29. Aspen Festival Journal, Part IV – Performance Then and “Performance Today”
For two weeks classical music and mountains surrounded me. For two weeks I was nowhere else but Aspen, Colorado for the Aspen Music Festival, one of the world’s leading classical music festivals. Here is the fourth and final part in a continuing series recounting my stay in Aspen…
My previous entry left-off with the festivities of Monday, July 7 when I heard my friend Zalman Kelber play as part of an excellent chamber recital. I have actually already covered Tuesday’s happenings too—Part I covered the concert with the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen which I heard Tuesday afternoon, while Part II discussed my second concert with the Takács String Quartet which followed that evening.
Wednesday afternoon began with an exceptional lecture by Joseph Horowitz, a cultural historian known for his insights on the place of classical music in American society. His primary topic at this lecture was Antonín Dvořák’s residency in America from 1892 to 1895—a time when Dvořák actively sought to integrate American melodies and attributes into his music and, as Horowitz argues, actually became an “American” composer. This was, of course, the period of Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony From the New World (which was to be played the coming Sunday) with its references to African-American and Native American music as well as the American String Quartet which to my ears seems to invoke the rural lifestyle of the White Americans who settled the prairies. As Horowitz revealed though, Dvořák’s American residency also included little-known piano music which Horowitz likes to trick people into believing was written by Joplin or Gershwin. In fact, it did sound more like their music than Dvořák’s!
Ultimately, Horowitz argued that, although Dvořák succeeded in creating an American compositional idiom for himself to use, the composer’s grander desire to make American-created music the primary focus for this country’s emerging classical music audience never really took hold. Instead, the twentieth century witnessed the rise of star performers—the conductor Arturo Toscanini being the most “notorious” according to Horowitz—so that the American classical music scene became dominated by a now standardized European repertoire to the detriment of American composers and the often outstanding music they have created. Even in Aspen where new music and its composers are valued and performed, most spectators go to hear a performer like Joshua Bell or a composition written two centuries ago by a European like Beethoven. Although Horowitz did not go this far in his lecture, I would argue the first is also true of popular music where it is the rock star that becomes the idol of American popular music; even those who do write their own songs are better-known for performing them. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is too large a question to answer here, but I will at least say that we need more of a balance than what we currently have, although things are shifting in this direction with the rise in prominence of contemporary American composers like Philip Glass and John Adams.
To return to Wednesday, July 9, that evening featured performances of Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G with Steven Osborne in the soloist role, and a piece by Aspen composer-in-residence Sydney Hodkinson titled Epitaphion. This 1990 piece by Hodkinson was written upon the deaths of many close friends and family members, and it certainly has that character to it. What most impressed me though was the interesting colors created by his orchestra—most notably, when percussionists on xylophone, marimba, and other instruments took-up the bows of the string instruments and stroked the sides of their own instruments to create eerie high-pitched calls.
A second recital was to be heard in the Harris Concert Hall that night where violinist Daniel Hope and a small mixed ensemble of clarinet, cornet, bassoon, trombone, double bass, and percussion gave a rendition of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale. Here, the devil tricks an anonymous solider into selling his soul—represented by the violin while the soldier is portrayed by the violinist himself. Stravinsky’s riveting, often jazzy score was that night preceded by a version of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture for Stravinsky’s eccentric instrumental combination as arranged by contemporary German composer Jan Müller-Wieland and commissioned by Hope himself. While some listeners found this version to be an abomination, I considered it an intriguing “re-composition” resembling Stravinsky’s re-compositions of Tchaikovsky, Pergolesi, Bach, and others.
My final evening in Aspen—Thursday, July 10—was spent watching a live taping of Performance Today. Host Fred Child interviewed not only Daniel Hope and Steven Osborne, but also several promising student musicians including violinist William Hagen and eleven year-old pianist Felicia He. These musicians also performed pieces of their choice. While Daniel Hope tackled several movements of a Violin Sonata by Erwin Schulhoff—a Jewish composer murdered in the Holocaust—Felicia He performed two preludes by Debussy in brilliant if somewhat irregular interpretations. Osborne began by entertaining us with stories of his two bear encounters at last year’s festival before discussing the role improvisation plays when he learns new pieces; he then played two impromptus by Schubert which, despite their name, did not begin as improvisations. Finally, William Hagen and three fellow students played the first movement of Dvořák’s Piano Quartet, Op. 87.
I left Aspen Friday morning and flew back home to Central Louisiana on Saturday. In conclusion, I had an excellent trip full of great music, familiar and unfamiliar! I hope you have enjoyed reading my Aspen Festival Journal, and maybe you will consider attending a music festival yourself sometime soon. I highly recommend Aspen, but there are many others still left for me to explore. I wonder just where music will take me next…
About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a graduate of the Louisiana Scholars’ College—Louisiana’s designated honors college located on the campus of Northwestern State University. There, he studied music history, completing an undergraduate thesis entitled “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” Now living in Alexandria, he continues to pursue his musical interests through individual research, original compositions, writing program notes for the Rapides Symphony Orchestra, and as director of the new Abendmusik Alexandria music series. He is also one of the founding members of TicketCentral.
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