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The 70th Anniversary Season at the Aspen Music Festival and School Examines American Identity

Andrew Travers | May 29, 2019 | Lifestyle

Nicholas McGegan

When the Aspen Music Festival and School announced the Being American theme for its 70th anniversary season, it—like most everything in the United States in 2019—proved unnecessarily divisive.

AMFS President and CEO Alan Fletcher says that some observers assumed, incorrectly, that it was a nationalistic statement aligned with the right-wing #MAGA faction. Quite the contrary, the season’s themed concerts are decidedly apolitical affairs that aim to explore American identity in music, which has been defined and redefined often through works by immigrants and refugees seeking freedom and opportunity. “First-generation immigrant families have always been at the center of classical music in America,” says Fletcher.

Missy Mazzoli

He notes that the Germans and Scandinavians who settled most upper Midwestern cities began by building a church, a brewery and an orchestra; that Hollywood film music was developed by central European émigrés; and that Asian-born American artists have been classical music’s biggest stars for a generation.

Renée Fleming

With an opening weekend that includes Joyce Yang performing George Gershwin’s Piano Concert in F major with Robert Spano conducting the Aspen Festival Orchestra (June 30), the season’s themed concerts also boast Gershwin’s Catfish Row suite based on his opera Porgy and Bess; Aaron Copland’s Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo and Appalachian Spring; vital works by Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein; and pieces by contemporary giants such as John Adams, Christopher Theofanidis and Wynton Marsalis, whose violin concerto will be performed by Nicola Benedetti and the Aspen Philharmonic Aug. 7.

The Aspen Opera Center presents Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (July 11, 13 and 15) and a concert performance of Missy Mazzoli’s groundbreaking 2018 opera, Proving Up, July 30.

Joyce Yang

A running subtheme presents pieces based on works by American writers such as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe.

As always, the year’s theme doesn’t dominate the whole season, which also includes major performances of symphonies by Mahler, Dvoƙák, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky, as well as appropriate helpings of Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. The summer also hails the return of superstar soprano Renée Fleming (Aug. 1), conductor Nicholas McGegan (July 5, 10 and 11), and premieres of new works by Edgar Meyer, Donald Crockett, Stephen Hartke and Conrad Tao.

“A question for classical music in the U.S. has always been, ‘What makes music sound American, if anything?’” Fletcher says. Looking back on seven decades as a premier American musical institution, he and his team thought it apropos to ask the question in its programming. Over eight weeks, with more than 400 events and concerts on the docket, the vaunted festival will offer audiences some answers. June 27-Aug. 18, passes from $425 (individual event tickets available), times and locations vary


Photography by: Nicholas mcgegen photo by rj muna | missy mazzoli photo by Caroline Tompkins | Joyce yang photo by kt kim