Looking For Red, White and Blue Between Bach, Beethoven And Brahms: Can American Music Be Found at American Music Festivals?

Looking For Red, White and Blue Between Bach, Beethoven And Brahms: Can American Music Be Found at American Music Festivals?

Mic Holwin photo by Lost In Brooklyn Studio Music festivals in America take on added pleasure in the summer, when a concertgoer can claim a spot on the lawn surrounding a stage, spread out a quilt handed down from an aunt in Pennsylvania, uncork a bottle of California Zinfandel, slice some Vermont Cheddar and Wisconsin… Read more »

Written By

Mic Holwin



Mic Holwin
photo by Lost In Brooklyn Studio

Music festivals in America take on added pleasure in the summer, when a concertgoer can claim a spot on the lawn surrounding a stage, spread out a quilt handed down from an aunt in Pennsylvania, uncork a bottle of California Zinfandel, slice some Vermont Cheddar and Wisconsin Blue, lay back and listen to the sounds of…long-dead European composers.

Something doesn’t fit in this American portrait. Since this country has more festivals than you can shake a baton at, it would follow that American music would be on them, right up there with the Mozart, Beethoven and Dvorák. But what is the reality? Can American contemporary music — or any contemporary music for that matter-be found at American music festivals?

Surprisingly, yes. But you have to look.

The treatment of American and contemporary music at festivals is as diverse as the wide range of topography in America where that quilt might be spread — at the edge of a maple and beech forest in the Berkshires (Tanglewood), beneath the soaring majesty of the Rocky Mountains (Aspen, Grand Teton), or on the dry grass of a high desert chapparal (Ojai). Some festivals are dedicated to it (Bang On A Can). Some allot a portion of time from the festival — a week or a few concerts-to it (Bowdoin, Lincoln Center Festival). Some program contemporary composers right along with the Shostakovich and Bach (Spoleto, Santa Fe). Some wedge it in more surreptitiously (Chamber Music Northwest, Ravinia). And some try to ignore it completely (Interlochen, Newport). A sampling of American summer festivals from the east coast to the west yields a variety of approaches.

Festivals that program contemporary American music fall into two camps: those that carve out a “contemporary” week or so, thereby creating a mini-festival within the festival to attract contemporary music afficionados (and in effect post warning signs to those wearing “If it ain’t Baroque, don’t fix it” T-shirts) and those that sprinkle in new American and international music amongst the more traditional European works, treating a Danielpour string quartet no differently than a Mendelssohn piano trio.

Some of these festivals have already taken place for this summer; some are happening right now. So if you haven’t already visited one of them, what are you doing sitting in front of a computer terminal reading this?

The Festivals:

  1. Aspen Music Festival
  2. Bowdoin Summer Music Festival
  3. Chamber Music Northwest
  4. Grand Teton Music Festival
  5. Interlochen Arts Festival
  6. Lincoln Center Festival
  7. Newport Music Festival
  8. Ojai Music Festival
  9. Ravinia Festival
  10. Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival
  11. Spoleto Festival USA
  12. Tanglewood

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Founded in a Colorado mountain town with a commitment to living composers, the Aspen Music Festival celebrates its 50th anniversary this season with a nine-week 250-event summer season. And thanks in part to contemporary music advocate former Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conductor David Zinman’s 1997 appointment as Aspen music director, contemporary American composers like Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Jacob Druckman are programmed right alongside Shostakovich and Beethoven.

Aspen, Colorado
June 24-August 22, 1999

This year’s festival also includes world premieres of Augusta Read Thomas’s concerto Ritual Incantations for Emerson String Quartet, cellist David Finckel and Bernard Rands’s first opera, Belladonna, commissioned by Aspen for its anniversary, adding to the list of over 160 new works which have been premiered at Aspen.

Begun in 1949 as the Goethe Bicentennial Convocation and Music Festival, Aspen attracted renowned musicians and humanitarians with a credo of community conscience. By the next year, Igor Stravinsky had become the first composer to conduct his own music at the festival. The year after that, Darius Milhaud founded the Aspen Conference on Contemporary Music, making possible residencies by composers like Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, George Crumb and Philip Glass.

A nice mix of old and new, even within single concerts, can be found here. Read Thomas’s Incantations mingles with Rameau, Stravinsky and Haydn; Steve Reich is paired with Beethoven; a Philip Glass violin concerto rubs shoulders with a Schumann symphony. Some concerts are full-on contemporary American, as in an Aspen Chamber Symphony concert of Druckman, Barber and Copland. One day is new chamber music by Wynton Marsalis, the next day the complete staging of Aida by the Aspen Festival Orchestra conducted by Zinman and featuring the Colorado Symphony Chorus and Opera Colorado Chorus.

You can hear traditional works like Mahler’s 3rd conducted by James Levine or Yefim Bronfman plowing through the complete Beethoven piano concertos if you want to. But you can also hear a concert version of Berg’s complete Wozzeck or an Ives string quartet or works by Sebastian Currier and David Del Tredici in programs by the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble.

Percussion ensembles can always be counted on for an evening of contemporary music. Here, the Aspen Percussion Ensemble comes through with a program of Varèse (Ionisation and Density 21.5) and Frank Zappa (“Peaches en regalia” and “The Black Page”), with additional works by Glass and Toru Takemitsu.

Ensembles are gathered from the Aspen Festival’s soulmate, the Aspen Music School. Five full orchestras are created, two with artist faculty — which here means members of the Juilliard or Guarneri String Quartets — joining students. Not to be outdone, Aspen alumni include Del Tredici, Glass, Joshua Bell, William Bolcom, Morton Subotnick, Joan Tower and Dawn Upshaw.

Joining the Emerson String Quartet in residence this season are the American, Orion and Takács string quartets; visiting composers Read Thomas, Richard Danielpour and Christopher Rouse join composers-in-residence Rands and John Harbison. “Almost every major composer of our time has been here in residence or as a guest,” says Debbie Ayers, Aspen’s director of media relations. “It’s a pretty amazing list.”

In keeping with the spirit of community conscience, a quarter of events at Aspen are free, in addition to free lawn seating outside the Music Tent for all events. So if you can afford to get to and stay in Aspen, at least you can get a good deal on the music.

From Looking For Red, White and Blue Between Bach, Beethoven And Brahms
by Mic Holwin
© 1999 NewMusicBox