Music Festival: A new start for new music in Aspen |

Music Festival: A new start for new music in Aspen

Alex Irvin

Steven Stucky is heavily invested in new music. He began writing symphonies as a child and hasn’t stopped composing since; the 21-year stretch from 1988 to 2009, he spent as composer in residence with the Los Angeles Philharmonic probably set the record for the longest-lasting association between a composer and an American orchestra.

Still, Stucky isn’t prone to being offended by the delicate issues surrounding contemporary music — whether programming new pieces tends to chase audiences away, whether 18th-century creations are always going to be the most beloved of classical works. Even whether creating new music these days is relevant work.

“Was it ever?” the 63-year-old asks. On the topic of how big a task it is getting listeners over the idea that contemporary music is inevitably going to be difficult or strange, he has a similarly affable, big-picture perspective: “That’s a lifelong job.”

Part of the reason Stucky is so easygoing about the serious matters regarding his life’s work is that he sees solutions as much as problems.

“You get over those barriers by putting on great concerts,” he said. “You start with bringing in the right people and playing the right pieces.”

Stucky believes he also has found the right place to pursue those goals. This summer, Stucky is composer-in-residence with the Aspen Music Festival and School, and he also is overseeing a revamping of the festival’s composition program. Aspen always has had some devotion to new music. There were composition students working with established composers; contemporary works were programmed; there was a smattering of commissioned pieces. But Stucky points out that within the classical-music world, Aspen has been seen as more of place where great music was performed, not created.

“Contemporary music is not the first thing people think of when they think of Aspen,” he said on a recent afternoon sitting across from Paradise Bakery. “Now, we want to be the best program in the country. Maybe we already are. But we want to make sure. It’s a much more aggressive program.”

It is a full arsenal of resources that the Music Festival is putting into that effort. Perhaps most notable to audiences is the repertoire scheduled for this summer. There is an intensive examination of the 20th-century British composer Benjamin Britten, with more than 20 of his pieces on the program. (The most notable of those, a semi-staged production of the 1945 opera “Peter Grimes,” is set for Saturday.) The season opened with a program that featured “Icarus at the Edge of Time,” a 2010 multimedia work with a score by Philip Glass. The first Sunday afternoon concert of the season featured the 2009 violin concerto by Stucky’s friend Esa-Pekka Salonen, the former music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

“I can’t say everybody got it. But it was a statement to start out with that piece,” Stucky said.

Even newer music marks today’s Aspen Festival Orchestra concert. Stucky’s Symphony, which debuted last year, will have its third-ever performance, on a program that also includes Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, a 1977 work by the living Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. (Rounding out the concert are the Elgar Cello Concerto, with soloist Alisa Weilerstein, and Janacek’s Sinfonietta.)

Of all things, Stucky refers to his Symphony as “old fashioned.” (Reviews of the work, which has been played by the Los Angeles and New York Philharmonic, have called it “accessible.”) “It has recognizable themes which come back. That links it to the traditional form,” he said.

Away from the stage, the Music Festival is showing a similar commitment to new music. Stucky himself is here for the full eight weeks of the season; in the past, Christopher Rouse, who headed the composition program for years, would stay half the summer. The visiting composers who will spend time in Aspen this summer include some of the best-known writers of contemporary classical music: Aspen regular George Tsontakis, Joan Tower, John Harbison, Stephen Hartke and John Corigliano, who will be here the first two weeks of August. Stucky calls it “unheard of” to have such a collection of composition talent.

The 10 composition fellows at the Aspen Music School, who range in age from 23 to 33, are getting not only a star-studded lineup of guest composers but a program with greater demands.

“It’s a much heavier intersection of these famous names with the students than we used to have,” Stucky said. (A free recital of works by five of these students is set for Friday in Harris Hall.)

One of the most significant resources being provided is the time and attention of Robert Spano. In his third year directing the Aspen Music Festival, Spano brought with him a reputation for being intensely interested in new music. At the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which he continues to serve as music director, he created the Atlanta School of Composers. Stucky recently saw Spano with all 10 of the composition students in Aspen and came away impressed.

“That’s a commitment. Robert’s a busy guy. But he laid hands on them, spent the time,” he said. Stucky noted that with Alan Fletcher, a composer as well as the president of the Music Festival, sitting with Spano at the top of the organization, there’s little question about the emphasis given to new music.

“One’s a composer; the other’s a great supporter of composers. We want to be integrated with the other performers and conductors as much as we can be. We don’t want to be in splendid isolation.”

Stucky acknowledged that an increase in new music inevitably means seeing a portion of the audience flee. He doesn’t see this as a necessarily bad thing.

“Wherever I’ve been associated, it cuts both ways,” he said. “Adventurous programming loses one audience but gains another. Ideally, you lose the audience that’s drifting away and gain the audience that’s committed.”

Enhancing the new music component can have a similar effect of enlivening the musicians.

“I’ve seen it in New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland — playing contemporary music is exhilarating in itself. You’re an explorer, seeing something being born,” he said. “It’s also a great training ground. It requires sharper skills — ear skills, technical skills — than traditional repertoire. I love to see an orchestra play Elliot Carter and the next week play Haydn and see if they play it any better. They should.”

Stucky says that new music shouldn’t be seen as so different from old music. If there was a time, as most people agree, when composers set out more to challenge and unnerve audiences than please them, that era is largely passed. Stucky, who earned a Pulitzer Prize for his 2005 Second Concerto for Orchestra and who has taught at Cornell since 1980, says his music, and in particular the new Symphony, is intended to be an “emotional landscape to travel through.”

“I’m not afraid to use the word ‘feelings’ as a composer. That’s what I’m here for,” he said.

What Stucky is attempting isn’t very different than what Mozart and Bach aimed for.

“I think a great piece, whenever it was written, gets under our skin, makes us feel something,” he said. “That’s what Beethoven was trying to do. I don’t think music teaches about mundane, everyday life. It teaches us what it is to be a human being. I’m trying to do the exact thing Verdi or Mendelssohn did — open up that spiritual space where we can all be fully ourselves.”

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