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Image: Shaw Nielsen

Aspen is justly famous for being a world-class cultural mecca in the midst of a vast and magnificent wilderness. But as more and more events are added each year to an already overflowing calendar, the prospect of getting lost in the blizzard of in-town concerts, performances, and lectures can be nearly as daunting as going astray in the backcountry. Fortunately, you needn’t venture forth into this particular (admittedly civilized) wilderness unprepared.

We’ve bushwhacked our way through acres of event calendars, pored over a plethora of offerings, and consulted dozens of experts to come up with this 2014 Field Guide to Summer Arts & Culture. Consider the following recommendations as cultural cairns, if you will, designed to help you navigate through Aspen’s decidedly dense arts and culture terrain.
How to use this guide: To accommodate a wide range of tastes and styles, our selections have been divided into categories, and arranged as a kind of ascent. Pick and choose among them—or go the distance and try to do them all. In any event, whether this is your first or your fortieth summer in Aspen, whether you’re here for a week or a month or for life, we trust you will find safe and inspiring passage with the aid of these pages.

Happy trails!

PURE FUN

Think of these events as the Grottos or Hunter Creek Trail of local arts and culture—easily accessible and even more easily enjoyed.

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Image: Shaw Nielsen

The Full Monty

Theatre Aspen
June 24–August 9

After knocking it out of the park with last year’s Les Misérables, Theatre Aspen returns with guns blazing and drawers dropping. The nine-time Tony-nominated musical based on the hilarious heartfelt film The Full Monty promises local audiences more sets, more actors—and by show’s end, less clothing—than ever before. (Rated: Naughty.) 

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Carnival of the Animals

Aspen Music Festival Free Family Concert
August 14, Harris Concert Hall

Saint-Saëns’s “Carnival of the Animals” features “one of the most beautiful melodies ever written,” says Aspen Music Festival president Alan Fletcher. With different instruments imitating a variety of animals, this is among the most playful compositions in all of classical music. Youngsters delight in identifying the kangaroo, the tortoise, the swan; parents delight in a relaxed, affordable afternoon. Free kid-friendly activities and refreshments begin at 4 p.m. 

Rocky Mountain Roller Skate

PAC3 Carbondale
Monthly

Think retro culture on wheels, derby-style. Mountain Skate draws scores of Carbondalians—the closest thing this valley has to Brooklyn hipsters—who don roller skates and retro-outrageous garb to get their irony on to disco, Motown, or other themed hot licks. Costumes encouraged. Knee and elbow pads advised. Bring your own skates or rent on-site. Visit PAC3’s Facebook page for upcoming dates and themes. 

Physics Is for Kids BBQ

Aspen Science Center
Wednesdays, 5 p.m.

For families who like their science served with a side order of fun. Hands-on experiments include making a bang with liquid nitrogen, making bubbles explode in a fireball, and turning streams into steaming cauldrons. A talk by a noted physicist aimed both at kids and their parents follows the free BBQ picnic. (Note: picnic/physics show heads downvalley to Colorado Rocky Mountain School July 2 and 23.) 

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Top Left: Earth, Wind & Fire; Top Right: Ziggy Marley; Bottom: FUN.

Image: Courtesy: JAS

FUN., Ziggy Marley, and Earth, Wind & Fire

JAS Labor Day Festival
August 29 & 30

Does it get any more fun than FUN.—the band whose exuberant, updated ’70s sound frequently draws comparisons to Queen (and whose megahit “Carry On” lodged in your brain for weeks on end last year)—followed by the prince of roots, rock, reggae, Ziggy Marley? We doubt it. And with $10 tickets available now for kids 12 and under (“cheaper than a babysitter,” notes JAS president Jim Horowitz), the Labor Day Festival’s kick-off Friday is a whole lot family-friendlier. On Saturday night, spring for that sitter and catch the no-butts-left-in-seats magic of Earth, Wind & Fire. All you’ll want to do is dance. 

IRREFUTABLE ICONIC

Would you come all the way to Aspen and not make the trip out to the Maroon Bells, one of the world’s most magnificent vistas? You would not. Neither should you let summer slip by without taking in one or more of these classic acts.

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Image: Shaw Nielsen

Jacques & Claudine Pepin

Food & Wine Classic
June 20

All the playful banter and gourmet chops you would expect from this dynamic father-daughter team, plus an expedition into “The World of Eggs.” The original Franco-American top chef, Jacques (who has appeared nearly every year since the festival’s launch in 1982) puts the class in the Food & Wine Classic. 

