The Aspen Music Festival and School in Colorado is a celebration of classical music like no other. Founded in 1949, it hosts over 600 students from around the world for eight weeks of intense study with top tutors, world-class performance opportunities and a whole load of fun. And generous scholarships ensure many of them don’t pay a penny despite returning three, sometimes four seasons in a row. For the audiences that descend on Aspen for the summer, there are more than 300 events to savour, from masterclasses and talks to orchestral concerts and recitals. It’s an environment that blurs boundaries between student and master, as each feeds off the other for new insights and reminders of the magic of ensemble music-making.
And in a festival of Aspen's scale and ambition, magic isn't hard to find, sometimes revealing itself in the most unlikely of places… Here are a few highlights from three days up in the Rocky Mountains.
Aspen invites an impressive roster of resident tutors from around the globe to teach and nurture their students. And masterclasses form the backbone of School, proving as popular with audiences as they are with the students themselves. Two hours listening to Juilliard piano legend Yoheved Kaplinsky impart her wisdom to four young students were an inspiration. One student, who presented Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, Op. 54, spent almost the entire 45 minutes discussing and repeating just a few bars from the opening theme with Kaplinsky – as with so much music, context is the key to understanding the structures and textures in Mendelssohn’s music. Difficulties with memorising parts of the work were solved when the student was advised to spend as much time on the slower, ‘easier’ parts of the piece as the more virtuosic variations. Straightforward, no nonsense advice that one rarely hears these days.
A masterclass in the Wheeler Opera House, just off Aspen’s main shopping/easting drag, saw dozens of students have their performances of Mozart opera scenes taken apart by Edward Berkeley, another Juilliard teacher. Mostly, however, the lessons were practical – not looking at the conductor while looking at the conductor, not hugging someone so hard they can’t sing, concentrating on keeping in tempo while a myriad of other things threaten to plunge your performance into the abyss. A very entertaining few hours indeed.
Many budding young musicians go on summer camps to improve technique, meet like-minded peers and take a break from home life. But the dedication of the 630 Aspen students – many of them travel to Aspen immediately after term ends, and return to college almost the day their time in the Rockies ends. Being an Aspen alumnus seems to be a badge of honour which musicians wear throughout their musical careers. They’re a lucky bunch – and I’m sure they realise it.
Costing around $80m and completed just last year, the Aspen campus is the hub of student activity, the place where those 600 brilliant young musicians come to practise, rehearse and hang out. It’s an extraordinary collection of buildings, housing dozens of state-of-the-art practice rooms (each containing a brand new Steinway/Boston grand piano), orchestral studios and a top-class refectory. The setting is breathtaking, the buildings circled around two artificially-made beaver lakes, all at the foot of spruce-covered foothills, gateways to the magnificent Rockies and some of the finest skiing you can find anywhere. A foaming creek tumbles and splashes its way behind the campus as it journeys down the valley.
Denk’s reputation as a fine pianist hinges as much on his imaginative programming as it does on his artistry. His recital last Saturday evening, bookended by Bach and Schubert, explored syncopation in seven short works. Revelations included William Bolcom’s softly lilting, beautiful ‘Graceful Ghost Rag’, stride pianist Donald Lambert’s thrilling, irreverent take on the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhauser and Williams Byrd’s ‘The Passinge Mesures’ from My Ladye Nevells Booke, a piece of luminous charm and eye-popping complexity, both harmonically and rhythmically. More pianists should include early English music in their programmes; yes, the piano wasn’t effectively written for until the middle of the 18th century, but if Bach can become a piano recital mainstay, then surely so can Gibbons, Byrd, Tallis, Tomkins and their ilk whose music illuminates when performed on a modern Steinway.
The Apsen Music Festival runs from 30 June to 21 August 2016. To find out more, click here.