Programs of note have invigorated Aspen Music Festival

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Patrick Chamberlain, VP artistic administration, AMFS.
Courtesy photo

Before the downbeat on a recent Sunday concert at the Aspen Music Festival, Patrick Summers shared some insights into what connected the pieces he was about to conduct. It amounted to a concise summary of what makes a thought-provoking program.

Several links tied together a suite of music from Janáček’s opera “The Cunning Little Vixen” and Joel Thompson’s “An Act of Resistance,” Korngold’s Violin Concerto and Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks.”

For starters, all the music was written in response to injustice.

When Eric Korngold fled the Nazi regime before World War II he vowed to compose no concert music until the regime had been defeated. The concerto debuted in 1947. “Resistence” was Thompson’s answer to  “a severe deficiency of empathy” in police killings of unarmed Black men in the United States, and “Vixen” is a thinly disguised parable about what can happen when we humans mistreat others. In some versions of the Eulenspiegel story, the notorious prankster led Flemish resistance against Spanish oppressors.

There were also theatrical ties. Janáček and Strauss rank among the great opera composers, and Summers pointed out that the Strauss tone poem (which preceded his operas) was itself a sort of mini-opera. Korngold became a groundbreaking film composer after he arrived in Hollywood, and several of his well-known themes provided material for the concerto. All of the performances took on a palpable theatricality.

From a purely musical standpoint all four pieces also fit squarely into a tradition of instantly relatable music, with only a few harsh dissonances for dramatic effect.

His programming objective, said Patrick Chamberlain, vice president for artistic administration for the festival, is “to create the conditions where a truly transformative performance can take place, where it can  reach a plane where everybody on stage and everybody in the room feels like they’re hearing something really special.”

Mahler’s Third Symphony on July 30, in which music director Robert Spano led an unforgettable, soul-satisfying performance, makes an ideal example. It was festival president Alan Fletcher’s idea to start the concert with Cage’s 4’33”. Its several minutes of silence prepared the audience for Mahler’s paean to nature, with only the sounds of chirping birds, barking dogs, and the breeze rustling aspen leaves to hear.

Robert Spano conducts Mahler’s Third Symphony.
Blake Nelson/Courtesy photo

Programming an 8 1/2-week music festival as broad and complex as Aspen’s requires a years-long effort. Artists are booked a year or two in advance, and increasingly selected to represent a spectrum of backgrounds and specialties. The best individual programs also have a sort of logic of their own.

Several outstanding concerts this year got their inspiration from the season’s theme, “Adoration of the Earth,” which borrows the title from Part I of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” to reflect our human connection with nature. The first Festival Orchestra concert climaxed with the Stravinsky ballet music, preceded by Brian Raphael Nabors’ Africa-infused “Of Earth and Sky: Tales from the Motherland.”

Conductor Jane Glover opened an Aspen Chamber Orchestra concert with Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes,” which musically described England’s eastern coast so well that one could smell the salt air. Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony scene-painted rivers, countryside and a literal storm.

These pieces bracketed unrelated piano concertos in both concerts, but Chamberlain makes this point: “Side-by-side with the other pieces on the program, you might hear both of these concertos in a different light.” And indeed, Gershwin’s jazz Concerto in F felt more grounded, more serious, in the wake of Nabors’ essay in music of Africa as seen from America. And Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 felt particularly elegant in contrast to the boisterous music surrounding it.

Several programs this summer dealt in purely musical connections. In his recital pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet linked the music of Ravel to a Haydn sonata that included a lovely minuet. He followed that with three minuets for more modern ears by Ravel. That led to the French composer’s “Miroirs,” a pianistic tour-de-force dabbling in different national styles. As a result, both composers’ music gained a fresh perspective.

It falls to Chamberlain to assemble each summer’s concert schedule, with approval from Spano and Fletcher. Fresh from a similar position with Newark (New Jersey) Symphony, Chamberlain joined the team in spring 2022, replacing Asadour Santourian, whose responsibility it had been for 18 years.

The 2022 calendar was already in place, thus this year is the first to reflect his work. To my ears, the 2023 season has had many more well-thought-out programs than in previous summers, and overall the best lineup of guest artists in my experience here. Competition for high-end talent requires big classical music presenters to work well in advance, and behind the scenes, seasons 2024 and 2025 are already filling up.

Spano and Fletcher both light up when asked about how Chamberlain has affected the programming. “Losing Asadour was difficult,” said Spano. “I loved Asadour, and I thought no one could come in here that I could work with, but it’s so easy to work with Patrick. He’s savvy about what could be of interest to us. And he’s so creative.”