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Image: Courtesy: JAS

Steve Winwood & Tony Bennett

JAS June Festival
June 21 & 28

We couldn’t decide between these two icons of different generations (each with huge cross-generational appeal), so we advise seeing them both. Steve Winwood’s (June 21) last JAS appearance mostly featured songs from his Traffic and Blind Faith eras and “went so deep and created so many ripples,” it landed squarely in JAS’s “top three shows of all time,” says Jim Horowitz, JAS president and founder. Tony Bennett (June 28), in concert with his daughter Antonia Bennett, is “beyond iconic,” Horowitz says. He’s the last living link to the Sinatra Rat Pack and that amazing 1950s songbook. 

Annual Art Auction

Anderson Ranch Arts Center
August 9, noon

The community art party of the year includes both live and silent auctions. For serious longtime collectors or those just starting out, the Annual Art Auction offers a great opportunity to build, or expand, your personal collection. Mix and mingle with local artists who turn out in force; enjoy a gourmet BBQ lunch in a kid-friendly, carnival-like atmosphere.

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Beethoven’s Ninth

Aspen Music Festival season finale
August 17, Benedict Music Tent

AMF president Alan Fletcher calls Beethoven's ecstatic masterpiece “mankind’s best expression of what it means to be devoted to mankind.” Expect to exit the tent happy to be alive. Or, for a truly iconic Aspen experience, gather friends for a picnic on the Music Lawn. No summer would be complete without it. Get your blanket down early for the coveted shady west side. (Hot tip: bring opera glasses.) 

Blues Traveler

Belly Up
July 1

Has Blues Traveler existed long enough to be considered iconic? They’ve been at it for twenty-seven years—so, yeah. Need more convincing? Harmonica virtuoso John Popper and his bandmates seem particularly prone to throwing down barn burners at Belly Up, where they’ve whipped audiences into frenzies for nine years straight. And when they play “The Mountains Win Again,” there’s a special significance: the song was written about Aspen.

QUIETLY CONTEMPLATIVE

When you’re ready to mentally park yourself in a meadow, these are the events that, like all meaningful meditations, will leave you with more questions than answers.

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Image: Shaw Nielsen

Jeremy Denk plays Bach’s Goldberg variations

Aspen Music Festival
July 23, Harris Concert Hall

“Not all musicians believe in god, but they all believe in Bach,” is an old classical-music-world saw. Bach’s meditation on the perfection of form and beauty, said to have been written to help the insomniac nobleman Count Kaiserling sleep, rather was written “so that he would not mind he was awake,” according to AMF president Alan Fletcher. For an engaging and eye-opening preamble to the performance, read pianist-of-the-moment (and recent MacArthur Genius Grant recipient) Jeremy Denk’s blog for NPR in which he refers to “the Goldbergs” as “a fool’s errand attempted by the greatest genius of all time.”

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Making the Change They Want to See

Anderson Ranch Arts Center
August 12–14

In this second event of Anderson Ranch’s new Symposium Series, Ann Pasternak, art world dynamo and president of New York’s immensely successful public arts program Creative Time, convenes a handful of artists—including filmmaker Steve McQueen of the Oscar-winning Twelve Years a Slave—who are changing the world through their art. Ranch director Nancy Wilhelms says attendees can expect to “learn the powerful effect of individuals who show us how to transform the world by marshaling our ideas into real energy and positive action.” You’ll leave pondering your own contribution to society. 

President Jimmy Carter

AREDAY—American Renewable Energy Institute
August 13, Hotel Jerome

When President Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed on the roof of the White House almost forty years ago, he kick-started the global solar industry while sounding the alarm on the effects of greenhouse gases and a warming planet. “Imagine how much carbon we could have avoided putting into the atmosphere if we had listened to him then,” says Chip Comins, president of AREI, which brings Carter and a roomful of renewable-energy experts together for the eleventh annual summit. 

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Image: Courtesy: JAS

Tierney Sutton’s After Blue tribute to Joni Mitchell

JAS Café Downstairs @ the Little Nell
July 3     

This jazz-inspired reimagining of the songs of Joni Mitchell will have Mitchell fans contemplating heaven. Tierney Sutton’s subtle, ethereal sound is a natural match for Mitchell’s brilliant and complex compositions. Sutton’s homage to one of the greatest singer-composers of her time, After Blue received a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album of 2013. 

TAKE THE CHALLENGE

You’ve hung around base camp long enough to get acclimated; now you’re ready to summit. Prepare to challenge, and possibly even change, the way you view the arts, if not the world.
 

