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The right guy for the job

Stewart Oksenhorn
At least on his first day of work, Alan Fletcher cut a formal figure on the Aspen Music School campus. (Mark Fox/Aspen Times Weekly)
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Certain people had a nickname for Robert Harth, the late, past president of the Aspen Music Festival and School. Harth was known – to some critics, and to friends who picked up the tag in ironic fashion – as the “Wrong Guy.” The name stemmed from a letter published in Aspen newspapers, ripping Harth for a variety of failings, in particular the proposal of a new tent to replace the beloved but shabby Bayer-Benedict Music Tent. The letter writer claimed that the Music Festival had, in 1989, replaced the “Good Guy” – Gordon Hardy, who led the organization from 1970 – with the “Wrong Guy.”Turns out Harth was inarguably the Right Guy. Over a 12-year presidency that included the building of Harris Hall and the Benedict Music Tent, and the hiring of music director David Zinman, Harth – who died in 2004, having left Aspen to take over the top position at Carnegie Hall – became a legendary figure in Aspen Music Festival history.At least one person believed that Alan Fletcher, who started his job as the festival’s president this week, would be the wrong guy to fill Harth’s shoes. That was Fletcher himself. After it was announced last year that Harth’s successor, Don Roth, would conclude his tenure March 1, Fletcher learned he was a candidate for the job. But Fletcher didn’t see himself as an ideal fit in Aspen.”Because I thought of Aspen as one of the major presenting festivals,” said Fletcher, in his office at the Music Festival’s Castle Creek campus, on his first day on the job. “Since Gordon Hardy, the president has been someone from the orchestral world.”Fletcher comes from the academic world. Beginning in 2001, the 49-year-old headed the School of Music at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University and taught composition there. Before that, he spent 16 years at Boston’s New England Conservatory, working his way from the music theory faculty to the provost’s seat and then to senior vice president. Fletcher knew of Aspen’s educational side; he had sent some of his composition students to study here. But he had never set foot in Aspen until this past December and didn’t fully grasp the organization’s emphasis on its school, which attracts some 750 students each summer. Over a series of meetings with members of the search committee, the board of trustees and faculty, he gradually began to see himself as a good fit, as the right guy.The representatives of the festival “began to articulate the real vision for the school,” said Fletcher. “And they thought what I brought might be exactly what they want.”

Matthew Bucksbaum, who led the search committee and chairs the Music Festival’s board of trustees, said Fletcher brought the entire package the board sought. Board members chose him unanimously.”He talked our language and was so enthusiastic,” said Bucksbaum. “He just impressed us with his vision, his thoughts, his ideas for the future.”Bucksbaum said the board was not necessarily looking for someone from the academic world. But Fletcher’s educational background was a plus.”Most people don’t realize we have 700 kids here every summer, and they’re looking for experience, to improve their playing,” he said. “It’s a big part of the summer for us.”A big part of Fletcher’s job will be the renovation of the organization’s Castle Creek campus. The bucolic spread, which houses rehearsal spaces, classrooms and administrative offices, is in the early stages of a planned major overhaul, which Fletcher will oversee.Fletcher’s relative inexperience in the orchestral world caused no hesitation for the search committee. Music director Zinman, noted Bucksbaum, handles much of the presenting side. And Aspen, he added, is attractive enough that most musicians don’t need much persuasion to perform here.Fletcher, too, doesn’t believe his academic background hurts his ability to lead the more public, “festival” side of the organization, the concerts that draw the biggest portion of Aspen’s summer visitors. He is quick to note that he has played a “major role” on the boards of the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Pittsburgh Opera, Opera Boston and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. He has yet to see a concert in his capacity as Music Festival president, but foresees no major hurdles with the presentation component.

The educational component of the Music Festival that grabbed Fletcher’s attention is the one that sets Aspen apart from virtually every other institute in the world. Students of the Aspen Music School play in orchestras, side by side with professionals and visiting guest artists. That feature – which Fletcher refers to as “the link” – gives students an experience they don’t get in their conservatory training or private lessons.”We talked a lot about that mission, the link between the artists who come here and the students, and that this is an unbreakable link, not two things. It’s truly one,” said Fletcher. “Every single meeting was more and more positive. Because of the link, Aspen can do what even great conservatories don’t do. It can play a role for young musicians that even their conservatory doesn’t play. Not more important, but complementary to it.”Fletcher expresses an unwavering confidence in his ability to handle most every aspect of his new job. Fundraising is often seen as an essential but joyless chore that comes with heading a music institution. But in his years at the New England Conservatory, Fletcher found that not only was he good at the task, but enjoyed it. “People say, ‘You’re going to have to do fundraising.’ And my answer always is, ‘That will be a great pleasure,'” he said.Fletcher has a similarly sanguine attitude toward trading big-city life for a small-town existence. “The board told me, ‘You will have to live in Aspen, really,'” he said. “And I thought, why is that anything other than a huge honor?”Don Roth, Fletcher’s predecessor, served less than five years in Aspen. His tenure, while not visibly stormy, had a notable downward trajectory in the last year; though his last official day was Feb. 28, Roth has reportedly been away from Aspen for months. Fletcher acknowledges that “the past couple of years have been a challenge,” and leaves it at that. The question had been asked since Roth’s hiring whether Roth – or anyone – could succeed in the enormous wake left by Robert Harth.Fletcher says Harth’s presence, even two years after his death and nearly five years since he left Aspen, lingers over the festival. Fletcher, though, enjoys the spectral company.”Yes, his stamp is on so many things about the festival and school. He was a tremendous personality,” said Fletcher, who was a friend of Harth’s and a colleague of Harth’s violinist father, Sidney, in Pittsburgh. “I see it as a great positive, to have someone like that in the history of the organization. He was a great leader, but greatness is not intimidating. It’s exciting.”In terms of personal style, Fletcher seems unlikely to follow in the footsteps of Harth or Roth. Maybe it was first-day-on-the-job protocol, but Fletcher’s reserved manner and fine clothing were a marked departure from the blue jeans-style attire and folksy manner of the past two presidents. Fletcher seems to be adapting to at least one local custom: His two dogs sat underfoot during my time in Fletcher’s office.

