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Way In

Stewart Oksenhorn

These are tough times for Don Roth, president of the Aspen Music Festival and School. The festival’s Castle Creek campus is abuzz, the Steinways are returning to the valley – Roth likens them to the swallows returning to Capistrano. This week, Roth even heard some trumpet notes, a tease of the coming wave of students. But the Aspen Music Festival’s 55th season was still more than a week away, and Roth was more than a little antsy. “This is the hardest time, when it’s so close and it hasn’t started,” said Roth, entering his third summer as head of the Music Festival. “In March, it’s snowing and it doesn’t feel real. But you finally hear someone practicing and you think, oh my god, it’s happening.”Roth wants to share that torment – or at least, that sense of anticipation – with others. Like administrators at classical music institutions everywhere, Roth is possessed with the task of drawing in audiences.”In the last 10 years, more and more I’ve been interested in different ways in which you could get audiences engaged in the music,” said Roth, himself as much a rock fan as a classical music fanatic. “Why, for people who enjoy a lot of the arts, does classical music seem more forbidding?”This summer, the Music Festival offers more entryways than ever for potential classical music fans. Audiences are invited into the musical realm through history, theater and literature. The trick is in opening the door wide enough for people to get in, without letting the essence of the music escape. Bend over too far backward for novice listeners, and you risk watering down the music and alienating hard-core fans. But Roth is confident that the program being presented this year strikes a balance.”If you do it right, and do it intelligently, it works for people who are experienced listeners and those who are less comfortable with it,” he said. One way the Music Festival aims to strike the balance is by presenting pure musical experiences alongside its more mixed-media events. Another is by opening a lot of small doors, each with music as the essential component, and not opening one big passage to those not interested in the music experience.”You’re looking for, what’s the way in for this person?” said Roth. “Is it Robert Winter” – the festival’s resident scholar – “giving one of his frenetic, high-energy talks? Is it the composer saying, ‘This is why I wrote this, out of something real that happened to me?'”It’s real connections. Ultimately, you’re just setting people up to hear it.”Mini-festivals with a messageThe most prominent new portal into the Music Festival is the mini-festival, a series of multi-day programs devoted to a particular composer or topic. Each of this summer’s three mini-festivals – devoted to Beethoven, Schumann, and the lost composers of World War II – offers a specific entryway into the music.”That gives us an opportunity to zero in on a topic and investigate it a bit,” said Asadour Santourian, the artistic advisor entering his first summer in Aspen. “And it’s extraordinary that we can call on all our forces – orchestras, faculty – to delve into a topic in a focused format.”Beethoven: From Rebel to Icon is a massive blast of the composer in music and words. The centerpiece of the mini-festival is a six-concert series, beginning Wednesday, June 23, with the Takács Quartet performing all 16 Beethoven quartets, plus his Grosse Fuge. Other musical highlights include Sir Neville Marriner, in his Aspen debut, conducting violinist Cho-Liang Lin and the Aspen Chamber Symphony in a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2; Music Festival music director David Zinman conducting the “Eroica” Symphony in the season-opening concert by the Aspen Festival Orchestra; and the Aspen Concert Orchestra, with conductor Michael Stern and violinist Gil Shaham, playing the overture to “Fidelio.” Alongside the music is context. Robert Winter will give a High Notes talk about the string quartets, and preconcert talks before the Chamber Symphony and Festival Orchestra concerts. And enhanced program notes include a timeline, placing Beethoven’s life and music against what was happening around the world as he wrote. Santourian thinks the mini-festival represents the balance of pure music and external information. “The Beethoven quartets are not easy fare,” said Santourian. “But I don’t want to make them untouchable. The world of these works is defined so you’ve got an arsenal of information to understand the juxtaposition of these works with their times.”Schumann: Musical Supernova? approaches the composer – and his wife, the acclaimed pianist Clara – through the pages of J.D. Landis’ “Longing.” The 1991 book explored the romance between the couple, their musical careers and Schumann’s descent into depression. Along with Schumann’s music -including violinist Robert McDuffie and pianist Christopher Taylor featured in a concert of sonatas and a n see Music Festival on page B9– continued from page B1quartet; the Aspen Chamber Symphony, with Zinman and pianist Yefim Bronfman performing the “Spring” Symphony – Landis will give a High Notes talk and narrate a chamber music concert of music by both Schumanns.”It’s a very conducive way to their music,” said Santourian. “Because the novelist tripped over their story, and saw it was an epic. He made an unbelievable oeuvre of work before burning out; she was an amazing pianist, which is unheard of for a female of that era.”J.D. Landis is going to show us how he came to their music not through the concert-going route, but through their story.”The final mini-festival, Forbidden Music: Silenced Voices, has educational, musical and humanistic purposes. Focusing on the composers whose music was labeled “degenerate” by the Nazi regime – and thus, not performed – the mini-festival is designed to resurrect those artists. Forbidden Voices will feature the music of Viktor Ullmann, a Czech-born composer murdered at the Terezin concentration camp. Also to be performed are works by Mahler and Mendelssohn banned by the Nazis, Schubert’s “Tragic” Symphony, and Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” written and debuted while the composer was imprisoned by the Nazis. Conductor James Conlon and Santourian will discuss the repression of music under the Nazi regime in a High Notes talk.”The point of this festival is, composers died, they should not die twice,” said Santourian. “Their music should not die because they were labeled ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis. It’s to examine the music, examine their time – and hear their music.”(Silenced Voices is the first of three Forbidden Music mini-festivals: Next year’s installment will focus on conscientious objectors, composers who refused to write under the Nazis; 2006 will bring Suppressed Voices, focusing on composers quieted by Soviet rulers.)More than just musicOutside of the mini-festivals, audiences will be greeted with several other events designed to provide wide access to the Music Festival.The Aug. 8 Festival Orchestra concert will have a theatrical element. The program “Russian David/Soviet Goliath,” conducted by Murry Sidlin, will have actor Michael York portraying Shostakovich and an actor still to be announced as Stalin. The two will recite monologues as the orchestra plays excerpts of works by Shostakovich. The event is meant to shed light on the complex nature of the relationship between the composer and the dictator, and to raise the question whether Shostakovich’s works were the product of a good Soviet soldier or designed as a subversive critique of the Soviet regime. The concert will conclude with a full performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5.”It’s not musicological,” said Roth, who saw an earlier version of the program nearly a decade ago in Portland, Ore. “It’s a dramatization of the human context of how his music was written. It’s a total break from the normal Sunday concert, but it’s really effective. The audience gets very caught up in the music.”On Aug. 3, pianist/conductor Leon Fleisher will give a piano master class that will also feature the American Academy of Conducting Orchestra. The free event, featuring a performance of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto, is unique; Roth says he has never heard of a master class featuring an entire orchestra.Other events designed to reach out to a wide audience include the July 3 An Evening of Words and Music, featuring speakers Thomas L. Friedman and Walter Isaacson; the July 17 benefit concert Bernstein on Broadway, with Zinman conducting Bernstein’s theater work, including pieces from “West Side Story” and “Candide”; and A Day of Music on July 20, with a variety of events, all free.Other season highlights include three fully staged operas – Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw” and Verdi’s “Rigoletto” – by the Aspen Opera Theater Center; An Evening of Pianos (July 22), featuring eight pianists; Celebrating Robert Harth, dedicated to the late Aspen Music Festival president (July 29); and an appearance by the Zukerman Chamber Players (Aug. 5), featuring the first Aspen appearance in a decade by violinist Pinchas Zukerman.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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