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Image: Shaw Nielsen

Aspen Fringe Festival

Black Box Theatre
June 12–17

The Fringe Festival delivers the kind of top-quality, boundary-pushing performing arts you might expect to find in New York but hardly high in the Rockies. People are still talking about last year’s hauntingly beautiful film/live dance production Within (Labyrinth Within). This year’s festival features a staged reading of a new play by an established playwright (TBA); a performance by Morales Dance, an ensemble that celebrates the diversity of dance by pulling together guest artists from prominent companies such as Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham, and David Parsons; plus a fully staged production of Venus in Fur, the comic-erotic laugh-out-loud thriller by David Ives. An exploration of the shifting balance of power in sex and love, Venus in Fur, nominated for a Best Play Tony in 2012, delivers a delicious surprise ending. 

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Ernesto Neto

Aspen Art Museum
June 6–September 2

Walking into an installation by Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto can feel a little like stepping into the pages of a science fiction novel. Neto’s gauzy, pendulous formations defy whatever historical concept you may have of the term sculpture, at least as defined by stone and metal statuary. The soft and dynamic biomorphic structures prod viewers to consider space in entirely new ways. This final exhibition of the old Aspen Art Museum building spans two floors and invites tactile interaction: touching, poking, and strolling through the installation are encouraged.

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The Creative Life, with Meg Wolitzer and Andre Dubus III

Aspen Summer Words
June 15, Hotel Jerome

With hyperconnectivity creating constant distraction, a seminal challenge of the modern age is carving out the time to cultivate one’s creative inner life—and then building a firewall around it. Award-winning authors Meg Wolitzer (The Interestings) and Andre Dubus III (House of Sand and Fog) reveal how each managed to fashion a life centered on writing and the pitfalls they face in safeguarding it. 

The Aspen Seminar

Aspen Institute
August 16–22 & September 6–12

This intensive seminar on leadership, values, and the good society is the cultural equivalent of bagging your first fourteener. Expertly moderated Socratic dialogues center on readings that range from Aristotle to Rousseau to Martin Luther King, Jr. In a ritual that began with the first seminar more than sixty years ago, participants enact portions of Sophocles’ Antigone. According to dispatches from the field, the weeklong Aspen Seminar can be life-changing. Admission is by nomination only; self-nomination accepted. (Caveat: the hefty price tag itself will be a challenge for some.) 

The Accelerating Universe: Einstein’s Blunder Undone

Aspen Center for Physics
June 19, Paepcke Auditorium

Did Albert Einstein indeed err with that “cosmological constant” notion he came up with in 1916, then rejected eighteen years later? Harvard science professor Robert Kirshner detangles the topic while shedding light on the “dark energy” discovered by scientists in 1998 that comprises two-thirds of the universe. Not only is Kirshner a leading researcher, but he’s a funny, accessible speaker and energetic teacher known for helping non-science-major undergrads grasp the seemingly ungraspable. So there may be hope for you, too.

TRULY TRANSCENDENT

Like a waterfall at the end of a long trek that washes over and revivifies you, the sheer beauty and visceral pleasures of these events will lift you into the realm of the sublime.
 

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Image: Shaw Nielsen

Bronfman with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Dvorak’s New World Symphony

Aspen Music Festival
July 13, Benedict Music Tent

Just about any robust, Romantic symphony in the Tent can feel like a transcendent experience. But when you pair powerhouse pianist Yefim Bronfman with Tchaikovsky’s Romantic masterwork and Dvorak’s heart-pounding “New World” symphony, spirits can’t help but soar. As one Music Festival insider recently put it, “Listening to the brassy glory of ‘New World’ is a life moment everyone should have.”

The Great Flood

Aspen Film & Aspen Music Festival
July 21, Harris Concert Hall

The Great Flood brings experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison’s stunning and evocative seventy-minute film, composed of reprocessed original footage of the 1927 Great Flood of the Mississippi Delta, together with jazz-guitar great Bill Frisell, who will perform his original movie score live. Two renowned artists engaged in dialogue across radically different media means audiences can expect a kinetic kind of magic. 

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Heart Space

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

July 17 & 19, Aspen District Theatre
If you were fortunate enough to be in the audience this past Valentine’s Day for the world premiere of Heart Space, the latest piece from choreographer and longtime ASFB collaborator Nicolo Fonte, you left the theatre feeling as if your heart may have sprouted a new chamber. Happily, here’s another opportunity to experience the abstract beauty and driving passion of this unabashedly romantic work. 

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Cai Guo-Qiang

Aspen Art Museum
August 2

During the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Aspen Art Museum’s new building, Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang will present one of his dramatic, highly acclaimed artworks that employ … gunpowder. Details of the event have not yet been revealed, but here’s a hint: keep your eyes peeled for a black lightning bolt in the sky above the new museum. 

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