Wandering Bears And Competing With Thunderstorms Among Music Director Robert Spano’s Favorite Things About Aspen Music Festival And School

Alex Irvn
Robert Spano conducts in the Benedict Music Tent

2020 marks Robert Spano's 10th year as music director of the Aspen Music Festival and School. His arrival in 2011 helped smooth over festival leadership drama. The fourth music director in over 70 years, he’s spent the last decade overseeing the enormously talented group of over 650 students and 130 faculty each summer. COVID-19 forced AMFS to pivot this year, moving all of their programming online.

Michael Brands

To celebrate Spano's 10th anniversary, we asked him to share his top ten favorite memories for CPR Summerfest:

1. “That intimate theater magic” at the historic Wheeler Opera House

“The operas I've performed and heard at the Wheeler - that intimate theater is magic,” Spano says. First built in 1889, the Wheeler Opera House has been renovated and expanded numerous times in it’s 130 year history. The restored box seats, proscenium arch, and Victorian-era fire curtain provide a perfect space for Aspen Opera Center programs during a typical AMFS summer, now under the leadership of former opera student Renee Fleming.

2. Thunderstorm vs. Orchestra at the Tent

The Benedict Music Tent opened in 2000 replacing the Herbert Bayer designed tent from 1965. Its three open sides allow for mountain breezes and sounds to flow freely into the 2,050-seat venue. Spano recalls, “Most thunderstorms win the ‘volume contest’ with what's happening on stage at the Tent, but not when the performance was of the Scythian Suite of Prokofiev!” This celestial-themed piece makes good use of a full brass section and extensive percussion, drowning out nature's music during the 2017 performance from the Aspen Philharmonic Orchestra.

3. The Delicate sound of Midori’s solo Bach at the Tent

The acoustics of the Benedict Music Tent also benefit solo voices, like the encore from world-renowned violinist Midori in 2016. “Midori played an unaccompanied Bach movement a few summers ago that was absolutely transcendent,” remembers Spano. “For me, that represents all those surprisingly intimate experiences that happen at the Tent.”

Alex Irvin
Spano conducts a dress rehearsal for the 2013 production of Peter Grimes

4. The Immense Forces The Tent Can Contain

The large stage of the Benedict Music Tent provides the opportunity for more complicated productions. In 2013 Spano led the Aspen Festival Orchestra, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus and a cast headed by Anthony Dean Griffey in a semi-staged concert of the full opera “Peter Grimes”. Spano remembers the performance fondly, “The spectacle that Tent can accommodate!”

5. The Intimacy of Harris Concert Hall

“Performing or attending concerts at Harris Hall are equally and differently gratifying. That's an intimacy rarely found among the world's stages,” explains Spano. Harris Hall sits next to the Benedict Music Tent with a somewhat unassuming facade. But enter the building and descend the long stairwell to the 500-seat hall and you're in for a warm indoor acoustic for a variety of AMFS chamber concerts and educational events.

6. An Inspiring School Campus

In 2016 AMFS opened the $75 million dollar Matthew and Carolyn Bucksbaum Campus as the center for its teaching activities on 38 acres a few miles from downtown. Spano enjoys the building which was “so brilliantly designed by Harry Teague. Our campus remains a source of inspiration every summer.” It serves upwards of 650 students each summer.

Elle Logan
Stephen Mulligan conducts Tchaikovsky at AMFS in 2016

7. When a Student has an Aha! Moment

The Aspen Conducting Academy is a key draw for Spano, who leads the nationally revered training ground for aspiring conductors who often go on to take posts with prestigious orchestras across the U.S. and Europe. Spano enjoys working with these talented conductors and witnessing their progress, “I remember advising Stephen Mulligan to dig deep for the emotional intensity needed to conduct Tchaikovsky's Pathétique. He delivered a performance that had us all in tears.” The top conducting prize winner from each of the last ten summers at the AMFS performed this impressive show of gratitude online for Spano’s mentorship earlier this month.

8. That Time a Bear Came Lumbering Into My Home

With all of the modern buildings and amenities in Aspen, you might forget that it’s a mountain town at heart. But Spano is unlikely to ever make that mistake after one memorable evening, “I was watching television and I was alone in the house. Often our Artistic Administrator, Mr. Santourian will come and recap the day, so I hear the screen door open and I think ‘well it’s gotta be him’. So I get up to greet him, and this bear is halfway through the door on all-fours! I just started screaming at the bear to ‘Get out of my house!’ I charged him, flailing and screaming, not realizing what I was doing. Fortunately I made enough noise that he did back up and I slammed the wooden door in his face. Then I was terrified.”

Grittani Creative
Brass students from the AMFS perform for the Opening Convocation in 2018

9. The Resounding Brass of Opening Convocation

Each year the first notes AMFS students make together are very special, especially “the sounds of the newly-assembled brass playing Strauss in the Tent for Opening Convocation every summer. The majesty of that moment lets us all know: the Festival has truly begun,” explains Spano.

10. A Surprising Gift Secures a Legacy for Future Conductors

Elle Logan

Philanthropist Mercedes Bass is the Vice Chairman of the board for Carnegie Hall, is on the board of The Aspen Institute, has a tier named after her at the Metropolitan Opera and has long been a supporter of AMFS. Bass surprised Spano at one of the weekly Aspen Conducting Academy concerts in the Tent in 2014. “She announced that she was establishing a scholarship in my name for future ACA Fellows. I was, and am, overwhelmed by her generosity,” explains Spano. The Robert Spano Conductor Prize carries with it the invitation to return to Aspen the following summer as an Academy Conductor on fellowship. For 2020, the prize was awarded to Piotr Wacławik

Listen to broadcasts of past performances from Aspen Music Festival and School and other festivals across the state during the Summer of Stars Concert Series, all part of 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.”