Storybook season for Aspen Music Festival |

Storybook season for Aspen Music Festival

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
David Zinman, music director of the Aspen Music Festival and School, conducts the Aspen Festival Orchestra's first concert, on Sunday, June 22. It will be Zinman's first of five concert appearances this season. (Alex Irvin)

The average first-grader may know nothing about Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, much less Zemlinsky, Rossini and Massenet. Still, that typical 7-year-old will find many familiar points of reference in this summer’s Aspen Music Festival schedule.

For that matter, a full-grown adult whose cultural touchstones end with “Splash” ” yes, the 1984 romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks, Darryl Hannah and John Candy ” will likewise find access into the festival.

The theme of the 59th annual Aspen Music Festival, which opens Thursday, June 19 and runs with daily events through Aug. 17, is “Once upon a time,” spotlighting musical works tied to myths, folklore and fairy tales. So as much as Schoenberg and Shostakovich are part of the season, so are Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel ” as well as more grown-up literary figures like Jay Gatsby and Moby Dick.

David Zinman, entering his 11th season as music director of the festival, says that the theme provides familiar doorways into the concert hall. “Because most of us know these stories,” said the 71-year-old Zinman. “‘The Mermaid,’ of Zemlinsky ” they might not know Zemlinsky, but they know the story of Ondine, the sailor who discovers the mermaid, and loves her, but can’t live with her in the water. And she eventually leads to his destruction. It’s the same story in ‘Splash.’ It’s about destruction, and why we shouldn’t leave the beaten path.”

Zemlinsky’s symphonic version of the myth is set for the July 13 concert by the Aspen Festival Orchestra, with conductor James Conlon. But the festival gets to the heart of the storytelling theme in the opening week. The Sunday, June 22 concert by the Festival Orchestra, conducted by Zinman, features three works tied to the literary realm: Wagner’s Overture to “The Flying Dutchman”; Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche; and the world premiere of John Harbison’s “The Great Gatsby” Suite.

Zinman observed that Harbison’s piece ” an extension of Harbison’s 1999 opera based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel ” is unique in that it tells a relatively modern tale, and an American one. “It’s the legend of Jay Gatsby, the everyman who came back from World War I, made his fortune, and suffers his consequences in the end, his ill-fated relationship with Daisy,” he said. Zinman added that the suite emphasizes the dances of the 1920s, in which the novel is set. “I’m so happy John made a suite of the opera ” it’s the dance music, and the radio music they heard in the background. So it’s the Charleston, the Black Bottom, tango and waltz.”

The remainder of the program touches on familiar literary themes of doomed love and retribution. Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman,” from 1843, addresses the legend of the ship captain doomed to sail the ocean until he falls in love with the perfect woman. Strauss’ tone poem is about the German folk hero Till Eulenspiegels, “a rogue who used to appear at German carnivals, causing mischief, who finally gets justice in the end.”

Rounding out the program is Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major. Not only is it a central piece of piano literature, but the composition’s second movement is often said to have been inspired by the Greek legend of Orpheus, who used music to tame the underworld beasts. It is a view Zinman subscribes to: “It’s Orpheus playing his harp in the second movement. His son was supposed to be able to tame the world.” The piece will feature pianist Richard Goode, who makes his Aspen debut in a concert three days earlier.

The theme of fairy tales consumes the Aspen Opera Theater Center’s season. The Music Festival’s opera arm, directed by Edward Berkeley, presents three works this season, all at the Wheeler Opera House: two versions of Cinderella ” Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” (conducted by Bruno Cinquegrani, July 8, 10 and 13) and Massenet’s “Cendrillon” (conducted by Patrick Summers, Aug. 12, 14 and 16) ” and Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” (conducted by Richard Bado, July 24, 27 and 28). Enhancing the accessibility factor, the final performance of “Hansel and Gretel” will have a free simulcast in Wagner Park.

“We’ve all grown up with Grimm’s fairy tales, and they’ve all been made into musical pieces,” said Zinman. “Everyone knows Hansel and Gretel. We were all scared by that as children.”

Other stories that get the musical treatment, and are featured this summer, include “Swan Lake,” “The Nutcracker,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Daphnis et Chloe.” But perhaps the highlight of the season, at least in the minds of both Zinman and of Alan Fletcher, the Aspen Music Festival’s president, will be the final concert of the summer, on Aug. 17, when Zinman conducts the Aspen Festival Orchestra ” and much more ” in Schoenberg’s “Gurre-Lieder.”

The piece will marshal the forces of some 200 orchestra members, the Colorado Symphony Chorus Orchestra, four vocal soloists, and the United States Army Chorus.

“It’s the kind of piece you hear once in a lifetime,” said Zinman, who has, in fact, never participated in a performance of the work, but also is scheduled to conduct it next season with the Zürich Tonehalle Orchestra, which he also leads. “But we’re lucky to have the forces to do it, and I’m thrilled.”

The work, which Zinman described as “a beautiful tonal piece, in the style of Wagner” ” and thus out of step with the common image of Schoenberg as a difficult, atonal composer ” also fits in with the storytelling theme. “Gurre-Lieder” is based on the Danish legend of Valdemars, a married king who falls in love with a maiden in a forest. The king puts his love in a castle, called Gurre, but his wife finds the maiden and kills her. At the funeral, Valdemars loses his mind, and challenges God’s wisdom. Zinman says the themes of the piece are as grand as the musical setting, encompassing the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, the rebirth of the Earth, Nietzsche’s conception of darkness and light.

There are also plenty of concert programs that have no programmatic music, and tell their stories purely through music.

Among those that Zinman spotlights are two concerts that he will conduct. On July 18, Zinman will lead the Aspen Chamber Symphony, with mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, in a performance of Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs, written for the composer’s wife, the late vocalist Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. The program also includes Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, with soloist Yefim Bronfman. On Aug. 1, Zinman will conduct the Chamber Symphony in Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, and, with pianist Andreas Haefliger, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor.

Additional season highlights include an evening of four pianists ” Bronfman, Joseph Kalichstein, Emanuel Ax and Misha Dichter ” on July 10; an appearance by the trio of pianist Bronfman, violinist Gil Shaham and cellist Lynn Harrell (July 15); a collaboration with the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet that will have the resident dance company backed by a small orchestra (Aug. 6); and a recital by bassist Edgar Meyer and mandolinist Chris Thile (Aug. 13).

For further information, and a full season schedule, go to