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Silverstein enjoying a life filled with music

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Joseph Silverstein has accomplished just about all there is to be done in the classical music world.

He has traveled the world to appear with orchestras, both as a conductor and violinist. The 71-year-old Silverstein has had longstanding relationships with chamber music ensembles and orchestras: he served for 20 years as music director of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, which he founded in 1964, and led the Utah Symphony for 15 years. And he has taught – at Yale, Boston University, the Tanglewood Music Center, and at his alma mater, Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, where he is currently a faculty member.

His list of things left undone is so scant – just one, in fact, he has never conducted a fully staged opera – that Silverstein has to wander beyond the classical field to identify missing resume items.



Asked what opportunities have passed him by, he said, “I haven’t played any jazz. This is something you have to start doing when you’re young.” Silverstein began studying classical violin with his father, a music teacher in the Detroit public schools.

Silverstein counts among his greatest accomplishments finding a pure love and appreciation of the music. It seems a simple thing, but appreciating the music on the level that he does is more demanding and complex than one might think. For the teacher in Silverstein, conveying a deep love for the music to his students is paramount.




“One of the things you try very hard to share with the students is your love of music,” said Silverstein. He will conduct pianist Misha Dichter and the Aspen Chamber Symphony in the season-opening performance of the 2003 Aspen Music Festival and School on Friday at 6 p.m. at the Benedict Music Tent. “It’s important for the students to see that my passion for music is, if anything, even more intense than it was when I was a kid.”

Silverstein thinks today’s students are at a disadvantage in discovering such affection for music.

“It’s difficult because the students are very much a product of the visual experience, through the electronic media of all sorts,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s hard for them to relate to the emotional content of something as abstract as a piece of music by Bach or Mozart or Beethoven – music which seeks to express nothing more than itself. It’s difficult for them to understand a piece of music that has no visual content.

“It’s sad to me that they don’t listen to records as much as I do,” concluded Silverstein, who claims an addiction to listening to classical music.

Silverstein has found himself greatly rewarded for his commitment. Music, he says, “has enriched my life in ways I can’t even begin to talk about. The challenge of studying it, the marvelous travel experiences, the interpersonal experiences, the pleasure of listening to it and conducting it. I feel blessed to have spent my life in music.”

The theme for this summer’s Aspen Music Festival is Musical Visionaries: Beethoven, Berlioz and Beyond. While there is no Beethoven or Berlioz on the program, Friday’s concert will spotlight visionary composers.

The concert opens with two pieces – Ives’ “The Unanswered Question” and Sibelius’ Romance in C major – that Silverstein says stand as unique contributions to the classical repertoire.

“They’re almost 100 years old, and yet extremely modern in nature,” he said. “They are unlike virtually all of the music that went before – and there’s not too much more like it that went after.”

“The Unanswered Question,” in particular, was – and is – an example of artistic innovation. Composed in 1906, the piece was not performed until some 30 years later because, said Silverstein, “It’s very hard to put together. There are moments when the conductor is conducting at a tempo that is relevant only to one group of musicians, and the other sections are playing in a completely different time.”

Then there is the programmatic dialogue the music is intended to convey. The trumpets repeatedly pose a question: “the eternal question of the nature of things,” said Silverstein. Four flutes attempt to answer the question, to no avail: “There’s the commentary by the flutes that becomes very agitated, and throw in the towel,” said Silverstein.

Also contributing to the conversation are the strings, representing a group of Druids who ultimately say nothing. The piece ends with the trumpet reiterating the question a final time.

The other two pieces on the program – Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C major and Haydn’s Symphony No. 102 in B-flat major – are not quite as visionary. Silverstein, though, finds plenty of reason to embrace them.

The C major is perhaps Mozart’s best-known concerto, though the reason for its popularity Silverstein finds regrettable. Commonly known as the “Elvira Madigan” concerto, the piece entered the mainstream when it was used as the music to the 1967 Swedish film of that name. “We forget what a great masterpiece it is,” said Silverstein.

Haydn’s 102nd Symphony was one of the composer’s six “London Symphonies,” to be premiered in London. Haydn, said Silverstein, took the occasion to toy with English audiences.

“There’s a lot of humor in the last movement of this symphony,” he said. “It was designed to titillate the London audience of that time. He enjoyed fooling them into applauding too soon.”

Despite being fooled, audiences had a great appreciation of Haydn’s work. “The enthusiasm was of such intensity that they had to repeat the movement.”

The Aspen Music Festival season runs through Aug. 17, with daily events, including opera, orchestral and chamber music concerts, discussions and special events.

Season highlights include staged productions of Puccini’s “La Boheme” and Berlioz’s “Beatrice et Benedict”; a semi-staged benefit performance of Puccini’s “Tosca”; the cabaret-style An Evening of Sondheim; and An Evening of Words and Music, celebrating the festival’s international students and featuring New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman and violinist Cho-Liang Lin.

Also scheduled to perform this season are conductors James Conlon, Marin Alsop, Leon Fleisher, Michael Stern and Hugh Wolff; pianists Stephen Hough, Lang Lang and Christopher Taylor; violinists Gil Shaham, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Midori, Robert McDuffie and Joshua Bell; guitarists Sharon Isbin and Sergio and Odair Assad; and ensembles the Emerson String Quartet, the Takacs Quartet, International Sejong Soloists and the American Brass Quintet.

For further information, call 925-9042, or go to http://www.aspenmusicfestival.com.

[Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com]


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