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An introduction to the Aspen Music Festival by Harvey Steiman


I come to Aspen every summer to enjoy the music festival, but being here in Colorado is as much of an attraction. The Rocky Mountains offer some of the greatest scenery in the world, and the restaurants around here can give most big American cities a run for their money.

A typical day for us starts with an early morning walk, while the mountain air still has a 12-degree (C.) nip in it, on one of the main walking and biking trials that snake through Aspen and the surrounding upper Roaring Fork Valley. From our apartment itís about 2.5 miles to the point where the Rio Grande Trail, following the Roaring Fork River, crosses under Cemetary Lane, where one can catch a free bus back into town. Past Cemetary Lane the trail goes through a secluded canyon and all the way to Basalt, some 15 miles northwest. Sometimes we walk a mile or two into it.

We're back in time for breakfast and, often, a nap. Sometimes there is a morning master class at Harris Hall featuring the likes of mezzo soprano Susanne Mentzer or pianist Leon Fleisher working with outstanding student musicians. Or maybe an open rehearsal. There are always several smaller master classes at the Music School. I always enjoy cellist Yehuda Hananiís because of his articulate and passionate insights into the art of music making.

Wednesdays a program called High Notes, held at Paepcke Auditorium in the Aspen Institute, features musicians talking about music. A few weeks ago, the Emerson Quartet engaged in a rousing conversation with UCLA musicologist Robert Winter. This week, the creative team behind the American premier of H.K. Gruber's opera Gloria: A Pigtale talks about the piece, which opens Saturday.

The major concerts are held at the 2,000-seat Benedict Music Tent, which opened in 2000 having replaced a creaky concrete-and-canvas structure that was acoustically dry. The new tent is actually a permanent building in the shape of a tent, acoustically live and big enough to accommodate the 142-piece orchestra that played Varese's Ameriques recently with room to spare. Immediately adjacent is Harris Hall, sunken into the ground, which seats 500 in an acoustically perfect auditorium (the New York Times called it "the Carnegie Hall of the Rockies").

In a typical week, Monday evenings offer a grab-bag of chamber music at the Music Tent by faculty players, with occasional gems such as this past Monday's loving performance of the Ravel piano trio played by violinist Ayako Yonetani, cellist Anthony Elliott and pianist Jean-David Coen.

Tuesdays often feature free concerts in the tent by the American Academy of Conducting, a project started in 2000 by Zinman that gives young conductors in the 20s and 30s a chance to work with a live orchestra in rehearsal and in performance. All the conductors play in the orchestra, which is filled out with other students.

Wednesday evenings itís the all-student Aspen Concert Orchestra, and Thursdays itís "An Evening With..." featuring international solo artists in programs they choose with other musician friends. This yearís concerts feature the likes of Joshua Bell, Leon Fleisher, Lynn Harrell and the American String Quartet.

Friday evening the weekend whirl starts and thereís hardly time to stop for a meal. The Aspen Chamber Orchestra, which mixes faculty and students, plays Friday evenings under such conductors as Zinman, Alan Gilbert and James Conlon. Saturday morning is the opera scenes master class in which student singers prepare scenes from operas famous and not-so-famous, and director Edward Berkeley, head of the Julliard opera program, works with the students to improve the scenes. At most of the sessions they are accompanied only by piano, but for two Saturdays the Academy of Conducting orchestra is in the pit, giving young conductors a chance to show what they can do. Conlon, conductor of the Paris Opera, does one morning working on arias. Saturday afternoon is a chamber music concert in intimate Harris Hall, and Saturday nights are special concerts such as recitals by guitarist Sharon Isbin or the International Sejong Soloists.

Sundays are always busy. I always like to attend the voice master class at the Music School, in which faculty (including tenor Vinson Cole and Mentzer) work with very promising young singers on their technique and interpretation of arias and art songs. There is a lot of talent this year. At 4, itís the major concert of the week, featuring the Festival Orchestra, with prime faculty and student players under such conductors as Zinman, Conlon, David Robertson and Peter Oundjian, and thereís often a recital or a special event at Harris Hall Sunday evenings.

This goes on for nine weeks, more than 200 concerts in all, the United Statesí biggest and busiest summer music program. Some 800 young musicians in their teens and 20s rub shoulders with great musicians in orchestras, in lessons and on the streets of Aspen. (So do we. The next person in line at City Market might be Joshua Bell or Robert McDuffie, and in the relaxed atmosphere of this festival, theyíre happy to chat. You will also see them in the audience at each otherís concerts.)

And Iíve left out a few things. To see more complete information on the festival and school, including the impressive bios of the faculty, check out the excellent web site --

Harvey Steiman

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