Sounding off |

Sounding off

Dear Editor:

I write as someone who was first introduced to the Music Festival as a child in the mid-’50s, when a family member introduced me to Festival musicians as well as their concerts. There was a free-wheeling atmosphere that contrasted strongly with the discipline of classical music.

During the ’60s and early ’70s, when schedules were still loose, I went on three-day backpacks with violists and cellists. There were spontaneous readings of chamber works in musicians’ houses and apartments. As concerts and students were added, those freedoms necessarily disappeared. The Festival saw that musicians’ schedules were full, but the joy of playing in Aspen and of working in some socializing and the occasional day hike endured, along with the camaraderie, the joy.

During the late ’80s I was asked, as a donation to the Festival, to write its history for the 40th anniversary. While that work didn’t appear in time for the 40th, I continued the research and the interviews so that when the book did appear for the 50th anniversary, in 1999, first as a Festival publication and later as a book called “Music in the Mountains,” published by Johnson Books in 2000, the interviews and research covered a 12-year span.

The book is mostly joyous, full of colorful practices and practical jokes, but there is also a chapter called “Sour Notes,” registering complaints and crises. The worst was during the early ’50s, when founder Walter Paepcke threatened to deny musicians the Tent and musicians threatened to move the Festival to Basalt; the second-worst was a walkout of 22 board members because of financial matters that didn’t affect the musicians themselves.

I offer this preamble for perspective. While I was too young to experience the Paepcke crisis, I have to report that nothing in my experience, not even the mass resignation of board members, has destroyed the sense of joy, enthusiasm and privilege to be part of the Aspen Festival like what I witnessed, to my horror, last summer. Music, gossip about winter careers and spontaneous restaurant reviews were replaced by one topic: the bomb thrown at the music faculty.

It is important to realize that the faculty is the result of a long organic growth. Its members evolved their collaboration together for years, bonding in the process. Changes were slow, measured, justified. Many began as students, later became faculty, first chairs in Aspen and in orchestra around the world, and Aspen summers, after childhood, were for many musicians and teachers the only summers they had known.

Economic crises bring out the best in no one, but are occasions that must be risen to. It was decided that for financial reasons 16 faculty members had to be dismissed. It would have been honorable to go to the faculty itself and seek their collaboration in achieving this goal with the least disruption. The process would be labor-intensive, for salaries are private information, and there would have been a range of response from those who would play for free to those who needed their full salary, with perhaps a majority falling between. Musicians stood up at meetings during the summer and said they would have played for free rather than lose their colleagues – but they were never given the chance.

Instead, 16 calls to the dismissed were made two months before the summer season by CEO Alan Fletcher. He has said that the calls were made in advance so that the firings wouldn’t be “the primary topic all summer.” In fact, the deployment of what was seen as essentially a hit list was the primary topic all summer, for the 2009 season was an endless round of angry meetings, statements, recriminations, fear of speaking out lest one lose one’s job, and, yes, tears. So radical was the change of mood that I, who have never been a Festival employee, was stunned. Gone was the talk of music, the horseplay, the joie de vivre. The concerts themselves were glorious as ever because musicians are professionals and there is nothing gained by taking it out on Haydn and Schubert. But the exhilaration of music in a gorgeous setting, produced in collaboration of professional and student – the only-in-Aspen quality I had tried to capture in my stint as historian – was gone. Something priceless had been broken.

It is my own opinion that a CEO who can replace the musical and social alchemy of the Aspen Music Festival with bitterness, anger and disillusion does not deserve to remain in his post a moment longer. The upcoming vote of no confidence is not legally binding, but I hope the next one will be.

Bruce Berger


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