Reflections on the Aspen Music Festival and School’s 2021 Season

Reflections on the Aspen Music Festival and School’s 2021 Season

As Joni Mitchell so aptly put it in her 1970 song “Big Yellow Taxi,” you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. If the pandemic (and the year 2020 in general) taught us anything, it’s that very lesson. Though the year was abysmal for numerous reasons, for many people—myself included—the gradual cancelation and ultimate absence of live music was one of the more disappointing casualties of that raging dumpster fire. As the months dragged by, I couldn’t wait to sit in a darkened concert hall once again and even surmised what the experience might look like in a post-COVID world.

The cover of our 2021 program book The lovely artwork is by the Aspen-based artist Isa Catto.

Although we’re not in a post-COVID world quite yet, live music has once again become a reality. (At least, for now… PLEASE get vaccinated, people!!!) Because of this, I recently had the opportunity to spend a third summer working as the Assistant Program Book Editor at the Aspen Music Festival and School. While program book and various other work responsibilities took up a sizable portion of time—i.e., lots of proofreading—I was still able to attend several concerts during the Festival’s eight-week season. This was, in a word, wonderful. After spending well over a year getting my music fix from live streams and Spotify, it was so, so refreshing to hear in-person concerts again (and in the gorgeous mountaintop setting of Aspen at that). Though concert protocols looked a bit different than normal years—mask wearing, distanced seating, etc.—it was nonetheless a memorable summer filled with some incredible performances.

I’ve always wanted to do some sort of post-season wrap-up of my summers at the Festival, but the looming responsibilities of grad school always (rudely) got in the way. Well, since I’m now solely writing my dissertation—not that this isn’t a looming responsibility in itself!—and don’t have to worry about classes, I thought this would be the perfect year to compile some thoughts on Aspen’s 2021 season. That said, here are a few of my favorite concerts and performance highlights from the summer:

Favorite discovery: Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s String Quartet in E-flat major

While the music of Felix Mendelssohn is justly celebrated, it has too often eclipsed the output of his just-as-talented sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. This is slowly starting to change, though, as musicians begin to grant Hensel a rightful place in the spotlight. One such case occurred at a recital presented this summer by the Pacifica Quartet. Alongside quartets by Florence Price and Sergei Prokofiev (both marvelous works), the program featured Hensel’s sole String Quartet in E-flat. I only became aware of Hensel’s output several years ago, but this piece eluded my radar for some reason. Hearing it for the first time at this concert was a delicious surprise—it’s a brilliant work packed with craft, lush beauty, and charming wit. My favorite moment: in the second movement, Hensel throws in a short fugato as if to say to her nineteenth-century haters, “Oh, so you think women composers can’t write counterpoint? Well, how does it feel to be wrong?” (There’s also a fiendishly difficult cello part in this movement that actually made me chuckle out loud.) A truly wonderful discovery.

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The Arching Path: A Conversation with Christopher Cerrone

The Arching Path: A Conversation with Christopher Cerrone

Christopher Cerrone is part of a tectonic shift in the new music landscape. Recently named one of The Washington Post‘s “21 Composers and performers who sound like tomorrow,” the Brooklyn-based composer has collaborated with a veritable who’s-who of classical ensembles, ranging from the Los Angeles Philharmonic to Third Coast Percussion. He’s an integral member of the Sleeping Giant collective—a modern-day “Les Six” of sorts—alongside Timo Andres, Jacob Cooper, Ted Hearne, Robert Honstein, and Andrew Norman, all notable composers in their own right. Cerrone has also received numerous accolades in recent years, which includes nominations for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize (for his opera Invisible Cities) and a 2020 Grammy Award (for The Pieces That Fall to Earth). And this just scratches the surface…

Christopher Cerrone
(Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff)

Cerrone’s music is tricky to pin down—in the best possible ways. It’s accessible, but also incredibly rich and thought-provoking. (Not that these things have to be mutually exclusive!) It revels in ear-catching colors and displays an insatiable curiosity for unique sound combinations. (Several of his compositions feature electronic accompaniment, giving them a delicious, digital “sheen.”) It exudes a deep literary sensibility, as well as a fascination with place, memory, sound, and silence. Simply put, it’s amazing stuff.

