It began 40 years ago as a Goethe festival, in honor of the 200th anniversary of the German poet's birth. Since then its horizons have expanded to include two full months of lectures and concerts and a music school, all of which draw 90,000 visitors a year to this Colorado resort town.
So much so that old-timers can be heard to lament that some of the old intimacy is gone from the Aspen Music Festival. Yet it doesn't take long to find a Southern California couple up here for the ninth year in a row - as much for the cycling as the concerts, they admit. (They might have added the horses, the gondola rides and the hot-air balloons.)Moreover, although the days when Perlman and Zukerman were annual guests appear to be a thing of the past, Misha Dichter and his piano-duo wife Cipa are here for their 15th summer. And Ballet West, long the linchpin of what is now called DanceAspen, has been coming here for 20 years.
To the first-time visitor, there is also very much a family atmosphere. Thus conductor Leonard Slatkin, himself an Aspen Music School alumnus, in dedicating part of his Aug. 6 program with the Aspen Festival Orchestra to the late Walter Susskind recalled not only the latter's tenure as music director of the festival (1964-68) but how that association led to Slatkin's appointment as his assistant in St. Louis, where not coincidentally he himself is music director today. Were that not enough, the same program featured his cellist brother Frederick (who spells his last name Zlotkin) as soloist in Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme.
Those performances took place in "the Tent," officially the 1,700-seat Aspen Amphitheater, whose high-ceilinged canvas covering comes down every winter while its metal-and-concrete superstructure remains intact. Seating is non-reserved, with an even more open atmosphere available on the lawn, where a fair number of concertgoers set up deck chairs and blankets to enjoy that afternoon's or evening's music outdoors.
Much of it, moreover, they are likely to be hearing for the first time. Almost from the first, Aspen has prided itself on its emphasis on the new. The Conference on Contemporary Music, for example, goes back as far as 1951 (when its director was Darius Milhaud) and since 1985 Harvard's Fromm Music Foundation has sponsored a week of programs at various locations around town.
This summer that was July 25-Aug. 1, falling almost squarely in the center of the 1989 festival's June 22-Aug. 20 calendar. But even though our visit came directly after, we were not shortchanged vis-a-vis new-music.
Soprano Arleen Auger's Aug. 3 recital, for instance, featured her not only in songs of Schumann (including the Op. 42 "Frauenliebe und -leben") but, following intermission, in yet another meditation on love from the woman's point of view, Minnesota composer Libby Larsen's "Sonnets From the Portuguese," based on poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
pains to characterize it not as a premiere but as "a work in progress." As such it strikes me as an attractive cycle, haunting in its bittersweet poignancy and quasi-impressionistic rapture. It profited, moreover, from the same smooth delivery and faultless diction Auger had brought to the Schumann, here a bit bland at times but enhanced by her expert shading of the text and subtle visual reinforcement - for example, pulling back just a bit into the curve of the piano on the eighth song of the "Frauenliebe," which deals with withdrawal.
Nor was the Aug. 6 Festival Orchestra concert any slouch in the new-music department, offering in addition to the Tchaikovsky one of the first performances outside the Soviet Union of Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin's "Stykhira" ("Hymn"), premiered last year in Washington, and a revival of American composer William Bolcom's 1976 Piano Concerto, premiered with him at the keyboard that same year in Seattle.
In fact the two pieces have several things in common, not least their celebration of their respective countries' older musical traditions. In Shchedrin's case that is the liturgical music of Russian Orthodoxy, from the chantlike invocation by the cellos to the tolling bells of the climax. As with most of this composer's music (e.g., the "Carmen Ballet") the end result strikes me as longer on effect than substance. But there is more of the latter than usual and for once the effects have been employed in its service.
Bolcom's Bicentennial offering, by contrast, is, in his words, "a movie-like collage of all we have come to love and hate about our own country . . . one of the bitterest pieces I have ever written." The upshot, at least in the first two movements, is a semi-hallucinatory reworking of Gershwin's Concerto in F, culminating in a cacophanously Ivesian finale incorporating everything from "Yankee Doodle" to "Dixie," "Columbia the Gem of the Ocean" and "Taps." ("As soon as I saw that trumpeter march offstage," a colleague observed, "I knew we were going to hear it again at the close.")
On this occasion Slatkin and piano soloist Emanuel Ax gave it their all. Just the same the gestures remain too obvious, the dissonant undercuttings too calculated, to convey real conviction.
That was not true of the Tchaikovsky, here given a warmly affectionate reading, or Hindemith's "Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber," its striding vigor making up for a few rough edges. Indeed, they may have contributed to its sense of brashness and enthusiasm in a performance further abetted by the presence of faculty principals among the woodwinds.
That same energy, and a remarkable degree of soloistic skill, were evident to a lesser degree in Slatkin's Aug. 4 performance with the Aspen Chamber Symphony of Ginastera's "Variaciones Concertantes." On the same program he and soloist Misha Dichter managed to compress both the sound and the emotion of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, in a tautly controlled reading that somehow diminished the work's adventurousness. And although soprano Lucy Shelton applied herself with a will to Britten's "Les Illuminations," the orchestra managed to shed more light on that cycle than did her effortful singing and often-strained diction.
That concert ended at 8, leaving just enough time to dash over to the high school for the second act of Ballet West's "Swan Lake" and preview performances of the Elgarian suite for three couples, "Salut d'Amour," and Peter Anastos Trocks-like spoof of the ballet world, "The Gilded Bat."
On this exposure the last goes on a bit too long for what it sets out to do. But I will not quickly forget the dance on snowshoes (in the spoof-within-a-spoof, "Oiseau de Glace") or artistic director John Hart as the smoking-jacketed onstage narrator. Since that night's performance also found company founder Willam F. Christensen in the audience "checking out the new kids," as he explained, it was almost like old-home week. Or, as I said, a family atmosphere.
Performances run through Aug. 20. For ticket information call (303) 925-9042.