The journal I have kept of life in Aspen over the years has ranged through many topics, social and otherwise, but it returns most to the bright overtones of music. To wit:July 18Went to Harris Hall to be interviewed by National Public Radio in the wake of publishing a history of the Aspen Music Festival. The interviewer was nowhere to be found, nor had ticket sellers sighted the media. I spotted Robert Harth, the Festival director, at the lemonade stand, and he led me behind the ticket counter, down a long hall I had never seen and into a recording room. The interviewer greeted me, complained about sonic interference and fussed with some dials in a panel. Though I was still at ground level, I saw that I was perched at the top of the Harris interior, behind a window I had looked up at many times, wondering what the view was like. Harris Hall yawned below, a wood-paneled cavern empty except for the stage, where a student orchestra was rehearsing some Tchaikovsky. The interviewer interrupted my gawking, saying that her mike would pick up the faint sound from below and that she knew of a quieter room. She led me down a bright yellow two-story spiral staircase and into a storeroom with two pianos under quilts and an uncovered harpsichord. Sounds filtering through the walls were even more intrusive. The interviewer disappeared to see what could be done and I sat down to play some Bach on the harpsichord, an instrument I hadn’t had access to in years.The interviewer returned, resigned that there was no soundproof room in Harris and led me to her car, saying we could tape with the window closed. Her brand-new rental, steeping in the sun, trapped us in heat and upholstery fumes, and through its windows we could hear the Festival orchestra rehearsing Shostakovich in the tent. She suggested driving to a quiet neighborhood and I directed her to Roaring Fork Road, a loop of voluminous, mostly unoccupied homes. Beyond the first house we came upon a red fox posing motionless on a granite boulder, the most statuesque fox sighting of my decades in Aspen. We paused to admire, drove past a couple more houses, stopped in pure silence and began the interview. Just as I began to speak into her mike, a cat leapt onto the hood, advanced toward the windshield and began to rub its ears on the window frame and the aerial. The interviewer asked for colorful Festival stories and memorable concerts I had attended. As soon as my thoughts coalesced, they were scattered by some new maneuver of the cat. I couldn’t help wondering whether the fox was also watching the cat. Eventually the interviewer said, “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t either,” I replied.
She pressed open the windows. The cat leapt over the driver’s-side mirror and into her lap for extended petting, then into mine for more. From an identification tag I learned that our visitor was Sam. While the cat purred in my lap, the fox strolled casually past the front of the car and into some shrubs. Sam bounded out through the window on my side and disappeared into nearer shrubs. The interviewer raised the windows. What changes had I seen in the Festival over the years? While the Festival was better prepared and increasingly vast in scope, I replied, like Aspen itself, it had lost much of its spontaneity and sense of surprise – a final inappropriate summation during an interview when I had seen secret rooms, unexpectedly played the harpsichord, admired a fox, and stroked its potential prey, the free-wheeling, imperiled Sam.August 3, 1985Music to soothe the savage beast. Because back problems have prevented me from sitting through concerts, I’ve taken to lying on the back benches during the loosely supervised Sunday morning rehearsals, figuring myself invisible once the scattered audience gets involved in the music. A friend just told me she can always tell where I am because the tips of my shoes stick up like the ears of an enchanted animal.August 29, 1978 A sheriff’s deputy appeared at the door with a paper to serve on an ex-renter’s ex-girlfriend. Told her I was sorry but couldn’t help. “While I’m here,” she asked, “do you mind if I play an A on your piano? I’m trying to develop my pitch.” She hummed, then struck a note. “Damn, always a half-tone flat. Anyway, thanks.” September 28, 1995Was seated at my piano, beginning to rehearse a Brahms viola sonata with a friend with whom I hoped to perform the piece in Mexico the following winter, when the piano part sailed unaided from the rack to the floor. There were no open windows or doors and the score had seemed securely placed. It was as if the invisible hand of the composer had swept from the heavens, commanding, “Stop!”
