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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Nine Symphonies

In 2015, the Southern California-based writer CK Dexter Haven posed the following question to the classical music blogosphere: “If you had to pick nine symphonies—no more, no less—by different composers to include as part of a proverbial desert island survival kit, what would they be?” This intriguing challenge quickly caught fire across the Interwebs as countless people weighed in with their own picks, ranging from KUSC’s Brian Lauritzen to New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. Some found that their favorite symphonies naturally fit into each corresponding slot. Others found it much more difficult. (On Twitter, Brian Lauritzen appropriately called the task “fun/impossible.”)

Me making my “nine symphonies” list

Fast-forward five years later. The COVID pandemic has graciously provided loads more time to listen to music (there’s a bright side for ya!), so I decided that it was time to take on Dexter Haven’s challenge. Throughout the month of August, I listened to many different symphonies—ones I already knew and loved, others that were less familiar, and some that were completely new. After working my way through over 60 pieces (!!), I considered possible outcomes and drafted up my own “desert island survival kit” of nine completely different symphonies by nine completely different composers. And let me tell you, it was not exactly a walk in the park.

There were a few additional rules to this challenge. In his original blog post, Dexter Haven states the following:

  • “You can only pick one symphony per composer.
  • You must choose numbered symphonies 1 through 9 only. No Symphonie fantastique, Symphony of Psalms, Symphonic Dances, etc.
  • Once you choose a numbered symphony, you cannot choose another similarly numbered symphony by a different composer (i.e. no choosing both Beethoven’s 7th and Sibelius 7th).
  • Use only current numbering conventions; so if you were to pick the New World Symphony by Dvořák, you’d have to put it in the 9th Symphony spot, not the 5th Symphony where some folks 50 years ago may have put it.
  • Bonus point for including symphonies by composers who actually composed at least nine numbered symphonies.”

As you can see, this was an extremely tricky undertaking (and many, many wonderful symphonies got left out in the process), but it was loads of fun nonetheless and the perfect end-of-summer time waster. So, without further ado, here are my nine picks, followed by some additional thoughts at the end. Let’s do this…

1. William Walton: Symphony No. 1 in B-flat minor

For my opening slot, Walton’s First Symphony takes the crown (a rather appropriate metaphor for a British composer). This work is truly marvelous and sadly underplayed here in the States. It brims with both vivacity and heart-on-sleeve passion and features one of the quirkiest endings after Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. Plus, this work has a special familial connection. While on the bus for a choir & orchestra tour in the 1980s, my dad first laid eyes on my mom while listening to the Symphony’s gorgeous third movement on his Walkman. They’ve been happily married ever since. Awwww…

Honorable Mentions: Shostakovich, Mahler, Brahms, Corigliano, Mendelssohn, Price, Mathias, Still

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Rethinking the Concert Hall – Part 1: Introduction and Concert Etiquette

Rethinking the Concert Hall – Part 1: Introduction and Concert Etiquette

The notion that “classical music is dying” is one that’s been tossed around and repeated so often over the decades that it’s almost become cliché.

The truth of the matter is, classical music is not dying. It’s very much alive and well in an abundance of ways. Say what you will about the digital realm, but there’s no question that services like Amazon, YouTube, and Wikipedia have made it easier than ever to purchase recordings, access videos, and look up information about the music. (There’s even a new website – Primephonic – which is dedicated exclusively to streaming classical music.) Live score-to-film concerts, which have presented everything from Casablanca to Star Wars, can attract hundreds (or thousands) of eager audience members, both young and old. Startups like Groupmuse are reviving the classical salon by staging intimate chamber music performances in people’s homes. These few examples only scratch the surface of how classical music is still thriving and continuing to inspire, amaze, and draw in listeners all over the world.

However, not all is as it could be.

Most notably, it’s difficult to ignore the preeminent symbol of classical music – the concert hall. Though it is, has been, and will likely remain the optimal location to experience this music, the statistics of professional orchestras both in the U.S. and elsewhere often paint a dismal picture. Diminishing budgets, an aging subscriber base, and stagnant repertoire can make it easy to slap the “anachronistic” label on the art form and those who practice it. In a recent article for the Washington Post, music critic Anne Midgette shared a similar concern, saying that, “Classical music isn’t in trouble. It’s classical music’s institutions that are the problem.” (The scandals that recently came to light with prominent conductors Charles Dutoit and James Levine, the latter of which Midgette’s article discusses, do not help things either.) There are exceptions of course, but the future of concerts and professional orchestras as a whole can look rather bleak.

So, what can be done to bring the classical concert fully and unabashedly into the 21st century? How can it maintain its relevance and better reflect our fast-paced and increasingly diverse society? How can it successfully “bridge the gap,” maintaining a respect for the music but positively challenge the way that it is both experienced and understood?

In this multiple-part series, I will outline some thoughts that I have on the current state of the classical concert and provide some suggestions which could breathe some fresh air into this beloved, yet sometimes tired-old institution. (I will also highlight groups and organizations that are currently doing some really awesome and innovative things.) It is my belief that more discussions like this could prove fruitful in enticing new audiences, maintaining the passion of lifelong fans (like myself), and securing the success of the art form for years to come.

Of course, it should be mentioned that the opinions I express here are solely my own. I do recognize that some of them may be built from general information gleaned online, personal biases, and my experiences in a relatively limited sphere (i.e. mainly attending classical concerts in California for most of my life and not many elsewhere). I will do my best to point out any biases or generalizations that I make, or back them up with factual support when appropriate. (Like any good scholar would do!)

In any case, my first set of thoughts are as follows, with more to come soon…

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