Despite The Pandemic, Aspen Music Festival And School Continues Its 70+ Year Tradition Of Presenting Exceptional Music

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Elle Logan
Students walk on the Bucksbaum Campus of Aspen Music Festival and School in 2018

In a typical year, a summertime visit to Aspen is replete with the sounds of shimmering leaves, the sensation of cool breezes, and the awe of mountain vistas. 

It’s no wonder that when Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke first visited Aspen they were inspired. They saw potential in this abandoned silver mining town. They bought a dilapidated Victorian house in 1945 and started their tireless effort to make Aspen a cultural gathering place for the mind, body, and spirit. 

The 1949 Goethe Bicentennial Convocation and Music Festival, celebrating the birth of German poet, scientist and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, prompted the birth of both The Aspen Institute and the Aspen Music Festival and School. For that inaugural gathering, Dimitri Mitropulous conducted the Minneapolis Symphony in a canvas tent in the exact spot where the Benedict Music Tent sits today. International celebrity German doctor, musician, philosopher and humanitarian, Dr. Albert Schweitzer traveled all the way from his hospital in Central Africa to deliver a keynote lecture on Goethe. This event set the roots for the Aspen Institute as a world-renowned think tank, and the music festival as one of the most respected summer music learning camps for talented musicians in the world.

From those beginnings the AMFS has grown to where a typical eight-week summer season includes more than 400 classical music events, 650 students, 130 faculty and a whopping 100,000 audience members.

Elle Logan
Robert Spano, AMFS music director; James Bass, Seraphic Fire; Duain Wolfe, Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus director; Mané Galoyan, soprano; and Kelley O'Connor, mezzo-soprano in the Benedict Music Tent in 2019

Those numbers are dramatically scaled back this summer. Faculty are working directly via video with students because of the pandemic. The AMFS is presenting 29 events online, resulting in some unique performances. For example, during the July 5th tribute concert honoring Spano’s 10 years as music director, the Aspen Conducting Academy Prizewinners from 2011-2020 surprised him with a performance of Rüdiger Ruppert’s "If You’ve Lost Your Drums . . . ", a piece of all clapping.

Robert Spano has been at the helm of AMFS for the past 10 years and he supports the ideals put forth by the Paepckes. “You see all of these incredibly brilliant talented people, and their passion for this art form,” Spano said of the AMFS students, “Whatever solutions need to happen socially and economically... and how we present and fund and support great music in our society, they’re going to solve it because they love it.”

The conducting academy is one of the nation’s most revered training grounds for aspiring conductors who often go on to take posts with prestigious orchestras across the U.S. and Europe. Spano told CPR's David Ginder that leading the conducting academy is one of his favorite aspects of the festival, “It’s an inspiration to work with them and we found out something extraordinary: at the moment 100% of the alums of the Aspen Conducting Academy are working as a conductor in some capacity.” 

This year, the Aspen Music Festival and School offers videos of this summer’s seminars, lectures and student showcases on their YouTube channel. Highlights still to come in the season include live streamed performances of Beethoven cello sonatas from Alisa Weilerstein, violinist Stefan Jackiw and pianist Jeremy Denk playing Charles Ives, and student showcases led by opera superstar Renée Fleming. The festival wraps up with a live virtual performance on Sunday, August 23rd (rebroadcast 8/25) featuring Augustin Haedlich playing piano and violin.

For a list of all the AMFS concerts and more visit our Summerfest Virtual Concert Calendar.

Our Summer of Stars Concert on CPR Classical this weekend features Robert Spano conducting the Aspen Chamber Symphony's performance of Schumann's Symphony #1 “Spring”, the Aspen Festival Orchestra's performance of Gershwin's Piano Concerto with soloist Joyce Yang, the AMFS String Ensemble's performance of Vivaldi's Concerto for 4 Violins and more.

The Summer of Stars Concert Series is a full concert that airs three times (Fridays @ 12:30 p.m., Saturdays @ 6 p.m. & Sundays @ 4 p.m.) as part of CPR Classical's Summerfest.

You can listen to CPR Classical by clicking "Listen Live" on this website. You can also hear CPR Classical at 88.1 FM in Denver, at radio signals around Colorado, or ask your smart speaker to “Play CPR Classical.”