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Aspen Music Festival faces 'crippling' expenses, embraces diverse sounds as summer season starts

Aspen Music Festival and School

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Eleanor Bennett, host:

The 73rd Aspen Music Festival kicked off Thursday. As has been the case every summer since 1949, the Festival will offer classical favorites — but, this year, it will also feature an array of diverse musical styles you don’t normally associate with the classics.

Our music festival correspondent Chris Mohr brings us a conversation with the leader of the Aspen Music Festival and School.

Chris Mohr: Their opening orchestral concert on Friday features Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue," a classic of musical diversity, combining elements of jazz with romantic classical music — as Gershwin said, “Making Lady Jazz respectable”

Mohr: Alan Fletcher, president and CEO of Aspen Music Festival and School, has committed to deepening the diversity of musical styles being presented in the Tent. While Beethoven is part of the canon of traditional classical programming, these “traditions” left a lot of other composers in the shadows.

Fletcher: And so we're going back through history and looking at the contributions of composers who have been forgotten or were never recognized in the right way. As you say, since our very beginning in the '50s, we had a tradition of new music. And we're proud to continue that, and especially to look for diverse voices in new music.

Mohr-Fletcher interview: Can you give us some examples. I mean, I saw a mariachi band coming over here — maybe you can tell us a little bit about that concert and other concerts that have very different kinds of musical approaches than then you might expect from a classical music festival.

Fletcher: We're super happy about mariachi. This is going to be July 27 at 5:30 p.m. in the tent. It's a free concert. Tickets are not required. There's going to be a sort of fiesta before it with a taco truck and, evidently, tequila tasting.

Mohr: This is Mariachi Sol de mi Tierra. They perform on July 27. String students from Aspen Music School will learn Mariachi techniques. The performance will also feature the Folklorico of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. So, there is diverse music. There is also a wide range of instruments on the main stage — including some that you might not associate with classical music.

Mohr-Fletcher interview: You have a saxophonist — I don't remember her name — but I see her on the program a couple times. Can you talk a little bit about that, because that's an instrument that has always been sort of a forgotten stepchild of the classical repertoire — even though saxophones have appeared off and on, but not as one of the central instruments of a traditional orchestra.

Fletcher: Yeah, interesting. Jess Gillam is the person you're mentioning. Steven Banks, also a brilliant young saxophonist from New York, is going to be with us. Partly, this was Nick McGenan’s idea, another favorite of ours. And he does a Baroque evening. He's going to do concertos originally written for classical reed instruments with saxophone. And when he proposed this, I said, “I think Bach would have loved that.” Obviously, the saxophone didn't exist when Bach was writing, but I think no composer in history was more full of adaptation and improvisation to fit the moment as was Bach. And so I think the idea that these wonderful musicians who play the saxophone can now play this Baroque repertoire is going to be great.

Mohr: The music festival’s program also has an abundant helping of audience favorites: violinists Gil Shaham and Bobby McDuffie, pianist Joyce Yang, soprano Renée Fleming, and guitarist Sharon Isbin. Many of these beloved artists were here as students in their younger years. Sharon Isbin will be adding to the diverse musical palette when she joins forces with Indian sarod and tabla players for her Strings for Peace Project.

Fletcher: And I think all of those people were students, and some of them are on our faculty, as well. But we're just delighted to have them with us every year. And yet, we've always had a focus on debut artists. It's, if you will, part of our business model to find brilliant young people, give them a start, and then they — as Gil for instance, has done his whole life — return the favor and are with us. Renée Fleming is another example of that. A really great example is the young man — 18 years old — who won the Van Cliburn competition last week.

Mohr: That 18-year-old is Yunchan Lim. On July 28, he’ll perform in recital at Harris concert hall. Here he is in his winning performance at the Van Cliburn playing Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto.

Fletcher: This is one of the great, great talents that I've seen in my whole career. And we're just thrilled that he's going to be here.

Mohr: When it comes to orchestral concerts, there will be at least three every week. But Wednesday’s Aspen Philharmonic concerts had to be canceled because they just couldn’t find lodging for 80 students in the red-hot Aspen housing market. Even with the cuts, the festival is still spending a record amount on housing — more than $2.5 million. And housing is not the only expense that has hit the roof. Moving hundreds of Steinway pianos around is also astronomically expensive.

Fletcher: People can appreciate the cost of shipping these days. We have an agreement with Steinway, which we're very fortunate to have, and they send out 200 or so Steinways from their warehouse, but the shipping of the pianos this year was just a crippling expense. Now, we have room on the campus during the summer, but then all these pianos are actually sold already. In days past, we would have a Steinway sale at the end of the season, and people could come and look at the pianos on stage. But this year, they are all sold.

Mohr-Fletcher interview: Well, Alan, we're really looking forward to another season. There's a lot happening and a lot to look at. What is it, something like 220 concerts or something?

Fletcher: More than that.

Mohr-Fletcher interview: Really?

Fletcher: Yep.

Mohr-Fletcher interview: Wonderful. So a day doesn't go by when you don't have an opportunity to hear music starting very, very soon at the Aspen Music Festival and School. Thanks again, Alan.

Fletcher: Thank you.

Bennett: That was Chris Mohr, with our Edlis Neeson arts and culture desk, in conversation with Alan Fletcher, president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School.

Classical music reporter Chris Mohr has loved classical music since he was twelve. “And I owe it all to radio,” Chris explains. “I grew up in a farm town east of Cleveland. One day I turned on the local classical radio station. They were playing Vivaldi, and it was like the gates of heaven opened up to me!" Chris is also a composer, and is working on a 53-note-to-the-octave oratorio, "Melodies of the Shoreless Sea." This is his ninth summer working for Aspen Public Radio.
Dominic joined the Edlis Neeson arts and culture desk at Aspen Public Radio in Jan. 2022.
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