Indeed, with only a few more performances left, audiences have heard a wider range of music than previously, much of it delivered by new faces, and nearly all of it at a higher level. In particular, the contemporary programming shows significant improvement.

“I’m, really pleased with how many beautiful new pieces we’ve heard this year, and a lot of the credit goes to Patrick,” said Fletcher . “It’s no longer ‘here’s something, and we promise it won’t be too long’.”

Chamberlain makes it a point to get to more than 100 performances during the off-season, among them the busy classical music goings-on in New York, a short commute from his home in Newark. Aside from new works by composers, he can track down potential guest artists, and gauge audience reactions. Among the artists making Aspen debuts this year was violinist Maxim Vengerov, a goal the festival has pursued for years. Chamberlain finally landed him.

“We have some really great people coming next year—I can’t name them yet—but (Patrick) was able to make personal contact with them and talk to their managers the next day after their concerts,” Fletcher noted.

Specifics of programming come up with the performers when they first meet. Fletcher notes that Santourian had strong ideas about what pieces to program. Chamberlain also makes a point to sit down to lunch with regular collaborators when they’re here in Aspen to ask what they want to perform.

“I’ve worked in other places where it’s ‘we need them to do a Tchaikovsky Fourth,’ and that’s OK,” said Chamberlain , “but I want to know if they are passionate about something no other presenter wants to do. That’s where some of the most memorable concerts begin.”

That’s what happened for violinist Augustin Hadelich’s recital in July—a totally unaccompanied recital with two J.S. Bach partitas, an Ysaÿe sonata and the delectable “blue/s forms” by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. “He told us what he wanted to do,” he said, “and we said, sure, that’s awesome. With an artist like him, we just need to get out of the way.”

Alan Fletcher
Courtesy photo |

Notions like that are easiest to do in recitals, where artists may have recently issued albums with fresh takes on music. Soprano Renée Fleming’s recital in July included three extraordinary new songs from her latest, which just happened to dovetail with this year’s theme. Bassists Edgar Meyer and Christian McBride performed fresh from recording together for an upcoming album, and brothers flutist Demarre and clarinetist Anthony McGill fashioned an exciting recital from music they had recorded together.

Another standout concert stretched the boundaries when soprano Ana Maria Martínez sang an evening of Spanish-language arias and duets with stunning vocal talent from the Aspen Opera Theater and VocalARTS program.

Some programming decisions looked better on paper than in reality. Pianist Awadagin Pratt’s wildly tone-deaf improvisations on McGegan’s Baroque evening and Henk de Vlieger’s loud, super-weighty arrangement of Wagner’s “Ring” stand among the few musical missteps this summer.

The three-headed team that programs the festival doesn’t do it in a vacuum. “The process involves input from so many constituencies,” said Spano. “We hear from the board, faculty, from audiences—what they like and don’t. Students have their reactions to things. It’s all valuable, and in the end we have an embarrassment of riches that we need to trim down to what can fit into one season.”

Although as CEO he has final say, Fletcher downplayed his own input. “My footprint  on programming is probably the smallest, but I do go further back in Aspen. If I have an input, it’s to say, yes, it’s time to have that again, or it’s not. I used to torment Asadour because I love ‘Nights in the Garden of Spain’ (a fragrant suite by Manuel de Falla). We’re doing it next year.”

Chamberlain describes his job as “collaborator in chief.” “Everybody has a slightly different perspective of what we ought to be doing,” the artistic administrator said. “It’s exciting that there are so many people who care deeply about what we do. I have my own views, but it isn’t about ‘do I like this piece?’ but to do things lots of us believe in, especially if they can’t be done anywhere else.”

Fletcher thinks Chamberlain is being too modest, noting, “He produces a lot of ideas.” Asked for an example, Fletcher offered the final Chamber Symphony concert August 18, which combines strong ecological statement pieces by Gabriela Lena Frank and Gabriella Smith with Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” framing the Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor.

“The Schumann was what Fima (Bronfman) wanted to play,” said Chamberlain , “but I think it’s a really nice foil to these other works, a soothing, reassuring balm amidst the their intensity.”

Perhaps the most popular symphonic program so far this year, which happened only because Chamberlain championed it, was a concert of John Williams’ film music. Student musicians volunteered in droves to play in the ad hoc orchestra.

And why not? “His music is on audition lists for major orchestras,” he said, “and we wanted to do a project that allows people who don’t usually come to the tent to check us out. It’s what we do, present great music at the highest level.”

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 30 years.

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