The Aspen Music Festival and School (AMFS) is a classical music festival held annually in Aspen, Colorado. It is noted both for its concert programming and the musical training it offers to mostly young-adult music students. Founded in 1949, the typical eight-week summer season includes more than 400 classical music events—including concerts by five orchestras, solo and chamber music performances, fully staged opera productions, master classes, lectures, and children's programming—and brings in 70,000 audience members. In the winter, the AMFS presents a small series of recitals and Metropolitan Opera Live in HD screenings.
As a training ground for young-adult classical musicians, the AMFS draws more than 650 students from 40 states and 34 countries, with an average age of 22. While in Aspen, students participate in lessons, coaching, and public performances in orchestras, operas, and chamber music, often playing side-by-side with AMFS artist-faculty.
The Aspen Music Festival and School was founded in 1949 by Chicago businessman Walter Paepcke and Elizabeth Paepcke as a two-week bicentennial celebration of the 18th-century German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The event, which included both intellectual forums and musical performances, was such a success that it led to the formation of both the Aspen Institute and the Aspen Music Festival and School.
In the summers that followed, the participating musicians returned, bringing their music students, and the foundation was set for the AMFS as it is known today. In 1950, Igor Stravinsky became the first conductor to present his own works with the Festival. The following year in 1951, the School enrolled its first official class, with 183 music students.
Early founding musicians included baritone Mack Harrell (father of cellist Lynn Harrell) and violinist Roman Totenberg (father of NPR legal correspondent Nina Totenberg). Early performance highlights include then-student James Levine conducting the Benjamin Britten opera Albert Herring in 1964, coinciding with Britten's visit to Aspen that summer to accept an award from the Aspen Institute. In 1965, Duke Ellington and his orchestra came to the AMFS to perform a benefit concert. In 1971, Dorothy DeLay joined the AMFS strings artist-faculty and attracted more than 200 students each summer to her program. In 1975, Aaron Copland came to Aspen as a composer-in-residence on the occasion of his 75th birthday. In 1980, John Denver performed with the Aspen Festival Orchestra for his TV special Music and the Mountains, which aired the following year on ABC. Multiple artist-faculty members have also recorded albums while in Aspen, including the Emerson String Quartet, which recorded the Shostakovich: The String Quartets 5-disc set from AMFS venue Harris Concert Hall and won the 2000 Grammy Award for Best Classical Album.
The Aspen Music Festival and School offers young musicians a choice of the following programs of study:
- Strings, Winds, Brass, Percussion, Harp
- Center for Orchestral Leadership
- Chamber Music
- Center for Advanced Quartet Studies
- American Brass Quintet Seminar @Aspen
- Aspen Chamber Music
- Aspen Opera Center
- Opera Coaching
- Aspen Opera Theater and VocalARTS (Beginning 2020)
- Opera Coaching
- Seraphic Fire Professional Choral Institute
- Solo Piano
- Collaborative Piano
- Aspen Conducting Academy
- Susan and Ford Schumann Center for Composition Studies
- Aspen Contemporary Ensemble
- Classical Guitar
The Benedict Music Tent, which opened in 2000, is the Festival's primary concert venue and seats 2050. The tent replaced an earlier tent designed by Herbert Bayer, which in 1965 replaced the original smaller tent designed by Eero Saarinen. Concerts are held in the Benedict Music Tent on a nearly daily basis during the summer, and seating on the lawn just outside the Tent, where many choose to picnic during events, is always free. The design has open sides; the curving roof is made of Teflon-coated fiberglass, a hard material also used by the Denver International Airport.
The 500-seat Joan and Irving Harris Concert Hall is located next door to the Benedict Music Tent, and was opened in 1993 at a cost of $7 million. The Wheeler Opera House—a Victorian-era venue owned by the City of Aspen—is the home to Aspen Opera Center productions in the summer and the AMFS's Metropolitan Opera Live in HD screenings in the winter.
In 2016, the AMFS completed its $75 million, 105,000-square-foot Matthew and Carolyn Bucksbaum Campus, which serves as the center of its teaching activities. The Campus, located two miles from downtown Aspen, sits on a 38-acre site that is shared between the AMFS in the summer and Aspen Country Day School during the academic year. Designed by architect Harry Teague, who also designed the AMFS's Harris Concert Hall and the Benedict Music Tent, the Bucksbaum Campus includes three expansive rehearsal halls, numerous teaching studios and practice rooms, a percussion building, administrative offices, and a glass-enclosed cafeteria. The Campus was designed with Aspen's natural setting in mind: the buildings’ roof lines mirror the shapes of the surrounding mountains and hug the contours of the ponds and creek.
Alumni of the AMFS fill important professional music positions around the world, performing in top-tier orchestras, opera houses, and teaching on music school faculties. Others have gone on to leadership roles in other institutions. Notable alumni include:
The summer of 2019 will mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Aspen Music Festival and School and runs June 27 to August 18. The summer lineup will include performances by Nicola Benedetti, Yefim Bronfman, Sarah Chang, Renée Fleming, Andrei Ioniţă, Nikolai Lugansky, Robert McDuffie, Alisa Weilerstein, David Finckel and Wu Han, Conrad Tao, Paul Huang, Stefan Jackiw, Daniil Trifonov, Augustin Hadelich and Orion Weiss, Midori, the Pacifica Quartet, and other soloists and ensembles.
Led by Music Director Robert Spano, the season explores the theme “Being American,” through the lens of great music, with works by Gershwin, Ives, Barber, Bernstein, and Copland, including Appalachian Spring. In addition to those great American composers of earlier years, the season will include music by Wynton Marsalis, Stephen Sondheim and Philip Glass; new and recent works by American composers from the Aspen Music Festival and School's own artist-faculty such as Stephen Hartke, Christopher Theofanidis, Edgar Meyer, Donald Crockett and Alan Fletcher; by composers from immigrant backgrounds such as Kati Agócs, Gabriela Lena Frank and Vijay Iyer; and by émigrés such as Bartók, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky, who made America their home later in life.
Programming will include works that reflect the sweeping diversity of American landscape and culture and works inspired by the words of canonical American literati Walt Whitman (whose bicentenary falls this year), Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe.
The season also will include the Aspen Opera Center's two fully staged productions: Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music and Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, as well as a concert performance of Missy Mazzoli’s recently premiered and highly acclaimed chamber opera Proving Up, set on the 1860s frontier where families struggle for survival in pursuit of their American Dream. There will also be a concert production of Rodger and Hammerstein's South Pacific.
The 70th anniversary season closes Aug. 18 with Music Director Spano conducting Mahler’s Symphony, No, 2, “Resurrection,” which in 2000 opened the new Benedict Music Tent. Seraphic Fire and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus join forces for this powerful work with soloists Mané Galoyan, soprano, and Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-soprano. Also on the program is Seraphic Fire's performance of Bach's early cantata Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106, “Actus tragicus.”
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