The affinity for place and memory is particularly evident in Cerrone’s latest album, The Arching Path (available now from In a Circle Records). This release highlights four piano-centric chamber pieces, three of which are inspired by travel—The Arching Path and Double Happiness stem from the composer’s trips to Italy, while Hoyt-Schermerhorn was conceived after many late-night commutes on the New York subway. The centerpiece of the album is I will learn to love a person, an inward-focused song cycle that sets the Twitter-esque poetry of American author Tao Lin. It’s an incredible album overall and definitely one worth checking out. (You can order it on Bandcamp or wherever digital music is sold. It is also available for streaming.)

Chris and I chatting from our respective Zoom “boxes.” (Screenshot used with permission)

A few weeks ago, I had the great privilege to sit down with Chris—albeit virtually, over Zoom—and talk about his new album. Our 45-minute conversation was fascinating and wide-ranging, covering topics from creativity during the pandemic to janky family violins.

Below are excerpts from our discussion, which have been edited for length and clarity:


Kevin McBrien (KM): How have you fared this past year with COVID and lockdown? What has kept you going through this very weird and very strange time?

Christopher Cerrone (CC): It’s extremely strange! I think I have responded to it by just throwing myself into work. I think I’m in a privileged position in a number of ways. Since I’m a composer, we can work in a sense. Of course, not everything is realized on the timeline we’d originally envisioned, but overall, none of my projects—and again, this is a matter of just pure luck—have been fully canceled. Obviously, there’s an enormous psychological toll that it’s taken on everyone, and that’s, I think, universal. But a lot of projects wound up working out really well. I had a percussion quartet with piano [Don’t Look Down, written for Conor Hanick and Sandbox Percussion] that wound up getting a really amazing document over a live stream. I think it would be callous to say that I’ve “benefited” from the pandemic—no one has—but I feel just very, very lucky that everything has worked out the way it has.

Cerrone’s Don’t Look Down, which was composed and premiered during the COVD pandemic.
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Rethinking the Concert Hall – Part 4: Programming (New Music)

Rethinking the Concert Hall – Part 4: Programming (New Music)

This is the fourth and final installment of my multiple-part series. You can read the previous parts here, here, and here.

On December 20, 1973, Aaron Copland made a guest appearance on the public television series Day at Night. Within this wide-ranging and lively discussion, one particularly fascinating exchange occurs when the interviewer, James Day, inquires about Copland’s contemporary musical language:

James Day: Why can’t you write in the language of the past?

Aaron Copland: It wouldn’t be natural! Why should we limit ourselves? We have rhythms that Chopin never thought of…. We have a more complex language in one way, a more dissonant language which can express harsh feelings in a more effective way, I think. The language of music is really, you know, advanced with the times and our listeners have to lend their ears in that way.

Day at Night – James Day and Aaron Copland, 1973 (4:57)

While this sentiment sounds great on paper, getting listeners to successfully “lend their ears” to a new piece of music is often easier said than done. As the classical canon began to take hold of Western thinking in the mid-to-late 19th century, a large swath of listeners, critics, and performers grew to prefer music that they already knew and loved—that is, older music instead of newer music. Of course, new pieces continued to be written and performed, but audiences by and large clamored for the familiar, not the new. Plus, anything new had to either fit in with the canonic “mold” or risk derision for being too “out there.”

This fixation on the past continued to dominate concert hall programming throughout the 20th century and persists even to this day. Why is that? On the one hand, we need to keep in mind that, for better or for worse, orchestras, opera houses, and chamber groups are businesses. They have to program works that will spur interest and demand (i.e., draw a sizable audience) and help recoup production and labor costs. What do you think would sell more tickets: a program of big names like Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Rachmaninoff, or a program entirely of works by Kaija Saariaho? If you guessed the former, you’re probably correct. Simply put, Beethoven sells tickets. Anything outside this, not as much.

Funny, but also sadly true. (And sorry, I don’t know who to credit for this image!)

(Side note: any newer works that are programmed statistically tend to be written by white male composers, an issue that is only just starting to be addressed.)

But it’s not just musical organizations and their business acumen that are driving this almost obsessive reliance on “masterworks” and “classics” of the past. Many classical audiences tend to be apprehensive, or even scared, of anything that’s new or unfamiliar. Some claim to have had terrible experiences with “contemporary” music in the past and make sweeping generalizations that anything written within the last 100 years is garbage. (OK, that’s a really dumb hyperbole, but you get the picture.) Other listeners are willing to “suffer” through a concert that features a new work, so long as they get their Brahms on the other side. (More on this in a sec.) These attitudes can also crop up with pieces composed in the 20th century. Several years ago, I heard some concert attendees speak disparagingly about Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, which is pretty strange considering the work was composed in 1943 and is neither “new” nor “difficult.”

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