Stone: After the fall: Has Aspen lost its musical Eden?

Andy Stone
A Stone’s Throw

When I started this column, I intended to write that the Aspen Idea (you know: Walter Paepcke, “Body, Mind and Spirit” and all that) is essentially “Under New Management,” as the banners say when a small local business is bought out by a major corporate operation.

My point was going to be that, like it or not, modern Aspen’s philosophical origins in the mind of Paepcke, Chicago industrialist and original angel of our Rocky Mountain renaissance, dated from the late 1940s and really needed a 21st-century update.

Paepcke was a man of his time, with ideas and ideals about art and philosophy — but his time has passed, and in our savage cut-and-thrust world of modern billionaires, the institutions he founded needed to get with the program.

I was looking at that issue through the lens of the Aspen Music Festival and School, arguably the “spirit” portion of Paepcke’s body-mind-spirit triad, which went through a very public and brutal transformation about six years ago.

The music-festival upheaval lurched into the public eye when David Zinman — the longtime, highly respected music director — quit, with many believing he was pushed more than he jumped. Following that, many faculty members of long standing and great accomplishment were abruptly fired and many who remained felt their positions were in constant danger.

In fact, dissension had been at a boil before Zinman’s resignation.

The trouble started when Alan Fletcher, the festival’s president and CEO — responding, it is said, to pressure from some of the high-powered businessmen on the board — launched a severe cost-cutting program. Faculty positions were eliminated, the number of summer music students was slashed and the length of the festival itself was reduced by a week.

Meanwhile, at the upper pay grades, the heavyweights battled it out for control of the festival.

To quote from New York Times coverage of the chaos, Fletcher “was ousted, reinstated and given a symbolic vote of no confidence. … The board chairman was voted out. Small groups of musicians and board members campaigned against Mr. Fletcher. Defenders arose, and others coalesced around one side or the other, bitterly dividing the faculty and trustees.”

The hostilities were rendered even more painful by the fact that the festival had long been known for its “family feeling,” an informality and closeness among the faculty and students that resulted in a unique and wonderful summer experience for all involved.

In my research, I found this mention of the festival’s family feeling from back in 1960, in a news story, again, from The New York Times:

“Partly because of the idealistic nature of their enterprise and partly because of the crises they’ve been through together, the musicians who run the music festival in Aspen, Colorado, have a special feeling of closeness for one another.”

Now, 50 years later, that “special feeling” was being shattered.

I discussed my concern about the loss of that family feeling with one strong supporter of Alan Fletcher and he replied, “Maybe getting rid of the family feeling is what the festival needs.”

Performance is everything, he argued. Too much concern for “family” can get in the way.

So here we are, six years later, and, if (!) we can forget the collateral damage of careers and lives knocked sideway, if not completely destroyed, the festival seems to be flourishing.

We just saw the inauguration of the magnificent new Aspen Music School campus, funded by magnificent donations from board members who were on the victorious side in the battles of 2010.

And, by all accounts, the music itself has been and is expected to remain glorious.

So, as I said, I planned to write how the music festival was simply under necessary, perhaps brutal, new management for the brutal 21st century.

But then I looked a little more closely at my research (including Bruce Berger’s superb “Music in the Mountains: The First Fifty Years of the Aspen Music Festival”).

And what I seemed to find was that the festival has not undergone a recent wrenching change from its original Paepcke-founded spirit.

Yes, there was a wrenching change, but it occurred way back in the early 1950s, when the aristocratic industrialist clashed with the headstrong musicians he had brought in for “his” festival.

That family-feeling quote from the 1960 New York Times notes it “is particularly true of those who weathered the 1954 crisis when Walter P. Paepcke, the festival’s original angel, said he could support it no longer.”

Apparently, Paepcke wanted to focus on big names — the world’s most famous musicians — and de-emphasize the music school, which he considered nothing but trouble.

When he got some serious push-back, Paepcke washed his hands of the troublesome musicians and told them they were on their own. They could hold a festival or not. It wasn’t his problem.

So much for “family feeling” under Paepcke.

The musicians carried on, raised money, revived the festival that the industrialist had willfully abandoned and set up a unique, complex — and arguably unwieldy — structure for the festival, giving the musicians considerable power in running the organization.

And so I found that the Aspen Music Festival did, in fact, have a blissful “Edenic” period of delight and contentment — but, unlike the biblical story, the Aspen Music Festival’s Eden came after the “fall” from the grace of Paepcke.

Suddenly, the musicians were running their own show and the results were glorious. For a while, anyway.

And the current situation — with hard-nosed businesspeople exercising a firm hand in controlling the institution through their chosen CEO — is a return to original principles.

Perhaps we should all just be glad that Aspen’s Garden of Eden lasted as long as it did, more than half a century.

(But wait! What about the Aspen Institute, the “mind” part of the Paepcke triad? No room for that this week, obviously. But I will almost certainly get around to looking at what happened in those sacred halls in the not-too-distant future.)

Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is