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Sounds of Summer

Katie Clary

1950, when the Aspen Music Festival was just beginning, a ticket could be had for just $1. Today, some concerts fetch prices upward of $50. There is a reason, aside from inflation and the cost of doing business in Aspen: quality.”The festival has upgraded so much,” said Joan Gordon, dean of students for the Aspen Music Festival and School, which opens its 55th season this weekend. “We try to bring in very high-caliber students.” These “professionally minded” students are a cornerstone of the festival’s success. In fact, notes communications director Laura Smith, three of the five orchestras, Aspen Opera Theater Center productions and all of the musical ensembles are composed entirely of students. Even the famed Aspen Chamber Symphony Orchestra and Aspen Festival Orchestra boast a majority of students, she said. This year alone, 750 students from 39 states and 38 countries will study at the Aspen Music Festival’s Castle Creek campus. They range in age from 8 to 71; the average age is 22 or 23. These aspiring and established professional musicians are the lucky ones – 1,900 men, women, boys and girls applied to the school this year alone; 700 were rejected outright, according to Gordon.Blythe Gaissert Levitt, Gene McDonough, Joanna Frankel and Kaila Potts – profiled on the following pages – are examples of the talent, diversity and potential the Aspen Music School represents.Said Gordon: “The school has evolved into much more of a training ground.”Indeed, today’s Aspen Music School is a far cry from the institution’s roots, when professors simply invited their students to join them in Aspen for the summer. And it’s is a world away from music “camps” that dot the nation’s summer landscape.”We really avoid ‘camp,'” said Assistant Dean Bradley Blunt, explaining that the term music camp implies “morning is rehearsal and afternoon is beach time.” (Not to mention insinuations from the movie “American Pie” that need not be repeated.)While students receive weekly private lessons and may attend orchestra rehearsals, there are few scheduled activities. Students study on their own time – judging by the muffled montage of trumpet, piano, bass, violin and French horns overheard while walking to the school’s main rehearsal hall, they study diligently.”I usually practice about four hours a day,” said Daria Binkowski, 21, a flutist from New Jersey. “Daria is a machine,” chimes in her friend and fellow flutist Carmen LeMoine.The Aspen Music School is, in essence, a professional experience without the abrasive auditions and hard knocks of the real world. “They’re here to behave and be treated like professionals,” Gordon said. “But they’re still mentored.”Blunt believes the Aspen atmosphere fosters a casualness that is uncharacteristic of the tux and gown traditions of classical music. A case in point: One professor hollers hello as he bikes past in shorts and a T-shirt; Blunt identifies the man as a principal horn player for the Montreal Symphony. “It’s more laid-back here,” Blunt concludes.Students have the “opportunity to perform at an incredibly high level,” all the while rubbing elbows and performing side by side with the 150 faculty artists and 75 guest artists on this summer’s program. “The chance to perform at that level helps them gain insight about new ideas on music and helps them to achieve new levels of musicianship they don’t even know they have within them,” said Blunt.The price students pay to reach such heights is high, however, both in terms of dollars (tuition, room and board to attend the nine-week summer session is $5,300; two-thirds of all students receive either need-based or merit-based scholarships) and sheer determination.David Lee, a 21-year-old flutist from California’s San Fernando Valley, explained sacrifice is an undeniable part of being a music student. But what he’s giving up – financial security and the luxuries that money provides – pale in comparison to what he is receiving: the chance to follow his passion.Binkowski, LeMoine and Lee, who attended college together, ponder the predicament.”I’ve spent eight hours in an office and it sucks. It’s mind-numbing,” LeMoine said, explaining she and her friends’ logic that long hours of practice are better than long hours spent pushing paper. To these students, what is four or five or six hours playing an instrument you love? At the Aspen Music School campus, where students spend hours tucked away in rustic practice rooms or log-cabin classrooms, music is a joy. “A big principle here is artistic renewal,” Blunt said. Commented conducting student Gene McDonough: If the mountains surrounding Aspen can’t inspire you, “something is seriously holding you back. … It’s a cathartic moment to come here.”


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