Aspen Music Festival announces American-themed 2019 season
The Aspen Times
The Aspen Music Festival and School’s eight-week, 400-event summer 2019 season will explore questions of American identity under the theme “Being American.”
Themed orchestral performances and recitals will include Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” (Aug. 15), George Gershwin’s “Catfish Row” suite from “Porgy and Bess” (June 28) and Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” Symphonic Dances (July 26) and works by contemporary American and immigrant composers alongside works by icons like Charles Ives, Samuel Barber, Wynton Marsalis, Stephen Sondheim and Philip Glass.
The festival is celebrating both its 70th anniversary and the 20th anniversary of the new Benedict Music Tent this summer. With those milestones, the season announcement states, “it felt like the right time — as one of America’s flagship arts institutions — to ask, through the lens of great music, what it means to be American.”
Aspen Music Festival President and CEO Alan Fletcher said the organization settled on the theme without reference to the current roiling political debate about American identity and immigration. Instead, he said in an interview, it was inspired by the anniversaries and the long-running question of what makes music sound American.
“My interest in it was more historical, but it does link us to the current moment,” Fletcher said, “because classical music in the U.S. has always been very heavily influenced by recent immigrants.”
As the festival has unofficially teased out the American theme to the public since last summer, Fletcher said, he has received some surprisingly heated feedback that has included emails from locals along the lines of “obviously you have been co-opted by your Republican board members.” The season will prove out, he said, that the theme is in keeping with the festival’s long-established nonpartisan and non-ideological artistic programming.
American classical music culture, he noted, has been defined and redefined over the centuries. First by the European founders of Midwestern cities who ingrained orchestras in their city planning, then by a wave of Eastern European immigration that brought composers Copland, Gershwin and Irving Berlin, followed by the influx of immigrants fleeing fascism in the 1930s including Bartok, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Korngold and, most recently, by the wave of Asian-born Americans and first-generation Americans who have become leading artists and teachers of today.
All of these strains of American music will be represented in the summer season.
“The fact that it is current, in terms of our politics, is not the main point of this,” Fletcher said. “It’s just an inescapable point.”
When Fletcher and his colleagues decided upon the theme, he said, the first work they agreed on presenting was Copland’s enduring orchestral suite “Appalachian Spring,” which violinist Robert McDuffie will perform at Harris Concert Hall (the Aspen Festival Orchestra also will perform Copland’s Four Dance Episodes from “Rodeo” on July 14 and the Aspen Philharmonic will perform his Symphony No. 3 on Aug. 7).
The festival’s opening weekend (June 27 to 30) includes the premiere of a new Edgar Meyer orchestral work, Gershwin’s “Catfish Row” suite from “Porgy and Bess” and pianist Joyce Yang performing Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F major with the Aspen Festival Orchestra.
The Aspen Opera Center will stage productions of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” (July 11 to 13) and Mozart’s “Le nozze di Figaro (Aug. 13 to 17) along with a concert performance of Music Festival alum Missy Mazzoli’s acclaimed 2018 opera “Proving Up” (July 30).
“She was a student with us not so long ago and has become one of the most interesting composers working in the U.S. today,” Fletcher said of Mazzoli.
The superstar soprano and Music Fest alum Renee Fleming — who canceled her summer 2018 appearance — will return to Aspen to perform “Penelope” with the Emerson String Quartet (Aug. 1).
On Aug. 7, Wynton Marsalis’ Violin Concerto will be performed by Nicola Benedetti, for whom Marsalis wrote the 2016 piece, with the Aspen Philharmonic Orchestra.
“If you had to say, ‘What is a distinctly American character?’ One of the big answers would be jazz,” Fletcher said. “And who is more powerful than Wynton, who is classically trained and yet everything he does is saturated with jazz?”
Fletcher noted that Marsalis’ violin concerto is probably the New Orleans jazz man’s “most classical concert work,” but that it is still deeply infused by the jazz idiom.
Also on the jazz front, in its annual co-presentation with Jazz Aspen Snowmass, the festival will host singer Gregory Porter in a tribute to Nat King Cole (June 29).
The summer also is peppered with works inspired by American literature, with a focus on Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe.
“In terms of American identity in the arts, I think literature is much easier to talk about than music,” Fletcher said. “So we chose those four figures — each having such a powerful message for the world.”
Literary-themed programs include Holst’s Walt Whitman Overture (July 5), Jake Heggie’s Suite from “Moby Dick” (July 14) and Copland’s “12 Poems of Emily Dickinson” (July 27).
The Music Fest is planning a massive anniversary program for its 75th anniversary in 2024, so the 70th celebrations will be relatively muted.
“This is not the main event,” Fletcher said. “But because it is also the tent’s anniversary, it seems like a good time to look back on the composers who have been important to the history of Aspen and the alumni.”
And while the American theme runs through the entire season, there is a robust program of non-themed concerts and works from the core classical repertoire.
“I think we have some great diversions from the theme,” Fletcher said.
Among them are Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 (July 28) and Symphony No. 2 (Aug. 18) both performed by the Aspen Festival Orchestra under Music Festival conductor Robert Spano, the Aspen Philharmonic Orchestra performing Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (July 10) and Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 by the Aspen Festival Orchestra (June 30), his Piano Concerto No. 2 with soloist Seong-Jin Cho and conductor Leonard Slatkin (July 21) and his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with pianist Nikolai Lugansky and conductor James Gaffigan (Aug. 4).
The season will close with the return of the vocal ensemble Seraphic Fire, which in 2018 led the inaugural season of its Professional Choral Institute at the Aspen Music Festival and gave post-season concerts at the Benedict.
Seraphic Fire this year will end the summer season performing Bach’s “Actus tragicus” cantata and Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with their students, the Aspen Festival Orchestra and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus at the Benedict (Aug. 18). Choral students will perform a postseason recital three days later at Harris Concert Hall.
The Music Festival’s 2019 student body is expected to draw 690 musicians from 40 states and 34 countries.
Tickets for the season go on sale today.