Fletcher has been certain that he would fit somewhere in the classical music world since he was a toddler. He led a rather itinerant childhood; his father’s work in the church, education and civil rights took the family to Texas, Mexico, Alabama and New Jersey. Music was the constant in young Alan’s life. His mother, Martha, a church musician and choral conductor, instilled in all her children a love of music, and Fletcher recalls sitting under the piano while his older siblings took lessons. “There really was never anything else,” said Fletcher, who started piano lessons at 4, followed by cello, violin, vocal and music theory training.From the outset, it was composing that grabbed Fletcher most. He remembers when his mother took him to hear his first performance of Handel’s “Messiah.” Fletcher, 5 at the time, came away crying – not because of the beauty of the vocal masterwork, but “because I thought, ‘I’ll never write anything like that.'” But he tried. Before he could write, he would compose by dictating the notes to his mother.Fletcher started leaning toward the piano in his teens, thanks to a memorable teacher. “She embodied the whole world of music for me,” he said. But when an injury forced him to take six months off from playing, the instructor told Fletcher it was time to start taking composition seriously.”I thought it was my secret that what I really wanted to be was a composer,” he said. “But she knew.” And Fletcher had an idea he might be good at it when he took first prize in a choral composition competition in Philadelphia. From southern New Jersey’s Cherry Hill East High School, where his mother headed the music program, Fletcher went to Princeton for his undergraduate work, and Juilliard for his master’s and doctorate, all in composition.Fletcher’s first professional job was teaching music theory at the New England Conservatory. As the junior faculty member, he was appointed to the faculty senate. “Which is not an honor,” he noted. “No one else would do it.”

Shortly after, a disagreement over the school’s artistic structure divided the president and faculty, and “rocked the school,” according to Fletcher. The faculty senate was deeply involved, and Fletcher took a lead role in resolving the dispute. The president told Fletcher he should stay on the administrative side, then forced the issue by creating a part-time position for him that grew and grew. Within a few years, Fletcher was provost and senior vice president of the school, with teaching relegated to a smaller role.In addition to his executive and pedagogic functions, he continued composing. Fletcher’s summers have invariably been spent on an island in a New Hampshire lake, reachable only by boat, writing music. Fletcher has recent or upcoming performances of his work at the National Gallery of Art, by the Pittsburgh Symphony, and with Volti, a San Francisco vocal ensemble.

Fletcher understands his summers will now be otherwise occupied; composing will be pushed to winter. (Fletcher says, “When people ask me whether I ski, I say, no, I compose.”) But given the opportunities afforded here, he is willing to shuffle seasons.Aspen’s uniqueness, said Fletcher, is built largely on its audience. Whereas the typical American orchestra draws from a tiny slice of an urban population, the Aspen Music Festival is supported by a relatively wide swath of patrons from around the country. And while most concertgoers attend a performance here and a performance there, Aspen audiences come day after day throughout the summer, getting a broader taste of classical music. Fletcher believes those factors allow more adventurous programming here.”Everybody in a presenting orchestra is asking these questions: What are the careers going to be for people going into music? Who is the audience, and what do they want? And who will be the audience?” he said. “Aspen has such an unusual relationship to its audience. Aspen can take risks, make mistakes, experiment, looking toward the future.”For Fletcher, like virtually every leader of a classical music organization, that future includes expanding the parameters of the music. Fletcher, who has composed a series of works inspired by contemporary folk singer Gillian Welch, points to composer/bassist Edgar Meyer, who spends the summer here.”He is supremely classical – but he listens to everything, he absorbs everything,” he said of Meyer, who is equally revered in bluegrass and classical circles. “That is the future.”Meyer, it should be noted, is not only an Aspen Music School faculty member, but also an alumnus of the school. That fact gives Fletcher the sense that being in Aspen puts him in an ideal position to help build the future of classical music from the top (by presenting concerts) and the bottom (by educating students). Not that he can’t do both; Fletcher is confident he can and will. But between the two, his heart seems invested in the students. The best way to perpetuate music is to create musicians.Asked the most exciting thing about his current job, Fletcher said, “It is really to shape the future of music, by shaping the musicians who will make it.”Seeing education in a very broad sense – seeing it as preparing and shaping the future – I see it as the core. It’s why this festival was created.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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