The performance puzzle |

The performance puzzle

Jennifer Davoren
Aspen Times Staff Writer

NancyBell Coe, artistic administrator for the Aspen Music Festival and School, sees the festival’s summer concert season as an enormous puzzle; the many, many pieces involved must be shifted continuously in order to create a stunning overall image.

“We shuffle and shuffle and shuffle dates,” Coe says of the planning process. “It’s an enormous jigsaw. It’s a miracle to me, every summer.”

Certainly, the artists involved with the Aspen Music Festival and School – students and staff, composers and conductors – hear their share of applause each summer. Their contributions to the annual music series and the surrounding community are center stage during each and every performance.

But it’s those who work behind the scenes – those responsible for plotting and planning up to six musical programs a day, seven days a week, nine weeks a year – who make the festival what it is today: Aspen’s pre-eminent summertime diversion.

Appreciating those onstage efforts is as easy as a night at the Benedict Music Tent. But what about the flurry of activity backstage?

A peek behind the curtain reveals a group of organized individuals working 12 months a year (well beyond the festival’s summer run) to complete the Aspen Music Festival puzzle.

The programming

While festival officials keep fan favorites in mind when planning the annual program, the nonprofit organization’s first priority lies with the nearly 700 students who flock to its campus each summer.

“We look at who we were interested in bringing in, who likes to work with whom, and what repertoire you want done – and, overriding that, what would be a great experience for our musicians,” said Coe, who has a hand in the program selection.

The programming process begins with the preferences of the festival “principals,” namely, Aspen Music Festival and School President Don Roth and Music Director David Zinman. The pair organize several meetings with festival managers, including Coe and associate artistic administrator Shauna Quill, in creating the summer calendar.

“David Zinman, as music director, heads the planning as far as the orchestral programs go,” Coe said. “We’ll certainly work with David Zinman’s calendar in advance, and there are some conductors and artists we’ll contact early.”

By “in advance,” Coe means working anywhere from six to 18 months before a concert, tracking down a long list of guest artists, composers and conductors. Many jump at the chance to participate in an Aspen performance, she said. “Artists tend to have flexible summers – they want to save time for us.”

Still some artists propose their own programs. For example, this season’s “An Evening with Cho-Liang Lin” was actually suggested by the acclaimed violinist.

“The July 10 program was something Cho-Liang Lin was interested in doing here – he was doing it in several other places, and asked if we were interested,” Coe said.

Programming also hinges on the festival’s annual theme. Take the Sunday, July 13, performance by the Aspen Chamber Symphony, which includes “Adagio for Strings,” written in part by guest conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, and Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 8 in F major.”

“The theme of the summer is `Musical Visionaries: Beethoven, Berlioz and Beyond.’ This program ties very closely with that,” Coe said of the concert.

Bringing this sort of balance to nearly 200 performances each summer takes a lot of patience, Coe admits.

“It’s a matter of just working with it and working at it: `What if we moved this here, and moved that? Would that open that up over there?’

The players

The task of booking various guest performers falls to Coe’s artistic administration division.

“We do all the contacting of the artists in our department,” Coe said. “We contact the artists, work on rehearsal schedules, and sort of facilitate things. We make sure the communication is good between housing and the administrator, and that everything is set up with, say, the music they need, and that technical requirements are set up.”

In the case of Skrowaczewski, the guest conductor for the July 13 performance, the festival was able to answer each of his concerns with a quick survey.

“Our manager of orchestral operations sent him or his manager a list of questions about the engagement,” Coe said. Skrowaczewski’s reply allowed the festival to make an inventory for the performance, regulating everything from the number of string players the conductor preferred to the specific editions of music he wanted to use.

This questionnaire also helped the festival arrange a meeting between Skrowaczewski and the concert’s guest artist, pianist Stephen Hough, so the pair could discuss a rehearsal schedule.

As for the orchestra itself – in this case, the Aspen Chamber Symphony – participants were selected before the opening of the summer season. Music Festival students arrive in the weeks before the first concert to settle into their summer home and, of course, begin the audition process for the festival’s varied orchestras.

“Faculty know what the repertoire is and have heard all the students, and can match them all up,” Coe said.

Different instrument positions receive different assignments for the series’ summer run, Coe said.

“Strings are assigned to an orchestra that’s pretty permanent over the summer. Winds, brass and percussion are on a rotating basis,” she said.

A few top spots in each orchestra are filled by returning faculty members, Coe said, providing a sprinkle of staff among students. Rehearsals begin once sheet music is made available by one of three campus libraries.

“Otherwise, we rent from any of the number of publishers, and the librarians work on that over the spring,” Coe said.

Most major programs receive four rehearsals before the performance date, Coe said, with a guest soloist joining in the final two. Orchestra members are expected to know their parts before the first rehearsal.

The final dress rehearsal, often on the morning of the performance, allows the orchestra to smooth out any rough edges, Coe added.

“You want them to feel securely supported so they can focus on the important thing: making the music,” she said.

The production

“The first great sign that summer’s coming,” says Ernie Toplis, director of operations for the festival, “is when the pianos pull up.”

The piano parade is hard to miss. The instruments – nearly 200 in all – arrive in Aspen just a few weeks before the students, hauled here by six tractor-trailers. The Steinways (the official piano of the Aspen Music Festival and School) are then shuttled to various concert venues, where they’re attended to and tuned by a team of eight piano specialists.

But the pianos aren’t the only instruments in need of a home. Toplis’ department actually secures the stages for all rehearsals and performances for all five of the festival orchestras. This process is generally done in reverse, he said.

“First we find a date for the performance, then we back up. We’ll start scheduling rehearsals, and then, obviously, we look at the guest artists coming to town.”

Larger venues, such as the Benedict Music Tent and Harris Hall, are quickly snapped up.

“Because of the orchestra size, we have to give them priority for rehearsal spots,” Toplis said.

Once a stage has been selected, production staffers can then prepare it for programming.

“The folks who work with me are responsible for the staging … and to make sure that the stage has taken care of all the needs for the artists,” Toplis said.

This process involves everything from storage of instruments to chair availability for musicians. Crew members are available to help with heavier instruments – harps and pianos, for instance – as well as to mark the positioning for each member of the orchestra.

“If you look closely, you’ll see little pieces of tape that mark the positions for the podium, the piano, the cello,” Coe rattled off a list of musicians and stage crew members who utilize the tape system to create a perfectly positioned symphony.

These elements mesh in a way that allows the festival’s musicians and their work to take center stage – not the cacophony of planning that leads to the performance.

“You always want to maintain that sense of calm and focus backstage, even if there’s a problem you need to address. The focus should be on the performers being able to perform,” Coe said.

Jennifer Davoren’s e-mail address is

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