Aspen Festival To Mark 75 Years As Wellspring Of Musical Nourishment

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The Michael Klein Music Tent during the 2015 Aspen Music Festival and School season (Wikipedia)

ASPEN — In the mid-1960s, Leonard Slatkin spent four invaluable summers at the Aspen Music Festival and School as a student. Now an internationally renowned conductor and one of the festival’s oldest alumni at 79, he has returned regularly as a professional since he became assistant conductor of the St. Louis Symphony in 1968.

Though the once-sleepy mining town high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains has turned into a chichi destination for the well-to-do, what first made the festival a draw for Slatkin and so many others has not changed: world-class music-making, musical camaraderie, and unbeatable scenery. “Aspen continues to be a remarkable place,” he said.

Slatkin made a point of including Aspen on his summer schedule in 2024 so that he could help the festival celebrate its 75th anniversary during a season that runs June 26-Aug. 18. He will lead the Aspen Festival Orchestra July 21 in an essentially all-American program (Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 was written and premiered in the United States) that tips its hat to aspects of the festival history.

It includes the first piece Slatkin conducted at Aspen in 1964 — Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings — as well as “The Infernal Machine” from Phantasmata by Christopher Rouse, a longtime faculty member at the festival. “We finish up with [George Gershwin’s] American in Paris, because we should,” Slatkin said. “It’s nice to have that opportunity.”

Leonard Slatkin, one of the Aspen Music Festival’s oldest alumni, conducting at Aspen

The concert will be among more than 250 performances, master classes, lectures, and other events during this celebratory season, as the festival welcomes alumni spanning more than 50 years and offers a series of special reminiscence concerts. “We are so excited about the summer,” said Alan Fletcher, who is his entering his 19th summer as president and chief executive officer. “We were able, thanks to a lot of fundraising, to just do everything we wanted to do.”   

Aspen ranks among the world’s most esteemed summer classical-music festivals, with a long list of eminent alumni that includes violinist Joshua Bell, soprano Renée Fleming, composer Philip Glass, soprano Barbara Hendricks, violinist Nigel Kennedy, and pianist Yuja Wang.  

What sets the annual event apart from the dozens of others in the U.S. and beyond is its size, longevity, and unparalleled educational mission. Fletcher calls Aspen the largest “classical-music teaching festival” in the world. “Our specific identity is as a place of teaching and performing,” he said.

Igor Stravinsky conducting at Aspen in 1950

Unlike, say, the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Mass., which serves as the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and also has a training orchestra, Aspen’s main ensembles, like the Aspen Festival Orchestra or Aspen Chamber Symphony, are composed primarily of students who play alongside professionals in principal roles as mentors. Music director Robert Spano called it the festival’s “most salient feature.”

“I don’t know of any place that does it to the extent that we do it,” he said. “It’s a very effective pedagogical method.”

The Aspen Music Festival was founded in 1949 by Chicago businessman Walter Paepcke and his wife, Elizabeth, emerging from what began as a two-week celebration of the 18th-century writer Johanna Wolfgang von Goethe. In 1950, Igor Stravinsky became the first composer to lead his own works at the festival.

That same year, the festival enrolled its first class — 183 students. When Slatkin came in the 1960s, the faculty doubled as guest artists for the three or four concerts each week. The school had no facilities of its own, and the orchestra rehearsed at the local high school. And, of course, Aspen itself was much smaller and sleepier, with homey, now-defunct restaurants like the Copper Kettle and Pinocchio’s, a pizzeria. “In some ways, the ruggedness of it all added to the charm of it,” Slatkin said. “There were no traffic lights, I remember that. It was a whole different atmosphere.”

Because Alisa Weilerstein’s parents were both on the artist faculty at Aspen, the 42-year-old cellist first came to the festival as a 3-month-old baby, and she estimates she spent 16 of the first 18 summers of her life there, including many as a student. She made her first appearance at the festival as a professional when she was 26. “Other than maybe two COVID summers, I’ve gone every year since then,” she said. “I love it there.”

As a student at Aspen, she studied with Zara Nelsova, the “closest thing that cellists have to an operatic diva,” and David Finckel, attended inspiring concerts, and made enduring friends. She especially remembers playing in the opera pit orchestra when she was just 14, an experience that taught her how to follow singers. “For me personally, it’s been an invaluable place for the total package of experiences that one can have there,” she said.   

