Storybook season for Aspen Music Fest |

Storybook season for Aspen Music Fest

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Pianist Emanuel Ax makes two appearances in July at the Aspen Music Festival. (J. Henry Fair)

ASPEN ” At 71, David Zinman seems a little old for fairy tales. But the stories that introduce kids to literature ” Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, the Nutcracker and the like ” speak not only to the kids in us, but the adults we become.

“A lot of them are morality tales, a lot of them are about destruction,” said Zinman. “We’re influenced by these stories. Somehow, we all justify our lives through the stories we tell.”

As music director of the Aspen Music Festival and School, Zinman is about to find himself knee-deep in tall tales. The 59th Aspen Music Festival opens Thursday under the theme, “Once upon a time …,” and falling under the spotlight are musical compositions based on fairy tales, mythology and literature.

In the realm of classical musicians who have been captivated by legends and fairy tales, Zinman has plenty of company. Among the composers whose works are tied to this summer’s storytelling theme are Prokofiev, Ravel and Tchaikovsky. The entire Aspen Opera Theater Center season is devoted to fairy tales, with productions of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel,” and two versions of the Cinderella story: Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” and Massenet’s “Cendrillon.”

The festival opens Thursday with a 6 p.m. performance at the Benedict Music Tent by the Takacs Quartet, an ensemble-in-residence at both the Aspen Music Festival and at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The program includes works by Shostakovich, Beethoven and Franck.

The storytelling idea, however, gets fully under way with the first performance by the Aspen Festival Orchestra, on Sunday, June 22. Zinman will conduct a program of four works, all tied to the theme. The concert includes Wagner’s Overture to “The Flying Dutchman,” based on the legend of the sea captain doomed to sail forever; Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, widely believed to be tied to the Greek legend of Orpheus, who used music to tame the beasts of the underworld; and Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, inspired by the German folk hero said to cause mischief at festivals. The program is highlighted by the world premiere of John Harbison’s “The Great Gatsby” Suite, an extension of his 1999 opera, based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.

Through the summer, Music Festival attendees will hear musical interpretations of “Swan Lake,” “The Nutcracker,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Daphnis at Chloe” and more. But the highlight of the season, at least in the minds of Zinman and of Alan Fletcher, the president of the Music Festival, will have to wait till the final day. On Aug. 17, Zinman conducts a 200-piece orchestra, the Colorado Symphony Chorus Orchestra, four vocal soloists and the United States Army Chorus in a performance of Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder.

The piece, which Zinman described as “a beautiful tonal piece, in the style of Wagner” ” and thus worlds away from the usual perception of Schoenberg as a thorny, atonal composer ” furthers the storytelling theme. Gurre-Lieder is based on the Danish legend of the king, Valdemars, who falls in love with a maiden. The married king places his mistress in a forest castle, called Gurre, but his wife finds the maiden and kills her. Gone mad, Valdemars challenges God’s action. Zinman says the story encompasses issues that are as grand as the musical setting: the Crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, the rebirth of the Earth in spring, darkness and light.

“It’s the kind of piece you hear once in a lifetime,” said Zinman, who, in fact, will also conduct the work next season with the Zürich Tonehalle Orchestra, which he also directs. “But we’re lucky to have the forces to do it, and I’m thrilled.”

The Music Festival, which features daily events, including symphonic concerts, chamber music, master classes, discussions, opera and more, through Aug. 17, also has plenty of events that are not linked to the “Once upon a time …” theme. Highlights of the season include appearances by the Bronfman-Shaham-Harrell Trio, the duo of Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile, and pianist Emanuel Ax; a concert featuring four top pianists, Joseph Kalichstein, Emanuel Ax, Yefim Bronfman and Misha Dichter; a collaboration with the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet that will have the dancers of the resident company backed by a small orchestra; and two concerts ” by vocalist Patti Austin, backed by the Count Basie Orchestra, and by Cuban singer Isaac Delgado ” presented in partnership with Jazz Aspen Snowmass.

For a full season schedule, go to