Classical Music: Rocky road to stardom

As the snows melt, the artists arrive in Aspen. Edward Seckerson samples the apres ski entertainments on offer in Colorado

Once they came in search of gold and silver. Now it's snow, and ski-runs, and the sound of music that draws folk to Aspen, Colorado. Or maybe just the call of the wild. That's wild as in West, of course. The place-names alone tell a story: the Rocky Mountains, the Roaring Fork River, Pine Creek. Add a few more details, some local colour - log cabins, horseback trackers, river-rafters, chilli cook-outs, ranches and rodeos - and let your imagination fill in the rest. There were riches in them there hills. And injuns. Then in came the intrepid frontiersmen, the wily prospectors. The Wells Fargo. Whole towns - boom towns - were born. Some, like Aspen, survived. Others... well, boom towns became ghost towns. Nothing really dies in these parts: things, people, just move on, leaving a little bit of themselves behind.

So here you are, summer of '96. You've taken the Silver Queen Gondola to the top of Aspen Mountain, and just as you're thinking that the rest is silence, you hear it. So the hills are alive, so classical music is for the birds after all. Come back, Olivier Messiaen: this one's for you. They've built a makeshift music platform on Aspen Mountain. Music and nature commune on a daily basis. The phrase "answering the call of nature" should be used advisedly in these parts. This year's Aspen Music Festival - the 48th - is making capital of the close ties that exist between music and nature, an idea so obvious it's just possible no one even thought to suggest it until now. Works like Haydn's The Creation, Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream and, most significantly, Messiaen's Des canyons aux etoiles ("From the canyons to the stars") - an elaborate musical portrait of the Colorado Plateau: flora, fauna and karma - are right at the centre of the nine-week summer season.

But Aspen is a year-round cultural resort. When the snows come, so do the rich and famous - and they've nothing on their minds but what to do before and apres skiing. Aspen provides. Then the snows melt, the wildflowers bloom, and music, dance, drama, literary and visual art luminaries descend to partake of the summer madness. The place itself is a lure, of course, generating a healthy economy in visitor revenue. Even so, the very idea that a former mining town of only 6,000 residents could support and foster such a wealth of cultural activity raises all kinds of questions.

Where music is concerned, many of the answers lie in Castle Creek Valley, where the world-famous music school is located. Nestling in this idyllic setting (pick your own Christmas tree), to the constant accompaniment of rushing water, you follow the music to a clutch of wooden huts with names like "Tristan" and "Isolde". Be it ever so humble, this is where the 900 or so enrolled students and the 150-strong artist and guest artist faculty spend a good deal of their nine weeks in Aspen. It's the heartland of the "Aspen experience", a place to refuel, re-evaluate, exercise the imagination, engage mind, body and spirit. Lawrence Foster, Aspen's outgoing Music Director (David Zinman comes in next year), believes that, in developing not just the musician but the whole person, Aspen is fulfilling not just a need but an obligation.

Which could be why the atmosphere on and off campus is so conspicuously uncompetitive. And that, despite a programme of competitions to showcase the high level of talent passing through. It may sound fanciful to suggest that students come to Aspen to make music, not impressions, but that, you feel, is the spirit in which the music-making proceeds. That's the attitude. It's a very practical environment, a performing environment. In Harris Hall - Aspen's prime state-of-the-art venue - a series of free concerts give some of the season's brightest young things a platform. Among them are students of Dorothy De Lay, the godmother of the violin faculty. And they aren't getting any older. Shunsuke Sato looks young for his age. He's eight, facially impassive, and plays Franz Waxman's finger-licking Carmen Fantasy with frightening resolve. Yura Lee follows, pretty as a picture in red "Baby Jane" polkadot, a ribbon in her hair. She's eight going on 18, if her account of Prokofiev's D major Sonata is anything to go by. Another Sarah Chang?

Sixteen-year-old Chang first came to Aspen in utero when her father was a student here. He now teaches. In time, she will. So you see the continuum, the process of renewal that Aspen encourages. Chang says you "breathe differently" in Aspen, the music-making seems to open to the environment. "You find the room to experiment here. Stuffy hotels don't give you that." Right now she's "experimenting" with, airing, Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto in readiness for her Proms debut on 10 September.