August 19At last week’s piano master class Misha Dichter announced that the first student, a Russian, had so little English that he would be using an interpreter. This morning the student was back, again first up, and Gabriel Chodos announced that the young man, a Lithuanian, had so little English that he would be using an interpreter. On the first occasion the student played two Rachmaninoff preludes I like well enough to wrestle with them myself; this morning he played a piece of Liszt so dreadful in its alternation of bombast and treacle that I dove into reading matter – a sin I would never commit at a concert or rehearsal but reserve for master classes, which occasionally spring nasty musical surprises.I did keep one ear tuned to the instruction. Chodos thought the tone should be more ringing and songful. There was inaudible mumbling between student and translator. The student didn’t improve under instruction, and Chodos wondered aloud whether he was getting through. At last the translator whispered something to Chodos, which he asked her in surprise to repeat. She did and he relayed it to the audience: the pianist didn’t like the piece. After digesting this news, Chodos said, “Then perhaps the solution is not to play it.”The lesson, which could sensibly have stopped there, slogged on to the last cornball cadence and I could only surmise that the student had been assigned the piece in Russia – or Lithuania – and offered it only because it was under his fingers. The misfire was nonetheless refreshing because the student had admitted, in whatever tongue, in front of a prominent pianist and some 200 aficionados, that music taken seriously can still stink.July 28, 1999Went to a High Notes panel discussion of the new opera “Belladonna,” commissioned from Bernard Rands. When conductor David Zinman mentioned an alcoholic character who hiccups through her aria, three of his four co-panelists, including the composer, took quick swigs from their water bottles unconsciously and nearly in sync.July 24, 1999
Was eager to get to the music tent for the rehearsal of Act III of Wagner’s “Götterdammerung,” the finale of the entire Ring cycle – particularly because of Brünnhilde’s immolation aria, which I had never heard live – but Main Street was cordoned off by more cops than I have ever seen in Aspen because of President Clinton’s arrival for a fund-raiser. As I stood frustrated under the glare of state troopers, it occurred to me that at this point in a scandalous career, the president will do anything to keep constituents from hearing the fat lady sing.July 10, 1995 Went to the Misha and Cipa Dichter concert, a program of mostly Lisztian pyrotechnics I would have avoided if it weren’t that I had a visiting houseguest from Mexico, a fellow amateur pianist, who was keen on it. After Misha Dichter’s last fiery solo “Hungarian Dance,” he came out for his various bows and I whispered to Fernando that he would surely play an encore, adding as pure sarcasm, “Probably ‘Clair de lune.'” To my astonishment, Dichter sat down and played “Clair de lune.” Fernando turned to me in amazement. “Did you talk to him before the concert?””Remember that call I received in English this afternoon?” I replied. “That was Misha asking me what to play for an encore.” When Fernando looked unconvinced, I confessed that it seemed to me that the single most ridiculous thing Dichter could do at the end of such a concert was to play “Clair de lune.” Dichter had complied. July 11, 1987Recently read an interview with a musician who said that the interruptions he most hated at concerts were the alarms on digital wristwatches. Yet at orchestra rehearsal this morning, while the conductor was explaining a phrase, that very sound erupted from the orchestra itself. A piccolo player, obviously with perfect pitch, came in right on the beat, joined next cycle by a flute at the top of its register and then, amid laughter, by what sounded like the entire wind section before the offender, invisible from where I sat, woke up and punched his button.July 2, 1995
I am now more inured to the hazards of Sunday orchestra rehearsals, when the bored bring in the full page Sunday editions of The New York Times or The Denver Post, wrestling and rustling them while throwback listeners try to filter them out. I sympathize with a friend who has been tempted to say to them, “Shall I ask the band to play more quietly so you can read?” This Sunday a man found a cutting-edge solution to the tedium of the music and the glares of those who insist on hearing it. As the orchestra sawed insufferably through Debussy and Schumann, he sat in the back row playing solitaire on his laptop.November 27, 1996Went to the first concert of the winter series in Harris Hall, a cello recital by Lynn Harrell. Accompanying on piano was a young man I’d never heard of, one Simon Mulligan. At the end of the concert, Harrell announced to the audience that while Mulligan was classically trained, he had actually discovered him playing tunes in a London bar. Since this was Mulligan’s first performance in the United States and, furthermore, his birthday, Simon would now play a solo for us. He played some Chopin, exquisitely.As Simon took his bow, the entire audience broke into Happy Birthday. It always fascinates me that when a large group of people begins to sing without being given a pitch, they set off simultaneously in numerous warring keys, slipping from one key to another even as they rise and fall with the melody, then gradually coalesce, by the time the song is over, into a consensus key. Weaker voices follow more authoritative ones, but I always sense that some less obvious factor, an invisible guiding force, picks the winning key. On this occasion the audience sang the last line of Happy Birthday together in D-flat. Why so remote, so improbable a tonality? For once I identified the hidden factor, for the piece Simon had played, Chopins Nocturne No 2, Op. 27, was in D-flat. Starting from cacophony, several hundred people had groped and floundered back to the key they had last heard.August 14, 2003 Debbie Ayers called and asked me to turn pages for an all-Krenek concert that evening in a house up Snowmass Creek. I immediately said yes – with dread. Besides being publicist for the music festival and a fine pianist, Debbie was herself the festival’s best-known page turner: I would be a page turner’s page turner. Ernst Krenek was a challenging modernist, one of whose piano pieces I had once learned and forgotten, and the concert was the first in a yearlong tour of Krenek songs that Debbie would perform with a soprano selected by Krenek’s widow. I had never turned pages in a performance situation, so the experience would be new. On the other hand, I was a miserable sight reader, and music scores fell into a visual limbo between the distances focused by my glasses and my naked eye. Worse, I was recovering from a lung infection that had required over a year of headache-inducing medication, narrowing my focus, slowing my processing, and triggering flushes of heat when others’ eyes were upon me. I admitted none of this to Debbie but was panicked by my eager yes.I arrived an hour early to receive instruction and get a grip on the score. “Stand when I reach the middle of the right-hand page, place your left hand on the page’s edge, watch for my nod, turn the page and sit,” said Debbie. “It’s simple.” She would turn all the pages she could: I need only turn the ones with pink tabs. I should watch for an anomalous tab, which was attached to an extra page taped to another and pulled out like a centerfold from the score’s middle, by the binder’s rings. She wanted that particular page turned early, when she had played only half of the preceding page.
