Remembering a man of music
February 19, 2004
It was unseasonably warm in Aspen yesterday. Icicles dropped from trees, frozen streets turned to slush, and locals raised their winter-weary heads to a warm, blue sky. On the day of Robert Harth’s public remembrance service, summer made an appearance.
For those who knew Robert, the former president of the Aspen Music Festival and School, this should not be surprising. Robert was most himself during the summer.
Even during the festival’s busiest summer months, after spending the morning running between meetings and the afternoon tending to the needs of demanding artists, Robert would arrive at the music tent for concerts flushed and smiling.
In such a frantic life, he loved the concerts. They were his respite, a time when only bows, a baton and a whisper of aspen leaves would be moving. After the final note, he was the first to break the silence. A noisy clapper, generous with his applause, he would stand and cheer as if personally thanking the performers for their brief offering of beauty.
I first met Robert when I was 10 years old. He was Mr. Harth then, but from the first we shared a special bond ” we were both music brats. Robert followed his musician parents to Aspen as a child just as I followed my father, the cellist Lynn Harrell. As a result, he always showed extraordinary patience with me.
The first few years of our relationship were rocky, mainly because Robert was the one charged with bringing me and my twin sister under control. In those early years, most of our meetings consisted of Robert calmly explaining to us that no, it was not appropriate to play hide-and-seek among the double bass cases backstage, or have water balloon fights near the concession stand at intermission, or, for that matter, scale the top of the music tent during the second movement of the Brahms violin concerto.
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But Robert was never stern. He never forced reverence on anyone. When as a teenager I came to understand that music indeed inhabited my life, like it did his, that it was inseparably a part of me, the best part of me, he was also supportive. In many ways, you don’t get a more macho guy than Robert, but he was never ashamed to be moved by the music.
This sentiment was expressed often in the remembrance service last night at Harris Hall. Friends and colleagues remembered Robert’s machismo, his charm, his mischievous sense of humor, his untiring work ethic. He was a man who embraced the limitless contradictions that enshrouded him.
As well versed in Haydn as Hendrix, as comfortable among Aspen’s glittering literati as his poker buddies, he was always tough to place. He was consistently warm and friendly, but also a touch removed, happy to remain a difficult but charming enigma.
An anecdote that came up often in the service was Robert’s skiing style. According to his ski buddies, Robert never learned to turn. Instead, he would barrel downhill at breakneck speed. For those that knew Robert well, this aspect of his personality was a constant concern. His quest for excellence made him a borderline workaholic.
While in Aspen, however, there was always the feeling that his place in the community, and his friends and loved ones, somehow kept him balanced. After Robert moved to New York three years ago, this support group was gone. For many, it did not come as a total surprise that life in a city whose pace matched his own did not last long.
At a remembrance service, everyone brings their own thoughts and feelings. For me, it was comforting to be back among Aspen’s music community, to be again surrounded by faces that return my smile, faces that have aged and deepened as has my own. Still, it doesn’t seem fair. Robert’s indomitable spirit has been stilled. The universe has become a little lonelier.
The service closed with a performance by the pianist Yefim Bronfman, who played a movement from Beethoven’s seventh piano sonata. It seemed appropriate that music had the final say. As to be expected from Bronfman, it was a breathtaking performance ” sad and desolate and searingly beautiful. For a brief period, as Bronfman’s notes filled the hall, the pain lifted.
It was only a moment though. As music lovers know, the bitter-sweet aspect of music is that as beautiful as it is, as much as it can transport us along, soothe and inspire us, it is always fleeting, destined to end.
In the hustle and bustle of his very successful life, Robert loved the concerts for their stillness.
There was stillness again last night as Bronfman’s final note lingered. But this time no applause followed.
[Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]