Aspen Music Festival and School to highlight works of reflection

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Correspondent

Sensitive guys with acoustic guitars and flannel shirts were not the first to gain artistic inspiration by looking into their own souls and stories.

As the Aspen Music Festival and School is set to demonstrate, the practice dates back some two centuries at least.

The Music Festival’s 2005 summer season, which opened this week, explores the theme of self-portraits. Highlighted concerts include works by Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Mahler and others who probed their own histories and emotions to create their music.

That doesn’t translate into piece after stormy piece as the stereotypical tormented composer pours his anguish onto the page. Audiences will have no trouble finding the depths of tortured feeling, in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 ” the “Pathetique” ” and Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, both written as the composers faced their deaths. But in the musical self-portraits there are also expressions of joy, reserve and even the depiction of day-to-day life.

The autobiographical theme begins on an upbeat note. The Aspen Chamber Symphony concert on Friday, with conductor Nicholas McGegan, features Haydn’s Symphony No. 30 in C major, the “Alleluja” symphony.

“It’s an expression of thanksgiving,” said Asadour Santourian, the festival’s artistic advisor. “Haydn had just been given the job to be the composer in Prince Esterhazy’s court. It’s the first time he had a full orchestra to work with, and it’s his expression of thanks for that.”

Friday’s concert includes another inward-looking piece in Britten’s “Two Portraits.” One of the portraits is of the composer himself, the other of a friend. Most significantly, the works were written when Britten was 16, and the self-portrait provides a glimpse inside the young artist. There’s “a very doleful viola solo; Britten was a violist,” Santourian said. “It’s a picture of a very staid, very reserved young man. That’s how he saw himself.”

Strauss, whom Santourian calls “the quintessential prototype” of the self-examining composer, is spotlighted three times in the summer. The Aspen Festival Orchestra will perform his Symphonia Domestica on Sunday with Aspen Music Festival music director David Zinman conducting. Santourian will give a pre-concert talk touching on Strauss’ piece.

It’s “a straight chronology, like a journal almost,” Santourian said of Symphonia Domestica. “It’s a day in the life of Richard Strauss. It’s not a reaction to an event, or his feelings. It’s ‘I rose from bed and did some composing; my wife did her chores; we played.’

“And in the hands of a great composer, he turns it into a tour de force.”

The Aspen Chamber Symphony revisits Strauss with its semi-staged performance of the opera “Intermezzo” (July 22), conducted by Zinman and directed by Edward Berkeley; and “Ein Heldenleben,” part of the Aspen Festival Orchestra’s Aug. 14 concert, also conducted by Zinman.

“Intermezzo” revolves around an actual incident in the composer’s life, involving an intimate note accidentally sent to Strauss and intercepted by his wife. The opera relates the anecdote and the marital discord that ensued. “Ein Heldenleben” ” or “A Hero’s Life” ” is a more abstract depiction of the relationship.

“He’s the big sweeping opening tune; he imagined himself as quite a hero,” Santourian said. “And his wife is the violin solo, and it’s one of the most difficult violin solos in the repertoire. And yet it’s quite saccharin.”

Bartok’s Piano Concerto is set for the July 1 Aspen Chamber Symphony concert with conductor Andreas Delfs and pianist Andreas Haefliger. The composer wrote the piece in the final days of his life. The commission came while Bartok was on holiday in North Carolina, as he suffered from leukemia. Unlike Mahler’s Ninth and Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, also with a consciousness of impending death, the music conveys a sense of acceptance.

“He was listening to the birds sing, and he transcribed that into a piano concerto, with a sort of calm,” Santourian said. “There’s a state of mind encrypted into the music, rather than an action.”

Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony is one of the more striking examples of self-portraiture. It is the centerpiece of a program, “Shadows and Voices: The Last Days of Tchaikovsky,” on Aug. 7 that combines the music with acting by Michael York and others. Premiered weeks before the composer’s 1893 suicide, the work features a violent range of sounds and practically disappears in the slow movement on which it ends.

“He dropped the veil of reserve he had maintained throughout his life,” Santourian said, “and really poured his heart into this music, almost as a confessional. It was definitely a departure.”

The festival concludes on Aug. 21 with James Conlon conducting the Aspen Festival Orchestra in Mahler’s Ninth. It is an appropriate piece, whose tolling bells, funereal tones and chaotic structure reveal the composer’s imminent death.

The 56th Aspen Music Festival runs through Aug. 21 with daily presentations, including chamber and orchestral music, opera, recitals, lectures, benefit events and more. For a full schedule, go to

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