She left to dress and I plunged into the score, intending to memorize all the turns. I was deep in Krenek’s jagged idiom when the hostess came up. Would I like something to drink? All I could think of was, un refresco. What was the English? The woman’s smile turned to consternation while I groped for words. Something cold and nonalcoholic, I finally said. After she left, I thought, a soft drink. My mind wasn’t ready to go public.Guests arrived, the opening short songs were under way, then I moved to the folding chair. I stood for the first tab, eyed Debbie, turned the page when she nodded and sat: a perfect turn. I stood and sat, following the score through blurred vision, defeated by musical happenings that ignored the bar line, keeping track by the events: runs, rests, repeated notes, the entrance of the singer. I noticed that Debbie made subsidiary nods as she played, a tic I wouldn’t otherwise have noticed but which kept me on edge: was this nod the signal? I spotted the anomalous tab and started to stand. “Not yet!” whispered Debbie. The tab was protruding through the space by the rings, and I waited while Debbie played the intervening page. I forgot that I was to turn this one early, and as I stood up, Debbie flung the foldout herself. Rattled, I lost my place, but the extended page gave me time to recover for the next tab. As I sank back after turning the last tabbed page, relieved not to have wrecked the performance, Debbie flung a tabless page and scrambled to keep playing. What had I missed?””You did fine,” she said afterward. “One tab was sticking through and another was missing, neither your fault, and you got all the rest. Only the performers notice this stuff anyway.” I had enjoyed the singer, particularly the fact that she had blocked my little psychodrama from all those eyes radiating heat. As for Krenek, I had experienced his music deeply without hearing it.June 30, 1982My piano teacher reported overhearing a lively argument between two patrons of the Music Festival over whether the upcoming Schumann Piano Quintet would be played on five pianos or by five pianists on one piano.August 13, 1999Attended a Friday chamber concert the day after the last solar eclipse of the century, a swath of momentary blackouts across Europe from England to Turkey. Seated in the west side of the tent, I watched a single shaft of sun pick out a round-faced, silver-haired gentleman, elevating him from the dark audience. I was reminded of all the times I had sat on that side, similarly harpooned by a stray ray that pierced some gap in the canvas and lasered me in the face, isolating me in a spotlight that made me self-conscious as well as uncomfortable, as if the entire audience were watching me bag a melanoma. Gaping in sympathy at the blinded victim, I suddenly saw a shadow the same size as his head flicker back and forth across his face, its own features superimposed Picasso-like in profile upon the radiant frontal portrait. The sun, the conductor and the listener were in perfect alignment, creating a flickering eclipse of the listener. On a couple of occasions the conductor paused so that his head fully covered that of the round-faced concertgoer, who – even more briefly than Romania the previous day – achieved totality.When the movement of Haydn was over the conductor, so lightstruck in his left eye that he could barely focus the score, signaled a tent crew member to raise the sagging panel. Once the new hard-shelled tent is up, such inconveniences will be dealt with summarily by pulling a bar attached to vertical louvers; meanwhile, these last few days, I relish the celestial pranks of the sly old canvas.Bruce Bergers books include The Telling Distance, winner of the Western States Book Award, and Music in the Mountains, a history of the Aspen Music Festival. This essay is from the forthcoming The Complete Half-Aspenite, to be released at the end of the summer.
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After nine months of being shuttered due to the COVID-19 crisis, the Wheeler Opera House will reopen for local acts. A touchless reservation system will be open to 53 people for in-person at the venue. Online live streaming also will be available.