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein has traveled to Aspen since she was an infant.

Other key figures in the festival’s history include violin pedagogue Dorothy DeLay, who began teaching at the festival in 1971 and attracted scores of students, and pianist Rosina Lhévinne. Among the festival’s leaders, few had more impact than Gordon Hardy, who served first as dean and then president in 1977-89, a time when several integral programs began, including the Aspen Opera Theater Center.

The Aspen School reached a peak of 1,100 students in 2000 before Fletcher’s predecessor, Robert Harth, cut it to 750. Fletcher sliced it further after he arrived in 2006, with the goal of improving the experience of each participating student and making sure he or she had ample time on stage. Because of soaring housing costs, the festival was forced to trim that number to about 480 in 2022, eliminating one of its performance ensembles, the Aspen Philharmonic, at the same time. Fletcher believes that number is ideal, with about 60 percent of those students coming from the United States and the rest from abroad.

Another big change came in 2016, when the festival completed a $75 million reconstruction of what is now known as the Matthew and Carolyn Bucksbaum Campus, a 38-acre site two miles from the town’s downtown that the festival shares with the Aspen Country Day School. The project, which included three new rehearsal halls, 80 practice rooms, and administrative offices, was designed by architect Harry Teague, who was also responsible for Aspen’s Harris Concert Hall and Klein Music Tent.

Robert Spano, music director of the Fort Worth (Texas) Symphony Orchestra, became Aspen’s music director in 2012. He and Fletcher have tried to refine and update several of the school’s programs. “Really, it’s been a journey to take something and to try to find ways to make it even more effective and better and a more valuable educational experience,” Spano said.

In 2019, the festival announced that Fleming and conductor Patrick Summers would launch a new opera program, known as the Aspen Opera Theater and VocalARTS, building on what Edward Berkeley, the longtime director of the opera program, had established and giving it more star power. The result, according to Fletcher, has been an influx of an even higher level of young talent — singers on the cusp of winning major competitions and making important debuts.

The great violin teacher Dorothy DeLay with the young Midori at Aspen in 1986 (Photo by Charles Abbott)

Spano and Fletcher, who are both composers, put a particular emphasis on revamping the composition program. Instead of two four-week sessions, with participants only able to take part in one per summer, participating composers now come for one eight-week session. The switch came under Steven Stucky. After Stucky died in 2016, Christopher Theofanidis was named a co-director of what is known as the Schumann Center for Composition Studies, becoming sole director in 2022.

Each year, Theofanidis is joined by a principal guest composer, and many of the composers who have premieres or other works featured at the festival make teaching appearances. Last year, Anthony Davis, composer of operas like X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, served as principal guest composer, and this year it will be Missy Mazzoli, former composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Ten young composers, chosen annually from 120-150 applicants, are each required to bring two new works with them for the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble and Aspen Conducting Academy Orchestra. Three of the participants are chosen to work with orchestra members on revisions of their works, and the resulting versions and changes they underwent are showcased during a concert, which this year will take place on Aug. 10. In addition, each composer writes a short scene during the summer for members of the opera program.

Aspen has had a rich history of prominent composers who have visited, taught and/or had works featured, including Benjamin Britten, Aaron Copland, Darius Milhaud, Nico Muhly, and Kaija Saariaho. Theofanidis believes new music is “in the bloodstream” of the festival, and the composition program draws on that momentum and sense of community. “People are very happy to be in nature and a very beautiful place,” he said. “The energy level is very high from the students. The number of people they come across in a very concentrated period of time creates a different relationship to music.”

Violinist Gil Shaham with conductor Robert Spano at Aspen (Photo by Carlin Ma)

This year’s milestone season, Spano said, provides Aspen with a chance to take stock of its values and goals. “The 75th anniversary feels like an opportunity to look backward but also to look forward,” he said. “It’s something that’s always on my mind and always on Alan’s mind — how we honor our past and who we are, but also how we move into the future.”

One thing that does seem clear is that Spano is not leaving any time soon. Even though he will begin a new job in 2025 as music director of the Washington (D.C.) National Opera, he said he will be able to juggle his multiple positions with no problem. “I just love the experience at Aspen so much,” he said. “I know I’ve got to leave sometime, but I’m not ready.”