Aspen Music Fest 101
ASPEN, Colo. The Aspen Music Festival and School is a bit like an extensive collection of unplayed records or an expansive library of unread literary classics.At least that has been the case for me.My occasional appearances on the lawn outside the Benedict Music Tent on a Sunday afternoon when the rain holds off, lawn chair and beer in hand, hardly constitute delving into what the festival has to offer. What I’ve been missing, as it turns out, is plenty.A concerted effort to spend just one day taking in the festival’s many programs proved both enlightening and exhausting. And, surprisingly cheap.The Friday, July 6, festival schedule was packed with programs, including many that could be done on a minimal budget, starting with the 9:30 a.m. Aspen Chamber Symphony dress rehearsal at the tent. Admission was a mere $10; a seat on the lawn was free, as always. The event was sparsely attended, inside and out, but may be one of the best deals around.Rehearsals at the tent – the chamber symphony on Fridays and the Aspen Festival Orchestra on Sunday mornings – are an inexpensive chance to hear the music that will be performed later that day in a formal setting, when the musicians trade in their flip-flops for black ties.
A front-row seat to watch violinist Gil Shaham perform Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, opus 61, with David Zinman conducting the chamber symphony – the final piece on that evening’s program – was there for the taking for anyone willing to plunk down a 10 spot.Reasoning I’d catch the evening performance later, I headed to adjacent Harris Concert Hall for a 10 a.m. Piano Master Class led by instructor Ann Schein. It was $22 – the most money I spent all day.I had no idea what to expect, but I was handed a program as I descended into the auditorium – three pieces by Franz Liszt and contemporary work by Ligeti that I planned to hate, but didn’t.The plethora of master classes and student recitals over a nine-week festival season are, I gather, a chance to catch the rising stars of the classical world in their “I remember when” moments – akin to seeing the Beatles at the Cavern Club in Liverpool in 1961. Or not.But when a 14-year-old, cherubic Russian phenom sat down to play Liszt’s Etude No. 6 in G-sharp minor, she pretty much blew the audience away. I had to double-check to make sure she didn’t have 20 fingers when she stood up to take a bow. Someday I’ll be able to say, I saw Dasha Bukhartseva perform when.
“I think we have a flash of the young Liszt in this young lady,” said Schein, who offered plenty of tidbits from an extensive Liszt biography to accompany the music.”There’s not much to say. I didn’t teach her that – that’s clear,” her instructor added as the youngster left the stage.Actually, all of the students who performed, including Jose Meor, Esther Shin and Daniel Walden, impressed my untrained ear. If these are merely music students, I marveled, how good are the pros? And could I tell the difference?The master class prevented my attendance at the 10:30 a.m. Gotta Move! at the music school campus on Castle Creek Road. This free program was the school’s weekly aerobics session, for all I knew. (I later learned it’s a class for small children, so I might not have fit in so well.)I took my untrained ear over to Crossroads Church in the West End for another freebie – a chance to hone my listening skills at the Listener’s Master Class, led by local resident Tom Buesch.The weekly sessions, on Fridays at 12:30 p.m., constitute a free series of music appreciation courses for those who don’t know staccato from legato.The listener’s classes, now in their second year, could easily serve as a crash course in classical music, were one to attend them all. Buesch, a professor of humanities at Colorado Mountain College, focused on the classical era – playing recordings of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven and teaching his audience to listen for the musical forms that are the base of each composition.”Ah, key change,” he’d suddenly burst out during a Beethoven string quartet, while his pupils nodded in obvious agreement, or total oblivion.Each week, Buesch focuses on a different period of music. He’ll wrap up with modern music on July 20. Others will lead discussions relating to this year’s festival through Aug. 10.”I call it music appreciation lite,” said Buesch, who mixes musical history into the lessons, as well.I headed back to Harris Hall for the 3 p.m. Spotlight Recital, another free program featuring music students performing works that are only revealed when an usher hands attendees a sheet of paper. These young musicians apparently need no introduction, because they didn’t get one. Wordlessly, they stepped onstage and began to play.First came a cellist and pianist, performing a melodic Variations on a Theme of Rossini. Unfortunately, I was so relaxed by its conclusion, I admittedly dozed off for the next duet, performing Hindemith’s Viola Sonata, opus 11, No. 4. Not even Prokofiev’s angry Piano Sonata No. 6 in A major, opus 82, could fully rouse me, though pianist Jessica Wei Zhu earned a standing ovation from the 40 or 50 people in the audience.Earlier in the day, Buesch had offered this advice to devotees of classical music:”If you haven’t had it, cancel whatever you’re doing tomorrow and have your Beethoven period.”I think I’m off to a good start. Next up was the 4:45 p.m. Overtures: Preconcert Chamber Music at Harris Hall. Admission is free to those who present a ticket to the evening’s chamber symphony concert. I didn’t have one, so I paid for a $10 Overtures ticket.I came to learn Beethoven wrote 32 piano sonatas, and over a four-year span, the festival is presenting each of them. This is year three of the effort, but had I known, I might have made a point of hearing them all.Nonetheless, I settled in to listen to pianist Yoheved Kaplinsky, chair of the Juilliard School piano department, perform the Piano Sonata No. 18 in E-flat major, opus 31, No. 3.For this performance, Harris Hall was roughly half-full, with some middle-aged attendees sprinkled in with the music students and retirees who made up the bulk of the audience at each of the day’s prior events. My image of the festival’s public audience – gray-haired classical groupies – was at least partially confirmed. The day’s schedule was clearly best suited to those without job responsibilities, and I noted the senior set predominated at each event.It was the music students – Kaplinsky’s students, I presumed – who appeared most wowed by her performance. She earned a lengthy round of applause and shouts of approval, taking three bows.Outside, a line was forming for the free wine offered to chamber symphony ticket holders before the 6 p.m. concert in the tent. I noted the guy managing the wine was marking the backs of tickets to keep attendees from making multiple trips to the concession, so I handed him an overturned ticket to the Preconcert Chamber Music event and scored a free merlot with the rest of the crowd.Familiar faces dotted the crowd milling about outside the tent, as working locals turned out for the final event of the day. Tickets were $66 for the Aspen Chamber Symphony, so despite ominous skies, I was determined to stake out a free spot on the lawn for the performance. An acquaintance offered up a free concert ticket, but I declined and joined the growing throng in the cheap seats.The outdoor audience was sparred all but a few, brief sprinkles for the first half of the program, which included several departures from the usual classical fare: Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony, Ives’ Four Ragtime Dances and Revueltas’ mariachi-ish Ocho por radio, featuring a pared-down group of musicians.I braced to endure Stravinsky’s Quatre tudes, having heard his work performed at the festival before. I prefer classical music by composers who died centuries ago. Anything written in the 20th century tends to leave me cold and Stravinsky died when I was 11 years old – not a good sign. It must not have been too grating, through, because it was over before I knew it.Meandering in the crowd during intermission, a stranger offered me a ticket to get into the tent for the finale. This time, I accepted.The eagerly anticipated performance of the Beethoven concerto by Shaham more than met my novice expectations, but the crowd erupted at its close and the ovation didn’t subside until he’d taken five bows, several with Zinman.I clapped enthusiastically, but I can’t help noticing the festival audience is often eager to jump to its feet.My untrained ear is never sure if it was that good or not. Ultimately, I decided it doesn’t matter. It was good enough for me.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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