance with violinist Robert McDuffie on Thursday night, closing the Music Fest’s winter series.

The pair are frequent musical partners and frequent collaborators, both in Aspen — where McDuffie is an alum and an annual presence at the summer festival — and in Georgia, where Spano also serves as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and McDuffie founded the trailblazing Robert McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer College.

The pair recorded Thursday’s performance, featuring Brahms’ first violin sonata and Beethoven’s seventh violin sonata, on campus at Mercer.

“He’s a damn good pianist,” said McDuffie of Spano, who audiences are accustomed to seeing on the conductor’s podium. ”I think we share musical values, we make each other comfortable when we perform and somehow we just click.”

As each splits time between Aspen and Georgia, they’ve found like-minded colleagues and friends in one another.

“His dedication to education, I think makes him such an ideal Aspen presence,” Spano said of McDuffie, “because that is so central to our mission as a festival. He naturally fits right into that initiative.”

In summers past, McDuffie has proven a generous presence on Aspen stages and among its most adventurous collaborators — joining students and symphonies, performing living composers’ new works and with Mike Mills of R.E.M. for the premiere of his “concerto with rock band” along with conducting. In recent years, he and Spano have begun collaborating on performance.


Who: Robert McDuffie & Robert Spano

What: Aspen Music Festival Winter Series

Where: And Facebook

When: Thursday, 6:30 p.m.; available through Sunday

How much: Free

More info: The recital includes Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 1 and Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 7

Spano, whose work is primarily as a music director, conductor and composer, is delighted on the increasingly rare occasions he can perform.

“I only play a limited number of concerts on the piano a year, so it’s always a special treat for me,” he said. “It’s ‘Oh boy, I get to practice!’”

Preparing with McDuffie is a particular joy, Spano said.

The Brahms and Beethoven program that they’re performing for Aspen’s virtual audience was originally intended to be the centerpiece of a tour for the pair, but canceled like all tours due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. (They’re hoping to reschedule it when public health restrictions allow.)

Digging into masterworks like the two they’ll play this week, McDuffie compared the musicians’ task to that of a contemporary U.S. Supreme Court justice attempting to apply the U.S. Constitution to our time. McDuffie described himself as more open to interpretation, a la Harry Blachmun, and less of a strict originalist in the Antonin Scalia mode.

“When you play chamber music, you check your ego at the door and just try to do justice to what the composer wanted,” McDuffie said. “We have the notes on the page, but you know, we can bring it to life and it’s up to us to bring it to life.”

Both artists are eager to return to playing for audiences in concert halls, but appreciate the connection that virtual concerts have afforded through the tumult and isolation of the past year.

“I think they’ve been great for what they are,” Spano said. “I think the frustration so many of us feel is just missing live performance. We have all these ways of disseminating music online and everything, but it’s not the same.”

Spano has performed at a few events for small and socially distanced audiences in Atlanta, whetting his appetite for more.

“The couple of times I’ve been able to perform with an audience in the past year have been really, really special,” Spano said. “It’s all so strange, but somehow wonderful to have living human beings in one room listening to music together is unbeatable.”

Adapting to the sometimes strange and isolating experience of virtual performance, Spano said, he fell back on advice from early in his career — when he first began touring as a conductor — when a veteran opera director told him to imagine someone he loved was in the audience. He’s begun doing that for virtual performances.

“That helps, because performing is always about delivering something to someone else, rather than the vacuum of a practice room,” Spano said.

Among the lessons from virtual programming and performing, he said: make it great, keep it short. Aspen has abided by that this winter, and through its well-received virtual 2020 summer season.

McDuffie spent about four months of the pandemic in Italy, where he is artistic director of the Rome Chamber Music Festival. He’d planned to come from there for an extended winter stay in Aspen, which would have included his Harris Hall performance with Spano. But as cases spiked, both here and in Rome, the Aspen in-person recital was canceled and McDuffie scrapped that plan.

He spent much of the time overseas on finding ways to spotlight young and emerging talents, a shared passion for Spano and McDuffie.

McDuffie’s major project overseas was producing a 30-minute concert video highlighting young musicians for the Rome festival, among them the 22-year-old Aspen Music Fest alum Aubree Oliverson. The pandemic has paused the rise of stars like hers.

“I think if this happened at the beginning of my career, I’d be freaking out,” McDuffie said. “I feel for the young artists who were coming.”

Along with those leadership roles and preparing for the Aspen performance, McDuffie has spent the pandemic steeped in Brahms’ Violin Concerto. He’ll perform it, under Spano, with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in a virtual event in April.

“That will always be my pandemic piece because I’ve been playing it and working on it four hours a day for the past year,” he said. “It’s nice to have a masterpiece to quarantine with.”

McDuffie and Spano are looking forward to summer 2021 and the as-yet unannounced in-person summer Aspen Music Festival season.

“We’re trying to plan to do as much as we can safely,” Spano said. “We are inviting a lot of students who couldn’t come last summer and it’ll be a much smaller season. … We are kind of limited to one concert a day and we have to be careful about rehearsal times and who’s in the hall and making sure there’s cleaning that goes on in-between.”

The spacious and open-air Benedict Music Tent especially, he said, is a gift for musicians and audiences this summer as the festival cautiously emerges from the pandemic closures.

“The tent is such a a perfect place to do safe listening,” Spano said. “We have the space, we have the air, the stage is big. It bodes well for us to be able to do this very responsibly.”

One fascinating silver lining in the planning for summer 2021, Spano said, is that the limits on numbers of musicians has led Spano, festival artistic advisor Asadour Santourian and their creative team to consider works they’ve never done before — pieces that might be ideal for a slimmed-down 15-person Aspen Chamber Symphony or 60-person Aspen Festival Orchestra.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Spano said. “We’ve ended up exploring repertoire that we wouldn’t have so thoroughly explored otherwise.”

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