Robert Harth: A man who made the music matter |

Robert Harth: A man who made the music matter

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

It can’t be a coincidence that my revelatory classical music experience came within a week of first meeting Robert Harth.

A decade ago I was the new guy covering the arts for The Aspen Times, a job that gave me the occasional opportunity to air my view that classical music was dull and dated. This caused some concern with the Aspen Music Festival and School which, like every other classical music institution, spent much of its time trying to persuade young, pop music enthusiasts that Beethoven, Mozart and Shostakovich merited their attention. So the head of the Music Festival’s media department set up meetings for me with Ara Guzelimian, the festival’s artistic administrator at the time, and Robert Harth, its president and CEO.

With his thoughtful, flowery comments about the personal nature of artistic experiences, Guzelimian went a long way toward persuading me, on an intellectual level, that classical music was worth another listen.

But it was Harth with whom I connected on a gut level. Here was a guy who played rock guitar, wore a leather jacket, and not only worshiped classic rockers like Dylan, the Beatles and Jethro Tull, but also could talk enthusiastically and intelligently about Dave Matthews and Joan Osborne. He posed with me for a goofy picture for the newspaper (and was almost persuaded to wear a tie-dye T-shirt). He was proud of the fact that the festival he led encouraged concertgoers to attend performances in shorts and sandals. If someone like this could be so passionate about classical music, surely I could find something in the music to enjoy.

A week later, I attended, on the advice of Robert and Ara, a concert featuring bassist Edgar Meyer and the Emerson String Quartet. Watching from the front-row seats they made certain I got, I was instantly transformed by the intensity and beauty of the music.

It is this recollection that makes Harth’s death last week of a heart attack, at the age of 47, particularly sad for me. If he could have such a strong impact on a Philistine like me, surely he was having a similar effect on others. For far longer than I’ve been covering the arts, the classical music world has desperately been looking for ways to connect with younger listeners, with people who had little exposure to concert music.

Harth was a heroic figure in this effort. While you could easily imagine him as an imposing administrator behind festival doors ” Robert was big and burly, an unmistakable physical presence, and he could be loud ” he was also charismatic in a real regular-guy way. His head didn’t float in rarefied air, like some segments of the classical music universe; he didn’t have the buttoned-down personality of the typical head of a multimillion-dollar organization ” which he was. He was the ideal blend of music lover and CEO.

Scheduling time with Harth, especially during the summer when I needed him most, was next to impossible. His days began with an early-morning workout in the gym, and ended with his favorite part of life, a concert. But once I was in his office, his focus and enthusiasm were complete. I doubt we ever parted ways without an exchange of what concerts we had seen and were looking forward to, and what CDs we were listening to.

Robert’s impact on the Aspen Music Festival ” on Aspen itself ” was enormous. In 1989, at the age of 33, he took over an institution that was, by many accounts, faded in prominence and excellence. By the time he moved on to the directorship of Carnegie Hall ” the top job at the top classical music organization in the country ” in 2001, there was not a shred of doubt about the Aspen Music Festival’s standing. Robert had overseen the building of the magnificent Harris Concert Hall, had hired the esteemed David Zinman as music director, had helped institute the unique and ambitious American Academy of Conducting at Aspen, had replaced the beloved but acoustically subpar Bayer-Benedict Music Tent with a new permanent building that retained all the character of its predecessor. He did all this while leaving the festival on solid financial ground.

Robert’s too-brief time in New York wasn’t particularly easy. He began at Carnegie Hall on Sept. 16, five days after the attacks on the World Trade Center plunged New York into chaos. Among those who died in the Twin Towers was Jeff Hardy, a close friend of Robert’s going back to their childhood summers in Aspen. (Harth’s parents, Sidney and Teresa, were both musicians with the Music Festival, and in his youth Robert worked all kinds of jobs on the festival grounds.) The following week Isaac Stern, Carnegie Hall’s president, died. Last year, Harth oversaw negotiations for the merger of Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic, a move that would likely have lessened Harth’s stature and might even have threatened his job. When those plans failed, Harth emerged as an even more prominent figure in the concert world.

Despite his lack of pomposity, you couldn’t help being impressed by Robert’s work. The Pittsburgh, Pa., native took over the dual positions of general manager of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and managing director of the Hollywood Bowl at the improbably young age of 23. He was just 44 when he accepted the Carnegie Hall job, and by all indications his tenure there was going to be a long one. One got the sense that Harth’s career was still on the upswing, still as promising as it was accomplished.

Harth had at least one major achievement in New York. Last fall saw the opening of Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, an underground theater that Harth delayed opening after the September 11 attacks. Zankel Hall was inaugurated with a concert series that Harth had a lead role in programming. Among the acts selected to open the venue were Randy Newman, Emmylou Harris, jazz players Bill Frisell and Brad Mehldau, African pop singer Youssou N’Dour and ensembles from the Andes and Morocco.

It’s not hard to imagine Robert, smiling warmly while swinging open the doors to Carnegie Hall, inviting in listeners of all musical tastes.

Robert Harth was just what the classical music world needed. For sure, he was just what I needed. I doubt I can identify 10 pieces of classical music just by listening. But my ears are wide open. Thanks in large part to Robert, I now approach symphonies and string quartets with the same relish as a rock concert. As a music fan, I am much the better for that. Thanks, Robert.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is