Her collaborator in Aspen is the conductor David Robertson, Music Director of the Ensemble InterContemporain in Paris. California-born Robertson studied in London (Royal Academy) and made his American conducting debut in Aspen. Bad career move, colleagues told him. But like Chang, he believed, and still does, that this was a great place to grow into repertoire. He started as he meant to go on, with Berg's Three Orchestral Pieces. "Aspen is like a large river. It's ongoing. The current is not volatile on the surface, but it's very strong and you can be certain that it will take you there." Or carry you clean away, as almost happened when the heavens opened on the Bayer-Benedict Music Tent just prior to Robertson's afternoon performance of Stravinsky's Petrushka.

Petrushka in a circus tent. That's a wild idea to begin with. Casting an eye over the Aspen Festival Orchestra, the disparity in ages (what is the tiny boy in a kippa doing sharing a desk with that middle-aged man?) pulls you up short. Section principals from America's premiere ensembles, generally deployed here to lead by example, to anchor the ensemble, could quite literally find themselves playing second fiddle to their students. But that's the kind of interaction - the interaction between students and faculty - that drives Aspen. And if the results are not always what they might be (let's just say that Petrushka - notwithstanding its dousing - was still somewhat under the weather), at least the working process can never be held accountable. Audiences in and outside the Music Tent are very much part of that process - not exactly uncritical, but unjudgemental. The bottom line for one elderly man was the fact that he was able to turn off his hearing aid during Joseph Kalichstein's performance of the Bartok Second Piano Concerto.

Meanwhile, over at the beautifully restored, saloon-style Wheeler Opera House (Houdini once performed here), the pick of this year's opera candidates are in dress rehearsal for the stage premiere of Michael Torke's Channel 4-commissioned TV opera King of Hearts - a smart, hip, psycho-comedy-drama whose tuneful streetwise vernacular Torke can trace all the way back to A Chorus Line. That show, he says, changed his life. And, on the evidence of King of Hearts, you believe him.

Torke is an Aspen old boy (who isn't?). And they always come back. There's a tradition in Aspen of swinging by, passing through. The average summer's visiting-book is pretty impressive. Sometimes they don't officially sign in. Michael Tilson Thomas, for instance, has arrived early, taking to the hills to contemplate, to compose. He comes down to earth just once to lead an informal conducting class. No audience, no fuss, just a motley student band, the first movement of Mahler's 10th, and three would-be maestri. The lessons of the day relate to sostenuto, characterisation, atmosphere. Practical tips are freely given - like where and how to cheat more breathing space - but the biggest lesson of all is unspoken. The last of the candidates - a young woman - steers us through the final pages of the movement. "Good work," says MTT. "But you don't need to spell everything out, you don't need to give out traffic tickets for every last beat. If you are convinced about what it is the notes are trying to say, then they will be too. The trick is making the barlines disappear. Think motionless." But the subtext, the spirit that moves between the notes, is easier to recognise than to communicate. MTT takes up the baton. And the expression on the young woman's face says it all. Some things can't be learnt, even in Aspen.

The first prospectors came here in the late 1800s. The route they carved through the mountains is now known as Independence Pass - it being Independence Day, or so we're told, when they arrived. It won't have escaped visitors' notice that Independence Day, the movie, just happened to be playing at the Isis Theatre. The Isis is a family business which Aspen's latter-day chic has somehow passed by. Owner/manager Dominic Linza is not backward in coming forward with his own opinions. "Well, folks, it's time for our movie, Independence Day, and when you've seen it, perhaps you'll be able to explain to me why the makers spent $40 million on special effects and $1.95 on the script and cast."

Sadly, the Isis will soon be no more. The last picture show is imminent. Dominic Linza is selling out. I'm told they're putting in a multi-screen. Well, that's progress for you. But the Aspen spirit will prevail. It resides in the people that make things happen here. It resides in the music-making. It resides in them there hills. And they aren't going anywhere.

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