Aspen Music Festival

In Concert: Rufus, Renée, and a Week to Sing About

Simple fate and some serendipitous scheduling has made the last week of July an unofficial celebration of the human voice.

By Andrew Travers May 24, 2017 Published in the Summer 2017 issue of Aspen Sojourner

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Frequent Aspen performer Rufus Waitwright returns on July 24. 

Image: Matthew Welch

Officially dubbed a summer of “enchantment,” the Aspen Music Festival and School’s (AMFS) 69th season is divided into sub-themes, mini festivals, and series branded to hit every classical taste and interest (and to make the 400-plus-event, eight-week 2017 schedule slightly more digestible). But simple fate and some serendipitous scheduling has made the last week of July an unofficial celebration of the human voice, bringing some of the world’s greatest singers in succession to the fest’s West End campus for what will be a high point of the musical year.

The week begins with pop singer Rufus Wainwright’s recital at Harris Concert Hall on July 24. Wainwright, a frequent Aspen performer, is working on a new opera for the Canadian Opera Company and had proposed privately workshopping it here this summer.

“What we said to Rufus was, ‘Of course!’” explains AMFS president and CEO Alan Fletcher, “‘As long as you perform while you’re here for your workshops.’”

The next night, the superstar mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung performs Mahler, also at Harris Hall. She’s followed on July 26 by a Pacifica Quartet recital with soprano Esther Heideman featuring music by Haydn, Schoenberg, and Beethoven. And the weekend includes three stellar vocal programs: the Aspen Chamber Symphony with emergent baritone Andrè Schuen performing Mahler’s “Songs of a Wayfarer” on July 28 in the Benedict Music Tent; Schuen singing Schubert on July 29 at Harris Hall; and soprano Renée Fleming—the five-time Grammy winner and National Medal of the Arts honoree who is often called the greatest opera singer alive—with the Aspen Festival Orchestra in the Benedict Tent on July 30.

“I would love to claim credit for it,” Fletcher says of this week-long run of blue-chip vocalists, “but I think it was all of us. A lot of things happened to come together.”

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Renée Flemming is an Aspen Music School alumnus. 

Fleming, who recently retired from the opera stage after an illustrious 25-year career to focus on concert performance, is an Aspen Music School alumnus. She returned last summer, performing a charismatic mix of operatic works and pop songs at the Benedict Tent and also serving as an artist-in-residence at the Aspen Institute. During a talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival last summer, Fleming, a legend of the Metropolitan Opera who has been dubbed “the People’s Diva,” downplayed the global fame she’s achieved since her early days here.

“I don’t have trouble in airports,” she quipped. “It’s mostly, ‘Do you know Josh Groban?’”


More concerts not to miss:

1. In what AMFS is calling “the Year of the Concerto,” the season is filled with them, including opening night with Simone Porter performing Mozart’s third violin concerto (June 30); a Robert Levin reconstruction of an unfinished Mozart concerto for violin and piano, with Nicholas McGegan conducting the Aspen Chamber Symphony (July 7); and the premiere of a new piano concerto written by Alan Fletcher for Inon Barnatan (July 30). 

2. Verdi’s iconic tale of tragic love, La Traviata, running July 15, 17, and 18 at the Wheeler Opera House, is likely to be the most talked-about production on the opera calendar. But don’t sleep on Luke Bedford’s new Seven Angels, which gets its US premiere in a concert presentation on August 5 at Harris Hall. Inspired by Paradise Lost, the opera is a call to action on climate change, featuring fallen angels who descend to an Earth destroyed by man-made global warming.

3. The opening Sunday concert in the Benedict Tent (July 2), with Robert Spano conducting, includes an Aspen Festival Orchestra performance of Mahler’s first symphony, an eccentric and pioneering piece that makes innovative use of folk and klezmer melodies before its blustery finale. It continues a well-received recent run of Mahler at the festival. “We’ve done almost all of the major Mahler works in the last couple of years,” notes Fletcher.

4. String aficionados are salivating over a duo recital by husband-and-wife violinists—and Aspen Music School alumni—Gil Shaham and Adele Anthony on July 27 at Harris Concert Hall. The pair will spotlight works for two violins by Prokofiev and Bartok, among others.

5. Pianist and Beethoven scholar Jonathan Biss is in the second year of a three-year Aspen residency during which he’s performing all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. In this summer’s recitals, Biss will play five, including the “pastoral” sonata on August 1, and five more on August 8, both at Harris Concert Hall.

6. It won’t quite be a cast of thousands, but it’ll probably seem like it as the season comes to an epic close on August 20 with a rare complete performance of Berlioz’s masterpiece The Damnation of Faust at the Benedict Tent. Musicians sharing the stage with the Aspen Festival Orchestra include singers Sasha Cooke, Bryan Hymel, and John Relyea; the Colorado Symphony Orchestra chorus; and a children’s chorus. “It’s really only a special kind of festival that can do this,” says Fletcher. “We are that festival.”

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The Prairie Home Companion legend Garrison Keillor performs on August 14.

Image: Eric Hageness

7. Two summers back, as he prepared his final shows of Prairie Home Companion after a four-decade run, the legendary Garrison Keillor made two stops in Aspen— speaking (and reciting bawdy limericks) at Aspen Summer Words and, later, filling the Benedict Music Tent for a live evening of humor, storytelling, and music. We thought it’d be the last we saw of Keillor and his eclectic cast of players. Thankfully, he’s taking an active approach to retirement and returns to the music tent August 14 with Love and Comedy. Co-presented by AMFS and Belly Up Aspen, the show features familiar Prairie Home characters like Guy Noir, along with pianist Richard Dworsky and the Road Hounds, singer Heather Masse, actor Fred Newman, and other guests.

For the complete AMFS 2017 summer schedule and to purchase passes and tickets visit

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