Harold Harbaugh: Guest opinion | AspenTimes.com

Harold Harbaugh: Guest opinion

Harold Harbaugh
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

On only our second day, my wife, Ruth, and I heard three great performances: the accomplished-beyond-their-years Aiana String Quartet performing a Beethoven String Quartet in the Aspen Chapel to conclude a fine 4:15 p.m. student concert, the brilliant Marc-Andre Hamelin executing an especially stunning Liszt Piano Sonata after an already impressive pre-intermission program, and a quartet of women ironically named Anonymous 4 singing an ethereal, seldom heard La Huelgas convent choral.

And that’s the thing about the Aspen Music Festival – its stunning diversity – that keeps us coming back year after year.

On our very first visit, my sister watched our children as Ruth and I attended an afternoon performance. We were hooked. Now we consider our annual week in Aspen the highlight of our year. Since I’m a travel writer, this is definitely not a claim based on limited travel experience.

What keeps us returning to the Aspen Music FestivaI is the stunning variety. We attend concerts throughout the year all over the world, almost universally big-city symphony orchestras or four-member chamber performances. Where else but in Aspen can we routinely hear an abundance of both new works – frightfully young Chris Rogerson’s accomplished and moving Noble Pond – and also seldom performed masterpieces – Chausson’s hauntingly romantic Concert in D major?

Especially now in an era of painful budget cuts, even the largest and best symphony orchestras think twice about scheduling, say, Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 with a stage about to overflow with shoulder-to-shoulder musicians. This decidedly large work is doable in Aspen thanks to the participation of so many accomplished students and experienced maestros like Jaap van Zweden, who helped his young charges sound like a top-tier symphony orchestra as the gorgeous tsunami of sound that Rachmaninoff almost-didn’t-create enthralled an audience that gave it a rapturous standing ovation.

Chamber groups like the Takacs Quartet, which we heard twice in our week, don’t often get to perform anything but the standard works for four. We know because we’ve seen them a dozen or more times around the world. To make something as wonderful as the Brahms String Sextet happen in, say, Indianapolis, managers have to import or engage two additional musicians and schedule extra rehearsal time. I don’t know this for a fact, but I suspect that many revered musicians like James Dunham and Darrett Adkins, who joined the Takacs in the Brahms, come to Aspen for the chance to play lesser-performed works.

Where else but in Aspen do concertgoers have the opportunity to hear Gil Shaham, one of the finest violinists of our time, perform three concertos in a single week, one of those part of a free American Academy of Conducting afternoon concert July 12? Watching alumnus Shaham so clearly happy to be sharing Stravinsky’s Concerto in D Major with current students made the event especially memorable. Every time we see and hear a past participant perform, Ruth and I become more aware of Aspen’s unique place among festivals.

After a few years of attending, I decided that, for diversity’s sake, we should explore other summer festivals and find another to attend for just one season. Guess what? Nothing like Aspen exists. Ravinia? Only half-focused on the classical repertoire and entire blackout days. Tanglewood? Almost exclusively evening performances by long-time orchestral professionals. Interlochen? Lots of student involvement but … BubbleMania?

For most symphonic performances, we prefer the integrated orchestral sound and sit far from the stage. But not in Aspen. Here we choose Section 200 so as to be able to study the faces, equally serious and joyous, of the students who are getting invaluable experiences each day. Where else but in Aspen can the gifted young perform master works in ensembles led by the world’s best conductors as members of almost completely student orchestras? That venue doesn’t exist. I was especially aware of this as I listened to the Aspen Concert Orchestra dive into Mahler’s difficult Symphony No. 1 and grapple with the challenge.

On our final night, Ruth and I were surprised as we arrived at Harris for Jean-Yves Thibaudet. We had overnighted in Seattle in March 2010, just to hear Thibaudet play Ravel and Brahms superbly, and this all-Ravel Special Event was a long anticipated second opportunity.

“Haven’t you heard?” the student-greeter asked as I expressed surprise when handed a Beethoven program. “Wu Han and David Finckel are performing in his place.”

Ah, Aspen: Where else can you substitute the best for the best at the last minute? I feel sorry for the 170 or so ticketholders who asked for their money back or simply didn’t show. They’ll never know what they missed, namely, a thoughtfully selected, exciting, flawless special event second to none.

So we’ll be back. And back. And back.

There’s nothing like the Aspen Music Festival. Nothing.

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